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Why Does Cycling Hurt Your Back?

Why Does Cycling Hurt Your Lower Back?

Mankind really hit a home run with the invention of the bicycle.  You don’t have to look much further than Wikipedia to discover that the bike is the most efficient means of self-propelled transportation available to humans.  Unfortunately, the bike is also pretty good at producing lower back pain.

As a competitive bike racer and a chiropractor, I have a pretty good understanding of what goes wrong in the lower back when cycling and some of the steps a cyclist can take to combat this common problem.

Let’s start with how a bike compromises the low back.

It’s All In The Prolonged Flexion

It doesn’t take very many observation skills to see that cyclists spend their exercise time all bent over.  While this posture is essential in the world of “efficiency” (think wind resistance,) it can be disastrous on the low back.

When most people hear mention of the spine, they think of phrases like “pinched” nerves, “slipped” discs, “pulled” muscles, or something “out of place”.  None of these explanations for why their low back is hurting is complete in and of itself (the human spine is far too complex to be reduced to a singular etiology,) but I suppose more thought has been put into it than just saying that their “backbone” hurts.

You don’t have to look much further than recumbent bikes and recumbent bike trainers to gather further evidence that the prolonged flexion of the low back on a conventional bike is largely the culprit in cycling-related low back pain.

Many recumbent riders attribute the relief they get when riding a recumbent bike to the “support” they’re getting for their back, but that’s only part of the truth.  If you look at a recumbent rider’s horizontal position and then rotate them vertically, you’ll see that they aren’t bent over at the waist; they’re essentially exercising as if they were standing up (while laying on their back.)

Now look at a rider on a conventional bike, particularly the crazy riders (guilty as charged) who get into a time-trialing position. What you’ll see is a sport performed at extreme effort while bending at the waist as close to 90 degrees as possible.

So What’s So Bad About Bending At The Waist?

To satisfy the chiropractor in me, I’ll touch on the fact that prolonged flexion compresses the elements on the front of the spine (front part of the disc) and pulls on the back parts of the spine (facet joints, multifidus muscles,) as well as the ligaments between the spinous processes.  Any of these problems can be the source of a lot of pain.

But, there’s something else involved here:  tight and contracted hip flexors.

When you think about what cyclists ask their legs to do within a very limited range of motion, it’s amazing that the bicycle is number one in the human-powered machine contest.  Over and over, the legs (specifically the hip flexors, called the psoas muscles) contract while near the limits of their shortest configuration.

Over time, the chief hip flexor muscle (the psoas) gets progressively shorter and tighter.

A short, tight muscle is prone to spasm (can you say ‘charley-horse’?) but in the case of the psoas muscle there is a unique ability to cause trouble.  Namely, the muscle spans two very important joints.

The origin of the psoas muscle looks like a fan, attaching itself to the sides of the last five vertebrae in the spine.  From there it heads south, across the sacroiliac (hip) joint and inserts onto the femur (thigh bone), spanning the joint where the femur attaches to the pelvis at the cup-shaped acetabulum.  When the psoas muscle contracts, the thigh comes up, and this is called hip flexion.

Stretch The Psoas For Pain Free Cycling

At the time I’m writing this article, there’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping the nation…Tebowing.

After throwing for or running for a touchdown, the Denver Broncos quarterback, Tim Tebow, gets down on one knee to thank God, and some people have taken to imitating this pose in very unusual settings. It may seem like a silly thing to do, but these imitators are actually benefiting by stretching their psoas muscles. I doubt the craze will last very long, but Tebowing is actually a very effective stretch for the psoas muscle.

All a cyclist has to do is get down on one knee, and then— keeping the lower back as straight as possible— rock forward.  A deep pulling on the front of the hip indicates the correct stretching of this obscure muscle.

Work at keeping your psoas from getting progressively shorter over time and your cycling will be as pain-free as possible.  Now if someone could just come up with a bike saddle as comfortable as an Easy-Boy recliner…

About the author:  Dr. Ron Fritzke is a Chiropractor in Mount Shasta, California, serving on the sports medicine team at the College of the Siskiyous.  He spends untold hours riding his bike and writing bike trainer reviews on trainers, like the Road Machine trainer.


  1. Ron Fritzke

    A big thanks to Skyler for publishing this article. If there are any
    questions or comments, I’ll be glad to answer them to the best of
    my ability.

    Ron Fritzke, D.C.

    1. Cheryl

      Thank you so much for an article which answers why I have a “pain in the back” after riding my bike…
      I even bought a new one with suspension, believing this to be the (main?) cause. I had been thinking of the bending forward/leaning over as being the culprit but can fully understand how the pain occurs.

