How Your Back Influences Your Riding
Caveat: I am not a physician, just a lifelong biker that’s sniffed too much gasoline. Consult a licensed professional for advice tailored to your individual body.
When you look at a motorcycle it is very obvious that the frame is critical to the overall structure. The frame is the key piece to which everything is attached. It wouldn’t matter how good the suspension was, how powerful the brakes were, or how technologically superior the engine might be, if the frame is weak the bike will never perform properly. When it needs to be strong, a weak frame will flex and move, making the rider feel nervous and unsure of the behavior of their motorcycle.
Your back is just like the frame, it is the critical junction for all points of contact when on a motorcycle. Your hands on the controls, your butt in the seat, your feet on the pegs, each is a critical point of contact necessary for stability and control when we ride. Regardless of physical fitness, if your back is in a weak position when seated on your bike, you cannot perform properly or happily when riding your bike.
Each motorcycle is unique in the geometrical relationship it creates for the rider between hands, butt, and feet. This relationship is commonly known as the “comfort triangle,” it determines the position of the rider’s back, which then affects overall comfort. If the geometry is correct it can be comfortable, but if it’s incorrect, it will be fatiguing and potentially painful.
When considering the best motorcycle for riders with bad backs, I will show you many factors that influence the answer. The goal here is to give you a clear understanding of how to fit your unique body on a bike that matches the kind of riding you love. I will show you some examples of motorcycles that for the average person, will be easy to find a healthy, comfortable riding position.
What to Look for in Your Bike & Gear
Let’s begin with some simple but often overlooked basics. These are the small but significant items I learned through my own painful experiences, or better, those of fellow riders. I have already suffered some of these, I am sure my tips will help you.
“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”
― Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
- Nothing in your back pockets. Get rid of the wallets, Skoal cans, pocket knives, whatever you may have. Leave your back pockets empty. When you sit on an object in your back pocket, it will cause you to sit slightly uneven. This tilt requires your body/back to compensate, putting uneven pressure on the glutes and the musculature supporting your spine and shoulders.
- How does that jacket fit? If your jacket causes pressure around the back of your neck, or any form of restriction when you grip the bars, find a better jacket. Discomfort at your collar can manifest as pain in the neck, shoulders, and lower back muscles, depending on how we end up positioning ourselves in an attempt to mitigate that discomfort.
- Loosen up that belt. For some riders, the belt which was comfortable when standing and walking becomes excessively tight when sitting. This can apply pressure or twisting to the lumbar region, holding the rider in an uncomfortable position, fatiguing muscles, restricting blood flow, or increasing pressure over critical nerves.
- Stretch. It only takes a moment before, during, and after a ride, to stretch your shoulders, back, and legs. There are multiple published medical studies citing the benefits of stretching the body’s muscles.
Now that we covered what helps before getting on the bike, let’s focus on the bike itself. I’m always shocked by how differently people approach driving a car versus driving a motorcycle. The vast majority of us, when we get into a car for the first time, follow a similar setup: adjust the seat, adjust the mirrors, take a moment to get everything just right. But on a motorcycle? Pull on a helmet, get a leg over the seat, and go. To maximize the comfort of your body, and control of the machine, we really need to take the time to fit our motorcycles to our bodies.
Every motorcycle offers some adjustability. In case you missed it earlier, it is critical to fit the motorcycle to each rider’s unique proportions.
- When sitting on your motorcycle, look to get as flat-footed as possible on the ground. Never underestimate the forces at play on your back muscles when only one leg is engaged trying to push your bike off the stand, or save your bike from dropping when coming to a stop.
- Choose a bike with a seat height that matches your body.
- Some height adjustment can be found by changing the rear suspension preload.
- Some seats offer a degree of adjustment or have a factory option for a lower height.
- Front shocks may have some adjustability in the triple tree to lower the front end of the bike.
- With your feet on the pegs and your back upright, shoulders relaxed, and pelvis in a neutral position you want a comfortable reach to the handlebars. When we overreach, the natural movement is to push forward at the shoulders, typically creating a degree of slouch. This rounds the back and alters the position of the pelvis, adding stress to the spine and lower back. Too much slouch can exacerbate a pre-existing back issue or fatigue your lower back muscles, leading to soreness while riding.
