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The type of pain cyclists experience in the neck and upper back is usually described as “knots.” Although it may feel like a big, hard knot, the technical term is “trigger point.” These areas are extremely sensitive, and when pressure is placed on them, pain will typically shoot out (hence the name “trigger point”). Trigger points are almost always located in the upper back, with the majority being found on the rhomboids and upper trapezius (trap) muscles. It’s no coincidence that these are also the two muscles that incur the greatest amount of lengthening when you’re riding.
As the rhomboids and upper traps are stretched and held at their maximum length for extended periods of time on the bike, they begin to fight back against this pull, resembling an intense game of tug-of-war. The end result is little areas of hyper-agitated tissue that typically develop along the inside edges of the shoulder blades and the back of the neck. These localized points of pain can often create the sensation that the upper back is tight, which in turn generates the urge to stretch the area in order to alleviate the pain.
Although stretching the upper back may provide temporary relief, it will exacerbate the underlying problem. The reason these trigger points occur is because the muscles of the neck and upper back are excessively overstretched and lengthened during cycling, so stretching them even more when you get off the bike is not a good idea. Meanwhile, the muscles on the front side of the body contract and shorten in order to pull your shoulders forward and give you a nicely rounded back over which air can smoothly pass. But this puts continuous tension on the back, neck, and shoulders.
When this outstretched, bent position is maintained for an extended period of time, the ability of these muscles to generate optimum force is drastically reduced. The end result is that no single muscle is functioning optimally, which means that the upper and middle sections of the spine are not being properly supported, putting that entire area at greater risk for injury.
Trigger points create the false sensation that the area where they are located is tight, when in fact that area is overstretched. In order to relieve the pull placed on each end of the muscles of the upper back, you must release the pull that is being placed on the area by stretching the muscles on the front side of the body, which in turn causes the muscles on the back side of the muscle to contract and shorten.
The primary goal is to return the muscles of the neck and upper back to their optimum length-tension relationship; in order to do this, the muscles on the front side of the body must be lengthened, specifically the pectoralis major and minor, the anterior deltoid, the rectus abdominis, the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM), and the latissimus dorsi. Most people think of the lats as a back muscle, which is where the majority of this muscle mass is located. However, the lats insert into the front part of the shoulder blade and upper groove of the humerus (upper arm bone), and when they become tight they contribute to chronic roundedness in the upper back and neck.
Fight the urge to stretch your upper back if you feel trigger points after a ride!
Chest Stretch Against a Wall
Stand with your body perpendicular to a wall so that the entire left side of your body is approximately 4 inches away from the wall.
Without moving your lower body or twisting your torso toward the wall, reach your left arm straight behind you at shoulder height and rest your left palm on the wall. Now reach your right arm straight ahead of you at shoulder height and place your right palm on the wall. Both thumbs should be pointed toward the ceiling.
Gently remove your right hand from the wall and begin to swing it as far out to the right as you can, keeping your arm straight and at shoulder height.
Rainbow Stretch in Doorway
Stand in a doorway with the left side of your body approximately 6 inches away from the doorjamb. Cross your left foot over your right and place it flat on the ground, bending your knees slightly. Place your left hand on the doorjamb at waist height. Slowly begin to reach your right hand up and over your head in a rainbow motion and gently push your hips out to the right at the same time.
The goal is to form a letter “C” with your body and to touch the doorjamb above your head with your right hand. Return to starting position and repeat the suggested number of repetitions on this side. Move to the other side of the doorway, cross your right foot over your left, and repeat by taking your left hand up and overhead.
Prone Snow Angels with Shoulder Press
Start on the ground in a prone (facedown) position. Start with your arms extended along your sides (palms down), back of the neck long, and shoulder blades dropped down. Gently squeeze your glutes and slowly begin to raise your feet, chest, and hands off the ground. Do not lift 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 thumbs to touch above your head.
With your hands and feet still lifted, drop your shoulder blades down your back and pull your elbows down to your sides, so that your thumbs eventually touch the tops of your shoulders. Push your arms back out straight overhead and sweep them back down to your sides. Return to starting position by allowing your feet, chest, and hands to relax down to the ground. Continue until you have completed the designated number of repetitions.
Adapted from Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength Routines for Cycling’s Winning Edge by Tom Danielson & Allison Westfahl with permission of VeloPress.