“If your spine is stiff at 30, you’re old. If it’s flexible at 60, you’re young.” Joseph Pilates
Modern life has got us all bent out of shape. We sit too often on comfortable chairs instead of standing up or sitting on the floor, and get hooked on sports like cycling, surfing and golf, that ask us to generate speed and power from strange positions. Over time, our bodies adapt to make our favourite activities easier, but these biomechanical efficiencies come at a high price, often leading to pain, injury and reduced performance.
For keen cyclists, one of the main parts of the body impacted by long hours on the bike, is the spine—both the alignment of the vertebrae, and the relative strength and weakness of the muscles that support and connect to it. Yoga, for many reasons, including the sheer diversity of movement, slow pace and primacy of the breath, is great for improving posture, restoring spinal alignment and eliminating pain. With consistent practice, these improvements reflect in faster speeds, greater endurance and accelerated recovery time.
Healthy spinal alignment
A neutral spine sports three gentle curves:
In at the lower back, or lumbar region.
Out at the mid back, or thoracic region.
And in again at the back of the neck, or cervical region.
This alignment allows us to move freely in multiple directions and absorb the shock from everyday jolts and vibrations.
Range of motion
The spine is a marvel of engineering, with each part designed to move in different planes of motion to greater or lesser degrees.
Rotation (twisting) is most prominent at the neck and upper back and least possible at the lower back.
Lateral flexion (sidebending) is roughly equal in all three parts of the spine.
Flexion (forward bending) can take place in all three parts of the spine, but is most prominent at the neck.
Extension (backbending) is most prominent at the neck and lower back.
Stability vs flexibility
The neck is, for the most part, the most flexible region of the spine—in rotation, lateral flexion, extension and flexion.
At the mid back, rotation is the primary movement, as the rib cage obstructs extensive flexion and extension.
At the lower back, there is some scope for flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation.
At the sacro-iliac joint, almost no mobility is possible.
When we come to look at how pain is caused by changes to spinal alignment, we will see how important it is to maintain appropriate levels of stability and flexibility in the various sections of the spine.
Where do things go wrong?
In the upper body, the cycling position can cause issues that are similar to those experienced by office workers, sitting with a rounded spine in front of a screen. The lower and mid back are overly flexed, and the back of the neck is hyper-extended as you look ahead at the road or trail.
How do the muscles in the torso adapt to support this “unnatural” configuration?
For the most part, the muscles in the front and sides of the torso become short and tight and the muscles in the back of the body become weak and overstretched.
Pulling the head forward leads to a tightening of the upper back and the back and sides of the neck.
Rounding the shoulders forward tightens the muscles in the fronts of the shoulders, the chest and the serratus anterior (a wing-shaped muscle close to your armpit).
A lack of lateral and rotational movement causes tightness in the lats, obliques and lower back.
Rounding forward shortens the abdominals and intercostals (muscles in between the ribs).
Rounding the shoulders forward separates and elevates the shoulder blades, over-stretching and weakening the muscles in the mid back.
The head forward posture weakens the muscles in the front of the neck responsible for flexion.
A lack of lateral and rotational movement weakens and tightens the obliques.
Rounding forward disengages the abs, simultaneously over-stretching and over-working the muscles in the lower back.
The seated position tightens the hip flexors which leads to weak glutes through the process of reciprocal inhibition.
Excessive flexion of the thoracic spine for prolonged periods of time combined with the natural lack of mobility of the ribcage can result in the mid back feeling stuck.
How do these adaptations lead to pain?
Muscular imbalances in the cervical region can lead to neck pain, tension headaches and tightness in the upper back and shoulders.
Muscular imbalances in the thoracic region can lead to pain in between the shoulder blades and tightness in the chest.
A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine and hips forces the lumbar spine into compensatory rotation which can cause pain at the lower back.
A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can also result in a higher risk of injury to the neck and shoulders (especially the rotator cuff).
Rounding the lower back puts tremendous pressure on the erector spinae and ligaments of the spine which can cause pain at the lower back.
Poor core stability can lead to excess weight having to be supported by the hands and wrists which can cause numbness, tingling or carpal tunnel.
Yoga to the rescue
As you can see, there is a lot going on here. The muscular imbalances in the upper body alone caused by cycling require an intelligently-designed yoga practice to effectively counterbalance them. In broad terms, we need to stretch the front of the body, activate the back of the body, loosen up stiffness in the mid-back, increase lateral and rotational ranges of motion and strengthen the core. For this, you need to incorporate backbends, sidebends, twists and core strengtheners into your daily routine.
Backbends extend the spine, counterposing the spinal flexion position that we see on the bike.
Backbends stretch the front of the body, and open up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
Backbends strengthen the back of the body.
6 Backbends and their superpowers
Sphinx—best for beginners.
Snake—best for opening up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
Locust—best for strengthening the posterior chain (the back side of the body).
Puppy—best for stretching the lats.
Bridge—best for releasing the hip flexors.
Wheel—best for if you’re ready for it and looking for a challenge.
When the thoracic spine is stuck, it can be difficult to achieve a smooth, even curve in all three parts of the spine. Try not to compensate in the lower back and the back of the neck for this lack of mobility, as this can lead to compression and pain. Focus your backbends on the thoracic.
Twists release tension in the lower back, upper back and neck.
Twists increase mobility in the thoracic spine.
Twists open up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
Twists stretch the abs and obliques.
Reclining Spinal Twist—best for releasing tension at the lower back.
Thread The Needle—best for improving thoracic mobility.
Seated Spinal Twist—best safe active twist.
Be careful not to go too deep. Remember that each region of the spine has a different degree of available rotational mobility, with the most at the neck and least at the lower back. Bring your awareness first to the base of your spine—start the twist from that point and let it unwind all the way up to your neck. Inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale to deepen the twist.
Sidebends increase lateral flexion.
Sidebends stretch the obliques, intercostals, serratus anterior and quadratus lumborum (lower back muscle).
Seated Sidebend—best for warming up.
Standing Sidebend—best for stretching the entire side body.
Extended Side Angle—best active sidebend (and my favourite pose).
Again, be careful not to overdo it. Inhale to lengthen the spine and exhale into the stretch.
Core strengtheners strengthen the abdominals, obliques and lower back.
Core strengtheners relieve pain in the lower back and in between the shoulder blades.
3 Core strengtheners
Plank—best for the abs.
Side Plank—best for the obliques.
Upward Facing Plank—best for posterior chain.
Some thoughts on timing
Rolling out of bed and straight onto your yoga mat might seem like a fantastic way to start your day but unfortunately, modern life has made most of us a little too fragile for such decadence. Our spines are weaker and less mobile early in the morning and therefore at their most vulnerable. I advise you to wait 30 minutes or so before you start bending and flexing your spine, and ideally to warm up with gentle movements like Cat-Cow, seated twists and gentle sidebends before you go into deeper poses.
I would also advise against taking deep forward folds directly after cycling or even sitting for over an hour. After a long period of flexion, extending the spine for a few minutes in a gentle backbend like Sphinx works great as a counter-pose.
And finally, if you feel like practicing forward bends to stretch your calves and hamstrings, like Head-To-Knee pose, Standing Forward Bend or Downward Facing Dog—please make sure that you bend your knees as much as you need to, and do not be tempted to use force to get deeper into the pose. This also goes for swan-diving down from Mountain pose into Standing Forward Bend. The safest pose to stretch your hamstrings is Reclining-Hand-To-Toe pose on your back, as this takes your lower back out of the equation.
Let me know if there are other poses that you find helpful to counteract prolonged periods of spinal flexion on the bike.