Six Exercises to Avoid Neck and Back Pain

The coronavirus pandemic sparked a bicycling boom last year that shows no signs of slowing. Whether you are brand new to the sport or an experienced cyclist, you are susceptible to neck and low back pain if you aren’t conditioning properly, says Mari Holden, a private cycling coach and community director for USA Cycling in Colorado Springs, Colo., leading Let’s Ride, a nationwide youth cycling program. “Everyone thinks a strong lower body is the key to cycling,” says the 50-year-old Olympic medalist and world champion cyclist. “A strong core is just as important.”

The back and neck are bent in unnatural positions when hunched over a bike. New riders or cyclists who suddenly tack on extra miles often feel pain in the neck and low back as these areas fatigue fastest, says Ms. Holden. A weak core and weak trapezius muscles—the ones that span the upper back, shoulders and neck—are often the culprits, she says.

That hunched position is similar to the shape the body takes while seated in front of a computer all day, she says. So it should be no surprise the new work-from-home lifestyle has resulted in more neck and low-back aches. Ms. Holden uses the following exercises as a maintenance routine throughout the year to keep her core strong and her body in balance. “When you ride, it’s easy for some areas of the body, like the glutes and hamstrings, to get strong, while others like triceps or chest get weak,” she says. “Keeping everything in balance will prevent injuries and make you an all-around stronger cyclist.” She suggests running through three sets of each exercise, resting for 30 to 60 seconds between each movement.

The Workout

Plank Superman

Why: Ms. Holden is a fan of plank pose and plank variations to build core strength and stability. “This version is a great way to discover where your weaknesses are,” she says. “By holding various positions you can quickly see strength differences and build upon that to be more balanced.”

How: Start in a high push-up position (plank pose) with your hands underneath your shoulders, back flat and head in line with your spine. Slowly raise your opposite hand and foot off the ground to hover. Maintain a flat back and keep hips square. Lower and switch sides. Start by holding for five to 10 seconds. Build up to one minute.

Options: If this is challenging, start by raising a hand and lowering it and then raising a foot and lowering it. This exercise can also be performed from hands and knees or in a forearm plank. You can also alternate hand and foot, pausing at the top, like the image below.

Ms. Holden works on core stability with a plank superman pose. On her left bicep, she wears a glucose monitor.


Caitlin O’Hara for The Wall Street Journal

Side Plank

Why: This plank variation builds stability in the shoulders, hips and spine and strengthens the obliques–the muscles that run along the sides of the torso, says Ms. Holden. The pose also challenges the balance and builds muscle endurance.

How: Start lying on your right side on the ground, feet stacked on top of one another. Keep your right hand beneath the right shoulder as you press into the floor to raise the hips up. The left hand can be on the left hip or stretched straight up in the air. Engage your core. Don’t let the top hip drop forward. Hold for 10 seconds and build up to one minute. Switch sides.

Options: If you have wrist pain, press up from your elbow, keeping it directly beneath the shoulder. You can also place one foot in front of the other to help with balance. For a challenge, hover the top foot.

Split Squat

Why: It is common for cyclists to have one leg that is stronger than the other, says Ms. Holden. The split squat challenges your quads, glutes and hamstrings while working one leg at a time to help build symmetry in the body.

How: Step your right foot forward in a lunge position. The heel of your back foot should be raised. Keep your back straight and slowly lower your left knee until it almost touches the floor. Don’t let the front knee move past your front foot as you lower. Press through the front foot and back toes to rise up. Repeat 10 times. Switch legs.

Option: For a challenge, elevate the back leg on a step or chair or hold weights in your hands.

Back Extension

Why: This exercise works the muscles in the lower back, and also hits your hamstrings and glutes. “It takes you out of the normal bent-over position on the bike,” she says.

How: Lie face down and stretch your arms out in front of you alongside your ears. Engage your glutes and core to lift your shoulders, chest and feet up off the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pause at the top. Lower back down. Repeat 10 to 12 times.

Option: Perform this exercise with your torso resting on a stability ball and your feet anchored against a wall or bench.

Ms. Holden strengthens her lower back by performing back extensions.


Caitlin O’Hara for The Wall Street Journal

Triceps Dips

Why: There’s a trend moving away from road riding in favor of riding traffic-free gravel and dirt roads, says Ms. Holden. “Gravel and dirt surfaces are bumpier and require more upper-body strength,” she says. And even on the road, a strong upper body is a plus when you are climbing hills out of the saddle. The triceps in particular control your center of gravity in a standing power climb position, she says.

How: Face away from a bench or chair and grip the edge with your hands. Hover just off and in front of the seat. Your arms should be straight, your feet should be flat and your legs bent so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Slowly bend your arms to lower yourself toward the floor until your elbows form 90-degree angles. Press back to start. Perform 10 to 12 times.

Option: Straighten your legs for an added challenge.

Ms. Holden demonstrates triceps dips.


Caitlin O’Hara for The Wall Street Journal

Incline Push-Up

Why: “If you’re new to cycling or are starting to go faster or farther, it’s natural to carry stress in the upper body and grip the handlebars tighter than necessary,” she says. “That fatigues the upper body.” Push-ups work the triceps, biceps, chest, back and core. You work the same range of motion with this variation, but it’s easier to maintain good form, she says.

How: Place your hands on a chair, bench or couch slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Extend your legs straight behind you so your body forms a straight line head to toes. Keep your elbows close to your body as you bend and straighten your arms to complete a push up. Perform 12 to 15 reps.

Option: You can make this exercise easier by performing the motion against a wall.

Ms. Holden performs an incline push-up.


Caitlin O’Hara for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Jen Murphy at [email protected]

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