Value of a Bike Fit for Mountain Biking

Bike fits are an interesting topic in mountain biking. Born in the world of road riding, bike fits promise to fix aches and pains while also improving your power and efficiency. Some riders will spend thousands on getting things dialed in to the millimeter and we’ve all run across that guy who gets super pissed if you change his seat post position while trying to cram his bike onto the rack, claiming that we’ve just ruined his pedal stroke and knees.

However, despite all of this most mountain bikers don’t invest in a bike fit and are left wondering if they are missing out by not doing so. I recently got this question from a rider asking my thoughts about the value of a bike fit for mountain biking…

Q: Now and then I’m wondering whether I should invest in a qualified bike fit. To me there are three more or less coupled aspects of bike fitting/adjustment:

  1. Prevent injuries
  2. Power output
  3. Bike handling

My own bike adjustment approach is (probably very natural) to start out with the most basic things such as saddle height and determining whether the stem should be in a positive or negative angle. Here the focus is probably mostly on Power Output and Injury Prevention.

When the basic things are settled the fine tuning takes over. The fine tuning is characterized by smaller adjustments such as removing or adding spacers under the stem and moving the saddle back or forth and adjusting the saddle angle.

Because these adjustments are small it can be difficult to evaluate right away their long-termed impacts on 1. and 2. So, when it comes to fine tuning I feel left over to base my judgement on the immediately impression of 3. and “how it feels”.

What is your opinion? Do any one of you have experiences with bike fitting, why did you chose it, and what difference did it make?

A: I personally don’t think that bike fits have much to offer your average mountain biker for 3 main reasons…

1 – They tend to be used as a band-aid for bad movement. Unless you have a clean Functional Movement Screen then you would be better served fixing how you move, not trying to adjust things to the millimeter to compensate for it.

2 – Bike fits only work if you are sitting down and pedaling and since a lot of trail riding isn’t about pedaling and you have to stand up a lot more than a roadie (or at least you should be) then the benefits of a bike fit quickly become less relevant on the trail.

3 – You need to focus on Bike Handling first and then worry about the other things. In reality your #1 reason – Injury Prevention – has far more to do with what you do off the bike than your bike fit anyways and Power Output has more to do with how your body is creating the pedal stroke than the exact position you are sitting in. Also, on the trail if you compromise handling through things like a longer stem for an improved “power output position” you’ll waste so much energy through bad movement on the trail that it won’t matter.

Here is an article and a really informative podcast I did with one of the top bike fit guys in the world Greg Choat:

Applying Functional Movement to the Bike: Interview with Greg Choat

Are Bike Fits Worthless for MTB?

Bike Fit vs. Getting a Bike That Fits

In my opinion bike fits may have some benefit for some riders but you would be better served simply getting a bike that fits, is set up to handle well for the type of trails you ride, improving your skills and focusing on your mobility and strength off the bike.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Jonathan says:

    Your Point #2 hits home. I’ve had bikes that have felt perfectly fine on the trail, but then I rode three miles on pavement and had pain. When you’re just sitting and pedaling, small changes in the bike’s fit matter a lot more than when you’re moving around a lot in response to changing trail conditions.

    OTOH, last year I rode two bikes set up rigid. One somehow subtly encouraged me to lock elbows, and I ended up injuring my elbow as a result. I know, my bad for not paying attention and keeping my elbow bent. Yet something about the precise cockpit geometry of that bike requires a conscious effort, whereas with the other of the two bikes encourages a better position without my having to think about it.

    In general, given where I’m at, I am not motivated to spend money on a professional fit. I need to focus on losing weight and improving my overall fitness and agility. I don’t use clips, so I don’t sit in precisely the same spot all the time. I enjoy bike mechanics, and prefer to dial in my fit by just experimenting with my spare parts until I get a cockpit setup that feels good and lends confidence.

    Reply • March 27 at 5:40 am
  2. FRANS says:



    Reply • March 27 at 6:44 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I can not emphasize this point enough – you shouldn’t sit and pedal for 30-45 minutes straight. It is bad for your body no matter what position you seat is in. Changing seat positions can make the pain go away by changing the stress points but those new stress points will start to go out as well. Stand up more and pedal and you won’t need your seat in the perfect position.

