This month, I’m going to focus on how yoga can help with the most common issues that arise in the shoulders, upper back, and neck.
What causes the problems?
Your riding position forces you into an alignment that exacerbates the poor posture we commonly see in modern life—rounded shoulders, collapsed chest and head poking forward. Over time, this sets up a pattern of muscular imbalances in the upper body that can lead to pain and more serious issues, including rotator cuff injuries, biceps tendonitis, carpal tunnel, headaches and compromised breathing.
What is a muscular imbalance?
When we are perfectly aligned, there is a balance of muscle strength and length in opposing sets of muscles around each joint. Muscular imbalances show up when one set of muscles becomes tight from overuse and the opposing set becomes weak or inhibited (doesn’t fire correctly) from underuse. They arise from movement repetition and poor posture sustained over a long period. This stresses joints and puts strain on connected muscles that are forced to take on work designed to be performed by integrated groups of muscles. This can then be the cause of pain and sensations of tightness and restriction.
What is the particular muscular imbalance we need to address?
- Excess tension in the shoulders, upper back (upper trapezius) and neck (levator scapula, sternocleidomastoid, and scalenes). - Tight chest (pectoralis major and minor) and fronts of the shoulders (anterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles). - Compression in the neck. - Stiff mid-back (thoracic spine). - Overstretched and weak muscles that support the shoulder blades (scapulae)—lower trapezius, rhomboids, serratus anterior, posterior rotator cuff and deltoids. - Weak front of the neck (deep neck flexors).
How can you counteract this pattern?
As a mountain biker, you’re going to have work extra hard to reverse this set of muscular imbalances, to avoid pain and more serious issues down the road. A well-designed yoga program can help you to do this by targeting three key areas.
1. Joint mobilisation to free up restrictions and increase range of motion. 2. Stretching tight, overactive muscles that are pulling joints out of their optimal position. 3. Activating and strengthening weak, overstretched muscles.
1. Mobilise: Increase Range of Motion
Focus: neck, shoulders and thoracic spine.
Timing and frequency: these exercises can be performed several times a day, at any time of day.
- Look down at the mat to avoid compression in your neck.
5. Cow Face
Targets: the triceps, chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
- You can kneel or sit in any position in which your spine is straight. - If your fingers don't easily touch, you can take hold of a towel or belt with both hands. - Try to keep your shoulders parallel with the mat.
3. Strengthen: Re-align and Activate Weak Muscles
Focus: upper/mid-back, shoulder blades, and backs of the shoulders.
Timing and frequency: you can practice these poses at any time of day. Before exercising and earlier in the day is best as they are relatively energising. You don’t have to do them all at the same time or even on the same day.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead. - Bring your arms by your sides and walk your heels back to your fingertips. - Lift your hips up and roll your shoulders underneath you. - If you can, interlace your fingers, straighten your arms and press your little fingers into the mat. - Hold the pose for 5–10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - Come down on an exhalation. - You can repeat the pose 2–3 times. - Drop both knees from one side to the other to release your lower back.
- Lie face down on the mat with your feet hip-width apart and your arms resting by your sides, palms facing down - Inhale, lift your head, chest, arms, legs, and feet off the mat. Exhale, rotate your hands outwards, point your thumbs up to the sky and draw your shoulders back. - Squeeze your shoulder blades together and look down at the mat to avoid compressing the back of your neck. - Hold the pose for 5–10 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - Come down, rest one cheek on the mat and rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back. - You can repeat the pose 2–3 times, resting the opposite cheek on the mat each time you come down.
- From all fours, walk your hands forward a few inches. - Tuck your toes and lift your hips up. Keep your knees bent and drop your chest back towards your thighs. - Spread your fingers and press your palms into the mat—index fingers point straight ahead. - Straighten your elbows and rotate your arms outwards to stabilise your shoulders. - Check that your knees and toes point straight ahead. - Hold the pose for five deep breaths, in and out through your nose. - Come down on an exhalation. - You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.
- Support your weight between your forearms and toes and press back through your heels. Your feet should be hip-width apart. - Squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other to stabilise your shoulders. - Try to maintain a straight line all the way from your heels to the back of your head. Don't let your hips drop. - Look straight down at the mat. - Hold the pose for 5–10 breaths, or as long as you can without losing your form. - You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.
- Balance your weight on your right hand and the outside of your right foot. - Check that your right wrist is directly underneath your right shoulder and straighten your left hand up to the sky. - Look straight ahead and try to hold the pose still. - Your ankles, hips, shoulders, and head should all be in a straight line. - Hold the pose for 5–10 breaths, or as long as you can without losing your form. - Switch sides. - You can repeat the pose 2–3 times.
Other things you can do:
Warm up: increase blood flow and activate your muscles with at least 5 minutes of dynamic movement before each ride. Cool down: this is the best time to spend 15 minutes stretching and restoring muscle tissue length. Stretch breaks: stop for breaks mid-ride and during your work day to stretch muscles that are tightening up from overuse. Posture: be aware of your posture throughout the day. Try to sit and stand with your ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles all in a straight line. Massage: I know it’s a luxury but nothing beats massage to break up scar tissue, release tension and promote circulation. Self-myofascial release with a stick, lacrosse ball or foam roller can also be very effective. Focus on trigger points in the chest, shoulders, lats, upper back and neck. Breathing: a collapsed chest can affect your breathing. Download an app like Apnea Trainer to work on your breathing efficiency for five or so minutes a day. Balance your training: build strength in the upper back with other sports like climbing, CrossFit or traditional strength training.
I’ve put together a new series of 5 x 15-minute videos to address all the issues I've discussed in this article. You can find out more here.
If you have any other stretches, tips or techniques to address these issues, please share them in the comments and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. Stay fit and supple!