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Improve Spinal Mobility To Relieve Back Pain

Restoring natural range of motion in all sections of the spine is crucial to relieving back pain.

Bringing your hands forward to grip the handlebars, rounding your mid back and craning your neck to look at the trail ahead, takes your spine way out of neutral alignment. Add to that the vibrations of riding over rough terrain and a haphazard warm up and cool down routine, and it’s no wonder mountain biking is associated with a smorgasbord of persistent aches and pains.

SPINAL ALIGNMENT

A spine in neutral is s-shaped:

  • It curves in at the lower back, or lumbar spine.
  • Out at the mid back, or thoracic spine.
  • And in again at the back of the neck, or cervical spine.

This alignment allows for free and easy movement in all planes of motion and the absorption of everyday impact and vibration.

SPINAL RANGE OF MOTION

The spine is capable of moving in four primary ways, to different degrees, in each of the three segments.

  • Flexion (rounding forward) is most prominent at the neck and lower back.
  • Extension (bending back) is most prominent at the neck, followed by the lower back.
  • Lateral flexion and extension (side-bending) are roughly even all the way up the spine.
  • Rotation (twisting) is most prominent at the neck, followed by the mid back and finally the lower back.

SPINAL MOBILTY AND STABILITY

  • The greatest range of motion is possible at the neck—in flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion.
  • Rotation is the primary movement at the mid back, as the relative stability of the rib cage prevents extensive flexion and extension. 
  • At the lower back, you have significantly more flexion, extension and lateral flexion available than rotation.

When these relative levels of stability and mobility go out of whack, things can go badly wrong.

MTB MUSCULAR IMBALANCES

The typical riding position can cause and exacerbate alignment issues that are experienced by those of us who work at a desk in front of a screen. The lumbar and thoracic spine are excessively flexed, and the back of the neck hyper-extends to look at the trail ahead.

This leads to a common theme in many of my articles. The muscles that connect to and support the spine adapt to make it as easy as possible for you to spend long periods of time in this position. Some muscles overwork and become tight, others are disengaged and become weak.

TIGHT, WEAK AND STIFF

In yoga, we aim to dynamically release tension in tight muscles, activate weak muscles and loosen up restrictions caused by the “unnatural” riding position.

Stretch
  • The head forward position tightens up the upper back muscles and the muscles in the back and sides of the neck. (In normal alignment, your ears should be directly over your shoulders.)
  • Rounding the mid back and bringing your arms forward tightens the fronts of the shoulders, the chest and the serratus anterior (the wing-shaped muscle close to your armpit). 
  • A lack of lateral and rotational movement leads to a tightening of the lats, obliques and lower back. 
  • Flexing the spine forward shortens the intercostals (the muscles in between the ribs) and the abdominals.
Strengthen
  • The head forward posture disengages the muscles in the front of the neck responsible for flexion.
  • Rounding the shoulders forward separates and elevates the shoulder blades, over-stretching and weakening the muscles that support them in the mid back. 
  • Flexing the trunk disengages the abs, simultaneously over-stretching and over-working the muscles in the lower back.
  • The seated position tightens the hip flexors and encourages gluteal amnesia.
Increase range of motion
  • Excessive flexion of the T-spine for prolonged periods of time combined with a natural lack of mobility in the ribcage can result in excessive curvature of the mid back—thoracic kyphosis—a condition in which the mid back feels stuck. 

HOW COMPENSATORY 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 lead to low back pain. 
  • A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can also result in 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 spinal ligaments 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 POSES THAT IMPROVE SPINAL MOBILITY

As you can see, there is a lot going on here. The muscular imbalances in the upper body alone caused by mountain biking 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 AND TIMING

BENEFITS
  • Extend the spine, counterposing the spinal flexion of the thoracic and lumbar spine on the bike. 
  • Stretch the front of the body— opening up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders, and stretching the abs and hip flexors.
  • Strengthen the back of the body.
  1. Cow and Low Cobra—great for warming up.
  2. Locust and Bridge—best for activating the posterior chain.
BACKBENDING TIP

When the thoracic spine is stuck, it can be difficult to achieve a smooth, even arch in all three parts of the spine. Try not to over-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 AND TIMING

  • Release tension in the lower back, upper back and neck.
  • Increase mobility in the thoracic spine.
  • Open up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders. 
  • Stretch the abs and obliques. 
  1. Seated Sidebend and Runners Lunge Twist—great for warming up.
  2. Thread The Needle and Reclining Spinal Twist—best for cooling down.
TWISTING TIP

Be careful not to go too deep. Remember that each section 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 at that point and allow it unwind all the way up to your neck. Inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale into the twist. 

SIDEBENDS

  • Increase lateral flexion. 
  • Stretch the obliques, intercostals, serratus anterior and quadratus lumborum (lower back muscle). 
  1. Seated Sidebend and Standing Sidebend—both great for warming up.
SIDEBENDING TIP

Again, be careful not to overdo it. Inhale to lengthen your spine and exhale into the stretch.

CORE STRENGTHENERS

  • Strengthen the abdominals, obliques and lower back.
  • Relieve pain in the lower back and in between the shoulder blades.
  1. Plank and Spider Planks—best for the abs.
  2. Side Plank—best for the obliques.

INTELLIGENT PROGRAM DESIGN

MORNING

Rolling out of bed and straight onto your yoga mat might seem like the perfect way to start your day but unfortunately, modern life has made most of us too fragile for such decadence. Our spines are weaker and stiffer when you wake up and therefore at their most vulnerable. I advise you to wait 30 minutes or so before you start to bend and flex your spine—ideally warming up with gentle movements like Cat-Cow, seated twists and gentle sidebends before you go into deeper poses. 

AFTER A RIDE

I would advise against taking deep forward folds post-ride or even after sitting for a while. After a long period of flexion, extending the spine for a few minutes in a gentle backbend like Sphinx is a great counter-pose.

STRETCHING THE HAMSTRINGS

If it feels good to practice forward bends to stretch your calves and hamstrings, including Head-To-Knee pose, Standing Forward Bend or Downward Facing Dog—please make sure that you bend your knees a lot, 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.

5 VIDEOS TO INCREASE SPINAL MOBILITY

  1. Flexibility 3: Backbends
  2. Flexibility 4: Twists
  3. Flexibility 6: Sidebends
  4. Strength 2: Core Strength
  5. T-Spine Mobility

GET INVOLVED

Let me know if there are other poses that you find helpful to counteract prolonged periods of spinal flexion on the bike. 

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