How important is your seat post height?

How important is seat height? We all know someone who freaks out if you change their seatpost height and tell you how if it is not just right it will ruin their power output and knees. But how valid are those concerns?

If we are talking about power production then there are obvious advantages to having your seat in the right general area. You can produce more strength and power when your legs are getting near full extension. I’m not sure that a half inch really matters that much in the grand scheme of things (some people have it down to the millimeter) but having too much bend in your knees will rob you of some power. I also think that mountain bikers should stand more when they pedal but that is getting off topic.

However, I don’t think that your seat height plays as big a role in keeping your knees injury free as we are lead to believe. Here is what I think is happening…

Most people’s knees cave in when they squat. On the bike this is seen as your knees caving in towards your top tube which tends to get worse as your seat get lower. So, what is really happening is that the dysfunction in the hips is causing the knees to track poorly which gets magnified the more your knees are bent.

The poor knee tracking is the real culprit, not necessarily the seat height. If you find that your knees hurt if your seatpost is a little too low you need to work on single leg exercises and glute activation drills to work on leg stability while pedaling.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Sean says:

    Interesting thoughts, James.

    I would suggest looking into what road cyclists have discovered from spending over 100 years refining ranges of optimal seat height and location. I don’t think road cycling information should be ignored, even though the type of pedaling and type of terrain ridden is very different. It’s still pedaling a bike, after all.

    My own experience is that a too-low seat puts undue stress on the patellar tendon and quadriceps heads. I have an optimal height and I’m sensitive to it, especially on rides that last over 3 hours.

    I think you’re correct about knee tracking causing problems, but I don’t think that explains the too-low-seat pain.

    Good job stimulating more thought on this question!

    Reply • April 1 at 11:02 am
  2. Rick Beauchamp says:

    A road biker is not riding in any situations where they need to get behind the seat. Mountain bikers need to get back when going down hills and in other situations. I always thought narrow seats were torture but we need to find a compromise between narrow seats, and the right seat post height to facilitate getting back when we need to. We will always have a lower seat compared to road bikers.


    Reply • April 1 at 12:07 pm
  3. Sean says:

    I think you missed my point, Rick. Maybe I should have been a bit more thorough?

    I spend the warm months doing long MTB rides, my average weekday ride is 2.5 to 4 hours, and my weekend rides are between 5 and 8 hours. On such rides, saddle height is very important to my ability to finish the rides and to be able to ride again within the next couple of days. A too-low saddle causes me problems. And I’m not alone on this. All of my riding friends agree that saddle height is important.

    The reason for adjustable seatposts like a Crank Bros Joplin is to have both worlds covered. There is an optimal saddle height and position for long-distance or long-duration pedaling, and if I rode for more than 30 mins with my saddle at the 3″ lower position that I prefer to use for descending, I would have to get off and walk my bike home because I would have aching knees.

    My road bike’s saddle is about 1/2″ to 3/4″ higher than my optimal height for MTB use, mainly because I pedal from a fixed position on the road, but need “hover” space off-road.

    Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not saying the saddle heights are identical. I am saying that long rides with a too-low (descending height) saddle will indeed cause problems for some riders. I know this from experience. I have been riding road and mtn for over 20 years. I’m not some newbie who is just parroting something he read somewhere. I’m not just some roadie who is trying to “flame” MTB riders, either. I don’t even ride on the road any more! But I did learn a lot from being a roadie before I went off-road, and I’m saying that a lot of off-road riders could learn something from understanding what road riders have spent over 100 years analyzing.

    Efficiency and good biomechanics apply equally to MTB and road. The trick is to find optimal saddle height. For riders like me who experience pain and inefficiency with a too-low saddle, it’s even more important. Such riders can benefit from a Joplin post or something similar (Gravity Dropper, etc).

    For people whose MTB riding consists of shuttles to the top and small amounts of pedaling on their descent, saddle height is pretty irrelevant. I know this because I was one of those types of riders for 3 seasons in the early part of the last decade.

