Preventing Neck Pain for Cyclists & Triathletes

Spending many hours on the bike leads to a number of adaptations in the body, especially when it comes to muscles and how they act on the joints of the body.  Because “Joint position dictates muscle function” this means that many of the muscles in the body will be put into positions on the bike, for long periods of time, that do not allow the muscles to work as intended or designed.

There are a number of factors when it comes to the development of neck pain for riders, but what we’ll focus on here are the biggest contributing factors of:

1. Long periods of time on a bike that for most, is not set up to allow them to ride in the most efficient or economic of positions.

2. Awful alignment of the head, diaphragm, and pelvic floor off the bike (due to poor posture and poor balancing of the muscles at the joints)

3. Lack of strength in the trapezius (mid and lower), paraspinal muscles, and deep abdominal musculature (including the pelvic floor)

4. Loss of mobility of the ribs due to poor breathing patterns & bike fit

5. Poor awareness of the role of proper strength and mobility training for cyclists.

Let’s do a short breakdown for each of these 5 major contributing factors of neck pain for cyclists, and how to remedy them:

1. Long periods of time on a bike that for most, is not set up to allow them to ride in the most efficient or economic of positions.

While many believe that we can simply jump on a bike and ride, there is actually quite a science, and art, to getting your bike set up properly for you.

Especially for those riding road bikes, having at least a basic bike fit is paramount to allowing you to enjoy your time riding while keeping you from suffering neck, shoulder, and even lower back pain.

There are a number of factors which include:

-proper “reach” (how far forward fo the saddle that the handle bars are)

-proper differential, also known as “drop” (the difference in height between your handlebars and saddle)

-Proper handlebar width (the mid-point of the outer portion of the handlebars should match the distance from Acromial process (the bone on the front of your shoulder) to acromial process (aka your shoulder width)

-Proper handlebar height (This is different than differential, but does have significant impact on differential)

-proper saddle selection (The saddle should support both of your “Sit bones” properly and fully

-Proper handlebar girth (This is especially important for female riders, as due to smaller hands, they should be using Womens Specific Design handlebars which have narrower girth, making them far more comfortable.

-Proper cleat alignment (allowing you to have support, and produce maximal power without compromising your system (body) for power).

While the road bike and time trial bike are the most extreme of positions, Mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and “trail bikes” should also have a basic fit done as well, though these are far less time consuming and cheaper than road bike fits.

Ideally, when a bike is fit properly, one should be able to ride without any tension through their shoulders and hands, along with the saddle supporting around 70% of the riders weight, and the hands supporting roughly 30% of the riders weight for a Road Bike fit.

The shoulders should be relaxed, with the elbows softly bent, and the shoulder blades should be sitting relaxed along the back of the rib cage across ALL bikes and fits, although Time Trial bikes will have variances depending on the athlete.

This last part (elbow and shoulder position) is where we often see riders have gone wrong, as they try to either make a bike that is too big “fit them” or by trying to get “super aero”,  “slam that stem”, or they just don’t know any better.

SOLUTION: Before purchasing a bike, the bike shop should do a few basic measurements, including inseam measurements, shoulder width, as well as at least a simple toe-touch test. these will help the shop determine the right size bike frame, as well as handlebar width.

If you already own a bike, especially if you’re already having pain or serious discomfort on the bike, head to a reputable bike fitter, with a reputation for quality, and have a basic bike fit done. Be prepared, as you may need to purchase new parts for your bike, such as a saddle, handlebars, seat post, and stem. These are all common items to be changed to allow a rider to ride more comfortably and powerfully.

A proper fit should take at least 45 minutes to an hour, and the fitter should look at your hip and shoulder mobility, as well as look at how you squat, stand, and hinge.

All of the above mentioned effect not only how the muscles work on the bike to steer, support, and help us put out power to the pedals, but also leads us to #2 on our list.

2. Awful alignment of the head, diaphragm, and pelvic floor off the bike (due to poor posture and poor balancing of the muscles at the joints off the bike.)

This one tends be a bit tough, as our sport inherently requires us to be in a cervically extended (head back) position- especially if you’re on the road or TT bike. However, this doesn’t mean that all is lost.

After one has had a basic bike fit, we are not only able to hold better position on the bike, you’ll be able to tilt your pelvis (hip bones) forward while keeping your diaphragm and head in better alignment as you get into the riding position on the hoods, bars, and even the drops. some fitters call this “tilting the cup forward”.

SOLUTION: Have a basic bike fit performed, and learn how to rotate the pelvis forward instead of rounding your spine.

This isn’t to mean that you won’t have to bend forward from the spine at all…. most riders will need to do this in order to ride comfortably. It does mean that you’ll be able to move your pelvis to meet the demands the road requires to conquer it, through positioning on the saddle, rotating the pelvis, and thus unlocking the power of your GLUTES!

3. Lack of strength in the trapezius, paraspinal muscles, and deep abdominal musculature (including the pelvic floor)

This is a problem not just for cyclists, but those who sit most of the day, which now days is pretty much everyone!

