May
5

How to fix the real cause of Low Back Pain from mountain biking.

Over the last decade or so of working with mountain bikers at every level, I have heard one question more than any other one – how do I get rid of my low back pain from riding? Low back pain is at an epidemic level on the trails and it is robbing a lot of riders of time and fun on their bikes.

As I started to look at things more closely I realized that it was actually seated pedaling that was harder on the lower back and at the root of my low back problems.

Unfortunately most mountain bikers are going to have to deal with Low Back Pain at some point. I know this both because I’ve personally worked with hundreds of riders who have had it and, being a rider myself, I’ve dealt with it too.

In fact, it was my own journey into dealing with low back pain that led me to being able to help so many riders with their own low back pain.

Like most riders I was in the habit of sitting down to pedal as much as possible and only standing up when I needed to. Because of this I relied a lot on my “granny gear” and spent most climbs hunched over the bike spinning my feet as fast as possible. I was told this was the best way to climb and I followed this advice for years.

But one year I was forced to ride my 36 pound Freeride bike around as my trail bike and I was forced to stand up a lot more. Along with discovering that standing up wasn’t nearly as bad as I was told, I also found something very strange…

My low back was actually feeling much better.

At first this made no sense – obviously standing up is harder on your low back, right?

But as I started to look at things more closely, I realized that it was actually seated pedaling that was harder on the lower back and at the root of my low back problems.

You see, the human body isn’t made to sit down and flail its legs. We are bipedal creatures who are made to stand up and move, so when we sit down all sorts of things go wrong.

First, your core works differently when you sit down… and not in a good way. The same muscles that are designed to protect your lower back don’t function properly when you are sitting down and letting the seat support your weight.

Second, you are bent over in the Adult Fetal Position. While you have to sit down while riding your bike – no one can stand up forever – there is no getting around that being bent over like that is bad position for your body. And no, a bike fit doesn’t fix this issue. It may help you polish that turd up but seated pedaling is still a turd from a functional movement point of view.

When you stand up your core engages properly and you can get a tall, straight spine. This puts the low back in a better position and makes it easier for the core muscles to protect it better than the most expensive bike fit on earth.

I also realized that even when you are sitting down, if you have good hip mobility and core strength you can still take a lot of stress off the lower back by leaning over at the hips and not the lower back. This means that you need to be able to lean forward from the hips and not the low back to take as much stress off the low back as possible when you do sit down.

So, working backwards I realized that the key to getting rid of low back pain from mountain biking was to improve my hip mobility and core strength and then apply that to the bike by standing up more to pedal and using better posture when I was seated.

Taken together I devised my 3 Step Solution….

1 – Improve your hip mobility. If your hips are tight then your body will be forced to bend from the lower back no matter how strong your core is. Besides general hip mobility you also want to work on the specific hip mobility you need to lean over properly when seated and the shoulder mobility you need to get a tall spine when standing up.

2 – Improve core strength specific to the movement patterns you use on the bike. Once you have improved you hip mobility you need to teach the body how to use it to create more efficient movement. On the bike you need the Squat pattern for standing pedaling and the Hip Hinge pattern for seated pedaling and standing up for descents. If you don’t own both of these movement patterns then you will struggle to use both the seated and standing position effectively on the bike.

3 – Learn how to stand up to pedal more. Instead of leaning on your seat post like a crutch use it to rest for your next standing effort. Standing up as much as you can for you hard efforts on the trail may take some getting used to but once you train yourself on the basic postures and strategies for standing pedaling you’ll never go back to sitting down all the time again. You’ll find that you will not only have less low back pain but you’ll also be faster on the trail.

Check out this video I shot explaining more about addressing the things that can improve the real cause of low back pain on your mountain bike.

Once you combine these three elements together – Mobility, Movement and Skill – you’ll change how you move and ride, getting rid of the underlying issues causing your low back pain once and for all. With this approach you’ll…

Experience less low back pain both on and off the trail. You’ll finally be able to enjoy your rides from start to finish and not have to worry about how sore your low back is going to be the next day.

