One of the most persistent and damaging rumors about the best way to ride your bike is the advice to sit down and pedal as much as you can. New riders are discouraged from standing up and told that it will wear them out too fast and that standing up is hard on your knees.
As a result we end up with an army of unskilled trail riders trying to spin at 90-100+ rpm through everything on the trail while refusing to stand up unless the trail forces them to do it. We also have a lot of riders who end up suffering from knee, low back and hip pain that is directly linked to the seated pedaling position because of this approach.
The problem is that, once again, we’ve been lied to and mislead about what is really going on when we pedal our bikes. We’re told that when we are standing up, it is bad for the knees because it puts extra pressure on them that is “bad” for them. By sitting down we take this pressure off the knees and this is supposed to be better for them.
Here is the problem, though – that is simply not how things work in the real world. Our body is not made to sit down and push against something that doesn’t allow full knee extension and when you try to force the body to do it you run into huge problems.
In fact, the seated pedaling position is such a shitty position for us that there is an entire industry within the bike industry dedicated to polishing that turd as much as you can. The bike fit exists to try and optimize a bad position and convince you that you need them and bike technology to solve what are really movement and strength gaps…but I’m getting off point.
My point is that most people in the cycling industry are clueless about how the leg really works and how this should be applied to the bike. All they know is the theories they’ve been told, most of which have no basis in reality.
And nowhere do you see this more than when it comes to seated vs. standing pedaling. There is one very important thing most people don’t realize about how the body reacts differently to seated vs. standing pedaling and why this means that standing pedaling is actually better for your knees.
When you stand up you get a co-contraction between the quads and hamstrings to stabilize the knee joint. This is a huge factor in knee health that very few people I’ve ever talked to in the riding industry seem to be aware of.
Not only are you achieving 100% knee extension when you stand up (more on that in a minute), the supposedly “bad” pressure on the knees causes a very healthy co-contraction of the muscles at the knee joint. This creates a stable knee joint while you use the hips to push the leg through the bottom of the pedal stroke, which also happens to be the most powerful part of the pedal stroke. Once you have gotten through the most powerful part of the pedal stroke the co-contraction ends so the knee can bend and get ready for the next push.
When you sit down, however, and remove full knee extension and pressure from the equation your knee acts very differently. You don’t get that co-contraction and this means that you have a de-stabilized knee joint at the most powerful part of the pedal stroke. This means that you are running the most force your legs can create through a less stable knee joint and yes, it is as bad for your knees as it sounds.
Like I mentioned earlier, when you stand up you also get full knee extension. This one is pretty obvious but often gets overlooked…when you stand up you automatically achieve the Holy Grail of the bike fit folk. If full knee extension is the safest and healthiest for your knees then it makes sense that getting 100% of it would be better than getting almost there but not quite, which is the best you can ever hope to get while sitting down.
So standing up results in a more stable knee joint at 100% knee extension. This is – and always will be – the healthiest, strongest position for your knee to be in at the moment you are applying the most force to the pedals. Sitting down and running force through your knees results in a much different and less healthy position for your knees at that critical moment.
Want to know what’s even worse for your knees? Trying to get them to curl through the bottom of the pedal stroke instead of letting them stay stable and using the hips to drive through the ignorantly named “dead zone” of the pedal stroke. There is no dead zone requiring you to unnaturally bend you knee, just ignorance about how the body really works.
If you take the common advice given to riders to sit and spin circles to power their bike you end up with unstable, unnatural movement of the knee joint. And then we wonder why, despite all the money we spend on bike fits and shoes, most of us hurt like hell during or after a long, hard ride.
This also ends up in a perpetual cycle because your knee joint gets silently brutalized over time by all the seated pedaling and then you really feel it when you get into your weak and unfamiliar standing pedaling position. This re-enforces the idea that standing pedaling is “bad” for your knees when it isn’t causing the problem, it just shows symptoms of the real problems lurking under the surface.
Now, I probably need to answer a few questions that I’m sure a lot of people reading this have.
First, you can climb up anything standing that you can sitting down. Yes, it takes some more skills and core strength but seated pedaling isn’t better or more efficient, it is just easier. If you can’t climb while standing up then that is an indicator of something you need to face and work on, not make excuses about and hide from.
Second, I’m not saying that you need to stand up all of the time because that would be ridiculous. What I am suggesting is that you avoid running a lot of force and tension through your knees while locked into the seated Adult Fetal Position. You have to develop an internal tension meter and once it goes past a certain point you stand up instead of downshifting or trying to power through while staying seated. Knowing how to use both pedaling positions to their maximum advantage is the real goal, not over-reliance on once position.
So there you have it, the #1 reason that standing pedaling is really healthier for your knees than seated pedaling. And this brings me to my last point. Most people come into mountain biking without the requisite strength and mobility needed to get into and stay in the best positions possible on their bike. Most people are also very skilled at sitting down…I’m sure you’ve noticed that it is a big part of modern life.
This means that standing pedaling is going to feel awkward and hard at first. But this doesn’t mean that it will always feel that way, especially if you use smart training to fill in your strength and mobility gaps and make a point to practice the skill.
As a side benefit, standing up makes the trail a lot more fun as well. Suddenly you aren’t a passenger on the bike, you’re the pilot of the bike and a whole new world will open up for you.
So don’t fall for lies about standing pedaling being bad for your knees, nothing could be further from the truth. Healthier knees and more fun on the trail…who wouldn’t want that?
MTB Strength Training Systems