Standing Climbing and Why Clipless Pedals Are Simply a Crutch

I got into an email discussion between my buddy Gene Hamilton (www.betterride.net) and a student of his regarding standing pedaling technique while climbing. Here’s my thoughts on that plus why I’m throwing the gauntlet down on clipless pedals…

Climbing while standing all comes down to body position, or more importantly you ability to hinge at the hips and not the low back. Any rounding of the low back and/ or upper back (I call it turtleing up) will throw off your power center and your balance.

Proper standing pedaling technique is nothing more than proper hip hinge technique where you’ve got your chest puffed out, and arch in your low back and being able to maintain that spine position while hinging at the hips. The only way, in my opinion, to really ingrain this and get it right on the bike is to get off the bike and train that movement pattern. So, if you really want to see good standing pedaling technique watch my deadlift demo video and ingrain that movement. If that is how you move you won’t have to “figure out” how to do it on the bike, it will happen with minimal thought and effort.

Now, since most riders can’t achieve that position when standing and instead apply a rounded “seated” posture while standing they can’t maintain traction on the rear wheel when climbing. I can climb much better when standing, when I’m seated I feel like I’m fighting my front end from popping up. The steeper the climb the more the front end wants to wander so I stand up and get long which spreads my weight out and lets me keep the front end down and traction on the rear wheel. Core and hip strength play a big role because you can’t lean on the handlebars (we know that is bad body position) and you need all your weight on the pedals but without adequate strength in those areas you will lean into the handlebars to support your weight rather than using your core and hips to “suspend” you body over your bottom bracket.

And about clipless pedals increasing power…they do, but not how you want them too. If you have someone who has long, weak glutes and short, tight hip flexors (your average rider, in other words) they literally can not use their hips to pedal through the “deadspot” on the bottom. You attach their feet to the pedals so they can now use their already overworked hip flexors to pull through the top. It did not fix the problem, it simply made you more efficient with your dysfunction. In the face of that instant performance increase people stop there and really ingrain the “sit, spin and pull through” technique. They never really learn how to use the most powerful muscles in their body (the hips) to power through the bottom of the pedal stroke which, in my opinion, ultimately limits their development.

That is not an advantage, it is a crutch that results in an appallingly high rate of overuse injuries. There is absolutely nothing that you can do with clipless pedals that you can’t do just as well, if not better, with flats. This isn’t even taking into account how clipless pedals completely screws up the natural “rolling” motion the foot goes through. Your foot is designed to strike mid foot on the outside and roll into the arch and pushing through the center of the midfoot. This rolling action creates a natural screwing motion and avoids a linear up and down motion, which is how the leg is designed to work. By attaching the foot to the pedal at the middle-midfoot position you take away the entire roll action and place a crapload of stress on the knees and hips. 85% overuse injury rates don’t lie – something is wrong with clipless pedaling.

Just because you are on a bike doesn’t mean that everything we know about how the human body is supposed to power movement goes out the window. We were convinced not too long ago that running shoes were great and we now know that you try to improve on mother nature at your own risk. The more I look at it the more I’m convinced clipless pedals are worthless and screw your body up.

Anyways, just some thoughts…

-James Wilson-

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  1. Walt says:

    I agree with all you are saying except the extreme statement that “clipless pedals are worthless” You can adapt and learn to ride flats as I have and realize that the bunny hop is not pulling up with the feet. I never bought that pulling up on the pedal myth even when I rode clipless but instead just pedaled. I see what you are saying about climbing standing. I still find the balance point a little tricky between spinning out and the front end coming up. But the deadlift analogy helps a lot. (I can do a double BW deadlift even with an out of wack hip.) And since I’ve changed to flats for the last month, my back/ hip pain has subsided some. I credit it all to having more freedom in the feet to change positions. But, not that I care what other people think, I just can’t seem to answer the question people always ask me when they scoff when I say that I think flat pedals are better> They always seem to ask: If flats are so much better, why do all xc pros use clipless and at least half of the 4x, DH riders use them? Even BMX racers are using clipless now … which really surprises me. I’m not racing, so I’m going to stay with flats. But, what is the answer to this question?