Move with more efficiency on the bike. The same movement that causes low back pain also wastes a lot of energy as well. When you move more efficiently you place less wear and tear on the low back and improve your endurance since you use less energy to create the same amount of power.

Improve your pedaling power. Along with wasting energy the faulty movement patterns behind your low back pain are also robbing you of pedaling power. When you are able to keep your core engaged and use your hips more efficiently you will be able to create more power when you pedal.

While I’ve got a lot of great free resources on this site to help you do this I have also put together a 30 day program designed to take the guesswork out of it for you. This new MTB 30 Day Low Back Pain Program is only $29 and shows you exactly how to put this 3 step plan into action.

If you have low back pain caused by too much time spent bet over while mountain biking then click on the link below to learn more about this new program and how it can help you decrease your pain while increasing your speed, endurance and fun on the trail.

Click here to learn more about the MTB 30 Day Low Back Pain Program and get your copy for only $19.

That’s it for now, if you have any questions about this post or video please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And if you liked this blog post please click one of the Like or Share buttons below to help spread the word to fellow riders who could benefit from the info.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

30 Day Low Back Pain Program

30 Day Low Back Pain ProgramDiscover the simple 3 Step Formula that will reduce low back pain both on and off the bike so that you can ride as long and fast as you want while doing it all pain free. Instantly improve your hip mobility and core strength with the only program designed to target the real causes of low back pain on the trail…too much seated pedaling! In only 30 days you’ll completely change your hip mobility, trail specific core strength and ability to stand up more, letting you ride with less pain and have more fun on the trail.
Learn More

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  1. travellinhippie says:

    When transitioning from a more seated riding to standing, are there bike fit adjustments that need to be made such as raising the bars or moving the saddle position?

    Reply • May 5 at 5:43 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Make sure you have a stem that is no longer than 60 mm, preferably 50 mm long. Long stems make it harder to stay balanced and wedge yourself into the pedals when standing up. Saddle position shouldn’t matter since you butt isn’t on the seat. Beyond that you may want to run your suspension a little stiffer but over all most of it is just spending time getting used to it.

      Reply • May 5 at 11:15 am
  2. Wacek says:

    Stopped having any issues with lower back after training according to UMTBW, sure I feel fatigue but nothing compared to what I used to feel “back in the days”. NOW… I’d kill for any solution for chronicaly sore quads. At this moment nothing stops me more, when I pedal for life – heart and lungs are still ok, back is realtively fine and acid hits the quads and I loose all the power. Then when I massage them after ride they are tense as hell.

    Reply • May 5 at 6:34 am
  3. james says:

    are you recommending that on a long steep technical accent were I would normally up my cadence, plan my bum on the saddle and grin slowly up the hill, that I get off the saddle? I’m having a hard time see how I would do that.

    Reply • May 5 at 12:39 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yes, that is what I am saying. I know it is hard to imagine if you’ve never done it but trust me, it can be done. I rarely sit down on climbs and usually only sit on flats or easy climbs to recover. Once you learn how to lean your weight forward and support your weight more on your arms and get your whole body into the pedal stroke it is actually much easier than sitting down in the Adult Fetal Position spinning your legs.

      Something else to consider – people run up those same climbs and they aren’t sitting down. They somehow manage to stand up the entire time and so can mountain bikers.

      Reply • May 6 at 10:53 am
      • Mensur says:

        I just don’t see how you can maintain traction standing up on most looser surface steep climbs.

        Reply • May 20 at 7:53 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Your movement quality drives your perception – you don’t have the requisite strength, movement and skill yet so it seems impossible. However, once you fix those things how you perceive standing pedaling will change. But until you do it will always feel hard.

          Reply • May 20 at 9:55 am
  4. Ken says:

    As a general low back sufferer for many years I was taught to sit properly so that when moving on a normal chair I would pivot at the hips and not by arching the lower back. Similarly I have applied that to my bike’s seat position. Most people ride either dead level seats, to tilted back for DH/FR. The more tilted backwards the more the lower back is unsupported and results in arching. I ride with a forward tilt, which was weird at first but rode a session like this just out of desperation …. hit the sweet spot and was able to ride with no pain. Small degrees of angle change make a big difference, but that little bit of forward tilt promotes a straighter lower back … particularly when your pack is loaded for an all day biggie! Give it a go, start small and ride it for a full session.