- Handlebars can be adjusted to a small degree fore and aft.
- Handlebar risers can be added (check control cable slack for fitment), giving additional rise and reach adjustment. This is a common addition for adventure bikes and cruisers.
- Replace the handlebars completely for improved fit. Some cruiser riders have found that by bringing the hands to just below shoulder height, it can help posture and overall comfort. Often called “mini apes” there is a huge aftermarket in which to find the right fit for your height and reach.
- Find the right seat– one that keeps your pelvis and lower back in neutral alignment, with good lumbar support.
- Gel inserts can be added to factory seats, improving the weight distribution and softening possible pressure points. (A great option on Sportbikes)
- Aftermarket seat manufacturers have deeper contouring saddles offering improved pelvic stability and support for the lumbar area. (An excellent choice for Adventure and Sport Touring bikes)
- Backrests can be added to many seat styles. This additional support can greatly improve posture when the riding position has your feet out in front of the knees. (A perfect option for Cruiser and Touring bikes)
- Hand Controls are quick and easy to fit to your needs. Most brake and clutch levers have simple adjustments for both reach and angle. Tilt the levers to create a neutral reach, you should not have to tilt your wrist when moving your fingers. The reach should allow your fingers to land naturally on the inside of the finger pad when your palm is resting normally on the grip.
This is a perfect bike to feed your sportbike craving when your back can no longer handle the extreme riding position of the GSXR. Positioned more upright, the Renthal Fatbar, lower pegs, and a deeper, more plush seat will allow riders to take full advantage of the 150.0 HP (109.5 kW) and 108.0 Nm (79.7 ft-lbs) of torque this GSXR-derived long-stroke engine provides.
Packed with all the goodies; Suzuki Advanced Traction Control System, Suzuki Easy Start, ABS, Low RPM Assist, Brembo brakes, and a fully adjustable KYB suspension, this is not some soft compromise bike. It will absolutely deliver the crisp turn-in, strong braking, and addictive acceleration you want from a sportbike.
At the end of the ride, this bike will leave you smiling, not whimpering. There is enough adjustability to find a great fit for a wide range of riders.
Packing 94 HP, the CB650R is an awesome middleweight naked sport bike. Honda made a slight change in handlebar angle for the 2021 model, meant to provide easier turn in, it also keeps the riding position very neutral and comfortable.
This model Honda is quite loaded. Equipped with ABS, a slipper clutch, a high visibility digital display, and an under seat USB port. The 2021 model has a new lighter, fully adjustable Showa front fork and adjustable Showa rear suspension.
The CB650R’s seat height is a comfortable 31.9 inches (81 cm) and the overall weight is a very manageable 447 lbs (202.8 kg). Honda provides an excellent, back-friendly package with the CB650R for the rider wanting an amazing urban street shredding ride.
Triumph Tiger 900 GT & Rally
Coming in five packages from Triumph, the new Tiger 900s are packed full of Adventure goodness. The 94 hp, 888 cc inline triple has a smooth power delivery and unique exhaust note which sounds phenomenal.
Triumph provides the latest technology: a 7 in TFT display, selectable rider modes, heated seats and grips, Bluetooth connectivity, and the list goes on.
The Tiger 900 GT and Rally models have a seat height of 31.88-32.67 in (81-83 cm). The GT Low has a reduced seat height of 29.92-30.70 in (76-78 cm). The adjustability of the suspension and overall geometry Triumph designed onto these Tiger models means a wide variety of riders with back challenges can find a setup that feels right for them.
BMW R 1250 GS Adventure
The R1250GS is the gold standard in the Adventure bike class. Knowing this, I am not going to worry about sharing all the details and specs, just the critical areas surrounding rider comfort.
The first area to mention, this bike does sit fairly high. The 35-inch seat height in standard form will not be right for everyone, thankfully BMW fully understands this. Talk to your dealer, BMW has numerous options available for little or no cost, helping better fit the bike to you. Higher and lower seats, suspension lowering, and footpeg positioning are all adjustments that can be made. The stock handlebars allow as much as a 3 cm height adjustment.
The R1250GS is highly regarded for its comfortable ergonomics, plus it’s a bike among the most supported by aftermarket manufacturers– such popularity and support mean you can find what will work to keep you comfortable for big miles on this machine.
