The Riding For A Lifetime Podcast
The Riding For A Lifetime Podcast
James Wilson - MTB Strength Training Systems
8 Tips To Help Low Back Pain
42 minutes Posted Mar 8, 2024 at 1:05 pm.
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Low Back Pain is one of the most common things that riders suffer from both on and off the bike. It can ruin the good time that mountain biking is supposed to provide for us and in extreme cases can even make riders quit riding.

Even more frustrating is that there doesn’t seem to be a consistent, predictable pattern with low back pain and it is often a mystery as to the specific underlying cause. But if you ignore it then it tends to get worse until you have to deal with it.

I have experience with Low Back Pain both as a trainer who has helped riders overcome it but also as someone who has suffered from it. A long time ago I tweaked my back trying to deadlift too much weight and if I don’t stay on top of it my back gets stiff and sore, plus I have to be conscious of it while training.

This journey to find solutions for myself and the riders I’ve worked with has led me to discover some things that I feel can help a lot of riders out there. A lot of these things aren’t your typical “stretch your hip flexors” advice you usually hear and they fill in some gaps that I think a lot of riders are missing in their attempts to fix their Low Back pain.

First, before we get to the specific advice,  make sure that there isn’t something medically wrong with your back. Have a doctor check it out and see if there is something specific going on like a pinched nerve or a bulging disc. 

But if there isn’t something specific wrong with your lower back and it just hurts at any time then there may be a few things you can do to help improve the situation.

Here are 8 things that I’ve found can help improve your Low Back Pain:

  1. Be aware of your breathing.
  2. Improve your Hip Flexor strength with Isometric Exercises.
  3. Improve Hip mobility.
  4. Improve Spinal mobility.
  5. Have a Warm Up and a Pre-Ride Routine.
  6. Stand up for High Tension efforts.
  7. Use Flat Pedals.
  8. Use a Strength Training Program that creates a well balanced body.

Be Aware Of Your Breathing.

How you breathe affects a lot of things in your body, including your lower back. Several studies have found a link between bad breathing habits and low back pain, IMO most likely due to the inability of the core to properly stabilize under load (poor core stability has also been linked to low back pain).

This means that you could be doing everything else right and still have low back pain. It’s a low hanging fruit that can make a big difference so you may as well make it a part of your overall strategy.

Good breathing will help to stabilize the midsection and reinforce good posture. You want to be aware of and practice good breathing habits on the bike, in the gym and during your everyday life.

You can check out this post to learn more about optimal breathing habits and how to assess and optimize your breathing habits.

Strengthen the Hip Flexors with Isometric Exercises. 

The recommendation to strengthen the hip flexors might come as a surprise to some riders. We’ve been told for years that the problem was tight hip flexors and that we should avoid exercising them directly and focusing instead on stretching them.

I’ve found that this doesn’t consistently fix the problem and that there isn’t a direct correlation to a muscle being “tight” and it also being strong. A weak muscle creates its own set of problems that need to be addressed and in some cases, addressing the strength issue helps with the mobility/ ROM issues.

I’ve also found that using Isometric Exercises to strengthen the Hip Flexors offers a way to safely strengthen them, which can be an issue with movement based exercises. The 4 best Isometric Exercises that I’ve found for this purpose are the Single Leg Hip Flexor and Glute Bridge, Squat and Lunge.

Start with wherever you're at and work up to holding the weakest point of the movement that you can get into with good posture and breathing for 60-90 seconds. Do them 1-3 times a week, focusing on improving your ROM and breathing each week along with the time you are holding for.

Improve Hip Mobility. 

Yes, you most likely do need to improve your hip mobility, you just need to focus on more than just the front of the leg (Quads and Hip Flexors). Your hips have 4 basic directions of movement and you want to do something to work on all of them.

I like to use good old fashioned static stretching positions along with my breathing and a little bit of movement to help me get deeper into the stretch. The 4 stretches I like to do are the Quad/ Hip Flexor Stretch, Hamstring Stretch, Glute Stretch and Butterfly Stretch.

You want to hold the stretches for as long as you can - 15 seconds is better than nothing and holding them for 5+ minutes might do you some good. In general, though, I recommend 30 seconds up to 2 minutes, 3-7 days a week. 

Improve Spinal Mobility. 

Another forgotten part of the low back pain problem is that your spine needs to be able to move freely and sometimes sticking points in that movement create excessive stress on the spine. Having a spine that moves freely that you can protect under load with tension is the ultimate goal and until both are achieved you may still be fighting low back pain.

