Cycling is a great form of exercise and an eco-friendly mode of transportation. It’s no surprise that the American Community Survey shows a 62 percent increase in bicycle commuting since 2000. In fact, according to the National Household Travel Survey, the number of trips made by bicycle in the U.S. more than doubled from 1.7 billion in 2001 to 4 billion in 2009.
Cycling offers excellent cardiovascular benefits as well as muscular endurance and strength; however, many cyclists struggle with excess tension in the shoulders, back, and hips.
The repetitive nature of cycling biomechanics and the cycling posture itself create physical imbalances that cyclists, specifically, must try to counteract.
First, let’s take a look at the biomechanics of cycling. A typical cycling stroke involves the entire leg. Starting with the pedal up, your glute and quadricep muscles are used when you begin to push the pedal down (hip and knee extension). Right before you get to the bottom of the stroke, your calf muscles engage to slightly point the toes. As you begin to pull the pedal back up to complete the stroke, your shin muscles (tibialis anterior) engage to flex the ankle, and your hamstrings and hip flexors fire up to bring a bend into the knee and hip (especially if your feet are clipped to the pedals). Your triceps and shoulder and chest muscles are also engaged while cycling to support the upper body on the handlebars.
Then there is the typical cycling posture itself: seated, hands on the handlebars, and feet on the pedals. Usually the spine is flexed forward, and your neck slightly extends to keep your gaze forward on the road. It’s not that this posture is bad (is any movement inherently bad?), but issues arise when we spend too much time in any one position. We must work to strike a balance in the body so that this posture doesn’t become the default resting posture. Here are five poses to help bring balance to any cyclist.
As a cyclist, you spend a lot of time flexed forward over the handlebars. This position shortens your abdominal muscles and lengthens and weakens the muscles that run along the back of your spine (erector spinae). A cobra or sphinx pose will lengthen the abdominal muscles and strengthen the erector spinae and other muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades, including the rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles. This will make your cycling posture more solid and decrease your chances for low back pain.
To practice cobra pose, lie facedown on your mat and bring your hands below your shoulders. Press the tops of your feet down into the mat and keeping your elbows bent, press into your hands to lift your chest away from the floor. The more you can use your back muscles to lift your chest, the better, so try to keep as little weight on the hands as possible (you might even try lifting them away from the floor). Keep your elbows drawn in toward your sides so your shoulders don’t round forward. Allow your shoulder blades to draw slightly away from your ears and keep your neck long. Broaden across your collarbones.
If this is too much, come down to your forearms so that your elbows are below your shoulders for sphinx pose. Make sure your elbows and palms remain shoulder-distance apart. Keep your shoulders relaxed back and down and your neck long as you lift your chest up and forward. Press your elbows down into the mat and drag them back toward your hips like they’re going to slide on the mat (don’t actually move them).
In either pose, hold for five to seven steady, relaxed breaths, feeling your chest and belly soften and open.
Low Lunge Twist
Hip flexors and quads are notoriously tight for cyclists because of the seated posture and repetitive cycling motion. The hip flexors become tightened as the knee pulls up, and the quads become tightened during knee extension as the foot presses down. One large thigh muscle, the rectus femoris, is both a hip flexor muscle and a knee extensor, so it works double duty when you cycle! It is vital that you stretch out this area so your pedal stroke isn’t made less efficient by a lack of mobility. This twisting pose will open your hip flexors and quads as well as (bonus!) your chest, shoulders, and spine.
To practice this variation, start in a low lunge, right foot between the hands. Make sure your right knee is directly above your right ankle. Drop your left knee to the floor. If it is uncomfortable to have your knee on the floor, use a blanket or fold up your mat for extra cushioning. Bring both hands inside your right leg (on a block if the floor is too far away). Keeping your left hand planted on the floor or block, inhale as you stretch your right arm forward in front of you, and exhale to reach your right arm up and back, toward the wall behind you. Your chest should be facing your right leg. Try to keep your right shoulder from rounding forward toward your right thigh.
When you’re ready, bend your left knee and try to catch the outside of your left foot with your right hand (but don’t force it). If you can’t reach, loop a strap around your foot or try bringing your hips farther back to eventually catch your foot with your hand. Once you’ve got a grip with hand or strap, on an exhalation, gently sink into your hips. Make sure to lift your right shoulder up and keep your chest open as you twist your torso to the right. You may use a little bit of right arm strength, by bending the right elbow while maintaining the grip, to pull your left heel toward your left glute (but don’t force it). Keep your left hand planted on the floor, and press the floor away from you with your left hand to keep your left arm strong. If you want a deeper stretch, come down onto your left forearm. Try not to let your right knee fall out to the side; although you might feel more of a stretch in your right glute that way, it will reduce the stretch in your left quad and hip flexor, so keep your right knee in. Hold this position, and take five to seven breaths as you soften your chest, hips, and thighs. Repeat on the other side.
Cow Face Pose (Gomukhasana)
Gomukhasana is a great posture because it targets shoulders and glutes, areas all cyclists should address. Your shoulders can get tight (especially the anterior deltoids) from supporting some of your body weight on the handlebars and rounding forward, and the glutes get tight from being in a seated posture for a prolonged period of time in a repetitive range of motion. You may find in this posture that you also get a little stretch to the IT band (on the outside of the thigh) as well. This pose is also good for cyclists because it provides a different range of motion for the hips to explore, rotation instead of flexion or extension.