    Reply • May 5 at 1:35 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      While I appreciate the tip, I’d also encourage you to seek out the real cause of the pain which is the poor hip mobility (if you had good hip mobility you can have a level seat and still lean forward from the hips and now the low back) and too much reliance on seated pedaling in the first place. Tilting the seat forward just lessens the amount of forward lean you need in general, which can mean that you lean less from the lower back but not that you actually “fixed” the problem.

      Reply • May 6 at 10:57 am
  5. Walt says:

    I don’t get low back pain since I changed from clip less to flats 5 years ago. I try to stand as much as I can, but you have to really be in elite fitness lever to do that for a steep 2000′ climb at elevation. I have to sit some, but that doesn’t cause me back pain. What I get is neck pain. What to I do about that?

    Reply • May 6 at 9:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Neck pain is usually associated with a lack of t-spine mobility, which forces more extension from the neck. Shoulder mobility and stability also plays a role. Check out this video I did on shoulder position on the bike, it should give you some ideas on things to work on to help alleviate the neck pain.

      Reply • May 9 at 9:29 am
  6. Doug says:

    I am finishing up your intro 30 day training program. I’ve been riding my whole life. Traded the pavement for dirt in ’92. Never got any pointers so discovering you is great. You’ve got a fan for life now. I am going to Bend in 6 weeks. Didn’t ride and trained little over the winter but I’m in relatively good shape. Working on getting in riding condition. I do suffer from lower back pain. Which of your programs do you recommend I move onto next to be as ready as I can be for Bend – the back pain one or another. I probably have 5 days per week to train or ride. Thanks James.

    Reply • May 7 at 5:32 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Glad the 30 day program worked so well for you. I always recommend that riders get the Ultimate MTB Workout Program, it is the best program I have and addresses a lot of the lower back issues I talked about in this post. The MTB 30 Day Low Back Pain Program is more for those riders that can’t afford it or aren’t ready to commit to the full blown program.

      Hope this helps, let me know if you have any more questions and I’m glad I’ve been able to help you so far.

      Reply • May 9 at 9:28 am
      • Doug says:

        Thanks for the reply. I’ll get it in the next couple of days.

        Reply • May 12 at 5:39 am
  7. Doug Zacker says:

    Went for a ride yesterday that I’ve done many times before. Rode the uphill portions with a goal of standing as much as I could. Stood on all difficult portions and got to the top quicker than I have when I was in better shape and today I feel great.

    Reply • May 8 at 10:41 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Awesome story, thanks for sharing. Keep it up and keep me posted on your progress.

      Reply • May 9 at 9:25 am
  8. Dave says:

    Found your site some time ago and now stand a lot and only ever use flats. Found some great and useful info, so thanks for all the time you spend on the site, it is much appreciated.
    It seems strange at first to stand a lot but it does not take long to get used to it. At the start i found it useful to drop my seat and leave it there so had no choose, started with 20 minuet rides and built up, most i have done was 2 1/2 hours. Not saying you need to stand for that long but could not be bothered to keep changing seat height and it is so much more fun with seat down. Of course have dropper now so not an issue!
    Again, thankless for the site
    Dave

    Reply • May 11 at 2:47 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, standing up isn’t that bad once you just do it. Glad you like the site and the info, keep me posted on how things go.

      Reply • May 13 at 8:57 am
  9. Aschwin says:

    Hi ,
    I like your video especially since I am suffering from lower back pain now and then. Shortly I bought a 29er single speed on which I have to stand a lot during climbs. The fixed gear an the riggidness of the frame force me alsmost.
    I also own a all-mountain Turner 5Spot. Standing on a fully in heavy climb, it always feels asif all the leg power dissapears into the suspension. For that reason I hardly ever stand on the all-mountain fully during long climbs. However on bike trips in the Alps I always use the fully (of course). Alps==long Climbs== lower back pain. unfortunately I cannot lock my rear suspension. Which would encourage me more to stand up during climbs
    What say you on this issue?