In order to help us strengthen these muscles, we must first reconnect our brains ability to fire the muscles independently. While many will immediately dive into stretching the tight muscles, this often times makes the issue WORSE, as those muscles are tightening as they are attempting to do their jobs, working against muscle on the other side of the joint which have become shortened and tight due to the positions on the bike.

SOLUTION: Instead of stretching the muscles that are tight, such as the mid-back and upper traps, aim to use the foam roller to release your chest, lats (those big muscles on our sides), along with activation and strength exercises to help you recruit and develop the deep abdomen, and mid back.

Such exercises include the “McGill Crunch” (for your core), 45 degree bench Y’s, T’s, W’s, and L’s, as well as Wall Scapular slides can help significantly.

However, we must ensure that we are also coaching the body to retain movements at joints that may have shut down due to tight or weakened muscles, including: Thoracic (rib cage) extension, Shoulder flexion (raising the hand overhead), and Scapular rhythm  (movement of the shoulder blade on the rib cage) with shoulder flexion & extension.

This can be done through foam rolling, trigger point therapy (by yourself or by therapist), or manual therapy. The key here is small, consistent amounts of work. Suggested is 30 seconds per location for each side, per day, 5-6 days a week.

4. Loss of mobility of the ribs due to poor breathing patterns & bike fit

This is an area where many individuals, let alone cyclists,don’t realize they are putting themselves into a more “fight or flight” mode via poor breathing patterns.

Over time, through riding on the bike for long hours, in mostly closed or fixed positions, muscles such as the intercostals, serratus anterior, pectorals minor, and a number of smaller, supportive muscles tend to shut down, or lose movement, in an effort to stabilize a weakened support system.

Poor bike fit will make this problem much worse, and can lead to other issues later in life, including rounded upper back (kyphosis), increased pressure, wear, and tear on the intervertebral discs (which can lead to arthritis and other joint issues).

SOLUTION: Learning how to breathe, especially via back-body expansion, is incredibly helpful in not only avoiding this issue and relieving neck tightness and pain, but can also allow us to turn-off the fight or flight response off the bike, which can help us attain the “holy grail” for advancing our on-bike abilities: RECOVERY.

We can also help resolve these issues through our last point:

5. Poor awareness of the role of proper strength and mobility training for cyclists.

Cyclists, as a whole, are some of the most historically weak athletes out there, in any sport. I don’t mean watts per kilogram. I’m talking about muscle-skeletally.

This is in part due to the misinformation that has proliferated the sport for decades on end, that in order to be a better cyclists you must avoid strength training, as it will have you gaining unnecessary muscle, and slow you down.

Thankfully, in the last 5 years we’ve seen the cycling community come to it’s senses and realize that PROPER strength training can not only help one ride longer, but also significantly improve power output, by balancing the body, and making it possible for higher power output.

While many cyclists believe the strength training for cycling entails squats, lunges, leg press, hamstring curls, and planks, this is not even a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg of what proper Strength Training for cycling must entail.

On the other side of the coin, many believe that simply stretching will help one feel better and be better balanced. unfortunately this isn’t true.

Stretching may help the muscle FEEL better, but it’s much like putting a single small band aid on road rash that covers your whole hip: it misses the bigger picture.

Muscle have 3 jobs in the body, in this order:

1. To protect a joint

2. To stabilize a joint while an adjacent joint moves

3. To move a joint

Take my online Strength trianing for cyclists course

When the muscles are tight, they are yelling at us that they are in a poor position and have poor strength with which to do their #1 job. Stretching doesn’t address the root of the issue, which is poor muscle balance at that joint. In fact, often times we should be stretching the OPPOSING muscle to that which is tight, and STRENGTHENING the muscle which is tight, after some activation.

SOLUTION: Learning how to build a properly balanced strength training program to include the 5+ 1 fundamental human movements of:

1. Push

2. Pull

3. Squat

4. Hinge

5. Press

6. Rotary Stability

Along with focus on working the muscles not oft-used in out sport, as well as slowly rebalancing the joints through proper YEAR-ROUND Strength training.

The last part can be far easier than many believe, especially if you take one of my online courses on Training Peaks University:

Strength Training for Cycling Success- https://trainingpeaks-university.thinkific.com/courses/strength-training-for-cycling-success

Strength Training for Triathlon Success- https://trainingpeaks-university.thinkific.com/courses/strength-training-for-triathlon-success


Some videos from the Human Vortex Training YouTube Channel to help you understand some of the exercises and methods we use to treat Neck, shoulder, and upper back discomfort/pain:

Pro Cycling Tips- Strength Training for Cyclists: Crocodile Breathing

Cycling Tips: Foam Roller for Cycling recovery & health Part 2- Upper body

Healthy Cycling Series™ #1- Wall Scap Slides with Retraction

Healthy Cycling Series™ #2 Foam Roller “Y” Chest Stretch

Healthy Cycling Series™ #3 Foam Roll W Stretch

1 arm lat stretch with deep breathing (Strength Training for Cycling & Triathlon)

The McGill Crunch

Bird-Dog Progression


Picture of Menachem Brodie

Menachem Brodie

Coaching since 2000, Menachem Brodie has been working with athletes in a number of settings, and a broad variety of sports.

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