Muscles to stretch: hips, hamstrings, IT band, groin, glutes and piriformis
Muscles to strengthen: lower back, abs, hips and glutes
Joints to mobilise: spine and hips
Structures to re-align: pelvis
My first ever student was a competitive mountain biker, who was in such debilitating lower back pain that often he was unable to lift himself out of bed. I showed him a couple of poses in a hotel garden on the bank of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, on the day I qualified as a Yoga Alliance Certified Instructor, 5 years ago.
The effect was extraordinary. His lower back relaxed, his pelvis adjusted and the pain disappeared. I then spent the next few months working with him to design a complete yoga program to support his training, and Yoga 15 was born.
How does mountain biking specifically cause lower back pain?
Your body can move in and maintain an almost infinite number of shapes—but not for too long, under load or at the expense of variation. You can run, jump, spin, throw, kick, punch and body-pop, but if you ride up a mountain with a rucksack on your back and then hurtle back down, negotiating gnarly rocks, roots and drops on the way—not stopping to reorganise your body before jumping straight back into your demanding, high-pressure lifestyle—your body can only take it for so long.
These are the common imbalances and adaptations that take place:
1. Rounded spine
In neutral spine, the back of your neck and lower back have a slight inward curve and your mid-back has a gentle outward curve. These sections are called the cervical, lumbar and thoracic spine, respectively. This alignment is optimal for balancing flexibility, stability and stress absorption, whilst allowing for the least wear and tear.
On the bike, you move your spine out of this S-shape, rounding at the mid and lower back.
In this position, the lower back muscles that run parallel to and support the spine are over-stretched and become weak; they tighten up, contracting in a battle to protect themselves from tearing; your upper body weight hangs on and strains the ligaments at the lower back (that are not designed to provide support for your spine); and it puts excessive weight on the front of the intervertebral discs, increasing the risk of disc bulging or herniation.
As the the arms come forward and the mid-back rounds, the thoracic spine can start to feel stuck. This stiffness in the mid-back, combined with a lack of mobility in the hips, puts pressure on the lower back to compensate and rotate more than it is designed to.
Lower back is over-stretched, weak and tight.
2. Tight hip flexors
In the seated position, the hip flexors (including the psoas)—which are the muscles that cross the front of the hip, are in a shortened position. On the bike, this is accentuated as the hips are in even greater flexion. They are also required, alongside the quads, to generate a considerable amount of power over a sustained period, which further tightens and shortens them.
In time, you lose flexibility in your hip flexors as the muscles respond to a message from your brain to remain in the position you habitually put them. This lack of flexibility limits access to free and fluid range of motion in the hip joint.
Furthermore, as the psoas attaches to the lumbar vertebrae, when they are chronically tight, they tug at the lower back, causing soreness, an over-arching of the lower back and potentially injuring to the discs.
Hip flexors are short, tight and stiff.
3. Weak glutes
Due to a process known as reciprocal inhibition, as the hip flexors contract, their antagonists—the glutes or buttock muscles—relax, to protect them from tearing. If you are also sedentary for much of the day, the glutes can become ‘lazy’ or disengaged. This is known as gluteal amnesia.
When the glutes don’t fire properly, you have to rely on adjacent muscles to stabilise the core and hips—in this case, the hamstrings, spinal erectors and adductor magnus (groin). These muscles tighten up as a result.
Glutes are weak and disengaged.
4. Tight hamstrings
Many of us suffer from tight hamstrings as a result of a lifetime of sport without stretching, a sedentary lifestyle, or that’s just the musculoskeletal structure we were born with. Whatever the cause, pedalling exacerbates tight hamstrings, especially if the glutes are weak and not pulling their weight.
Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis back into a posterior tilt, rounding the lower back and further straining the lower back muscles.
Hamstrings are tight and short.
5. Weak core
Unless you have a well-rounded training program that includes dedicated core work, it is likely that your core is weak, or at best, unbalanced. This might be because you sit too much, or with bad posture, because you work on strengthening your superficial abs at the expense of the rest of your core —the lower back, obliques, quadratus lumborum, deep abs and pelvic floor, because you don’t breathe down into your diaphragm and/or because your sport doesn’t require it as much as some others.
The core is like a corset. It is designed to stabilise your lower back, control the position of your pelvis, protect against damage to the lumbar disks, allow you to easily bend back, forward, side to side and rotate.
Core is weak and unbalanced.
5. Twisted pelvis
Without a strong core and with potentially tight hamstrings, hip flexors, groin and glutes, the pelvis is often pulled out of alignment—forward or back (into anterior or pelvic tilt) and also twisting, tugging at the lower back.
Pelvis is out of alignment.
The perfect storm
You can see with all of these structures out of whack, when you throw yourself down a mountain, twisting, turning, jumping and absorbing vibration, damn straight your lower back is going to scream at you to stop.
But also, I hope, how a strategic yoga practice could help you to get back on track.
Yoga is not designed to replace professional medical advice. If you are injured, please make an appointment to see a really good physical therapist. They can advise you which poses are suitable for your rehabilitation.
Stretching is not innocuous. The wrong intensity, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, could potentially derail your healing. Please exercise caution.
If you experience pain in any of the poses, stop. In yoga, discomfort is to be embraced, pain is not.
Most effective yoga poses for lower back pain
Here are some poses you can try if you have the all clear, with links to instructions.
- Hip Openers: Wind-Relieving, Dead Pigeon, Low Lunge, Lizard, Pigeon
- Hamstrings: Reclining Hand-to-Toe, Downward Dog
- Lower Back: Reclining Spinal Twist, Sphinx
- Spinal Mobility: Thread The Needle, Cat Cow
- Core: Locust, Bridge, Plank, Side Plank, Boat
- Pelvis: Half Reclining Hero, Seated Spinal Twist, High Lunge Twist
Please let me know if you have any questions or can share what has worked and not worked for you.
Photo credit: Daniel Rönnbäck