      I think I understand how to do the exercise to stretch out the posoas muscle but I do wish there was a diagram.


      By the way, I am “only” a leisure – fair-weather -“cyclist” – and my bike is a many-gear (which I don’t understand) mountain bike as I prefer to stay away from the busy roads which surround my village – but I would hardly say that I cycle – mountains!

    2. Bob Di Carli

      Hi…Your article was very enlightening. I am basically a runner, but have had hip pain which you described in your article. X rays show no abnormalities. I was riding a bike for a period of time at a very hard pace between my days of running. I think that is how I injured my psoas muscle. Aside from your suggested stretch, do you think that purchasing a bike which has a wide tire would eliminate road shock to any discernible degree?
      Thank you,

      1. admin

        Sorry about your injury. That is frustrating! I think that wider tires will definitely help with the road shock. I have never personally tried the wider tires but from what I have heard from others it helps a lot. Let me know how it works for you if you decide to give it a try!
        Good luck!!

    3. Ahmet Demirkan

      Hi there ,I am a casual rider at slow speed with six gear city bike.
      I am doing 10 miles daily and I have been experiencing huge pain in my right thigh muscle.I had herniated disk operation 10 year ago.Because of this pain I saw physiotherapist and he said that I need to stop riding.
      I am having physical therapy .Broaden my mind please !
      How much impact spine gets from riding?

  2. Ron Fritzke

    If you’d like to, you can watch a video of how to stretch the psoas on this page I have on my site…// .

    1. Cheryl

      Thank you very much!

      I understand now and will aim to do this on my limited space at the top of the stairs (not having a heavy-duty low table…).

  3. Amanda

    Would it be better for someone who is just getting in to cycling that has had low back problems (microdiscectomy in the low back 3 years ago) to start with a hybrid bike rather than a road bike? I understand that these bikes aren’t as aerodynamic, but would the more upright riding position be better for the lower back?

    1. admin

      If you are having back problems a hybrid bike would definitely be better for you than a road bike would. Hybrid bikes are designed to take the strain off of your back when riding because you are able to stay in an upright position. Hope that helps. Let us know if you have any other questions and good luck with those back problems!

  4. J_BIRD

    Just a quick question. In shorter Tri’s everything is just fine. When I start having to bike over 20 miles in a race I can barely run because my lower back is in so much pain. Please let me know if it is just my road bike or if I need to just train more at longer distances. Thank you.

  5. Alicia

    Genius! I’ve had low back pain (but only on the right side) for over a year now… I went to a chiropractor and he said it was due to sitting in a chair all day and doing military sit ups (with feet pinned, legs at a 90 degree angle) A LOT. He showed me this stretch, and I’ve been doing it here and there… but the back pain has persisted despite my frequent “work breaks” from sitting and having stopped doing sit ups. Then it dawned on me that my pain started around the time I picked up mountain biking. SO maybe this is the culprit? Or a combo of all? I went to a masseuse and he stretched my psoas… and I at least had some temporary relief. Do you have any advice, or can you suggest other stretches that may help me get rid of this pain once and for all!? I just want to be back to normal! And why is it only on one side of my body?

  6. Lea

    I have a herniated & bulging disc due to a car hitting me from behind. After I was feeling better I started riding my bike & I can relate to back pain. So what my hubby did for me was to put my handle bars straight & upright, so I wouldn’t be leaning forward, I’d be sitting up straight & what a big difference. My back don’t hurt like it did before. Maybe changing the bars will be helpful for other bike riders. Worth trying to see if it will help all others, like it did for me. Hope this was of some help.

  7. Douglas Gould

    Thank you for the article. I am 67 and I ride 3 times a week in the foothills on a roadbike. Currently, about 150 miles per week. I had a back injury about a year ago dismounting from my bike. Probably a bulging disc but no MRI to verify. Now I get more low back/ SIJ pain after about 20 miles. Would a back support brace be an option for me? I will add the Tebowing stretch to my circuit training by the way. Thanks, Doug

  8. Pat

    I have a hybrid TREK bike and have chronic LBP and herniation of L3-L5 trying to avoid surgery
    I ride 60 miles a week and now I have fallen off my bike twice in 2 weeks…balance feels off on my bike I have the opportunity to purchase a Burley Django recum bike so you think this would helpful?

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    I had back pain few years back. Now the back pain aggravates when I do some stressful activities. I do swim for 1 Km daily. I want to add cycling to my exercise schedule. But I am afraid it may aggravate my back pain, which was earlier. I am planning to start with the vintage Raleigh cycle. It has a handle which lets you sit straight. See photo
    Please advise whether it will aggravate my back pain, If I drive 1-2 Kms daily.

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