Ouch, my aching shoulders!

Hey Lee, just ordered your book and I’m looking forward to reading it. In the meantime I have a question for you related to posture and bike setup and how they affect muscle tension.

I’ve had trouble the past few seasons with cramping and pain in my upper back, trapezius, lower neck area whenever I do rides longer than 2.5 to 3 hours. I’ve found a little relief when I can consciously roll my pelvis to bring my core muscles into a sort of supporting role, but that’s only a brief relief.

The cramping and pain happen most often when on rides with long climbs at the start. I live and ride in western Montana and frequently have climbs of at least 45 minutes to an hour, with longer climbs on longer rides.

I don’t know whether I just unconsciously tense those muscles when I ride, or whether my bike setup is wrong, or whether it’s my climbing technique. I’m stuck on trying to figure out how to get some relief.

For setup info I’m 5’10” and have long arms (34″ sleeve). I have my bikes set up with about a 1.5″ drop from saddle to grips when I’ve got the saddle at normal traverse/climb height. I’ve got my top tube + stem + seatpost setback pretty much an equal distance on all 3 bikes that I ride. Same handlebar on all 3 bikes.

Do you have any ideas on what is causing the cramping and pain, and what can be done to help?


Sean O’Neil
Missoula, Montana

The more you click, the more I can post. Lee Likes Groceries dot com!

This was a loooooooong climb to the top of Lower Rock Creek Trail near Mammoth, CA, circa 2002. Check out the braaap-style Enduro position. You can pedal plenty hard, and it’s much more comfy on epic rides. Tour de California 2002

Hi Sean.

This is a great question — a complex one — but I’ll try to lay it out simply:

The problems

If your neck, shoulders and upper back are hurting, then you have one or both of these:

1. Too much weight on your bars, which tires those muscles.

2. Too much tension in those muscles, which often stems from #1 but can come from being a hyper/tense person, Mr. I Ride Three Bikes. 😉

The causes

If you have a 1.5″ drop from saddle to bar, it sounds like you have a traditional road/XC long/low position. This helps you maintain traction on climbs and pedal powerfully, but it puts a lot of weight on your bars, which strains your upper body (and makes it hard to descend with your weight balanced on your pedals, where it should be).

With this position, in order to keep your hands light you must:

1. Pedal really hard, so your weight is going into the cranks, not your bars. And/or

2. Have a very strong core.

That racer-dude position is very hard to maintain for long rides.

Another reason to run a short stem: BRAAAP!!! A 2005 Enduro this time …

The solutions

As with all things, this is part bike setup, part technique.

1. Keep your hands light. Keep your arms and shoulders relaxed. This applies up and down, left and right.

2. Strengthen your core. Always a good idea. James Wilson’s MTB Strength Training Program will make you hate James in the weight room, but you’ll love him on the bike.

2. Proper posture is much easier with a sane position.

– Take one of those three bikes. Switch from the long stem and low bars to a short stem and high bars.

– Raise your bars until they’re even with your saddle. You must run a short stem, say 50-70mm. (I always run a 50; Brian Lopes always runs a 70).

– With your arms straight, your torso should be around 60 degrees. You can bend your arms to get lower.

This setup rocks your weight back onto the saddle, which makes it easier to push your Awesome Power into the pedals rather than your bars. It also helps you braaap on the descents.

Rock it and tell me how it goes!

— Lee

BTW: You say this is more of a problem when the ride starts with a climb. I guarantee you’re all tense and spastic. Relax and warm up gently — you have a few more hours!

5 replies
  1. Biscuit says:

    I have a slightly similar issue on long climbs where I find myself tensing up my shoulders. I make a concious effort to wiggle them around and drop them back down. I’ve also found switching hand positions helps a lot.

    I generally rotate between a standard grip, thumb on top of bar, and pretending I have bar ends.

  2. leelikesbikes says:

    Great advice. Wiggle your arms, drop your shoulders, lift the corners of your mouth …

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks, Lee. I’ll shorten up the stem and work on my core. And I’ll try to relax a bit more.

    Biscuit, thanks for that advice. Just from experimenting, I find that I use similar hand positions. The thumbs-on-top position is really good for a break and different muscle engagement when doing standing climbs on a SS bike.

  4. ron says:

    Don’t forget to braaaap! Every time your feeling down and out give youself a rest until you can just braaaa-braaap. Don’t forget how much fun that is.

  5. leelikesbikes says:

    THREE-MONTH UPDATE from Sean, who asked the original question:

    — — —

    Hey Lee,

    A couple of months ago I wrote in with a question about shoulder cramping. You suggested a bit more upright position, and that helped a fair amount. But it turns out there were two other things that I needed to fix or work on.

    One was that I was riding with lazy posture, and not engaging my core enough. This caused me to use shoulder tension to solidify my body for driving power into the pedals.

    The other was that I wasn’t letting my hip belt on my hydration pack carry enough of the load. The shoulder straps were too snug, resulting in a lot of weight being carried by my shoulders. I was tensing the shoulders to carry the weight.

    With the upright position, a stronger core, and a properly snugged hydration pack, I’m much more comfortable.

    By the way, I figured out those additional two items while doing long fire road climbs on my singlespeed. Great place to try different pedaling techniques. I just stumbled upon those other two items when sorting out different ways to use my muscles on long climbs.

    Thanks for that stem length/rise tip, it did make a big difference.


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