    Reply • July 28 at 4:13 pm
    • bikejames says:

      This will stir up another hornets nest but I don’t think that XC racing is really mountain biking, it is more like road riding on dirt, so I don’t even try to argue with the XC crowd, their idea of a ride and mine are completely different. Plus, not all top DH, 4X and BMX guys wear clipless. Sam Hill seems to be pretty darn fast without their aid. If they offer no definitive advantage in real mountain biking, as evidenced by the fact that some very successful riders don’t use them, yet give you their “advantage” through feeding into your dysfunctions then I’m calling BS.

      Seriously, sports history is full of examples when we knew for sure that something was the right way only to be proven wrong later. Running shoes are the latest example – at one time “all the top pros” wore cushy, high end running shoes and today there are a lot who are following the barefoot method. The high jump technique example is another great one – at one time all the pros simply used the wrong jumping technique. For us to ignore the movement based arguments I’ve presented for no other reason that because “everyone” uses them is dangerous at best. Again, an 85% overuse injury rate points to something being wrong.

      And as for my boy Gwinny, he can ride just as well with flats and if he asked me I’d advise him to ditch the clipless. But when he started he got advised to use them and that is what he knows. I’m going to start working on him this off season…

      Reply • July 28 at 6:52 pm
  2. The Real Rob says:

    I guess I’m in the same boat as Walt on this one… I mean, why is Gwinny wearing them? http://www.bikejames.com/wp-content/uploads/AG-in-Hot-Seat.jpg

    Reply • July 28 at 4:24 pm
  3. Chris Q says:

    I’m with these guys too. Agree with all of the above. I’m personally riding faster and having more fun on my bike since I discovered your programs and website. BUT, you need some proof. Until you can point to guys winning XC (we are talking about climbing here) world cups on flat pedals, this argument about clips being worthless is going to be an uphill battle. People are always going to say “James wilson really knows his stuff, but Julian Abasalon rides clips…”

    Again: Why does Aaron Gwin ride clipped in now?

    Why did “No Clips Racing” in BMX come about if clipless pedals offer no advantage? I remember Robbie Miranda saying that clips ruined BMX. People on flats just couldn’t compete with guys on clips. Racing XC and riding a few trails, I don’t have to worry about my gates very much, but some people do gates for living and they are clipped in…

    Reply • July 28 at 7:21 pm
  4. jeffB says:

    Well, I raced bmx in the pro class for a bit. Clipless is faster. My gates were always better on flats and I jump better on them, but when it comes to pedaling through some rough stuff, or hauling through a rhythm section…clipless comes out ahead. The misconception, though, is that clipless magically makes you pedal faster/better/more efficiently. It doesn`t. The advantage (and Olympic silver medalist Mike Day agrees with me on this) is not having to worry about keeping your feet in the right place on the pedals. Let`s not forget Kiyomi Waller`s two NBL Masters titles won on flats.

    But I digress. Clips vs. Flats debates will never end in a civil manner. There are too many people that care too much about what other people use.

    Reply • July 28 at 8:56 pm
  5. Walt says:

    Best explanation yet, Jeff B. Clipless are better on the rough bouncy stuff (going uphill, that is. You stay on flats the same going down) So, basically what we are saying. (Since James offered no scientific proof) is that each pedal has it’s atvanages and pehaps clipless should best be reserved for racing. James is forgetting that winningest DH rider of all time, Steve Peat, rides clipless. (Although he’s pretty good on flats screwing around on a dirt jumper) I also don’t know if you can really say that “xc racing isn’t mountain biking.” That’s another extreme statement . Yeah, your average local xc race couse is pretty lame. But some of the pro courses are pretty cool, with 4′ dropoffs and fast descents on single track. Plus, the twitchy, steep head angle bikes with little suspension make things a lot harder. Some of those guys can also rip in other styles on a better bike. So, it’s all a trade off like everything else. I guess for me, though, I’ll ride flats because I don’t have health insurance and it’s better to take occasional pedal bite to the shin on a rocky uphill than to blow out a knee riding clipless. And also, my chronic low back/ hip pain is disapating since I switched to flats as well.

