Follow this cycling physical therapist's approach to maximize performance and prevent injury by working neglected muscles—the Thoracic Spine.
When talk of back pain comes up during the local group ride cafe stop or at the water cooler at work, we assume that low back pain is the culprit, and for a good reason. On average, nearly 30 percent of the US population over 18 reports experiencing low back pain yearly. Cyclists are not immune.
An October 2022 study published in The Physician and Sports Medicine asked almost 63,000 recreational riders about their cycling-related pain history over five years. The researchers found low back pain was the fourth most common recreational cycling injury.
However, a cyclist’s mid-back, or thoracic spine, is subjected to significant repetitive strain while cycling. In addition, extended seated and sedentary positioning while at work or home contribute to the problem.
Why are the mid-back muscles significant to cyclists?
A traditional cycling pose puts the mid-back in a precarious position. As a rider slumps forward on the saddle and reaches for the handlebars, the shoulders become rounded, and an arch forms in the middle of the back.
The cyclist’s shoulder blades move away from the spine, causing the mid-back muscles to become overstretched and weakened. The chest (pectoral) and other muscles in the front of the cyclist’s body lose flexibility and shorten. The situation worsens, and a seated lifestyle hastens the postural deterioration.
What is the function of the mid-back muscles when cycling?
The mid-back, or thoracic spine, comprises twelve vertebrae (spinal column bones). The thoracic vertebrae run from the base of the neck down to about the waistline. A cyclist’s shoulder blades, rib cage, and upper body connect to the thoracic spine, making it a base of support for the core.
Long rides with rounded shoulders and an arched spine challenge the mid-back muscles. The muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade (scapula), like the rhomboids and middle trapezius, lose effectiveness and weaken as they become overstretched. A similar situation occurs in the muscles surrounding the thoracic spine, called the paraspinal muscles.
Improper positioning and prolonged saddle time tire our spinal muscles, and they can’t support our trunk. When our legs get tired, our posture deteriorates. A cyclist’s poor posture will progress, causing gradual onset injury of the low back, arms, and up and down the line.
Proper Postural Position and Mid-Back Muscle Bike Fit Tips
Correct Mid-Back Muscle Cycling Position
Proper postural position while riding is essential, and here are a few tips to follow.
- Relax your neck by ensuring you aren’t looking too far up or down.
- Relax your shoulders by bringing them down and away from your ears.
- Bend your elbows and keep them tucked to your sides to reduce strain on your shoulders and produce less pressure on your hands.
- Avoid bending your wrist by maintaining a straight line from your elbow through your fingers.
- Maintain a neutral spine by relaxing your lower back and aligning your shoulders and hips.
- Keep your knee over the ball of your foot while pedaling.
Mid-Back Muscle Bike Fit
Check your bike fit and decrease the strain upon your back by ensuring you are not too stretched out. Adjust your stem height and length, move your saddle forward, and raise your handlebars to maintain a relaxed and flattened lower spine.
Conscious awareness of on-bike positioning and a bike fit by a certified professional is always a good idea. You can take matters into your own hands and be proactive by adding mid-back muscle exercises to your routine.
Here are the five best mid-back cycling stretching and strengthening exercises.
The 5 Best Cycling Mid-Back Muscle Exercises—Stretching
Foam Roll the Thoracic Spine
Begin by lying on your back with a foam roll positioned at shoulder level. Place your hands on your waist and slowly roll forward and back across your spine using your legs for support.
Relax the scapular stabilizer and spinal muscles with a foam roller to optimize flexibility and stretching exercise.
90/90 Foam Roll Chest Stretch
Lie down on a roll allowing your arms to drop to the floor with your elbows bent and 90 degrees away from your side. Shoulders should be in external rotation so that the back of your wrists move towards the floor. Hold for a gentle stretch across your chest and shoulders.
Open up your chest to relax the pectoral muscles and optimize the stretch of the anterior trunk.
Cat and Camel
While on your hands and knees in a crawl position, raise up your back and arch it towards the ceiling like an angry cat. Then, return to a lowered position, arch your back in the opposite direction like a camel, and repeat.
Regain lost spinal and pelvic mobility with this simple movement.
While in a crawl position with your arms extended overhead, slowly lower your buttocks towards your feet until a stretch is felt in your mid back and shoulders.
Regain mid-back extension and prevent progression of thoracic curvature.
3-Way Doorway Chest Stretch
Begin with your hands high on the doorway frame, place one foot in front of your body, and lean in and hold. Then position your hands on the middle of the door frame and hold. Place your hands on the lower part of the frame for the final position and lean in for the stretch.
Eliminate shortened pectoral and anterior chest wall muscles and allow mid-back and thoracic spine mobility.
The 5 Best Cycling Mid-Back Muscle Exercises—Strengthening
Elastic Band Pull Downs with Shoulder Blade Pinch
Grasp the elastic band with your arms outstretched above your shoulders. Pull the band downward, bend your elbows, and pull your shoulder blades together.
Activate the scapular stabilizer muscles and train your shoulder blade to the proper down and back position.
Elastic Band Bilateral Shoulder External Rotation
Start by standing up straight with palms facing each other and elbows bent to 90 degrees. Extend your elbows against the resistance of the elastic band as you move your hands behind your hips and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back.
Strengthen the scapular stabilizers, and open the chest to prevent rounding of the shoulders.
Bilateral Prone T
Begin by lying face down with your arms extended out to the side. Contract the muscles of your shoulder blades and bring them in and back while slowly raising your arms toward the ceiling.
Isolate the middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles to effectively and efficiently strengthen and stabilize your shoulder blades.
Bilateral Prone Y
While lying face down with arms outstretched upwards, slowly raise your arms toward the ceiling as you squeeze your shoulder blades down and toward your spine.
Strengthen the scapular stabilizer and posterior shoulder muscles to give your mid-back the support it needs for long rides.
Complete your cycling mid-back exercise program with a Bird Dog Series of core strengthening essentials.
The Bird Dog is a popular core and spinal stabilization exercise because it effectively reinforces proper spinal alignment and core muscle recruitment. The demands of cycling place stress on our spines in many ways, and therefore it is important to vary the exercises we perform to strengthen the core. The Bird Dog series targets the core and engages the scapular stabilizers and spinal extensor muscles—the mid-back cycling muscles.
For step-by-step instructions and tips for correct form, check out “Core Strengthening Essentials for the Virtual Cyclist: The Bird Dog Series” or watch this great video by Coach Joy Murphy.
Don’t neglect your mid-back and reverse the adverse postural effect of sitting at a desk and pedaling in the saddle. Follow these 5 best cycling mid-back exercises to get you out of that position and make it easier to stay out of it while riding.
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, TheDIRTDadFund. 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.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!