Riding a bike with a correct saddle height is the number one and most important factor in ride comfort and power transfer efficiency.
Just imagine yourself riding a kids bike to mimic a saddle being set too low, and you can understand vividly how those two factors suffer. And as a kid we’ve also ridden bikes which were too big for us, maybe it was one of our parent’s bikes, which was just as detrimental too comfort and pedalling efficiency.
But without having to spend hundreds of euros on a professional bike fitting, can you achieve a correct saddle height yourself? That’s the question we’re going to be answering in this article.
I’m a casual rider. I don’t do competitions, road races, triathlons, iron mans. I’m not working towards some power output goal, maximising watts, VO2 max and the like.
The last 10 years has seen me gain weight, increase time behind a computer screen exponentially, reduce flexibility significantly, having a serious cycling accident with me ending up needing surgery, and coping with years of lower back and knee pain among others.
I just want to enjoy my rides more, which will largely be related to increase comfort and reduce aches and pains, of which I have a lot.
DIY vs bike fitting to gauge the correct saddle height
Bike fitters have tools at their exposal, I assume the casual rider has not. We need to take into consideration what these tools are, and if possible, try to find alternative methods to achieve the same goals those tools are meant for.
Pressure mapping hard- and software
Saddle height has implications on the pressure applied to the saddle. Adjusting saddle height, can relieve pressure and move the pressure in the right direction fore and aft.
GebioMized developed a smart saddle cover that embeds a thin film, flexible pressure sensor mat that is able to drape over almost any saddle shape to collect real-time pressure data between the rider & saddle while riding.Bikerumor.com
Real-time motion-capturing and angle calculation
Either with the use of motion capturing video recorder or by sensory application can a real-time bike motion be captured. These serve as guidelines within which to operate or as standalone bike fits.
Some devices like Selle Italia’s idmatch bike lab use angle parameters solely to achieve the desired bike fit and correct saddle height.
Rather than sitting on a bike with a video doing the motion capturing, Retül offers bike fit motion sensors that are placed directly onto the body’s joints.
You could mimic these tools by video taping the rider and measuring the angles yourself using open source software like Kinovea.
A bit of controversy surrounds the concept of relying on angles to achieve a desired bikefit, with some professional fitters not using captured angle data at all. The difference between a claimed 45-minute idmatch bike fit and the 3-hour Neill Stanbury bike fit says enough about the difference in approach.
Intake from a medical perspective
The biggest difference still, between a purely mathematical approach to bike fitting and any other form, is that the bike fitter will want to get to know the client before they sit on the bike fitting jig.
A rider of the bike is seized up by a professional with a medical background, for instance in physiotherapy, to gauge a person’s limitations and areas of asymmetry. Extremely common are:
- difference in size between feet
- difference in size between legs
- pelvic asymmetry
- hip impingement
I have all four of the aforementioned limitations
The bike demands the highest degree of symmetry of any sport you’ll ever do in your life. And so most of the complexity of fitting a person to a bike is resolving asymmetry. One-sided problems, one-sided knee pain, foot pain, whatever it is.Neill Stanbury
After the intake and assessment, the rider is then put on a bike jig to confirm if the limitations and asymmetric attributes show themselves in how the rider behaves on the bike. An incorrect bike setup and saddle height in itself can lead to problems, but can make existing issues worse and cause injuries in areas of risk, because the human body needs to work extra hard to compensate.
I don’t see how you can transfer the skills and trained eye of a medical expert performing a bike fitting service into a DIY bike fit.
Cam Nichols has multiple videos about the bike fitting process he underwent from Neill Stanbury. In a way that can be clearly understood by anyone he explains the mechanics of cycling. These videos are highly recommended and I’ve taken the liberty of extracting a couple of interesting quotes.
