Pushing through the intensity is part of a good, sweaty cycling class — but there’s a significant difference between that “hurts so good” feeling and genuine discomfort. So if you’ve ever left the studio with a killer workout on the books but a sore lower back to show for it, here’s how to alleviate the pain quickly — and why it occurs in the first place.
What Might Be Causing Your Cycling Lower Back Discomfort
Since everyone’s body is different, low back pain during or after a cycling class occurs for many reasons — and sometimes, multiple factors are at play. “Lower back pain from cycling can be related to various factors, including improper bike setup, incorrect form, the muscles used in the workout itself, overuse, or a combination of these factors,” says Aylon Pesso, an ACE-certified orthopedic exercise personal trainer based in Boston.
In part, attribute the standard cycling position itself — strapped in and leaned forward. It naturally stresses your lumbar spine (also known as the lower back), especially if you’re already injured, says Scott Weiss, C.S.C.S., a New York–based sports physical therapist. Because you’re not outdoors on the road or the trails and utilizing your core to turn, steer, or coordinate the bike, you can end up putting even more pressure on your discs in class, he explains. Additionally, if you’re competing for the top spot on the leaderboard in every class, you’re probably working the dominant muscles beyond the point of fatigue — which can cause other muscles to overcompensate, straining your lower back, says Pesso.
Adding insult to injury, since most people spend their days sitting, your hip flexors are already predisposed to shortening and tightening, says Pesso. Then consider the actual workout, which involves a form of sitting as you bring your knees up and down. “While we may not be actively engaging the hip flexors throughout the movement, they are still shortening and contracting,” he says. These tight hip flexors? Yep, you guessed it. They, too, can contribute to that lower back pain.
How to Prevent Lower Back Pain from Cycling
You don’t need to dismount from the saddle permanently. Avoiding pain boils down to mastering proper technique — the fundamental aspect of which is maintaining a straight spine, says Weiss. “As we endure a challenging class, we tend to slump and collapse,” explains Pesso. However, if you arch your lower back, you will feel discomfort in your lower back, he says. Quite simple.
That’s why instructors encourage you to push your chest forward, pull your shoulders back, and keep your arms extended and straight, adds Pesso. Feel free to readjust during class if necessary. “Raise your buttocks off the seat for a moment, and tilt your hips forward to maintain a straight line from your hips to your head,” he suggests.
A proper bike setup also positions you for pain-free success in the studio, says Weiss. Ensure that your knees are not lifting too high and aim for a 90-percent extension in your leg at the bottom of each pedal stroke, suggests Jess Bashelor, owner of the Handle Bar Indoor Cycling Studios in Boston. As for the bike itself? “The handlebars should be a few inches higher than the saddle, but ultimately the height should be based on comfort and posture,” she says. (Whatever allows you to maintain a straight spine!)
The alignment of your body in relation to the pedals is also crucial. “When you’re at the front of your pedal stroke, your knee should be positioned directly above the ball of your foot,” notes Bashelor.
Many of the stretches your instructor already suggests at the end of class can help alleviate pain, but flexibility is the key to long-lasting cycling, says Weiss. So consider adding these three stretches to your post-workout cool-down routine.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
A. Kneel on your right knee with toes down and place your left foot flat on the floor in front of you with your knee bent and aligned with your ankle. Place your hands on your left thigh.
B. Press your hips forward until you feel tension in the front of your right thigh.
C. Extend your arms overhead, with your elbows close to your head and your palms facing each other, and slightly arch your back while keeping your chin parallel to the ground.
Hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides; repeat.
A. Stand slightly in front of a doorway. Place your arms on either side of the doorway or an adjacent wall.
B. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle, keeping your upper arms parallel to the floor. Lean forward.
Hold for 30 seconds.
Modified Lizard Pose with Quad Stretch
A. Start in lizard pose, then come up off your forearms and onto your hands.
Turn left foot outward at a 45-degree angle and rotate onto the external side of the foot.
Utilize the left hand to exert pressure against the inner left thigh, thereby expanding the hip. Maintain this position for a few inhalations and exhalations.
Flex the right knee and grasp the outer edge of the right foot with the left hand. Tug gently to elongate the quadriceps.
Maintain this stance for a duration of 30 seconds. Then, switch sides and repeat the sequence.
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