      Reply • March 27 at 9:11 am
  3. Al says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. I can take my general measurements (saddle height, saddle-to-stem, saddle fore/aft) and apply it to almost any bike and instantly feel comfortable. However, I know that fit for DH bike and an XC bike are different and I also know some people who can hop on pretty much any bike and ride it like it was their own- they just adapt. For me, fit is key, but it mostly boils down to feel. I can tell pretty quickly if my weight feels too far forward or too far back – especially if I can get the bike on a technical climb. I think lining up the knees (saddle height and saddle fore/aft) are probably the most important for me, as I’ve had knee problems in the past. Then, reach (stem length/ distance from saddle) and then stem height. Again, I mostly ride the same terrain on my different bikes (FS 29er, SS 29er, Fatbike)- if I were riding a dirt jumper or DH bike, I’d probably have to fit those very differently than what I’m used to.

    Reply • March 27 at 9:26 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      What you are referring to is more about getting a bike that fits, not really a “bike fit” as most rider’s would define it. Even then I still like to run the same stem length and handlebar type on all of my bikes as I find the 50 mm length and wide, low profile of the bars helps handling across the board.

      And remember to stand up more on your hard pedaling efforts – once you do that your knees are not only more stable but the “fit” doesn’t matter as nearly as much.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:33 am
  4. Chris Balser says:

    I agree on with you on this. The only exception being the true-beginner, who may need help positioning components in approximation to a good trail position. Proper suspension setup is just as important (obvoiusly). A good shop will provide these services with the purchase of a new bike. I fit 583 clients last year, but less than a dozen MTB’s, and my cycling-career began in professional mountain biking! Thanks for all the great information on your website.

    Reply • March 27 at 9:29 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the insight. I agree with you, although I don’t consider that a “bike fit” as much as getting a bike that fits and works for the type of riding you are going to do. Glad you like the site…

      Reply • March 28 at 9:34 am
  5. Remco says:

    I think it really depends on what discipline you’re active in. For XC a proper bikefit can help a lot preventing injuries, your bike handling and power output

    Reply • March 27 at 9:30 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I have to respectfully disagree with your assessments on this – what I am talking about in the article are just as relevant for XC racing. A “bike fit” will not improve handling (it often takes away from it in the name of pedaling position) and if you have a movement issue it will not prevent injuries, simply delay them. The common myth that XC racers will automatically benefit from from a “bike fit” in ways a regular rider won’t simply isn’t true but thanks for the sharing your thoughts.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:36 am
  6. chance says:

    I would agree, that getting the right frame size is important and that each company and style of frame ei. DH, DJ, xc might fit a bit different but other then that I think it ends there. I guess sometimes it is important to look at crank length, handlebar width but I run the exact same set up on all my bikes 175mm cranks, 780mm wide bars and 50mm stem, DJ, DH and Trail bike usually a medium frame. I have been a student of James and Lee McCormack for a couple years now and come from BMX back ground and addapt to most bike quickly but the most fun is had out of the saddle and once your but leaves the saddle fit is irrelevant…

    Reply • March 27 at 10:17 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Your last sentence sums it up nicely – if more riders understood that standing up makes riding more fun this whole “bike fit” discussion would be much different.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:39 am
  7. As a bike fitter who sees lots of MTB riders my perspective is the other side. Most of the clients I see are evaluated for strength and flexibility and sent off to address these problems, rather than moving stuff on the bike to alleviate the problem(s) that brought them to me in the first place.

    Other clients are sore on the bike because they can’t control the bike off-road and their fear leads to the pains. Only through skilling up will they relax enough to have comfort on bike.

    Then there are the clients who bought the wrong size bike in the first place. I love the ones who come to me to ensure they are going to buy the right size!!!

    MTB IS different than road but a fitter can still help you find a comfortable ride; even if mostly it isn’t through a better fit.

    Reply • March 27 at 4:39 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for being a voice of reason among the bike fit community. You are obviously a progressive mind in your area, thanks for sharing your insights and riders who come to you are definitely getting a good value for their investment with the approach you are taking.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:44 am
  8. RalphSSter says:

    I’ve found that as long as the distance from stem to seat is good, so am I but only as long as I’m running a 50mm stem. It keeps me over the bottom bracket. Any other stem and I’m leaning on my hands and they go numb. Before the solid core, flexibility, and mobility I have gained through the Ultimate Mountain Bike Workouts I thought that the seat height was uber-critical. