How Muscle Imbalances Lead to Chronic Back, Saddle and Other Pain on a Bike

How Muscle Imbalances Lead to Chronic Back, Saddle and Other Pain on a Bike

This article potentially holds life changing (at least ride changing) information for many riders. Seriously. Most chronic discomfort on a bike has a true solution and proper bike fit is only part of that solution. Read on to learn the “secret” of Bike Fit 2.0 and how to resolve chronic and on-going pain and comfort issues on the bike.

Bike Fit 2.0

The Fit Werx fitting of 2018 still uses many of the same biomechanical principles we used twenty years ago (human mechanics haven’t changed…), but the depth that we are able to explore and address things is far deeper. Experienced fitters who are good at their craft learn how to keep their fit process the same with each person, but tailor the time to focus on specific issues for each rider within that process. The longer we do this, the more time we spend on things that have historically been considered “beyond bike fit”. Today, we consider them “Bike Fit 2.0” – the generation of fitting that builds a riding position, but simultaneously assesses and explains optimized technique, crucial postural elements and the origins of chronic body related issues.

What is the Secret to Solving Chronic Pain on the Bike?

Regardless of whether you are experiencing chronic back, hand, neck or saddle issues, the reasons (and thus the solution) for these problems are pretty logical and universal. Understanding and fully embracing these reasons is the key to solving them permanently. It doesn’t matter how good your riding position is, if you are unwilling to make this commitment to changing how you are riding (and often doing things off the bike physically), you will likely never be completely happy (or reach your potential) riding a bicycle. 

With this all in mind, I ask, “Do you have a good riding position/fit on your bike yet still experience any of the following chronic comfort issues when riding a bicycle?”

  • Lower Back Pain on a Bicycle
  • Neck/Shoulder Pain on a Bicycle
  • Hand Pressure and Numbness on a Bicycle
  • Knee and Joint Pain on a Bicycle
  • Foot Numbness on a Bicycle
  • Headaches and Vision Issues on a Bicycle
  • Crotch Numbness and Pain on a Bicycle
  • Sit Bone Pain on a Bicycle
  • Saddle Sores on a Bicycle

If so, thanks for bearing with me. While there are always exceptions (pelvic bone spurs, nerve damage…), in a sentence, here is the root cause of these chronic issues for the vast majority of riders:

The cause of your chronic discomfort is years of non-optimal postural habits, on and off the bike, that you have developed.

I realize that this is a completely unhelpful statement unto itself. Read on to learn more about the causes and actual solution.

How You are Causing Your Chronic Comfort Issues on the Bike

Pelvic Angle and Support

Your pelvic angle and pelvic support is really important to solving all the chronic bike related comfort issues above. Every single one. If you don’t support and hold your pelvis at the correct angle as you ride your chances of having any and all of the issues above go up substantially. A significant number of people do not support their pelvis properly on or off the bike. What many of us were told is “proper posture” (military posture, for example) can often be some of the most damaging things we can do to ourselves posturally. These postural issues can directly cause all of the issues listed on a bike, even if you are properly fit.

What is the Solution?

It is a simplified version of things, but you basically have three primary muscle groups that control, stabilize and support your pelvis. The lower abdominals (primarily obliques) pull the pelvis up to neutral; the glutes can help lock the pelvis back once it is neutral and the inner thigh muscles help to stabilize the pelvis and keep the femur from moving all over the place as you pedal. If these muscles are doing their job posturally, the rider will be able to sit on top of the bike in a muscularly supported manner, instead of bracing into it or overusing the back muscles. If they are not, pain and discomfort result. So, to ride comfortably, you need to develop the proper riding posture and this means not under or over rotating your pelvis and supporting your torso and pelvis with the correct muscles.  Interestingly, these are the exact same things that can solve many back and shoulder pain, lower back pain, hamstring tightness, numb hands and other things that plague many people in daily life.

How to Start Truly Solving Chronic Comfort Issues on the Bike.

Proper Bike Set-Up + Proper Posture + Optimized Technique = Cycling Nirvana

Meld all three of these and almost anyone can ride a bike efficiently and comfortably for a long period of time, even as they age. For most riders experiencing chronic pain, at least one of the above is deficient. With this in mind, some keys to addressing them are as follows:

  1. Get properly fit with a qualified bike fitter who understands cycling biomechanics as well as the fundamentals of posture and how it relates to muscle recruitment (on and off the bike). We see riders from all over and are happy to help.  A good bike fit is an investment in yourself and well worth travelling for.  Contact us.
  2. Do what the qualified fitter say when it comes to working on postural deficiencies and muscle imbalances.
  3. If your problems are not fully resolving and/or you feel like you can’t do what they recommend, find a postural restoration specialist to assist. This is not as easy as one might hope.  See below…
  4. Do what your fitter and postural restoration provider recommends. If you are unwilling to change how you pedal or put the time and effort into using different muscles to support your posture, you will not solve these problems. Solutions to these issues can be complex and challenging and require deliberate effort over relatively long periods of time to change. Things that have been decades in the making rarely have “magic bullet” solutions.
  5. Don’t give up! Unless you are one of the small number of people with something like a bone spur or nerve damage that is causing the problem, changing your posture and riding technique is the solution. If you are not making progress with a specialist after working with them for a reasonable amount of time (usually 3-4 months), try someone else.  Keep trying until you find the right provider for you.

Find the Right Postural Restoration Specialist

Finding a Physical Therapist, Personal Trainer or muscle based Chiropractor who specializes in postural restoration and is good at it is not as easy as one might think. Postural restoration is a true specialty niche of these professions that requires someone with not only the right training and understanding, but also a great understanding of how it relates to you as an individual patient and solid communication skills. If you do not know of someone in your area, you can at least find people who have been through certification at PosturalRestorationInstitute.com. If you know of good providers in your area, please let us know. We’re always looking to add providers in new geographic areas.

It is important to note that it is not crucial that a provider be PRI certified to be able to be a great resource for you. I’ve found some great Chiropractors and PT’s who are not on this list. They weren’t easy to find though. What matters is the approach and the knowledge of the interactions that are occurring muscularly. The goal is to get your muscles supporting your body and your motions the way that they were designed. If your traps, rhomboids and calf muscles are trying to do the job of your glutes, your back and crotch are likely to cause you problems on a bike (your hands might go numb too). You need someone who can assess and recognize relationships like these and not just focus on treating the place that hurts.

You also need a provider who realizes that posture and pain is not a brute strength and/or flexibility issue – it is a balance and muscle recruitment/balance issue. If you do hundreds of crunches a week and your back is still bothering – rest assured it is not a strength issue. You don’t need abs and glutes of steel to be able to maintain proper posture on a bike for a fair amount of time. You need muscle balance and awareness. If you don’t know how to fire your glutes and obliques while riding or in daily life, it won’t matter how strong or how flexible they are. In fact, when it comes to flexibility in particular, many muscles will become looser once they become more balanced. Tightness is often a response to muscles trying to do things beyond their original intention. This is why tight hamstrings and back pain can go hand-in-hand and why traps/rhomboid tightness and pressure on the front of the saddle or hand numbness often happen in the same person.

Riding Better and in Greater Comfort

The amount that could be written on the importance of muscular awareness in terms of posture and technique on the bike could populate an entire web site. We’ll try to keep writing articles about this important topic in the future with reference to specific issues and how the biomechanics work. In the interim, if you have had a good bike fit and are still having problems, the general concept and solution to all of the items listed have a very similar (if not identical) solution and it is what is explained above.

Ride better. Ride faster.

Additional Articles on Related Topics:

Saddle Discomfort Issues      Note:  Many back, neck, shoulder and hand issues happen for the same reason as saddle discomfort issues.

Back Pain Issues

About Ian

From first time riders to Olympians, Ian has helped thousands of athletes achieve their cycling and triathlon goals. Ian develops much of the Fit Werx fitting and analysis protocols and is responsible for technology training and development. He is regarded as one of the industry leaders in bicycle fitting, cycling biomechanics and bicycle geometry and design. He is dedicated to making sure the Fit Werx differences are delivered daily and provides Fit Werx with corporate direction and is responsible for uniting our staff and initiatives.

Find out more about Ian Here

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