Get Stacked: Correct the Cyclist Posture to Get the Most from Strength Training
Cyclists tend to develop certain postural abnormalities that can cause problems both on and off the bike: Slumped shoulders, head dropped forward on the neck and the classic upper-back hump are common and often become painful if they are not dealt with. Hours spent staring down into phones make things even worse. Long term poor posture can rob you of power and competitive potential. In my 25 years of experience working with cyclists, I’ve found that cyclist posture can be corrected, usually with 3-5 weeks of deliberate work depending on how bad it has gotten. Cyclists who do heavy resistance training to improve on-bike performance should start correcting posture shortly after one event season ends and well before the next one starts. The ideal time to make the postural corrections is before the start of gym season, but even if you’ve started lifting already, it’s a good idea to correct this posture now rather than waiting for next season.
Launching into a strength training program without first correcting posture robs cyclists of power on the bike and causes plenty of injuries. Strength coaches generally advise keeping the back straight to avoid low-back injuries when squatting, for instance, but some cyclists are unable to properly straighten their backs. To prevent injury, your brain will subconsciously limit your squatting power if your back is not straight. Putting a lot of pressure on the spine when it is not properly aligned causes back spasms and, worst case, acute and chronic injuries such as ruptured and herniated discs.
Get a Postural Assessment
I recommend that everyone do a postural assessment before starting lifting. Ideally, you should consult an experienced physical therapist or strength coach, but self-assessment is also possible if you have access to floor-length mirrors or a camera that lets you see yourself from the side. You should be stacked, with ears, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and the lateral arches of the feet in a nice, straight line. It’s not enough to be able to force yourself into the stacked position. You want to stretch and strengthen things until the stacked position feels normal, not stressful. If you are far out of alignment and having trouble getting stacked, a physical therapist or strength coach can design and supervise a program to help you.
Correcting Posture: Starting at the Top
Starting from the head, first address the “rounded shoulders” postural deviation. This is primarily due to the fact that we are always resisting gravity, and more often than not, gravity wins. Individuals typically do not possess the muscular endurance of the upper back and shoulder muscles to maintain proper postural alignment against gravity when sitting which ultimately leads to rounding the shoulders forward. When the shoulders are in a rounded position, the anterior muscles acting on the shoulders (pectoralis major and minor) become tight while the posterior shoulder muscles (rotator cuff, rhomboids, mid/lower trapezius) become lengthened and weak. A quick solution to help improve alignment is to first foam roll the thoracic spine to help improve thoracic extension range of motion (Pic 1-Foam Roll).
Next, statically stretch the pectoralis major and minor (Pic 2-Doorway Stretch), holding the stretch for 30 seconds. Finally, strengthen the posterior shoulder muscles by performing a floor cobra (Pic 3-Floor Cobra). When performing a floor cobra, make sure to retract the shoulder blades and hold this position for 2-3 seconds before returning to the starting position. Perform 1-2 sets, 10-15 repetitions.
Correcting the “Forward Head” Posture
The next common postural distortion seen in cyclists is a forward head posture. Typically, this posture goes hand-in-hand with the rounded shoulder posture and occurs for many of the same reasons (poor muscular endurance of the cervical stabilizers to resist gravity). Individuals with this posture can develop tightness in the upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles and weakness in the deep cervical stabilizers. Over time, this posture can lead to neck pain and even headaches. Like the previous distortion, stretching and strengthening exercises can help improve this condition.
First, release the upper trapezius and thoracic spine using a foam roller. Next, statically stretch the upper trapezius and scalene (similar to Pic 1, above). Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and perform 1-2 sets. Finally, perform 1-2 sets, 10-15 repetitions of chin tucks to strengthen the deep cervical flexors (Pic 5). Like the rounded shoulder posture, it will also be important to be aware of your cervical posture while sitting and periodically “readjust” your cervical alignment to a more ideal position. This will help develop muscular endurance in your cervical stabilizers.
Correcting Hip Flexor Tightness Issues that Can Lead to Lower Back Pain
Moving down the body, a lumbo-pelvic-hip postural distortion pattern is associated with an anterior pelvic tilt with related excessive lumbar extension and is commonly associated with low back pain. This distortion pattern is commonly seen in cyclists since cycling causes the hip flexor complex (psoas, iliopsoas and rectus femoris) to remain in a shortened position. Over time, these muscles adapt by shortening and becoming tight. Due to their attachment to the pelvis and lumbar spine, when these muscles are tight, they can pull the pelvis and lumbar spine forward causing an anterior tilt as one stands up (hip extension). The tightness of the hip flexor complex can also lead to decreased neural drive to their functional antagonist – the gluteus maximus. Tightness in the hip flexors and weakness in the gluteals, which is seen in most cyclists, can ultimately lead to decreased power output and low back pain.
To help remedy this situation, a quick corrective exercise strategy would be to first foam roll and statically stretch the hip flexor complex (Pic 6-hip flexor foam roll & Pic 7- Hip flexor stretch). When foam rolling, hold tender spots for 30 seconds. When statically stretching, hold the stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds and perform 1 to 2 sets. Next, strengthen the gluteus maximus. An example exercise to try is a floor bridge (Pic 8-Floor Bridge). Perform 1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions.
Time is of the essence for correcting postural defects. Ideally you want to get aligned in time to start your heavier lifting program in November-December to prepare for a spring race season, but sooner is better than later.
Coach Steve Ehasz has been working with cyclists and other athletes for over 25 years, correcting imbalances through strength and helping athletes overcome limiting injuries in order to compete and participate far beyond the estimates of others. He enjoys working with racers and recreational cyclists to reach their cycling goals.