Take it from this cycling PT that had to learn the hard way. If you don't take care of your back, it won't care for you.
Stop! This article is not for you if you are one of the more than 500,000 Americans alone who undergo back surgery each year or suffer other severe spinal issues. Globally, low back pain is the leading cause of years lived with disability, and 8 out of every ten people will complain of low back pain during their lives.
A recent study of professional cyclists shows that low back pain is one of the most prevalent overuse injuries and causes the highest rates of functional impairment and medical attention. For those cyclists who experience more significant spinal pain and debility, nothing replaces the individual advice of a medical and fitness professional.
8 Out of Every Ten People Will Have Low Back Pain
If you are like me, the twinges in your back come and go, never more than a nuisance aside from the occasional flare-up. Pain and stiffness in the lower back are among the most common sources of discomfort for recreational cyclists, as described in this article previously posted to The ZOM.
Over the years, I’ve used my training as a Physical Therapist and competitive cycling trial and error experience as a guide. I have tried many approaches to address the nagging discomfort in my back. I always seem to fall back on, have refined, and now include Muscle Activation in my daily pre-ride routine.
Muscle Activation Strengthens Our Brain-Body Connection
Muscle activation, also known as pre-activation or corrective warm-up, is when an athlete isolates a target muscle group before the main activity through active exercise. In theory, muscle activation trains our brains by strengthening the brain-muscle connection to optimize the brain-body relationship.
Focusing on a muscle and visualizing it to engage improves contraction strength through enhanced fiber recruitment. You maximize activation by performing slow, controlled movements, really thinking about the critical muscles as you exercise, and focusing your mind on the ones you’re using.
Muscle Activation is Essential to Cyclists
Our predominantly seated lifestyle and forward posture on the bike make muscle activation essential and why I do it before every ride. Our hip flexors and quads become overworked and excessively tight. The overactivity of the muscles on the front of the thigh causes a neuromuscular issue called Reciprocal Inhibition.
In the case of cyclists like us, excessive activation of our flexors inhibits our glutes and the deep core muscles surrounding our spine, and they shut down. A muscle activation routine provides the little bit of stimulus we need to jump-start our glutes before getting on the bike to warm up for real.
Follow These Muscle Activation Tips
Activation exercises are simple motions to isolate and activate a specific muscle group. My pre-ride routine targets the glutes and spinal muscles to help me feel them contract and know they’re engaged and ready. Here are a few tips I learned along the way.
My Daily Pre-Ride Muscle Activation Routine
I start with the Pelvic Tilt. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Next, arch your low back and then flatten it repeatedly. Your pelvis should tilt forward and back during the movement. By moving through a comfortable range of motion, I begin to engage my core muscles and decrease the stiffness of my lower back.
I then move on to the Bridge. While lying on your back with knees bent, tighten your lower abdominal muscles, squeeze your buttocks and then raise your buttocks off the floor, creating a “Bridge” with your body. Hold and then lower yourself and repeat. I’m sure to get in the proper position by maintaining the neutral pelvic tilt I achieved in the previous exercise and holding it throughout the movement.
The Single-Leg Bridge is next. Raise yourself off the floor and create the bridge. Try and maintain your pelvis level and extend one leg at a time. The single-leg bridge takes activation of the hip rotators and spinal muscles to the next level, ensuring they are isolated, engaged, and ready to go.
I then change positions and perform the Pelvic Tilt on my hands and knees (quadruped). Start in a crawl position with your shoulders over your hands and your hips over your knees. Next, arch your low back and flatten it slowly, comfortably, and repeatedly.
Your pelvis should tilt forward and back during the movement as you find the neutral spinal position I mentioned before. You will be trying to maintain that position for the rest of the activation exercises.
I move on to the Fire Hydrant. Start in a crawl (quadruped) position and raise your leg out to the side with your knee bent. Maintain a neutral spine and focus on the muscles of your glutes and hip rotators. All motion for this exercise should come from the hip as you try to raise your knee out and up.
The next movement is Hip Extension with a Bent Knee. Start in a crawl position, then extend your leg upwards at your hip. Keep your knee bent at 90 degrees and your spine neutral the entire time. Focus on your glute muscles as you try to raise the bottom of your foot to the ceiling. Bending the knee allows us to isolate different muscles in the glute family.
I then focus further by adding Hip Extension with a Straight Leg. While in a crawl position, slowly raise your leg back behind you while keeping your knee straight and your spine neutral.
The final exercise of my routine combines all of the muscle groups in a dynamic movement called Bird Dog Elbow Touches. While in a crawl position, slowly lift your leg and opposite arm upwards. When returning your arm and leg down, do not touch the floor. Touch your elbow to your opposite knee and lift and straighten them again. Then set them down on the floor and repeat on the other side.
It only takes a few minutes, but the muscle activation routine I do before every ride makes the difference for me. Since I made it a regular part of my pre-ride ritual, low back stiffness and occasional twinges of sharp pain have diminished. Not to mention the feeling I get when I clip in and know that my glutes are ready to go. It’s hard to explain, but it makes a difference.
Add The ZOM Pre-Ride Muscle Activation Program to your pre-ride routine. And don’t forget to get in a solid active warm-up and some stretching when you’re through. I do!
Is muscle activation an essential part of your pre-ride routine? Comment on your experience below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site. In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, http://www.TheDIRTDadFund.com. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.