To practice cow face pose, begin on your hands and knees and then pull your right leg forward to cross your right knee directly in front of your left knee (as though you were seated on a crowded train and were crossing your legs in order to make room for the person next to you). Now move your left foot right until your heels are positioned wider than hip-distance apart. Next, walk your hands back and lower your hips down toward the floor. Your left hip will touch down first, followed by your right. Move slowly, and if you have trouble getting both hips down, try straightening out your left (bottom) leg in front of you (keeping your right leg crossed over the left) or elevating your hips on a folded blanket.
Make sure you’re not sitting on your left heel and that both your sit bones (ischial tuberosities) are grounded down into the mat or blanket. Try to stack your right knee on top of your left one, but don’t force it; it’s okay if they’re not perfectly stacked. Sit up tall and lift your rib cage away from your pelvis, lengthening your spine. To ensure that your lower back doesn’t round, roll your pelvis forward and your sit bones back behind you. In doing so, make sure to be mindful of your core muscles; keep your belly gently drawn in and up; avoid overarching through your low back and jutting your rib cage forward. Lift your chest, and lengthen through the crown of your head.
To add the upper body component, reach your right arm straight up and your left arm straight down. Bend both elbows so your right palm and the back of your left hand both rest against your back. Try to reach your fingertips together (without forcing them). If they don’t meet, hold on to either end of a strap or towel with each hand or simply rest your hands on your back. Continue actively reaching your fingers toward each other, and stay mindful of your posture. Make sure your chest remains lifted; keep your chin parallel with the floor, neither lifted nor lowered; and lengthen through the back of your neck.
Most people think this stretch is for the lifted arm, when in actuality we can get more benefit in the shoulder by focusing on the lower arm; specifically, we can strengthen the rotator cuff muscles (particularly the subscapularis) as well as the rhomboids and stretch the notoriously tight pectoralis muscles and anterior deltoids. To focus on the lower arm, make sure your shoulders are parallel with the floor; the tendency will be for your right shoulder to hike up. By making sure your shoulders are level, you ensure that you’re stretching through the shoulder girdle instead of laterally flexing (side bending) through your spine to accomplish the binding of your hands. Next, try to roll your left (bottom) shoulder back while gently guiding your shoulder blades toward each other. This will deepen the stretch in your left anterior deltoid (the front of your left shoulder), a place that is notoriously tight for most of us who live in this technological world. You may have to bring your hands farther apart to achieve this, but doing so will be more beneficial in the long run. Hold this posture for five to seven steady breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Bound Angle (Baddha Konasana)
Many cyclists get tight inner thigh muscles (adductors) that can lead to an imbalance in the knee joint, which could in turn cause knee pain or discomfort. This tightness can also cause the outer gluteal muscles (the opposing muscle group) to not engage correctly when they’re needed. Balance in these muscle groups is important in order to keep your hips stable in the saddle.
To practice bound angle, start seated on your mat. Bring the soles of your feet together and bring your heels as close to your pelvis as you comfortably can. Sit up tall. If you’re having a hard time lengthening your spine, try sitting on a folded blanket or a block to elevate your hips. Relax your knees down toward the floor, but don’t force them down. Grasp the feet with the thumbs on the soles of your feet and fingers around the tops of your feet (if this grip isn’t available to you, grasp the ankles or shins). Open the soles of your feet up toward the ceiling like you’re opening a book. Keep the pinky-toe sides of the feet together and draw your knees farther down toward the floor. At the same time, lengthen up through the crown of your head to make your spine as long as possible.
If you need more stretch, inhale as you lengthen up, and then as you exhale, fold forward. Try to keep your spine as long as possible. If you have the leverage, you can use your elbows to gently guide your knees closer to the floor. Hold for five to seven steady breaths, or longer if desired.
Many cyclists become quad/hip flexor-dominant cyclists, meaning they underutilize their glutes and hamstrings and overuse their quads and hip flexors. This bridge variation will strengthen your glutes and hamstrings so they can help the quads and hip flexors (glutes will help quads, and hamstrings will help hip flexors). Once you’ve opened up your hips with the previous poses, you can strengthen the glute muscles and hamstrings, which will make your pedaling more powerful. In this bridge variation, the focus will be on glute activation and strengthening instead of on backbending.
To practice this variation of bridge pose, lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat, and heels close to your seat. With your arms down by your sides and your palms face down, press down into your feet and arms to lift your hips. Unlike in the traditional bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana), we do not want to backbend for this exercise. Instead, use your glute muscles to lift your hips into a position that puts your knees, hips, and shoulders in a straight diagonal line. Work your glutes even more by lifting your toes and pressing down into your heels. If this is too easy, try lifting one leg, but make sure the hips stay level. Hold for five to seven breaths, or do ten to twenty repetitions of lifting and lowering your hips.
You can turn this into a gentle restorative pose to finish your practice by placing the block under your sacrum and securing a strap around your thighs to make sure your knees don’t fall open wider than your hips. Relax here and breathe.
As much as you love cycling, the aches and pains associated with cycling’s posture and repetitive motions are just begging to be eased. These poses will help any cyclist bring more balance to their body and improve performance both on and off the bike. Perform these five poses to complement your cycling and to help your body find a more healthy resting posture.