Moto Guzzi MGX-21
Dripping with carbon fibre, and a stunning 1380cc, 90-degree transverse V-twin engine boldly protruding with red cylinder head covers, this bike will grab your attention. It is impossible not to stare. Crowds will gather and you will need to be prepared to answer questions. “It’s Italian…” “Thank you, yes it is dead sexy,” you get my drift. Even its moniker “Flying Fortress” is badass.
The riding position on the MGX-21 is very good for most riders. The fairing does a good job keeping the pressure off your chest at higher speeds, but I would suggest adding a backrest for additional support. Companies such as Corbin offer more contoured seats and Moto Guzzi offers floorboards, these two add ons would cover the most common changes to help provide a pain-free ride.
I share this to highlight, you can still find awesome unique cruisers that are not American or Japanese, and deliver many miles of comfort.
Indian Vintage Dark Horse
Like a perfectly tailored black suit, Indian knows how to build the perfect classic cruiser. The Thunder Stroke 111 ci V twin makes 119 ft-lbs of torque at 3000 rpm and will move you with ease. This is a big bike with very well sorted engineering. The weight sits low and is easy to manage, making it very fun to ride. The handling is smooth and impressive.
The factory floorboards, deep supportive saddle, and excellent factory handlebars put the rider in a very comfortable riding position. Indian offers many versions of the Chief if the murdered out aesthetic isn’t your taste and they all have the same well-sorted geometry to keep your back in check, but with many looks to suit a wide variety of styles.
If American Iron is your flavour, Indian Motorcycles is the original.
Honda Goldwing Tour DCT
I present to you the Mack Daddy of comfort on two wheels. The Goldwing is renowned among the iron-butt class for ergonomics that make devouring asphalt a simple relaxing pleasure. The six-cylinder engine is so smooth you may find yourself checking to know if it’s running.
Honda engineers have spent an insane number of hours perfecting the rider position on the Goldwing to provide comfort for the broadest range of body shapes. That being said, when finding a way to soothe your sore back, I think the Goldwing may have more seat choices available in the aftermarket than any other bike. You will find a saddle perfect to relieve any pain you currently have. Multiple backrest options, gel cushioning, seat heaters, you name it and someone makes it for the Goldwing.
These are heavy bikes with extremely good balance. The seat height of 29.3 inches helps to get feet flat on the ground and pushing it off the stand is not a moment of panic, wondering if you will tweak your back.
Yamaha has long been a leader of the Sport Touring segment with the FJR1300ES, and for very good reasons. Powered by a 1298cc DOHC inline 4 cylinder engine, outputting 142 hp and 100 ft-lbs of torque that is silky smooth and able to pull strongly from all rpm ranges.
The key feature about this Yamaha is the Electronic Suspension, hence the ES designation. This is very useful when needing to soften the suspension while on the go, potentially protecting your back over rough tarmac.
Yamaha has had many years to perfect the riding position on this bike, as evidenced by the many happy miles owners have logged.
The moderate seat height of 31.7 inches, and the position of the bars at a comfortable natural reach work to keep your back in a supported position.
If you still crave some speed on your long trips, the FJR1300ES offers it up while still comfortable enough to protect your back.
I have tried to highlight options for riders with back pain that hopefully show you don’t always need to fully change from the style of bike you enjoy. It is true that you may need to adjust from going completely knee down, but don’t think that means you need to shy away from all performance bikes. Yes, you might need to reconsider sending it so hard over that berm on your next Adventure trip, but still make that ride!
As the last item to consider, companies such as Back-A-Line, make highly regarded back braces. Many forum boards have plenty of rider opinions on the value of these belts. Speak to your Medical practitioner about your specific issue and discuss what you have read here.
Now get a leg back over, and enjoy some pain-free riding.
Want to Learn More?
We have a whole section of our website dedicated to riders who are just starting out. Check out some of our other articles:
- Beginners Guide to Safely Riding a Motorcycle in the Rain
- Shopping for a Used Motorcycle Helmet
- Guide for New Bikers: Finding a First Bike Made for You
- The Must Have Tools to Maintain Your Motorcycle
- Common Mistakes New Riders Make and How to Avoid Them