    Reply • July 28 at 10:57 pm
  6. Walt says:

    Also…. What does standing while pedaling have specifically to do with flat pedals? Standing up while pedaling is a better technique. Your arguments on this point are sound, as well as your explanation of the physiology involved in the technique. Sitting and and spinning with a rounded back is going to screw you up eventually. I’m convinced. But your logic as to how the standing while climbing technique is exclusive solely to flat pedals is not so sound. What about people who climb standing on clipless pedals? And as for the high jump technique. I think the current “flop” technique is gay. They should have to land on their feet like these amazing Yemini tribesman who jump over camels :

    Reply • July 28 at 11:13 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Walt – because the clipless interface and shoes still screw up how your foot naturally moves which will wreak havoc on the knees and hips. Taking away the natural inward roll to compress the arch and instead forcing a linear up-and-down movement with arch support is not how we’re supposed to move. There is simply no getting away from that fact…

      Reply • July 29 at 9:31 am
  7. electric says:

    How about the sad bunny-hopping skill of the modern clipless rider, the list goes on… I won’t even get into road cleats without float.

    I’ll also agree that modern XC racing is like road racing, the fact that 29r wheels are so popular to me partially indicates the un-techincal, smooth and declining legal liability nature of the courses.

    Personally, I don’t believe clip-less helps the average mtb guy at all. Maybe there is some benefit to be had at the pro level, but people saying just because such and such wears that then I must isn’t a valid reason. Nobody is going to say a pro got to where they are because they rode clip-less. If Steve Peat drank ox blood before riding some people would inevitably drink ox blood in hopes of something. Not me.

    Reply • July 28 at 11:38 pm
  8. Tom says:

    I have been following your blog for a while now and I love all of the information on strength training that you offer. I have even bought the DB combo program and Ultimate work out program, both have worked awesome and I recommended them to all the people I ride with. The one thing I can not stand is all the hate towards clipless pedals. I just feel you are way off base and really don’t know what you are talking about. Maybe it is just the area you ride in or your skill level but where I live (New England) the trails are very technical, hilly and challenging. I find riding with flat pedals around here gets you a lot of bloody knees and shins.
    I just think that flats versus clips is still up to personal preference and there is no way to say one is better than the other. I wish you would just leave it at that and move on.
    That being said I still enjoy reading your other articles on training and I will definitely continue to recommend your program to my friends.

    Reply • July 29 at 5:44 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Tom – Thanks for your input, I understand that some may not understand why I’m so passionate about this. I’ve tried to do a better job describing it and laying out my points in my next blog post, I just wanted to make sure that everyone saw it…

      Reply • July 29 at 9:32 am
  9. Rodney says:

    Am I wrong to assume that the most important reason for DH and BMX riders to use clipless pedals is to decrease the risk of slippling of the pedal and not because of pedalling efficiency reasons?

    James, your statement about ‘all the top pro’ runners using cushioned shoes is not true, all competitive runners use very lightweight racing shoes with thin soles for road races and spikes for the tracks. These shoes are only marked as racing or track shoes, not to be used for training purposes. But for some reason the shoe companies pushed shoes with more and more cushioning for recreational purposes. So in this case its kinda strange that everyone seemed to accept the increasing differences between racing and training shoes.

    James, maybe to your benefit: with clipless pedals you’re attached with the ball of the foot, which also requires stiff shoe soles to prevent your feet getting tired. With flats I think you naturally place the pedal more in the middle of the foot, which therefore also relieves the foot. I would think this different positioning of the foot also influences the way you transfer power: I would expect clipless pedals to involve the feet, ankles and hamstrings a bit more and flats to involve the hips more.

    Reply • July 29 at 12:11 pm
  10. Heath says:

    There seems to be a lot of focus on overusing the hip flexors here. You are also using your hamstrings and to a mild extent your gastrocs to assist in flexing your knees through the pedal stroke. You lose some of this ability with flat pedals. As for modern XC being like road racing on dirt I disagree. I don’t know where you ride but the places I race and ride in Western NY and West and Central PA can be very rooty,rocky and technical.
    Heath McCombs
    Physical Therapist

    Reply • July 30 at 9:45 am
    • bikejames says:

      Why can you not use your hamstrings and calves without being attached to the pedals?

      Reply • July 30 at 12:24 pm
  11. Heath says:

    I didn’t say you couldn’t use your hamstrings and calves with flat pedals. With your foot attached to the pedal you get more of a mechanical advantage than with the flats. An interesting study would for this debate would be to do an EMG study with clipless and flat pedals measure, calf, quad and hamstring activity and measuring power output at the same time. At least that would prove what is more efficient scientifically. Here are some article abstracts that may prove interesting to this debate, although I’m still searching for the free versions of the full articles. Fun debate there is a lot more to the overuse injuries than just using clipless pedals. If we’re going to debate back it up with some evidence. Good for you the Physical Therapy in Sport article backs up a cycling specific weight training program.

