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 a100 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. Scott says:

    Haha, love that last paragraph! This is a great article, really puts the idea of powering up hills instead of down shifting into perspective for me, since 99% of my rides are under 2 hours. It helps that I’m a huge fan of strength training and have really felt the benefits on the trail this year.

    Reply • November 11 at 9:44 am
  2. Howard says:

    Agree with all that, but what is a really nice feeling is to stay with or pass standing riders on the climbs while remaining seating, keeping standing in reserve for when you really need it for a sprint.

    Reply • November 11 at 12:50 pm
  3. Walt says:

    Thanks for debunking another myth that standing while pedaling is bad. I’ve always done that for the last 25 years and like it. Yet another myth in the grey-bearded forest fairy crowd that is pervasive in mountain biking culture where I live is you can’t use flats for xc riding “because you can’t spin a circle”. I’m 46 (and probably would have a grey beard, if I grew one) but never accept their beliefs. (I like to jump and they think I’m crazy) I just ride one bike for everything (2006 Giant Reign … but I did just build myself a single speed dirt jumper) But since it is cold here in Idaho, I changed out my clipless to atomlab flats for the last month because I can wear my warmer high top 5:10 shoes since my xc shoes are mesh and everything. I usually use that setup for dh trails. (I have another set of heavy duty wheels for that too.) Any way, you wouldn’t believe the grief and wierd comments I get. But I remember reading your interview with Aaron Gwin who said that even trail riders should use flats. Could you clear up the myth that flats are just for bmxers and gravity riders?

    Reply • November 11 at 6:33 pm
  4. Chris says:

    Gotta agree with Howard. I’ve been working on my strength a lot, and it’s funny when I ride with roadies who have to stand up to get up a hill. I stay in middle chain ring, seated and easily pass them on my heavier MTB. Standing up is only useful if you don’t have the power to propel the bike at the cadence you want.
    Standing up power is great for short sharp climbs (where downshifting is a nuisance), or climbs on very technical rock garden areas (where you need the extra mobility in your hips). If you have a long climb to do, then it’s definitely not a good idea.
    If you watched the guys at the Olympics you would see them ride in just the way I’ve described.
    Horses for courses I think. 🙂

    Reply • November 12 at 1:06 am
  5. bikejames says:

    @ Walt – Yeah, I use flat pedals exclusively. I fell over at a stop sign once when I first started riding and realized that I was going to kill myself on the trail if I couldn’t get unclipped in time. I bought a pair of BMX flats and never looked back. I’ll have to do something on that subject as it is another myth about mountain biking that I wish would go away. I ride with guys who are clipped in and sit down for most of their pedaling and I’m not exactly getting left behind. You don’t need clipless pedals and I agree with Aaron that flats make you a better rider and are the best thing for most riders.

    Reply • November 12 at 10:40 am
  6. bikejames says:

    @ Chris – I agree that you need to use different pedaling types for different demands. However, I will say that I have literally trained myself to be more comfortable standing than I am sitting. I only sit when I have to and can sustain a good effort up a long climb while standing. Since most of my rides are under 2 hours I’m still standing even at the end of the ride. I can also bang out a 4 hour ride with no problem although I tend to have to sit more towards the end of the ride.

    We all run the power vs. efficiency continuum, it just depends on where you fall in it. I mean, running the easiest gear possible is the most “efficient” way to go but it is also the slowest. Every rider will push a gear harder than the most efficient one possible, even when seated. I’m just suggesting that with a good training program you can shift yourself even further down the continuum so that efforts that were too hard to sustain are much easier and therefore more efficient.

    Reply • November 12 at 10:46 am
  7. Rob says:


    I have been riding my 4x/dj bike most of the year, a dmr sidekick, which I have to ride standing up do to the frame size (I am 6ft tall). When I switch over to my other bike, Ellsworth Joker, I notice that when I am sitting that my power is greater and last longer, from all the standing riding I do on the dmr.

    As you mentioned in your article about sprinting out section, I have identified a few section at my local trail with sweet low berms, minor dhs and some great flat turns that I have applied this, timing my self. I have been doing this all summer and have notice a great increase in strenght.

    Great read, thanks.

    Reply • November 14 at 2:49 pm

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