Is seated pedaling “more efficient”?

One of the things that really separates strong riders from everyone else is the ability to stand and hammer on their bike. If you are a downhill or 4X/ Dual Slalom rider then this seems pretty self evident – the fastest guys are just as strong while standing at the end as they are at the beginning of a run while everyone else is fighting the urge to sit down and rest.

However, this also holds true for trail and XC riders as well. Sure, you’ll hear from all he detractors who will tell you that standing is less efficient, that it makes your suspension bob or that you get less traction on the rear wheel but the truth is that the fastest riders, like single speed world champ Ross Schnell, do not run a granny gear up front and tend to run a 34 or 36 tooth chainring. This means that they will stand and hammer a lot more than us mere mortals will.

I look at it this way – sitting down to pedal is like jogging, standing up to pedal is like sprinting. Sure, jogging is more efficient IF you are running a marathon but sprinting is the best way to go if you are running 100 meters. If you are riding in the Leadville 100 then you better jog, if you are out on a 1-2 hour trail ride then being able to easily throw some sprints in will help you cover more ground and have more fun in the process.

What most riders mean when they say that standing up to pedal is less efficient is that it is much harder for them and they can not sustain it for very long. The fact is that standing pedaling is more powerful, which is why you can go increase speed or grind up climbs faster when standing, but it does place more of a strain on your core and upper body to support your weight while also requiring more hip drive to pedal. When you are sitting down your seat supports a lot of your weight and you are in a more quad dominant position so your core, upper body and hip weaknesses are masked.

This is why single speed riding has gained a reputation as a great way to train or to increase core strength. Because single speeds force you to stand up in sections that you would normally just downshift you expose your core, upper body and hips to the demands of standing pedaling and therefore get them stronger. It is not that there is something magical about single speed riding, simply that it exposes your weaknesses and forces them to adapt and get stronger.

But you can use strength training to make those gains in a faster, more efficient manner. One of the most common bits of feedback I get from clients is that they simply feel stronger on the bike and that standing pedaling efforts don’t seem as hard anymore. This is from nothing more than getting the core, hips and upper body strong in a systematic manner.

Using core exercises like planks, side planks and bird dogs to increase core stability is very important since the less stable your “platform” the less strength and power you can produce when relying solely on it.

Using upper body exercises like push ups, chin ups and inverted rows to increase upper strength is important because standing pedaling requires you to hold yourself up and stabilize your position with your upper body.

Using hip dominant exercises like deadlifts, single leg deadlifts and swings to increase hip strength is important because standing pedaling requires much more hip drive than seated pedaling does.

So there you have it, a blueprint for overcoming the weaknesses that keep you from easily standing and hammering out singletrack. Standing pedaling is only a bad option if you don’t have the strength and endurance in the core, upper body and hips to sustain it. Attack those weaknesses with a good training program and that is no longer an issue. Sure, you’ll have riders in your group tell you that you will tire yourself out quicker, you’ll just have to wait for them to hear what they were saying at the top of that steep hill you were killing them on.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Wacek says:

    I must say that after i got stronger thanks to your program I noticed that standing pedaling comes way easier, and with standing pedalling uphilling is easier as well. In fact I started doing it almost non-volountarily because it is so much better for doing technical uphills. Even if it’s with my ass just 2cm above saddle it feels way more efficient to go over some rocks than try to go around them or even worse, bump into them seated. But you need some strentgh base for it. People need to start training off the bike not just try pedal standing with poor engine.

    I switched to 1×10 setup because I simply stopped using granny ring. I noticed I use it only as a emergency button if I haven’t looked ahead for a moment and haven’t noticed a steep uphill. But so far I’m happy only with 32t up front. Ah, and BTW I lowered my saddle as well 😉 It’s a btch on asphalt but in the woods, I run it at least 3cm lower than on asphalt


    Reply • December 28 at 1:05 pm
  2. John K. says:

    I’m a true believer in the power of standing climbing. In fact, it’s my go-to position for riding now, it just feels more natural and powerful to me. You turned me on to this James, and I’m grateful.

    However, I’m not sure about the “standing is more efficient” argument. If this was true, then you would see World Cup x-c racers standing during their whole race. These guys are aerobically powerful and have plenty of endurance, so if anyone could do it, it would be them. I agree that elite x-c riders probably have biostructural issues due to prolonged sitting riding, however, if standing riding truly was more efficient, you’d see them switching their training and racing styles in a hurry. I guess what I’m saying is there’s a reason World Cup x-c riders spend most of their time sitting down. Anyways, I have no desire to be an x-c racer, so I spend most of my time standing.

    Reply • December 28 at 2:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Elite riders don’t stand all the time but they can stand and hammer a lot more than average riders. It is not an either-or thing, it is a ratio and I think that most riders can push that ratio in the direction of standing climbing much further than they think – which you have found out by standing more.

