While serious conditions such as a herniated disc or a strained muscle warrant a break from the bike, most low-level chronic back pain that results from muscular imbalances can be fixed before resulting in injury.
A muscular imbalance occurs when the workload is not being distributed evenly or efficiently, and can cause certain muscles to work either too hard or not enough.
What Leads to Back Pain1 of 6
The transversus abdominus, or TVA—the deep abdominal muscles that wrap around the entire core—and the gluteus maximus are two common muscles that can lead to back pain if they aren't working efficiently. The correlation between weakness in these muscles and low back pain is directly related to the order in which these muscles activate.
If they aren't firing correctly, and in the right order, these muscles won't provide the stabilization needed to support the lumbar spine.
In a healthy person, the TVA should activate a fraction of a second before any movement takes place in the limbs. If the TVA doesn't fire, the pelvis and lumbar spine aren't properly stabilized during movement and the low back is allowed to move around too much, stressing the muscles of that area and eventually causing chronic pain.
The solution is to follow a core exercise routine that helps strengthen the TVA and gluteus maximus. Stay away from abdominal crunches; the crunch movement only exacerbates the rounded shoulders and tucked pelvis that contributes to low back pain.
Below are four core-strengthening exercises that will help to alleviate chronic low back pain. Start with one set of each exercise and rest 30 seconds between. Increase your repetitions gradually until you can complete 2 to 3 sets of each exercise.
Opposite Arm/Leg Reach2 of 6
Start on your hands and knees. Keep the back of your neck long and don't look up or let your chin drop toward the ground. Gently pull your belly button up, being careful not to round your upper back. Keep your hips and shoulders parallel to the ground and lift your right foot and left hand at the same time.
Extend your left fingertips forward and squeeze your left gluteus. Hold this extension for 5 seconds before slowly returning to the starting position. Continue alternating sides until you have completed 10 repetitions on each side.
Prone Snow Angels3 of 6
Lie face down on a mat with your arms extended along your sides (palms down). Gently squeeze your glutes and begin to raise your feet, chest and hands off the ground. Don't lift your feet more than 6 inches. Create a "snow angel" by sweeping your arms overhead and separating your feet. Without bending your arms, try to bring your hands together above your head. Return to starting position, take a deep breath, and repeat until you have completed 10 to 15 repetitions.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze4 of 6
Start on your hands and knees. Place your hands directly below your shoulders as if you were going to do a push-up. Keep your arms straight and drop your shoulder blades down, squeezing the lower edges together. Don't let your low back sway or your chin push forward. Hold the shoulder blade squeeze for 5 seconds and release. Take a breath, then continue to repeat this 5-second hold until you have completed 10 repetitions.
Time Trial Position (Plank Hold)5 of 6
The TT Hold is performed on your forearms and toes. The exercise is isometric and there should be no movement. Keep your elbows directly beneath your shoulders, and your feet should be 8 to 10 inches apart. Keep the back of your neck long and look down at the floor.
Work to bring your shoulder blades onto your back by squeezing them together slightly. Your lower back should not be excessively rounded, and your neck should be long (don't look up). Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. As you become stronger, extend the hold time.
For additional exercises and routines to help with low back pain, pick up a copy of Tom Danielson's Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling's Winning Edge.