Some of the better known motion tracking software recommendations of knee angles […] those seat heights tend to almost universally somewhere between 10 and 20mm. too high.Neill Stanbury
What I look for is a smooth, controlled extension at the bottom of the stroke. So as the leg starts to straighten out at the bottom of the stroke, as it reaches it maximal straightness, whatever angle that may be, if the person has got full control of that movement, then their seat height is either too low or just right.Neill Stanbury
When they start to get a situation where this happens, and at the back of the knee you start to see a rate of change of leg extension which starts to increase… So it comes down, it’s extending at some normal controlled method and it flickers…
When you start to see that flicker, that means that the seat is too high for that particular person, who’s got that particular cleat position, and that q-factor and that saddle, and all the other parameters. Let’s assume that everything else is perfect, and you put the person’s seat too high, and you put them under a solid load… You have to test this under load. I tell my riders to ride at a sort of threshold load. Something around what they can maintain for 20 minutes or so.
And you look for that control of the leg extension. What’s effectively happening here, is if the knee get’s too straight for that particular person, the quadriceps, which acts over the front of the leg to extend the knee, starts to overpower the hamstring at the bottom of the stroke. And you basically end up with a power differential, which makes you lose control of the leg extension.Neill Stanbury
What [a saddle set too high] will do is affect is affect other things [referring to improper saddle height not affecting power output too much]. Like the person will start to compensate around the seat being to high. They’ll start dropping one hip down, to protect their dominant leg or something like that. So they’re more likely to get injured. If the seats too high you’ll tend to burn up in your quads a lot. […]
If you’re doing some hard efforts, some 3- or 5 minute efforts, and your quads are burning up, and you feel no fatigue in your hamstrings it often means the seat is too high. It can also mean it’s too far back or too forward, but let’s forget about that for the subject of simplicity.
You should, at the end of a lot of really hard intervals, pretty evenly fatigued, between your quads, your hamstrings, and hopefully your glutes, which means that you’re spreading the load of power-generation across the largest possible surface area of muscles. It’s the ideal scenario.Neill Stanbury
All of the mathematical rules tend to be fairly useless for a large proportion of people.Neill Stanbury
Stanbury’s DIY approach to set the correct saddle height
Stanbury’s approach for measuring the correct saddle height is both doable and probably effective for anyone trying it. If you have a turbo trainer, use it. Otherwise use a flat straight of tarmac
- stick your heel on the pedal
- straighten your leg so the knee locks out
- lower the seat about 20mm. from there
- ride at a pace you can keep up for about 20 min.
- every three minutes, raise the seat for 3mm.
At some point you will start losing control of the bottom of your stroke. Probably you’ll feel that in one of your knees before the other. If you feel asymmetry and choppiness of the stroke of either leg, lower your seat 2-3mm. to attain the correct saddle height.
Stanbury’s benefits of achieving a correct saddle height
According to Stanbury, a seat set to high will cause the quads, which are attached to the front of your pelves, to pull your body down onto your hands.
- A correct saddle height engages the hamstrings, which are attached to the back of your pelvis. This causes the opposite, meaning they’ll cause your upper body to move back upwards and lift weight from your hands.
- Because you’re lighter on your hands, you’re better able to achieve balance. A way to test this is to release the grips but keep your hands hovering over the handlebars. Don’t be alarmed if you feel your speed increasing because your legs are pushing harder down, trying to maintain balance. Do you feel you stay in place, or start to excessively slip forward on the saddle? If so, it could be an indication your saddle is set to high. It could also mean the nose of the saddle is tilted downwards, or the reach is too long.
- A correct saddle height enables a more efficient pedal stroke, with the effort spread out across the entire leg, instead of primarily attributed to the quads. What Stansbury calls not being “preferentially fatigued”.
- A marked improvement in energy conservation in a long time of riding. Not so much an increase in power output, which tends to me more limited by a rider’s cardiac output, oxygen transfer, and mitochondrial density (e.g. heart and lungs).