    Reply • May 30 at 4:05 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I wouldn’t worry about locking out the rear end. I think that it gets overblown a bit. You are so much stronger when you stand that the small decrease in efficiency you are seeing in the pedal bob is more than made up for in increased power and efficiency in your pedal stroke. I don’t lock out my suspension and never have worried about it so it doesn’t effect me. Plus you’ll learn how to use your upper body to compensate more and you won’t have to mash as hard into the pedals, which will reduce pedal bob. It is just one of the standing pedaling skills you have to learn.

      Reply • June 2 at 10:48 am
  10. back pain says:

    This is very informative. I stated going to the gym recently in my attempt to lose weight and be fit, I want to spend more time on the gym bike but I can’t last for more than 10 minutes without having a staggering pain in my lower back. I thought that it’s probably because I’ve never learned how to ride an actual bike which is why my body is not use to it. Thanks for the tips I’ll definitely follow them and who knows I might be able to ride an actual bike someday.

    Regards,
    Toni Simpson

    Reply • June 9 at 3:12 pm
  11. Simon says:

    I started mountain biking in 1984 in the UK. I am pretty sure I rode on some trails (paths) that had never been ridden before by a mountain biker in the Lake District(UK).

    I the first decade that I rode, all mountain bikes were fully rigid. No front or rear suspension. Your shocks were your arms and legs. Much of the time I rode standing or crouching. The saddle was for stability on down hills – gripped between the thighs or if really steep – chest on saddle – ass over the back tire! The saddle was for resting while peddling on the flat sections.

    I was a hard core rigid bike rider eschewing both front and rear suspension … I was as ridged as the bike I rode… until in 2003 I tried a Cannondale full suspension bike at a demo day and was amazed at how it just effortlessly flowed over everything.

    So I put my 12 year old Cinder Cone in the garage and bought a FS bike. My riding style changed very quickly. FS allows you to remain sitting while pedaling which does conserve energy. The suspension does the work that my arms and legs used to do. On an XC bike with a high saddle/long seatpost (my saddle is slightly higher than my bars). I think I have an efficient almost roadie pedal stroke. On a hill you have to bend forward to keep weight on both the front and rear tires (to maintain traction). The steeper the hill the more you must bend forward. Everything I read – up until now – said stay in the saddle peddle in a granny gear like crazy and you will get to the top of your climb in better shape (less exhausted) than if you stand up. But I still often stand to climb. I assumed this was just my bad habit from riding a ridged bike for so many years (almost two decades…). Now I see your point and I will no longer feel so guilty about standing when I climb.

    BTW my stem is 105mm! – I guess I my mountain biking is just evolving at a slower rate than the rest of the world…

    Simon.

    Reply • June 26 at 9:19 pm
  12. Toby says:

    Great advice. I used to be a roadie years ago, and its true to say sitting down is best, and since taking up MTB in the last couple years I suffer with lower backpain. It does make complete sense with James advice, so I’ll be standing alot more for hill climbs from now on.

    Reply • July 17 at 8:51 am
  13. Jake says:

    hi, I have been suffering from chronic lower back pain in my s1 vertebrate area.. it is like a pulling sensation and gets to the point where it is unbearable and i have to get off of the bike and lay down just to relieve the pain. I am curious if you have any Idea what it may be. thanks!

    Reply • August 16 at 10:41 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      There could be a lot of things going on, I’d recommend having it checked out to make sure there isn’t something major going on. If not then you should start doing some hip mobility work and get stronger as well. This post I did on a Low Back Pain Solution might help.

      Reply • August 19 at 1:14 pm
  14. Anne says:

    Not sure if you touched on this or not, but most of the times when my low back is bothering me is because of tight hamstrings. Stretching them out helps my low back immensely.

    Also, you’re right about the standing, but you have to build slowly. It can be hard to figure out which gear is right.

    Reply • April 2 at 10:39 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Hamstrings can certainly play a role. Really, any stretching for the hips will help if you are tight. The main point, though, is to try and avoid putting a lot of tension on the system when you are sitting down because that just makes them shorten up even faster.

