Hunching Over on Your Bike is Hurting You—But Here’s How to Fix It

A combination of sitting at the desk and sitting on the bike can result in poor posture habits. Here's how to fix them.
Photo: Hannah Morvay

Even in street clothes you still recognize a cyclist when you see one: Toned quads, shaved legs, noodly arms, probably some Pit Vipers. But unfortunately these dead giveaways often come with one negative one—a hunched back. We know poor posture can be harmful in the long run, but how do we balance that when the sport we love requires that position for multiple hours a week? 

According to physical therapist and bike fit pro Natalie Collins, owner of Pedal Fit LLC in Golden, Colorado, most of this hunched back starts with how your pelvis is positioned on the saddle. 

“On the bike we need to be able to have the ability to rock forward with our pelvis. That sets the whole stage for the rest of our spine,” she said.

She describes it like this: If you roll onto the front of your sit bones by tilting your pelvis forward, this is called an anterior pelvic tilt, which is typically the range of motion that cyclists have the most trouble achieving. A limitation in anterior pelvic tilt restricts riders ability to get into a neutral pelvis position. Rolling onto the back of your sit bones is called a posterior pelvic tilt, which causes you to round your back into a slumped position.

The trouble is, a majority of folks are stuck in this rounded back position, due to extensive time on the bike and working at a desk.

Is this really a big deal?

Oh yes. Aside from the optics of slumped posture, a big potential risk of not addressing pelvic inflexibility is sciatica, or pain caused by pinched nerves in the spine. “One of the more common injuries we see from that forward-flexed posture are radiculopathy of the spine, aka sciatica, in both the neck and lumbar spine,” said Collins. “Symptoms in the legs or arms are commonly a referral of this nerve entrapment.” Ouch.

“That usually presents itself as disc herniations or disc bulges, shortening of the hamstrings and hip flexors, and can lead to inhibition of the glutes,” said Collins. That’s right, it can affect all those muscles along the backside of your body (posterior chain) that many struggle to recruit when riding.

“If we’re only in one plane of motion on the bike, then we lack the ability to stabilize laterally when there is not a saddle underneath us. The pelvis relies on side to side stability which is provided mainly by our gluteus minimus and medius. The limitation is compounded when you have a lumbar disc problem.” 

In addition to affecting your posterior chain recruitment, this slumped position inhibits your ability to engage your core, shoulders and arms. “The more you can engage your upper abdominals while rotating the pelvis anteriorly, the more you can lengthen out the body over the bike, essentially reversing that curvature that we see in most people,” Collins said.

Don’t get caught slumpin’. Photo: Hannah Morvay

OMG, is this me?

The best way to see if you have the ability to get into an anterior-tilting position is to test your lumbar-pelvic range of motion. Collins will have clients lay on their stomachs, and then start by propping up on their elbows with their belly still relaxed against the floor and progressing from there.

If this is comfortable, try placing your hands on the ground and pushing your chest up slightly, and then straightening the elbows all the way. If you can do this comfortably, with your pelvis resting on the floor then you have the pelvic-lumbar mobility to reach full lumbar extension.

“If you can [reach full lumbar extension], then you should be able to achieve a neutral spine on the bike as long as the bike fit is optimized to avoid interference of this,” said Collins.

Okay, it’s me–What do I do?

“If you can’t reach [full lumbar extension], then you really want to explore that, because that’s a sign of either ‘wedging’ of the posterior spinal tissue or really tight hamstrings.”

Collins recommends that riders with injuries like stenosis or spondylolisthesis seek professional assistance to improve this range of motion safely. Otherwise, keep practicing those stretches until they are comfortable.

“The way you position your pelvis also helps you position your neck correctly,” said Collins. She explains by example: If you sit in a chair and slump, then try to lift your head and neck in a neutral position, you really can’t. But if you start with a nice long spine, your head and neck easily fall into that neutral line. “And the same thing happens on the bike.” 

Rauchwarter demonstrates the thoracic extension. Photo courtesy of Sam Rauchwarter

What else can I do?

It’s important to choose a saddle that supports you in a neutral to anteriorly-tilted pelvis position without causing you any excessive perineum pressure.

“Once you find that neutral pelvis, lengthen your body out using your upper abdominals, and where your arms rest with a slight elbow bend is right where the handlebars should be,” said Collins. “As long as your handlebars aren’t too high, and your seat isn’t too low, you should be able to hold yourself up comfortably with your abdominals and keep a neutral spine.”

USA Triathlon team physical therapist Sam Rauchwarter offers cyclists a few of his favorite exercises to complement on-the-bike repositioning.

“For reversing that hunched back (medically referred to as thoracic kyphosis) the biggest thing is going to be mobility in your chest area,” said Rauchwarter. To achieve this, he recommends a few exercises: Thoracic extension over a foam roller, and a stretch he calls the “open book.”

Thoracic Extension: Lay on your back on top of a foam roller positioned perpendicular to your spine, anywhere between the bottom of your ribcage to the top of your shoulder blades. Bend back over the foam roller keeping your core right so your ribcage doesn’t pop up (this forces the motion to come from your upper spine instead of lower).

The “Open Book” stretch: Start by lying down on your side with your knees bent. Extend your hands straight out in front of you along the ground. Rotate that top arm up and over your torso towards the ground on the other side and your chest is opening towards the ceiling. Repeat on the other side.

It’s worth it!

Addressing your pelvic positioning can go a very long way in changing your posture on the bike, which essentially affects the way the rest of your body feels and how your muscles can fire. Lining it up has big benefits to improve your cycling as well as your overall health and well-being.