    Reply • April 1 at 12:17 pm
  4. Julie says:

    A too-low seat (when climbing & pedaling) does cause me knee pain after a while, as it does for most other mountain bikers I know. I think what James is saying – i.e that this can be corrected by single-leg excercises, etc. is an interesting revelation, actually. We always think the “cause” is our seat height, when the real root cause, according to James, could be the dysfunction in the hips. I think it merits some experimentation!

    Although for power reasons, I will still be keeping my seat high on the flat or climbing bits, even though I stand occasionally when needed, too. (You just can’t stand & pedal too many times during a long endurance race – gotta conserve those matches!) And yes, a Joplin, or GravityDropper is definitely high on my list of financial priorities this year!

    Reply • April 1 at 12:53 pm
  5. Walt says:

    I can do 10 full one leg squats (pistols) on each leg and can do one with a 44 lb kettlebell. So, I don’t think leg weakness is the problem. I ride a Giant reign (for everything) with a joplin seatpost and am always using that thing for the ups and downs. But sometimes when I climbing some sketchy sections, I leave it down to lower my center of gravity. If I leave it down too long, knee pain is sure to come. I can just about count on it. But interestingly enough, it is never permenent. In fact, it usually goes away in just five minutes riding with the seatpost back at full extention.
    When I was riding Gooseberry Mesa last week, we kept our seatposts low the whole time because you are standing a lot and you can get wheelied over having it up so high. But that is a different kind of riding (maybe a lot like Fruita/GJ?) It’s all up and down power type riding on slickrock where traction isn’t much of a factor. But back on the steep, loose shale trails of Idaho where I ride, you need to keep your butt on the saddle for traction.

    Reply • April 1 at 5:29 pm
  6. joe dondero says:

    thanks james, you sure do make us think outside the box..i think ill try standing more..

    Reply • April 1 at 6:55 pm
  7. […] How important is seat height? | … […]

    Reply • April 2 at 9:49 pm
  8. Heath says:

    I’m a physical therapist and to go along with what James is saying with knees turning in while riding. We use an assessment of people jumping off a box to see what their knees do when they land. People whose knees turn in (genu valgus) when they land are predisposed to ACL injuries and are usually given a pre season exercise program which helps strengthen the legs and prevent ACL injuries. Pedaling cadence also makes a difference. If you try to pound a big gear at 60 rpms uphill it puts a lot more pressure on your knees than spinning uphill in a lower gear at 90-100 rpms.

    Reply • April 8 at 9:02 am
  9. James says:

    Hi James,

    I have a question for you about cleats and saddle height.

    I’ve recently shifted my clears all the way back in my shoes (Sidi Mtn Eagles) which so they are now about 10mm behind where they were. I had moved them back about 5mm 3 months ago from their original position and have had no problem. There were two reasons for the second shift: your advice (and a few other bike fit guys & shoe brands promoting moving cleats reward); and finding that when I’m climbing standing my toes were feeling jammed against the front of my shoes). I ride on flat pedals on my daily commute ride (about 10km all up) and find that I stand on the middle of my foot rather than the ball.

    So, to the question – what do I do with my saddle height and position (if anything) to compensate for the changed cleat position? My inclination is to move the saddle down about 5mm because moving the cleat back effectively shortens my leg length.

    What do you think?

    Reply • January 13 at 3:14 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      First, I think that if you focus on using standing pedaling as you your High Tension/ Power position and your seated pedaling as your Low Tension position then seat height doesn’t mean as much. It is only when you are trying to lay down a lot of tension and power in the seated pedaling position that you need to worry so much about it and even then there is not right answer as evidenced that even the best “bike fits” don’t last forever and require updates when pain inevitably sets in from too much seated pedaling.

      With that said, I go based on how it feels. If it feels wrong or weird then find a position that doesn’t. Most of the time it really is that simple. Unless you are riding for 5+ hours on a very consistent basis, the truth is that your exact seat position doesn’t matter and it is really a matter of finding what is comfortable.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply • January 14 at 9:51 am

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