      Reply • April 7 at 8:15 am
  15. Lance says:

    James – I noticed that my back pain increased when going to a 1×11.

    Long story – I put together a new bike, and went 1×11, and despite my better judgment went with a (34t) after talking with a few people who are on the same bike. Rode the bike like this for about 180 miles on my local trails…The bike I came off of I was running a 2×10, but I’ve also ridden a 1×9 and S.S. on the exact same trails over the years…but for some reason the 1×11 w/34t was kicking my ass: not as easy to climb on the same trails, having to stand up and pedal more often like on a S.S., and the need to “get stronger”…or get used to pushing the harder gear setup.

    Well soon enough my lower back started hurting. Very first thing I think of is “bike fit.” Either my bike is too small, or I need a longer stem, or I need to push the seat back, or make some other “bike fit” adjustment. Talking with a few people with the same bike again, they were saying go with a longer stem…60mm vs the 50mm I currently have…So when I go to a shop to see if they have a cheep 60mm I could try out, and explain the problem, the LBS guy starts going over typical bike fit stuff and says everything is pretty much spot on for the type of bike I’m on and my intended use (all-mountian/trail). Then he check my gearing and noticed I was using the 34t. Starts asking about previous setup, and suggest a 30t or 32t max…and explains a bunch of stuff about body mechanics, etc.

    Anyway I went with the 30t and my lower back was significantly less. I would say I like the 34t better for the DH/flat sections, but my times on the same trails didn’t suffer as much as I thought, or at all for that matter. My overall times were actually better because I was actually climbing faster with the 30t than grinding it out more on the 34t.

    I would say I could most def. get stronger in the gym or at home to help push the 34t but I totally don’t think its necessary…now if I was racing some “enduro” series I think the 34t could come in handy, but the climbing would still be grind between stages…and I, historically, and not a “strong” climber…in my group I’m the slowest 90% of the time.

    So what does all this mean James???

    Reply • April 5 at 11:55 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You probably just jumped up to a gear that was bigger than you could handle and you started to compensate for it with your low back. Just like using too much weight in the gym, pushing too far past what tension levels your body can easily handle will start to call in other muscles but that just means you need to back off and build up.

      BTW, I wasn’t saying that a 34 tooth was the best gear, I was just pointing out that it was what I had to use and that it made me stand up. For someone else that may be a 30 or 32 tooth but what you don’t want is to go too far the other way and lose that level of tension that forces you to stand up more. While you don’t need a 34 tooth, as you get stronger you should look to move up to a 32 eventually, I think that is a good trade off for most riders.

      Reply • April 7 at 8:13 am
  16. Debra van der Merwe says:

    I am in SA and would like to buy the hard copies of your books. Any shop stocking it in South Africa.

    Reply • May 17 at 3:03 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The program is in digital format since I have so many videos demos that go along with it. This also saves shipping costs and you can access it right away.

      Reply • May 19 at 10:23 am
  17. pauline says:

    hi BikeJames. Thanks for your website!
    i love to mtb ride. i took several mtb courses specifically designed for women,… some 15+ years ago. riding is such a joy, however, i have a number of issues now that i am dealing with and wonder what you suggest when taking ALL of these issues into consideration. Firstly – both knees have been injured, one,… a mtbing crash. the other was a torn meniscus and surgery alleviated that last year after 5 yrs of pain, however it still hurts a bit when i walk & hike but doesn’t bother me when i ride,… unless I stand up. both knees have wear & tear/arthritis & a bit of pain. Second, I have neuropathy between my knees and my ankles – both legs. This only negatively affects me when I am on the trails and adrenaline starts to pump in exciting or nerve wracking situations, so knowing what i am doing and feeling confident is key as those physical issues (legs shaking) flare up when the nerves are stimulated. Thirdly, I currently have tennis elbow in my left arm and am doing physio to help, however, my arm position & strain is key to not irritating that and again, riding smoothly with no sudden movements is important. Fourthly – lower back pain. This (i believe) stems from an injury I sustained many years ago training for a 2 day adventure race. A click in the hip stretching after a run and now my back is a mess if i lean forward. I am doing core exercises and work with a back specialist,… receiving injections to stabilize my core – make it less flexible. there are a number of tips that i have read on this website – like tipping the seat forward – which i will try as well, but i wonder – as a woman – how that will affect “the privates”! That’s another issue while trying to alleviate back pain while tilting the pelvis this way or that. I’ve made bike adjustments such as fitting my dual suspension with an adjustable stem to help lift my upper body out of that “fetal position”, as well as shut the suspension off when i am climbing to stabilize my hips. i believe that every human body is unique and different and that one solution couldn’t possibly be the silver bullet for all, however I am open and interested in hearing your suggestions given all the issues that I currently manage. Many thanks for your time.