    Sarre, G, Lepers R. 2005. Neuromuscular function during prolonged pedalling exercise at different cadences. Acta Physiol Scand 2005, 185, 321-328.

    Muscle activation during cycling at different cadences: Effect of maximal strength capacity
    François Bieuzen, Romuald Lepers, Fabrice Vercruyssen, Christophe Hausswirth, Jeanick Brisswalter
    Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology
    December 2007 (Vol. 17, Issue 6, Pages 731-738)

    The effect of cadence on timing of muscle activation and mechanical output in cycling: On the activation dynamics hypothesis Corrected Proof, 01 July 2010
    David McGhie, Gertjan Ettema
    Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology

    Patterns of leg muscle recruitment vary between novice and highly trained cyclists , 29 January 2007
    Andrew R. Chapman, Bill Vicenzino, Peter Blanch, Paul W. Hodges
    Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology

    Muscle recruitment pattern in cycling: a review
    Raymond C.H. So, Joseph K.-F. Ng, Gabriel Y.F. Ng
    Physical Therapy in Sport
    May 2005 (Vol. 6, Issue 2, Pages 89-96)

    Reply • July 30 at 1:51 pm
  12. Great information here. Even all the comments were informative. Personally I dont see a point to using clipless on DH. Some platforms combined with the right pair of shoes feel like clipless pedals. The fastest DH riders in the world use platforms. Plus i would hate to fall while clipped in. ouch

    Reply • August 12 at 7:53 am
  13. […] Standing Climbing and Why Clipless Pedals Are Simply a Crutch … […]

    Reply • August 17 at 1:40 pm
  14. Julia Massey says:

    great comments from all points of view. the one I find interesting is the standing technique for climbing. My partner has been trying to get me to stand up whilst climbing and get my weight centered (which means move my weight back) which is what I understand JW to be saying. When I can do it climbing improves 100%, but it is hard and a bit counter-intuitive, and i don’t feel balanced – which tells me that there must be weakness somewhere there.
    Willow Koerber rides 29er and she climbs way down on her bike (crouching type position)- maybe she finds it a bit scary to stand up on the bigger wheels.
    The other thing about clipless pedals is that the actual platform is so small on most brands. I have changed to Look Quartz because the platform is a bit bigger and I use Keywins on the road bike – again a bigger platform. I have a friend who uses cages and traditional pedals and she flies up hills standing up.

    Reply • September 9 at 5:40 pm
  15. Amnon says:

    Hi James,
    One of the main differences between flats and clipless pedals are the foot location. In clipless the cleat is mounted in the fore of the shoe, forcing you to locate your foot in a matching way. When riding flats all riders I met are choose to locate the pedal on the center of the shoe.
    I used to ride clipless for few years and few month ago I moved to flats (for DH & AM) riding. When XC I still use clipless. Recently, when using clipless it bothers me to pedal using my fore foot. Obviously I shift my cleats to the center as much as possible.
    My question is why the industry choose to locate the cleat in that way, and not in the center of the shoe. Do you have some insight into this?

    Reply • September 12 at 1:44 am
    • bikejames says:

      I believe it is the common “losing the forest for the trees” mindset so common in sports. It was observed that when you run or jump you push off from the mid-forefoot so it made sense to place the cleat there. However, where you push off is not even half the story. Your foot strikes the ground more to the outside-midfoot and then “rolls” into and off of the push off position observed. No matter where you put the cleat your making a trade off between where the foot strikes and is most stable and where it pushes off from and is most powerful. Flats let you have the best of both worlds…

      Reply • September 14 at 12:24 pm
  16. Faction says:

    This is the worst article I have ever read. hahaha… is this from the Onion? Dude seriously that is the most moronic theories I have read in a long time.

    Here’s a little test.
    -Get a rider on a twp separate road bikes, one bike with clipped pedals (spd) and the other bike with flats.Make sure this rider can comfortably use both types of pedals. Get the rider to do let’s say 5 sprints and 5 longer distance time trails on each bike. Tell me which pedal type will be faster.

    Reply • October 20 at 1:03 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I think you missed the point – I am not talking about performance, I’m talking about technique. Clipless pedals will help you go faster, but just like a track athlete’s racing shoes or a powerlifters weight belt they should be used as a performance enhancer, not a crutch for bad technique. Flats expose how solid your technique really is – there should be no difference between how you pedal or execute technical skills with either pedal but flats make it glaringly obvious if you have a flaw in your technique.