      Reply • December 30 at 7:36 am
  3. Anne says:

    What are your thoughts on running a 1×10 setup (something like a 32T up front and an 11-36 in the back to start)? Good for us big trail bike/AM type riders?

    Reply • December 28 at 2:44 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I have a 2X10 on my new ASR-5 and would love to go to a 1X but I need a seat tube mounted guide and just haven’t got it yet. I run a 33 up front now and could probably push a 34 but I’ll probably wait until I wear it out before switching. If you can push the 1X then fine, personally I’m keeping my 2X on my 35 pound bike.

      Reply • December 30 at 7:38 am
  4. Wacek says:

    I don’t know if you fancy my opinion Anne, I tried it and Im a hype hater. 1×10 with 32t and 11-36 cassette worked fine for me even on the weak days. But it is an expensive change, once having 9sp setup. For instance you have to invest in xtr/X0 shifters to get decent shifting quality of former x7/slx at 9sp. Chains cost fortune and are tricky to lock properly. I also tried 1×9 32t with 11-34 and to be honest, difference is noticeable only on really long rides. 9sp offer better shifting reliability and lower costs. I think this “smoother gear ratios” argument is good for roadies only. As far as 1x? drive goes, I love the simplicity, and it is worth the slight trade off. I will never go back to the front mech.

    Reply • December 28 at 5:03 pm
  5. Anne says:

    Wacek: Sure, I already run a 10 speed drivetrain, so that’s not the switch. The switch is from a 34-22 to a 32 in the front. I’m looking at doing this probably 6-9 months from now (can’t do it for at least 2 months now anyway until I hit a year postop), not anytime soon so I have time to get the change together.

    I looked at the gear ratios, and it looks like you lose your 3 easiest gears going from a 34-22 front with a 11-34 cassette to a 32T with an 11-36 (my math maybe off). With getting rid of the front derailleur and having more power, it looks like it’s worth it. Just need to increase my strength and get rid of my extra winter padding first 🙂

    The rides we have tend to be a bit on the long side anyway, so the 36T in the back seems like that would help. At least this gives me a training goal.

    Reply • December 28 at 10:53 pm
  6. Jon says:

    So James, what’s your take on adjustable seatposts then? I’ve been on/off of them myself for almost 6yrs now and due to the latest quirks I have been having with current adj. seatpost, I am back on the standard post and trying to stand and pedal more during all the somewhat brief climb sections that I always used to just flip a switch and sit down to climb.

    Reply • December 28 at 11:36 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      An adjustable seat post is the number 1 upgrade I’d recommend. However, I suggest using them to make the trail more fun, not easier – I still stand and hammer just as much and use it to get the seat out of the way in spots where I would usually have the seat up.

      Reply • December 30 at 7:41 am
  7. cookie says:

    Anne, 36T cassettes weigh a ton unless you spend big $$ on a top of the line model. I would either for 32x(34-11) or go 40/27x(32-11). The weight saving of going single is negligable! I use both, duo on my 29er (2×10) and single on my stumpy (34x(34-11)). No matter what you do you will adapt to it.

    Great topic James, obviously aimed at XC/downhill races and not enduro, however I find powering up short climbs is better then grinding even in 24hour events. I’m a habitual “stand-upper” even when I do road-racing and Crits, once you get over the (false) idea it is “less efficent” its is the way to go!


    Reply • December 29 at 6:20 pm
  8. Dan says:

    Great post once again James, like John K I appreciate you turning me on to standing up more. I started standing up more on my FS then I fixed up an old rigid bike SS just for fun. On a ride with my buddies one day I stood up the whole way on this climb we have done often. At the top one of the guys asked me if I stood up the whole way and when I said yes he was impressed. I think that standing up is much more about changing your mind, developing a different attitude. This friend of mine is 35 and a very fit rider from what I have seen and I am 53. What I am noticing now that some of the “younger” guys are starting to stand and they are going to kick my ass soon 🙂 So this year I intend to stand waay more on all of my bikes.

    Cheers and Happy New Year

    Reply • December 29 at 9:58 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I love it when people keep telling me I am going to tire myself out standing so much, it blows their minds that you don’t have to sit down all the time. Always fun to make other riders take notice of you, way to show them how its done!

      Reply • December 30 at 7:44 am
  9. Wacek says:

    Cookie, dropping front mech, shifter, chainring, chainbolts and cable saves anywhere between 250 and 500g depending on current 2x? Setup and further choice of chain guide. My slx 11-36 weighs 380g that is 70 more than more expensive 11-34 9sp XT. That is only a few grams more than hosing&cable weigh alone 🙂

    Reply • December 30 at 3:03 am
  10. Genci says:

    Though I think I’m the ‘standing’ guy in my group -maybe 50% of every riding day- I must admit that the most powerful riders are the ones who climb seated. At the steepest points of any climb, I stand because I’m used to that, and because I think it’s a way to compensate my loss of leg power compared to the riders that can go up seated.
    No front mech and only one chaingring? It all depends on where you ride. Here you need everything to survive (unless you have titanium knees).