I also found a video of excentric bike fitter Steve Hogg. What’s interesting is Steve draws the same type of conclusions as Neill, but has a very different and unique way of describing it, which added to my later DIY approach to setting the correct saddle height.
When we pedal a bike, the glutes aided by the hamstring, push the upper leg down. At the same time the quads extend or straighten the lower leg. Now, the calves are also involved, but I’m trying to keep it very simple. Because the hamstrings are contracting while the quads are contracting, that place is a limit on how fast the quads can contract.
When you see a sudden acceleration of the knee towards the bottom of the stroke, no matter how subtle, that’s a sign that that person’s nervous system has switched off their hamstrings as a self-protection measure. So the quads are no longer restrained and that rate of extension of the knee increases. What it means is that they’ve lost control of the motion.Steve Hogg
You’ve got to be able to sit reasonably squarely on the seat. […] And you want to achieve that stability passively. You don’t want to be using muscular effort to be stable on a bike, which means the rider themselves has to be reasonably functional. Everyone’s out there is trying to condition themselves for cycling in a cardiovascular sense. But you also have to condition yourself to hold that position for the length of time you’ve got to do it. And everybody who rides a bike and doesn’t stretch regularly has got their priorities wrong.
Most people sit too much. Most people don’t realize how dis-functional they are. I’ve got a simple series of stability exercises I put people through. My feeling is that anyone who wants to ride a bike should be able to nail those 7 compound movements with ease. And I don’t think that’s the height of athletic achievement. I think that’s the bare minimum requirement. I would get maybe one person a year out of 3- to 500 hundred who can do that.Steve Hogg
Any challenge to our position in space will cause us to automatically compensate. That’s what our nervous system is incredibly adept at doing. But all of our compensatory responses increase the difference between left and right side function. That’s a bit of an issue because a bike is a symmetrical apparatus in a positional sense.
If someone’s seat height is jacked up too high, it’s an exceptionally rare person, who’ll sit squarely on the seat and equally overextend both legs. What they’ll do at an unconscious level is their nervous system will pick a leg to look after, which is almost always but not always the right leg. And a leg to sacrifice, which is almost always but not always the left leg.
How that manifest is that person will start dropping or rolling their right hip forward, which causes the left leg to overextend, and also challenge the plain of motion of the left knee, hip, and ankle constantly. […]
Bike fitting in a sense is getting rid of challenges in our position in space. Decompensating people so they don’t have to compensate.Steve Hogg
The Hogg’s Hill Climb method for setting the correct saddle height
Hogg’s method of setting the correct saddle height mirrors that from Stanbury’s, where you achieve the desired height by testing with 3mm. increments. The big difference is he says you need to ride up a hill and here’s why:
Why up a hill? Because up a hill everyone relative to their normal pedalling technique drops their heels more. Because they’re trying to get behind that pedal as early as possible in the stroke. And when we drop our heels our legs extend moreSteve Hogg
- Pick a piece of tarmac with a descent inclination
- Ride up the hill with 1 gear higher than you would normally, to force yourself to put in the effort.
- Determine whether or not your weight is evenly supported between left and right sides of the saddle
- Determine whether both feet reach fluently through the bottom of the stroke
- If 2 and 3 can be positively answered, raise the seat 3mm. and repeat the process
- If 2 and/or 3 fails, drop the seat 5mm. That’s probably the correct saddle height.
My approach to achieve the correct saddle height DIY
I’ve mixed both Stanbury’s and Hogg’s approach and taken elements from both to achieve the correct saddle height. The goal was to keep it simple. Come up with something literally anybody could do. And make it somewhat measurable.
Here it is.
Setting up the test
Before you start you need to be set up correctly to effectively test your current saddle height
You need a bike with either SPD pedals, clipless pedals, or flat pedals with pins. That’s because you need to be able to use your hamstrings with a back-and upward motion. And you can’t do that if the pedals don’t stick to your feet.