      You have to expand your mind to go beyond the simple question of which is “better”. While clipless pedals make you faster, that doesn’t mean that they are they best choice to learn on or to use all of the time.

      Reply • October 22 at 7:10 am
  17. Ed M. says:

    the advantage of biking with clips is actually to be, more efficient with your, as you put it, “dysfunction”. not that this is how you want to be pedaling all throughout a race (for pros), or ride (for average rider), but it’s because you want to conserve your energy in order to be able to do the standing pedaling for the sprints or climbs. if a rider who rides with clips, “stop there and really ingrain the “sit, spin and pull through” technique” then I agree with you that “They (will) never really learn how to use the most powerful muscles in their body (the hips) to power through the bottom of the pedal stroke which, in my opinion, ultimately limits their development.” I ride with clips but I do not let the advantage of the “sit, spin and pull through” technique” limit my development as a rider. I still continue to train for power and strength by doing “standing pedaling” which I can still do even with clips. In my opinion, the advantage that people get out of riding with clips depends on their mindset for training. If they get contented with the “instant performance increase” that they get from the “sit, spin and pull through” technique, then they will only get the benefits that that pedaling technique can give them. However, if a rider who rides with clips will still train to develop the strength required for the standing pedaling, then he/she can get the most out of his efforts. In a nutshell, you ride with the “sit, spin and pull through” technique” during the middle of a race to save your energy for the sprints where you will need to do the standing pedaling, and as I have already pointed out, both these techniques you can do even with clips

    Reply • October 20 at 6:51 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I guess I look at it differently – a weight belt can help you lift more weight but you want it to solidify solid technique, not let you get away with bad technique to lift more weight. Good squatters can lift with the same technique and almost as much weight without the belt, bad squatter technique and weight are tied to the belt.

      Clipless pedals are the same – the studies I reference on this site in several places suggest that your technique should not be pedal specific. If you are pedaling with clipless in a way that you couldn’t do without the pedals then they are acting as a crutch. You should be able to effectively pedal with flats and then when you use clipless pedals you will be solidifying good technique, not letting you get away with bad technique. Good pedalers can pedal with the technique and be almost as fast with flats, bad pedalers technique and performance are tied to their clipless pedals.

      I agree with most of your points, I just need to keep emphasizing that the idea that there is a “magical” pedal stroke that is only available with clipless pedals is not true.

      Reply • October 22 at 7:06 am
  18. Julie says:

    I just spent an entire weekend doing long climbs in the snow on a fatbike with flat pedals, and I’m amazed at how I really didn’t miss clipless. My back feels much better the day after, and it almost felt easier to climb. What’s the training advantage to riding flat pedals for early season, then racing clipless? Am I strengthening hip flexors and core by climbing in flat pedals? I’d love for you to do a post on fatbiking in snow; why it’s different and what comes into play.

    Reply • March 3 at 11:12 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Using flats to train in will help ensure that you are using your hips efficiently. You want to drive you pedal stroke from your hips and not your quads/ hip flexors and flats force you to do that. Standing up to pedal also strengthens the hips and core and also takes a lot of stress off the low back and knees. All in all in reinforces proper pedaling technique while also decreasing overuse injuries.

      As far as snow biking, I suspect that it is like singlespeeding in that it forces you to stand more and figure out better balance points when you climb. You can do the same thing on your regular geared bike, you just have to train yourself to stand up when things get hard instead of clicking down to and easier gear and hunkering down in the adult fetal position.

      Reply • March 4 at 12:51 pm
  19. Howski says:

    Hello James, I bumped into your clipless vs flats “argument” not long ago. I have been dealing with knee pain and was looking for relief. I learned on spd’s so I figured that was what all my buddies were riding so I did the same. I switched to flats and bought a pair of 5.10’s a few months ago, I had to change my climbing technique a little but my riding has improved greatly. More confidence, faster cornering and have not noticed a difference on technical climbs. Even when it gets wet and slippery which it does a lot here in Bellingham Washington. Having more fun riding and isn’t that why we all ride, to have fun? And best of all zero knee pain! For me, flats work for all the right reasons. Glad I made the switch and will not be spding anytime soon. Thanks!

    Reply • September 20 at 10:45 pm

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