    Happy 2012

    Reply • December 30 at 7:29 am
  11. JP says:

    It is a great awakening to have found this site James. So far over the last 2 months I have gone from a sketchy newb on dual sided pedals (clipless and flat) riding sit down road style unless roots or rock obstacles appear. To someone who mostly stands (including on the stationary bike) Running big platform pedals and any comfie shoes I like. Trail shoes if its muddy, skate shoes if its dry.
    I can make it through parts of my local trail that I could not clipped in! In the sand I used to think sitting over the rear and getting traction while sitting was the only way. Now I stand, use my core, push the rear to the ground while standing and have twice the sand traction. It didn’t make sense before reading your site and noticing that I was the weakness. I was doing too much cardio and not enough strength as I used to ride road.
    You get the confidence of not being clipped in offroad and the traction by knowing how to stand and ride properly!

    Reply • December 30 at 8:51 am
  12. Miles Gibson says:

    I biked into my workout today, with studded tires for the first time. What a difference. I did notice however that on hills (with snow/ice), seated pedaling was preferable, as standing to pedal still caused my rear tire to slip on the pedal stroke. I love my clipped pedals, and now that I am very comfortable riding on almost any terrain, I can’t see going to anything different. When standing, I can still use the upstroke to gain traction, something that you can’t do when going clipless. This is especially good whn I am tired and don’t have the same energy level as I did at the start of the ride.



    Reply • December 30 at 11:11 am
  13. Anne says:

    Wacek, Cookie: I’m not doing this for weight savings. I’ve run a 1×10 before because the 11-36 XT 10 speed cassette is much lighter than the 9 speed 12-36 SLX cassette (423g for the SLX 9 speed vs 286g for the XT 10 speed). So I’ll gain a negligible amount going from a 11-34 to a 11-36. I’ve already got a 2×10, so it wouldn’t be as much of a switch except the chainrings (34-22 to a 32) and the cassette (11-34 to 11-36). I only lose 2 gears on the low end, and I pump downhill anyway so I’m not too concerned about the top end.

    With a 33.5 lb bike, weight isn’t that big of a concern anyway (going to run a chainguide). It’s getting rid of that annoying front derailleur. 🙂

    Reply • December 30 at 7:37 pm
  14. Jorgen says:

    Hi James – Thanks very much (again) for your informative blog. After more or less recovering from a sprained thumb in September, I had my first MTB ride in over three months today. (Have done plenty of commuting since then, but no technical riding at all.) My bike’s a 2010 Gary Fisher Hifi Deluxe, tubeless 29er, fitted with flat pedals and 5.10s Sam Hills on my feet. Also the Reverb seatpost is worth mentioning; best upgrade ever!

    Knowing how rusty I am, I took it super easy on the classic Australian “Wombat” trail in Woodend, just outside of Melbourne. However, I decided to do _all_ of the climbing standing – being inspired by your posts. I already knew that the Hifi is an excellent climber; the stem might be longer than your prescribed, but the wide back swept bars compensate for that again – it is just super easy to switch from seated to standing! Now, my heart rate certainly shot up, but so did my confidence in the trail. If I thought the Hifi was good before, by consciously staying out of the seat the entire time I now understand that I must have been standing on the other “success moments” I’ve been experiencing – I just wasn’t consciously aware of it.

    The best bit was that I was able to get up the last climb which is a series of rather steep switchbacks including a gravity drop with 30-35 degree hill on the other end for the first time. I’ve tried and tried that before, always running out of juice or traction – however I found myself being able to put the power down better and more consistently by standing rather than sitting. This was all done in the middle chainring (only once did I use the small ring on the front, as an emergency shiftdown due to a hill being steeper than I thought), so I believe this might have improved traction over the granny. Towards the end my energy levels were sagging a bit (32c heat does add to that) and I found myself wanting to sit down more, so this will be inspiration for doing more strength training.

    Reply • January 2 at 4:20 am
  15. Nathan says:

    I came across this section a few days ago and I decided to give it a try. It seems like most of the other people I have been told by the riders with more “experience” it is better to sit and spin as opposed to standing and hammering it out. Today I found that I have been lead in the wrong direction for years. I have a gravity dropper and I lowered it today and forced myself to ride the last 6 miles of my ride standing the whole time…what a blast I had!!! James, thanks for your website and your training tips. You have made me such a better rider and I truly appreciate all you do for our sport!! I tell all of my riding buddies to go to and learn from the Messiah of Mountainbiking.

    Reply • January 16 at 4:02 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks, glad that I was able to give you a new perspective on having fun on the trail…

      Reply • January 17 at 8:19 am

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