At then end of a long ride one of my friends was complaining about his bad back. I laughed and told him he didn’t exactly bring the right bike to aid his back pain. He seemed surprised and asked me, “What is the best mountain bike for a bad back?” 

A full suspension mountain bike is the best bike for someone with a bad back.  A full suspension mountain bike has suspension in the rear instead of being rigid like the hard tail. This added suspension makes the ride much smoother. It flattens out the bumps of the trails thus creating less jarring and pressure in the lower back.

full suspension mountain bike for bad back

full suspension mountain bike for bad back

How Can My Mountain Bike Cause Back Pain?

Back pain is one of the most common complaints of cyclists. If you already have a bad back, but you still enjoy the sport of cycling it’s important that you find a bike that can minimize your pain and enhance your riding experience.

A full suspension mountain bike with 120 mm of suspension would be the best option for someone with a bad back. It moves for you instead of your back taking the blows of the rocks and bumps on the trail.

120 mm suspension mtb

120 mm suspension mtb

120 mm of suspension will be just enough to cushion your back while you ride, without being so much suspension that it causes you to become lazy. A smaller suspension of 120 mm will still force you to flex your abdominals, thus guarding your back. Additionally, a bike that has more than 120 mm of suspension will become too plush and heavy, thus creating extra strain on your back and body over time.

If you are riding a hard tail mountain bike, your bike will not flex with the bumps of the trail, therefore the force is transferred up into your back. This causes pain and spasming of your back muscles. This is just one of many ways that your bike may be exasperating your back pain.

Correct Mountain Bike Posture:

On a mountain bike, your back position, measured from your hip to your shoulder, should be approximately 45 degrees, give or take.2 This is a good starting point, and from there you can raise or lower your handlebars or move your seat in order to reach the most optimal position.

When standing there is a load of 100 kg through the intervertebral discs, when sitting and leaning forward the load increases to 275 kg going through your intervertebral discs. This means that if you suffer from a disc herniation, you may want to try to find a more upright position on your bike in order to eliminate some of that pressure.1

Should I Just Stop Mountain Biking If I Have a Bad Back?

 No! It’s no secret that mountain biking is hard on your back, but it can also help your back. There are a lot of injuries and conditions that might cause an individual to use the phrase, “I have a bad back.” It is important to speak to your doctor and understand if your injury is a disqualifying condition and follow their advice.

If you are cleared to participate in activity but you are still experiencing pain, consider a myriad of options toward a painless ride.  Continue reading for my top 8 tips to decreasing back pain while riding your bike. 

8 Tips for Helping with Back Pain

  1. Get a Bike Fit
  2. Reset Your Suspension:
  3. Weak abdominals
  4. How to Set Up Your Bike
  5. Stretch Before and After Your Ride
  6. Heat and Ice
  7. Evaluate the Kinetic Chain
  8. Progress Slowly

Get a Bike Fit:

This is my number one tip that I give to a cyclist with back pain. It may cost a pretty penny but professional bike fitters can manipulate your bike in ways that you wouldn’t be able to think of.  Millimeters can make huge differences when it comes to saddle height, reach to the bars, or length of your stem. Leave the millimeters to the experts, and don’t feel guilty over the money that you spent. A pain free ride is priceless.

Reset Your Suspension:

If you are still using your fork and rear shock by the factory set up, it’s time to make some adjustments. These pieces of equipment are designed to be changed based on the weight of the rider and the trails that you are riding.

If you are running too high of a psi then you are not utilizing all of the suspension that you have. It will feel hard and will cause your back to jar. If your rebound is set too fast then the bike will feel like a pogo stick causing your back to move around. If the rebound is too slow then the fork will pack down and will feel hard.  Every fork and suspension company works slightly differently so you will need to visit their website.

Weak Abdominals:

One of the best ways to overcome back pain is to go to physical therapy. Most of the time at a physical therapy clinic, the primary rehabilitation for back pain includes abdominal strengthening. The abdominal muscles guard the back muscles. Additionally, strong abdominal muscles take away some of the stress placed on your back.