The 3 movements I like for working on my Spinal Mobility are the Sun Salutation, Twisty Slaps and Stick Windmill. Be sure to avoid pain when doing these movements and to use your breathing to help stabilize the spine and improve your ROM.

BTW, if you don’t feel comfortable with spinal twists then just do the Sun Salutation, you’ll get a lot from it.

Have a Warm Up Routine and a Pre-Ride Routine.

Quality movement is pain free movement so your ultimate goal is to practice quality movement when you train and ride. Having a Warm Up and Pre-Ride Routine that focuses on improving your Hip and Spinal Mobility will help you to bring higher quality movement to your training and riding.

Sitting in a car or sitting and spinning your way to the trailhead will most likely create stiffness in those areas, which will decrease your movement quality. Doing a few mobility movements like the Sun Salutation, Twisty Slap, Windmill and Reverse Lunge to High Knee can set you up for better movement potential on the trail which will improve your performance, endurance and decrease the chance of low back pain.

Stand Up For High Tension Efforts.

The posture you put a lot of tension on matters. Standing Postures are better for High Tension Efforts - better posture, better chest position for breathing, better core engagement, more hip extension, co-contraction at the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke and less strain on the neck to look up.

Seated Pedaling is good for Low Tension/ Recovery Efforts but the position and posture you are in is not good for creating a lot of tension. I know, you were told that Standing Pedaling is “less efficient” and to sit down on climbs to keep weight on the back tire.

Seated Pedaling feels easier but easier isn’t the same as “more efficient” - efficiency is a measurement of how much work is produced compared to the energy used to create it and in a lot of cases Standing Pedaling is actually “more efficient”.

Remember too that Standing Pedaling is a new skill and you aren’t very efficient at it, which makes it feel much harder. But once you use it for a while you get more efficient and it doesn’t feel as hard.

As far as keeping weight on the rear tire, you can keep weight on the back tire without having your butt on the seat. We’ve all seen examples of people climbing steep stuff while standing up so obviously it can be done and you don’t have to keep your butt on the seat when climbing.

Plus, you don’t want weight on your rear tire, you want well timed pressure. If you needed weight then Clydesdale sized riders would never break traction on climbs but we know that isn’t true so obviously there is more to it. 

You want to use weight to create pressure, specifically pressure into the rear tire that is timed with your pedal stroke, and that is often done better from the Standing Position, especially on technical climbs.

A lot of riding related back pain is from too much reliance on seated pedaling. Break away from it and watch your performance improve and your pain go away.

Use Flat Pedals.

This isn’t which pedal system is the highest performance at the highest levels of competition, it is about which system is healthier for the body. As a 40+ year old rider odds are super high that you don’t pay your bills based on your riding performance and longevity is a priority for you.

Flat Pedals force you to use a more natural pedal stroke, which places the stress on the hips and not on unnatural pulling with the Hip Flexors and Low Back. They also allow for variability in your foot position and the pedal stroke that you can’t get when you are locking into the pedal in the same foot position every time you ride.

This variability has been found to correlate to fewer injuries and lower injury potentials and the current theory is that prefect, repeatable movement isn’t possible or desired for long term health.

Flat Pedals will take stress off of your lower back by allowing for more natural and more variable movement which, when coupled with Standing Pedaling, can make a huge impact on your lower back pain.

And with the risk of this sounding like an infomercial, the Catalyst Pedals I designed take this concept to its full conclusion by creating the most natural support possible for your foot, which further decreases pain and power and performance.

Use A Strength Training Program That Creates A Well Balanced Body.

Odds are pretty high that if you have low back pain then you haven’t been consistently following a strength training program that creates a well balanced body, especially if you have been riding a lot.

Maybe you haven’t been working out at all or maybe you’ve been doing something that creates more stress on the lower back, like programs that have you doing a lot of circuits to build cardio or “work capacity”, but either way you need to evaluate your overall approach to creating and maintaining a healthy, high performance body.

You can check out the podcast I did on Strength Training Basics For The 40+ Year Old Rider to learn more about what to look for in a good strength training program but as you get older this becomes more important.

So in conclusion, Low Back Pain is about much more than just stretching your Hip Flexors and by following this advice you can get your Low Back Pain under control and start to move in a better direction with how you move on and off the bike. 

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson