Have you ever been at a rally and taken a really good look around? If you gazed long and hard, you probably realized the folks you're checking out aren't exactly the most stand-up group-literally. In other words, your motorcycling brethren are a bunch of slouches. The good news is that most of the general population has bad posture too, not just motorcyclists. The bad news is that the biggest cause of slouching is not laziness, but sitting.
That's right-simply resting back on your glutes can wreak havoc on your spine. It can shorten your hamstrings, abdominals and chest muscles and lengthen your upper back, lower back and quadriceps muscles. All those little disruptions add up to bad posture, which can also result in back pain. I can't tell you how many people I ride with have complained to me about lower back pain, neck issues, numb hands and so forth. And you've probably heard the complaints, too, or may have uttered one yourself. I'm not saying motorcycling is responsible for back issues, but it certainly doesn't help-in fact it will likely aggravate most acute conditions. With over 50 percent of the population suffering some sort of back trouble, there is a good chance you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Think of your skeleton as just a bunch of bones held together by muscles and attachments. The length of these attachments and the tone of the muscles affect the entire skeleton's position, or posture. And most people don't realize that sitting a particular way-be it with crossed legs, on your knees, Indian-style, whatever-or doing any one physical act repeatedly can alter the balance of strength from one side of your body to the other. If you did hundreds of pushups every day, what do you think would happen to your posture? If you said you'd get rounded-forward shoulders, then you get the idea. And doing 100 crunches every day isn't going to cut it, either. In fact doing those crunches, especially if you ride a cruiser, will probably give you lower back pain. That's because once again you're creating an imbalance-you are making the front abdominals very strong (or shorter), which will pull on the lower back (antagonist to the abs), eventually causing pain. Crunches and other ab exercises should be part of every exercise program, but more often than not they are only one of a few exercises people do.
Pinched nerves and bulging or herniated discs are commonplace nowadays as well. Holding your head in the wrong anatomical position, for example, while sitting or riding can eventually lead to disc-related problems. These problems aren't limited to the neck but can occur anywhere along the spine, with lower back or lumbar issues challenging the neck for the "king of pain" title. Over- or underdevelopment on either side changes how the bones align within the skeleton. The vertebrae in the spine eventually place pressure on the discs, causing inflammation, which then pushes on a nerve. Yep, pain is on the way. And like that incessant leak from your bike's primary, it won't go away on its own if you don't do anything about it.
Unfortunately a good chunk of our time in the modern world is spent in a chair. Think about it: You sit in a car (or bike) on the way to work, and then you sit all day at work. After clocking out, you end up at home on the couch, doing what? Yep, sitting and eating (we'll cover that can o' worms in another issue). Think about that balance between the front and back and what happens when it's off. Now add in your superlow-drop-seat, ape-hangered, forward-controlled, suicide-shifted, foot-clutched bike to the equation, and voila-back pain. And back pain equals neck pain. Neck pain can equal numb fingers. And let's not forget blood flow to the hands. It's all connected.
Now, of course not all of us have the crazy seating positions I mentioned, but most people I see riding are slouching, or round-backed and forward-shouldered, no matter what they ride. It's true even on the most basic stock bike setup. And sportbikes . . . well, they have issues all their own. Just look at the riders' necks. Stand that bike up vertically and check out their head position; they're looking to the sky! Just try walking around while peering up at the heavens and see what happens. You'll last 10 minutes, tops. This cockamamie position shortens the back neck muscles and lengthens the front neck muscles. Pretty bad stuff. Sportbike riders arch their backs-just the opposite of cruiser riders-and retract or pull back their shoulders. Again, it leads to imbalance.
What we want is balance. While both riding positions may feel comfortable and relaxed at the time, trust me-you'll pay later. I ride a rigid myself, and my friends always comment on how I look on the bike, being upright. Guess what? At fuel stops along the way to Laconia last year I stretched out, did some groovy exercise moves and felt great six hours later. My buddies, on the other hand (let's call them Whiner No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3), were moaning, "My back, my back," on their Softails. They should have followed my lead instead of knocking me.
In any case, I strongly believe most cruiser riders should make a conscious effort to sit up straight, pull their shoulders and head back, and perform corrective exercises and stretches regularly. Heck, I'd never ask people to give up their rigids, stretched customs or 2-foot ape-hanger bikes. After all, it is all about the look-right? If you ride a sportbike, you'll probably need extra neck stretches as well as weight exercises to feel right. You can't do much repositioning on a sportbike, as you're usually "locked in" when riding.
My goal here is to clue you into riding more comfortably and in a healthier way. Maybe it'll be by just helping you change a bad habit or two, or by showing you a few simple yet effective exercises in future issues to help relieve low back pain, neck pain and all their associated problems. I'm pretty sure these little moves will improve not just your motorcycle-riding life but your life, period. I guarantee you'll feel better, anyway.
Just do me a favor-don't do them in public with your chaps and vest on. Our image among the cagers has taken a beating as it is, and I don't think synchronized calisthenics with your chapter buddies is going to help the cause!
Alfonso Moretti has been a certified personal trainer for 17 years. He has his own fitness studio in Bethel, Connecticut, and specializes in total body condition, balance and posture. He currently rides a 2004 BMC chopper.