How to deal with low back pain on the trail

Low back pain while riding is one of the most common complaints I hear from riders. If you are doing your mountain bike mobility and strength training exercises on a regular basis you shouldn’t suffer from it often but sometimes even the strongest rider will start to feel it tighten up. While instinct may tell you that stretching the low back through some toe touches is the way to go the truth is that you need a different strategy to effectively deal with low back pain on the trail.

Here is a video I shot going over my advice for what to do when your low back starts to talk to you on the trail…

-James Wilson-

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  1. Joe says:

    Thx for posting. I find that sometimes passive stretching can make be tighter. Would Bridges also be an effective way to stretch that area as well, especially under tension ?

    Reply • June 27 at 11:53 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Bridges are an essential exercise to help prevent low back pain in the first place but not one I’d recommend trying to do on the trail.

      Reply • June 27 at 1:18 pm
  2. neil says:

    Hi James,
    another gem, I’ve ben suffering from lower back pain on and off, you’re right the better the core stability and strength the less it happens. But when it does, then it always seemed like a back bend would help me rather than a touch-toes. I am definitely going to introduce those stretches, especially the “lunge stretch”.
    Saw Cedric Gracia doing that one in a video with Fabien Barel “Fabien Barel Presents”, so not only is it recommended, it must also be cool. Cedric is very cool. Wishing him well from his injuries too.

    Reply • June 27 at 12:32 pm
  3. Mark says:

    Thanks James. Great advice. Do you have any similar tips for the upper back and shoulders? I’m working on strength in that area, applying your mobility drills, focussing on good posture when on the trail. Things are improving a lot, but there are times …

    Reply • June 29 at 8:50 am
  4. mike says:

    These worked well for me yesterday – thanks James.

    Reply • July 8 at 3:24 pm
  5. Malte says:

    For me it helps to sit 1-2 min. in the asian squat position (butt to the ground, heels on the floor). For more stretch you can bend the upperbody more forward between your knees (if necessary press with your elbows against your shins).

    Reply • March 28 at 10:02 am
  6. Noah says:

    I have a bad lower back and so have done a lot of research on this and have a lot of experience on the receiving end of back pain.

    Your advice is good, but for people that may have actual problems it may be incomplete. I wouldn’t rule out the ham for example. I’m one of those people for whom that could be the source of the problem. Back extension or flexion (what you show in the video as the not helpful, for your readers), depending on the problem, can actually help alleviate acute pain and stiffness but can also compound the problem if you go the wrong way.

    I don’t believe anyone will injure themselves worse by doing that stretch, so long as they follow your advice of keeping the hip forward and keep the core engaged while doing it. People should listen to their bodies though so if it makes it worse, stop. For a long time my problem was misdiagnosed and I was given the wrong exercise by my PT, who apparently was terrible but that’s a different issue. For months I was diligently doing the prescribed exercises and just getting worse and worse. For most people it was the right thing, but I like always had to be special.

    Pain and stiffness in the back should probably be considered a symptom of a possibly life altering issue developing. Your back is stiff because it’s guarding and/or isn’t up to the task before it. In addition to doing the stretch you recommend (and maybe others if the person realizes they help) I would recommend NOT pushing through the pain. Get down the mountain gently and get home. Rest, work the core (gently), etc…if it keeps happening see a doctor about it. Probably more than one because apparently even the doctors don’t guess right when it comes to lower back issues.

    Reply • March 28 at 10:46 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      All things I agree with, which is why I talk a lot about hip mobility and the need to maintain your movement quality, especially the hip hinge. I was referring more to the uncomfortable stiffness that people are referring to when they use term “low back pain” and not to an actual episode of joint or nerve pain, in which case you should be careful about getting home and seeing a doctor.

      I think we are just talking about a different part of the low back pain spectrum. If it is actual “pain” then it needs to be treated by a doctor, if it is just the stiffness that a lot of people call “pain” then some good mobility drills can help it feel better.

      Thanks again for the input, sorry to hear about your experience.

      Reply • March 31 at 9:55 am
  7. Adrian says:

    I don’t get pain but my lower back gets completely exhausted. It’s my main weak link on longer rides, and I have to stop after 30 minutes or so to get vertical and rest my lower back.
    Any advice? Thanks

    Reply • July 30 at 5:16 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It is the same problem – you are overusing the lower back or it is in a bad position on the bike. It might now be pain now but most low back pain starts out as something like weakness or fatigue and progresses to pain. I’d advise following the same approach to training and riding and I describe in this post.

      Reply • July 31 at 1:24 pm

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