Backaches on Motorcycles

How to prevent sore backs when riding motorcycles.

Riders strike all kinds of peculiar poses to relieve the backache that comes from having to support their torso with their lower-back muscles.
Riders strike all kinds of peculiar poses to relieve the backache that comes from having to support their torso with their lower-back muscles.Ducati

Ergonomics is the designing and arranging of things like the bike's seat, footpegs, and bars so that the rider can get to and use its hand and foot controls. Sportbike ergonomics in particular engender a love/hate relationship, which deserves some attention.

In using the controls for their intended purpose (cornering), we love the body position they dictate. Namely, the more aggressive pose of feet back and arms forward. The hate factor can be seen on any freeway, any day, where the rider is resting one arm on the tank to support their torso and head rather than fatiguing their backs.

The spine is composed of gliding-type joints, the vertebrae, which are stacked but otherwise unsupported. Unlike the ball-and-socket-type of the shoulders and femur, they rely exclusively on muscle and connective tissue to hold them in place.

The 23 vertebrae of the backbone form a cantilever structure for lifting or supporting the torso, just like our neck does for our head. Those bones are the connection points for the muscles that support the torso and head plus helmet weight. We don’t usually consider the spine and neck as being contributors to the bike’s control usage, yet they bridge virtually every important action we perform.

We are rightfully taught not to lift while bending over but to squat and use our legs to lift, with the spine more vertically positioned so as not to injure ourselves. Lower-back fatigue and pain, which is not uncommon for sportbike riders, is primarily due to using the muscles that run along both sides of the spine to support our back.

These muscles are called the spinal erectors and are anchored on the lower back’s vertebrae. The pain is a result of tugging on the vertebrae, which is how we cantilever the body and head. This tends to pull the unsupported backbones out of alignment. The best example of using these muscles is when we arch our backs.

“Lower back fatigue and pain is primarily due to using the muscles that run along both sides of the spine.”

Arching the back isn’t necessarily bad—in fact it’s a good limbering exercise and part of most limbering routines. The problem stems from the fact that as we ride, there are intermittent loads put on the back’s cantilevered structure caused by road variations bouncing the torso. The pounding is unavoidable, fatiguing and stressful and eventually causing pain.

You may not want to hear the solution—it is connected to those abdominal crunches that you should have been doing. By tightening up our core muscles, which include the abs, we create a supporting structure that allows for relaxing the spinal erectors. This technique is most effective and easiest when you rotate your hips forward, the opposite of where they go when you arch the back. This allows the torso to more or less slump over the rigid muscles and reduces spinal stress.

The central connection point for all body movement is the pelvic bone structure. It is also the largest of all our bony parts and provides the central anchoring point for both the torso and legs. Pelvic stability is an essential element in reducing the backache problem and facilitates the abs and core muscles’ ability to support the back. Locking onto the tank with the knees or inner thighs provides that much-needed pelvic stability. In fact, it is the only means for engaging it.

In practice, most of us cannot be expected to do a 20-mile freeway commute with our cores tightened and supporting the torso; it is possible but unreal. What can be done, however, is to alternate between the arched back support and core support techniques as you ride in circumstances that require both hands and arms on the bars as opposed to one on the tank to relieve the backache.