2. Saddle position and tilt
Make sure your saddle is levelled out (0°) and centered on the rails. Or that you’re very sure your current saddle position is the one you want to be riding with. You don’t want an incorrect saddle setup to add noise to the feel of the saddle height.
Setting the correct saddle position and tilt is the subject of another piece of content
3. Bibs/shorts and shoes
Use your preferred cycling bibs and shoes. The padding in your shorts and the height of your shoe soles matter for obvious reasons.
4. Arch support insoles
If you have (orthopaedic) arch support insoles like I do, use them. You want to minimize existing asymmetries in leg length and feet limitations that add noise to your test.
5. Warming up
Make sure you’re warmed up sufficiently. For me this takes 10 to 15 minutes. You’ll need to use what Neill Stanbury calls “body awareness” to gauge, which muscles are used at what position of the pedal stroke. If you’re not warmed up, your muscles will provide you with different and incorrect signals under load.
Pick a stretch of road or trail with a light inclination, to ensure you need to make a concerted effort to scale it at speed, and can do so for around 1 to 2 minutes.
If you pick a trail, make sure you don’t have to get out of the saddle because of potholes or anything.
7. Saddle starting height
Your saddle needs to be set at a certain default height. I use Neill’s approach by putting the heel of my foot on the pedal and setting the saddle in such a way I can lockout my knee.
If you can’t reach the pedal this way or you can’t lockout the knee the saddle is respectively set too high and too low.
If you feel you’ve reached the correct saddle height, lower it by 20mm. That’s your starting height.
Testing the saddle height
What we’re looking for is a controlled motion that engages all the muscles of the leg necessary to pedal, not just the quadriceps. Here’s how you should perform your test:
- Start riding your picked stretch of road/trail.
- Ride at 80 percent of your maximum capacity.
- Make sure you actively pull your leg back and up through the downstroke to engage the hamstrings.
- Make sure your upper body stays in place and doesn’t move all over the place while pedalling, the focus is on the legs, not the rest of the body.
- While riding, accelerate hard to 90+ percent of your max. capacity for 10 seconds. Don’t come out of the saddle and keep your upper body in place at all times. Your legs should do the far majority of the work.
- Ride the same stretch of road/trail. After each turn, give your legs some time to recover for the next run, move your saddle up 3mm. and ride the stretch again
When you perform the test, there’s a point where you can clearly feel your hamstrings disengaging and the load of the work moving to your quadriceps, causing them to fatigue much faster than on previous runs.
This means that you’ve reached that point where you, what bike fitters call, “lose control of the stroke”. E.g. your saddle is so high you cannot engage all your muscles and your quads need to do all of the work. This means you’ll notice
- you have less power
- you have less speed
- your quads will burn up much faster
- you will notice a spent sensation in them afterwards
- you feel an inability to effectively engage your hamstrings
Give your legs time to recoup. Drop your seat 5mm. and run the track again. You should feel your hamstrings re-engaging, more power, more speed, and less burn in the quads.
Going back and forth a bit around this height with 1-2 mm. increments up and down should provide you with the most optimal setup. Do a couple of extra runs, listen to your body and legs, and notice that threshold of disengaging and re-engaging.
Concluding remarks on setting the correct saddle height
After I watched Hogg talking about conditioning yourself to hold a position, I remembered once being complemented on how steady I could sit on a bike when viewed from behind, while leading the train of road cyclists in the wind.
I remembered how I would do 4 time trials a week of 60 kilometers staying in the same position in the drops for the entire ride.
And I remember losing the ability to do so, with pains and aches settling in my body, which finally ended in me quitting road cycling.
It made me realize it wasn’t a possible incorrect seat height, which caused it. It was the loss of flexibility and core strength, which caused me to go from 200 kilometer rides to not being able to do 60 without pain.
So I can look for the optimal DIY correct saddle height techniques all day. But I probably already have those by now, and it won’t mean nothing if I don’t work on my body’s functionality as well. Which is something which will be the subject of future content.