The exercises I do for mountain biking, Part I: Low back pain

I’m grateful to be able to ride a mountain bike aggressively at my geezerly age.  I’m lucky, but I’ve also learned a couple things that seem to  help.

First up: low back pain.

Low back pain imageI had my first episode of low back pain in 1988 when I was 39 years old. I was working late at night at a computer-related job in Eden Prairie, MN when suddenly, I couldn’t stand up straight. I literally had to crawl to my car to drive home to Northfield.

I started standing at a desk after that, as I learned that sitting all day at a desk and in a car to and from work was hard on one’s back. But I’d still have episodes where I’d pinch a nerve in my low back (sometimes doing nothing strenuous, other times, doing stupid stuff) and then hobble around for a week or two. I would always get immediate relief from a variety of chiropractors, and then I’d try umpteen different back/stomach exercises to prevent it from happening again but nothing ever worked longer than 3 or 4 months.  But in 2007 after another pinched nerve episode, I found this book at the Northfield Public Library:

Back RXBack RX : a fifteen-minute-a-day Yoga-and Pilates-based program to end low back pain forever, by Vijay Vad. (See Dr. Vijay Vad’s web site for more about his books and DVDs, research, etc.)

Also see this NY Times video: Strengthening the Core – The science of back pain and how to prevent it: Dr. Vijay Vad of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City explains.

Dr. Vad prescribes a combination of muscle strengthening, stretching, and endurance with one main difference that I’d not heard of ever before—an emphasis on the hips:

… The other was to conduct a research study into why low back pain is so prevalent among professional tennis players. The study I conducted found that the players most susceptible to low back pain had the least range of motion in the hips. In 2001 the PGA asked me to do a parallel study of professional golfers. This study produced the same results, showing a significant link between a restricted range of motion in the hips and the incidence of low back pain.

This finding is important for the rest of us, whether we are fitter than average or committed couch potatoes, because of the sedentary nature of modern life and work. Sitting in chairs, which most of us do for long hours every day at work, school, and home, leads inexorably to a restricted range of motion in the hips. The Back Rx program accordingly features exercises specifically designed to counteract this tendency and increase the range of motion in the hips.

I started with his set of Series A exercises in Feb. 2007, 20 minutes, every other day. It took me 2 months to do those completely pain free. I was feeling so much better that I went back to both racquetball and motorcycle trials competition that summer. No problemo.

By fall, I was pain-free doing his set of Series B exercises so I started with the most difficult set of Series C exercises. I was pain-free doing those by December and was feeling so cocky that I decided to return to snowboarding after a 5-year layoff. Yeehaw! I wiped out dozens of times every time I went with no problems. (I tore my rotator cuff but that’s another story.) I’m probably going to have keep doing Series C exercises for the next 50-60 years so I can still keep doing the sports I love.

But since I started mountain biking in 2011, I’ve begun another exercise routine specific to the sport of mountain biking: kettlebells! See the Top 3 Kettlebell Exercises for Mountain Biking by James Wilson.


  1. Bob Shepherd said:

    Interesting blog entry about your back. I also have intermittent back problems, but have had them since I was in high school. (more frequently now) I blame it on pole vaulting, which was my spring high school sport. We would often miss the pit, landing on the ground, edge of the pit, or sometimes on the metal bar stands. Usually not a graceful landing. Back then, we could shake it off most of the time, although some mishaps would take several days to recover from. At the time, I was really flexible, able to do a complete nuts-on-the-floor split. (Now, 40 years later, I can barely touch my knees.)

    If my mid or upper back goes out, a chiropractor can fix it quickly. But when my lower back goes out, it takes 2 weeks to recover, no mater what I do. I finally bought an upside-down machine. Same results, although cheaper and more convenient. I can get my mid or upper back to pop back into place in about 30 seconds. But if my lower back goes out, the machine does nothing. Maybe even making it hurt worse. I think that when my lower back goes out, there is tissue damage, but my upper is just an out-of-place vertebrae that’s probably pinching a nerve or something. Upper is easy to fix. Lower needs time to heal. (this is just a guess)

    November 21, 2013
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Bob, I never actually learned whether my low back pain was a muscle/tissue issue or a pinched nerve. I guess I assumed it was a pinched nerve because of the initial shooting pain when I’d have an incident. But it was the same as you… two weeks or so to recover.

    I’m don’t remember the author of the book making a distinction, tho in that NYT video, he demonstrates the pinching of a disc.

    I’d be happy to lend you my copy of the book. The exercises are actually pretty pleasant. I was initially worried that he would prescribe some painful Yoga stuff but he doesn’t. He actually warns about the damage that some Yoga exercises can do.

    November 21, 2013
  3. Bob Shepherd said:

    Thanks for the offer. Maybe I’ll pick up a copy of my own.

    My back is also out of whack, even when it is feeling good. Going down my spine following the vertebrae bumps, one of them is off to the side. My niece (who is now a Dr in physical therapy) says that it is twisted, rather than out of place. She said that over time, there is a chance that my wife could eventually push it straight. Give it a shove every day. Unfortunately, after a few days, we stopped keeping up with it so we don’t know if that works.

    November 21, 2013

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