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Improving Upper Body Postural Endurance for Cycling

Sore neck, stiff shoulders, and achy wrists while you are cycling? There can be a few causes for those symptoms but poor posture on the bike and poor muscle endurance may be the culprit. One of the first causes you need to consider is a proper bike fit. To ensure your bike is a proper fit you can go to your local bike shop and have them fit you. But quick shameless plug, did you know some physical therapists also can help you fit you to your bike?! So, ask your physical therapist if they or a co-worker does bike fits! The fit does not have to be perfect, just as long as the bike is proper size and adjustable parts for fit are in the right ballpark, some information about proper biking posture and training of those postural muscles may be all you need.

For proper upper body bike posture consider the following from the head to hands.

  • Gentle chin tuck with neutral neck instead of chin out and head lifted up
  • Relaxed shoulders with your shoulder blades down and back instead of shrugged up into your ear
  • Arm and elbow relaxed instead of locked out if your handlebars are a reach or biceps engaged to keep the elbows bent
  • Relaxed wrist and grip instead of a death grip on your handlebars

 

Maintaining that posture over the time you spend on your bike might be a bit tricky if you don’t have good recruitment and endurance in those postural muscles. The following exercises help target the some of the major neglected postural muscles you might need.

Middle and Lower Trapezius Training:

Most people are upper trapezius dominant and use the upper trapezius muscle to help stabilize both the neck and shoulder blades. Often you see this manifest in shrugged posture. Scapular stabilizers that are often undertrained and poorly recruited are the middle and lower trapezius. The middle trapezius is mainly responsible for scapular retraction/squeezing your shoulder blades together. The lower trapezius is mainly responsible for scapular depression/pushing your shoulder blades down. A great exercise to train these two muscles are the T and Y lift.

The T lift exercise is used to train the middle trapezius muscle.

  • Start on all fours.
  • Push the shoulder blade down towards your hips to prevent using your upper trapezius.
  • Simultaneously squeeze your shoulder blade center towards the spine to lift your arm out to the side like the letter T with your palms facing down.
  • Avoid shrugging throughout the exercise.
  • Repeat this motion for 25 reps. Use a water bottle if you need more resistance than your arm weight.

The Y lift exercise is used to train the lower trapezius muscle.

  • Start on all fours.
  • Push the shoulder blade down towards your hips to prevent using your upper trapezius.
  • Simultaneously squeeze your shoulder blade center towards the spine to lift your arm up diagonally like the letter Y with your thumb pointing up.
  • Avoid shrugging throughout the exercise.
  • Repeat this motion for 25 reps. Use a water bottle if you need more resistance than your arm weight.

Here’s a video illustrating the exercises:

 

Serratus Anterior Training:

Another important scapular stabilizer often overlooked is the serratus anterior. The action of the muscle is scapular protraction/rounding your shoulder blades. Training this muscle can also take tension away from overusing your upper trapezius and your arm muscles to stabilize your shoulder blades. A great way to train this muscle is an exercise you probably already do but with a twist: the push up plus.

  • Start in a push up position.
  • Engage the mid and low trapezius by gently squeezing the shoulder blades towards the center and pushing down towards your hips.
  • Perform the push up.
  • At the top, round your shoulder blades like you’re trying to hug someone.
  • Don’t shrug.
  • Reengage the mid and low trapezius and perform a push up again.
  • Repeat for 25 reps.
  • To make this exercise easier, try to put your hands on an elevated surface such as a coffee table, kitchen counter or up against the wall.

Here’s a video illustrating the exercise:

 

Thoracic Paraspinal Training:

Besides the scapular muscles that anchor to your upper back which help support your upper back, another important muscle that support your upper back is your thoracic paraspinal. The primary action of the paraspinals is to extend your spine/bend backwards. Cycling posture also puts your upper back in a rounded position, so moving your spine in the other direction after a long time in the same rounded position is necessary to keep the joints mobile and healthy. A great exercise to help strengthen the thoracic paraspinals and mobilize the joints is the thoracic scoop:

  • Sit upright with your hands cuffed around your neck to limit neck motion.
  • Roll your back forward from the base of your neck to the bottom of your ribs until you can’t roll forward any more.
  • Lean forward from your hips.
  • Bend backwards from the bottom of your ribcage up to the base of your neck in a scooping motion.
  • Repeat 15 times.

Here’s a video illustrating the exercise:

 

Cervical Stabilizer Training:

Keeping your head up for a long time while cycling with the additional weight of a helmet can result in a sore neck. Often, we depend on stacking our spine for support when our deep stabilizer muscles are weak resulting in a chin out, head back position, and shrugged shoulder. Two deep neck stabilizers critical to train are the deep neck flexors and the cervical multifidi. The deep neck flexors help you maintain the gentle chin tuck position. The cervical multifidi are along the spine helping each segment stabilize. A great exercise to train both at the same time is the forward leaning cervical rotation.

  • Sit with your elbows on your lap to support your upper body.
  • Lean forward at a 45 degree angle.
  • Establish and hold a gentle chin tuck throughout the exercise to train the deep neck flexors.
  • Rotate your head to one side without lifting your chin or bending your neck to the side. Think about drawing a straight line on the ground with your nose. This trains one side of your cervical multifidi.
  • Repeat 25 times. Then rotate to the other side.

Here’s a video illustrating the exercise:

 

Try incorporating these exercises to your post cycling routine to improve postural endurance and you’ll likely find less shoulder and neck soreness during and after rides. I recommend doing 2-3 sets of each exercise either in a circuit or back to back with one minute rest in between each set or circuit.

If you need to have your bike fitted or are feeling pain during or after cycling, contact your nearest MTI Physical Therapy clinic. I hope these exercises will extend your time in the saddle and ride on my friends!


Mike ChenMike Chen PT, DPT is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Fellow in the American Academy of Manual Orthopedic Physical Therapists and works at our Issaquah clinic. Mike worked as a strength and conditioning coach before attending physical therapy school and is passionate about incorporating functional strength training when working with his patients to help them return to their activities and to enhance their performance. He loves the PNW outdoors — you can often find him backcountry skiing, rock climbing, or cycling about town. You can contact him directly at mikechen@mtipt.com or also follow him at @lift.ride.run_rehab on Instagram.

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