As a certified athletic trainer, my favorite exercises to give athletes with low back pain are the ‘bird dog’ exercise and the ‘deadbug’ exercise.

The bird dog is completed in a quadruped position. While keeping the back flat the athlete should lift the opposite arm and leg straight out.  Repeat the exercise for strengthening.

In order to complete the deadbug, the athlete will lay on his or her back with his or her arms and legs in the air. The opposite arm and leg are lowered at the same time. Both of these exercises help strengthen the core without causing unnecessary strain on the back.

How to Set Up Your Bike:

While I always recommend getting a bike fit, sometimes, small adjustments can go along ways. If you are hesitant to dish out the money for a professional fit, try these two adjustments before biting the bullet.

First, try to lessen your back pain by lowering your saddle height. If your saddle is too high then it may force your hips to rock back and forth to reach the pedals. This repetitive rocking can cause muscle strain and back pain.

Next, find a shorter stem and raise your handlebars with a spacer or two. If your handlebars are too far away, you might be too stretched out and put unnecessary stress on your lumbar vertebrae. Maintaining a more upright position on the bike, can literally take a weight off of your back.

Stretch Before and After Your Ride:

It is important to loosen up your back before your ride with dynamic stretching and to help promote relaxation after the ride with static stretching. Both of these stretching sessions help to increase your overall mobility.

What is more important than the timing of the stretching is what muscles groups you choose to stretch. Many cyclists suffer from overly tight hamstrings and glutes. These muscles have attachment sites on the pelvis and can pull it backwards. This creates additional stress on the lumbar vertebrae and once again causes back pain. Increasing your mobility is a simple way to help reduce your pain on the bike. 

Heat and Ice:

In order to know whether you should heat or ice your back depends on what type of injury you have. Generally, you should ice your injury for the first 48 hours after you first experience pain. After that, you can heat before your ride and ice after.

Heat helps to reduce pain through the relaxation of muscles. When the body is in pain it enters a pain spasm pain cycle. It hurts so the muscles spasm, and therefore it hurts more. Heat loosens up the muscles so that the cycle stops.

Ice, on the other hand, reduces cell metabolism and therefore minimizes swelling. Reduced swelling can increase mobility and decrease pressure on the surrounding structures.

Evaluate the Kinetic Chain:

It’s possible that you will need some help with this one. An athletic trainer, physical therapist, or orthopedic doctor can all help you evaluate your kinetic chain. Things such as foot orientation, or orthotics can affect the strain and stress on your back. It is very important to look at the biomechanics of your entire body before you conclude the exact cause of your back pain. Something as simple as cleat position or an underdeveloped muscle could be your culprit.

Progress Slowly:

Just because your back hurts when you ride doesn’t mean you have to stop entirely. Sometimes back pain comes about because you progress too quickly. When increasing your hours each week, try to only increase your hours by 12% each week. Increasing by more than 12% has been seen to cause over training and overuse injuries.

Begin your rides small and only ride until you feel back pain. Once you start to feel pain, discontinue riding. Overtime, the durations of your rides may increase and you may find yourself riding longer with less pain.

Take the Plunge:

Back pain can, not only affect your ride, but it can seriously affect your quality of life. Seeking out therapy, treating yourself, and making just a few alterations can completely change the way your back feels while riding.

If you constantly suffer from back pain on your hard tail mountain bike, it is time to make an investment. A full-suspension mountain bike will revolutionize the way that your back feels while you shred the gnar. If you’re afraid to take the plunge, then find a demo and try out a full-suspension bike without commitment. Although, I think your health is a pretty good excuse to buy yourself a brand new bicycle.

Works Cited:

  1. Starkey, Chad. Evaluation of Orthopedic and Athletic Injuries. F A Davis, 2003.
  2. “Bike Fitting Basics.” REI, www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/bike-fit.html.