    Reply • July 6 at 5:37 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      A lot of what you can do depends on what you are currently doing and what gaps exist. For example, you should be doing some basic strength training and mobility training in addition to riding your bike. If not then there is a big gap that you can easily fill. Getting stronger tends to alleviate a lot of problems and helps keep you injury resistant in the process, especially when following a holistic program that trains your whole body like a unit and emphasizes the primal human movement patterns – push, pull, squat, hinge, loaded carries and some ground work.

      I’m also not sure that I have put the “tip your seat forward” tip on this site, it isn’t something that I necessarily agree with and I think that you just need a neutral position that feels comfortable.

      As far as the tips in this article, I think they wold help you a lot because at the heart of it is standing up more and relying less on seated pedaling. This takes stress off the low back and the knees, which are two areas you have problems with. You don’t want to use a higher stem to raise your upper body when seated because that makes it harder to stand up and pedal and it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is poor mobility and strength in one or more areas.

      Oh, and make sure you are riding on flats and not clipless pedals. Flats are more natural for your feet and that will allow the rest of your body to move more naturally.

      While each body is unique, there are general movement principles that they all follow and once you figure out which movement principle you are breaking – like staying seated too much when pedaling – you can usually find a fix to your problems. Hope this helps…

      Reply • July 7 at 8:45 am
  18. JackMarker says:

    Long story – I put together a new bike, and went 1×11, and despite my better judgment went with a (34t) after talking with a few people who are on the same bike. Rode the bike like this for about 180 miles on my local trails…The bike I came off of I was running a 2×10, but I’ve also ridden a 1×9 and S.S. on the exact same trails over the years…but for some reason the 1×11 w/34t was kicking my ass: not as easy to climb on the same trails, having to stand up and pedal more often like on a S.S., and the need to “get stronger”…or get used to pushing the harder gear setup.

    Reply • August 6 at 4:30 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It is harder but it turns standing pedaling into your limiting factor, which is what you want. When you can downshift and just stay seated for longer you turn seated pedaling into the weak link and that is the position that puts the most stress on the low back. By letting your body’s natural weak links dictate how long you can ride you make sure you aren’t placing excessive wear and tear on sensitive joints like the low back. You’ll get much stronger and better with standing pedaling simply by not having any option – your body has no choice. But in the long run your back will thank you for it.

      Reply • August 10 at 1:44 pm
  19. Trojan says:

    This is excellent advice,and very much overlooked in today’s MTB community,perhaps full suss technology and modern components,are the driving force that over shadow basic rider fitness and flexibility,plus understanding your position regardless,trust me I have suffered with two herniated discs and several worn facet joints,all from bad posture,plus 20 yrs later to top it off I have damaged the nerves in my groin,by bad posture,and ridiculess race saddles that to be frank wasn’t necessary,curving the spine rotates the hips to sit and put more weight on your delicate area,a nice long flat back position,bending from the hips is the way,Bizarre though it might sound but I now ride a fully rigid hardtail,with a long cockpit,with a good comfortable saddle,set correctly this has me up and down and even bracing the core and lifting and shifting weight both at the front and back,oh and it’s great fun blasting people on the ups as my bike weighs next to nothing fully rigid.A good way to prime yourself is to try a CX bike,and stand and peddle,and sit on the hoods,and sit on the drops,and keep changing your position,until you have built that strength and flexibility there’s 3 angle changes to play with.

    Reply • July 11 at 3:56 am

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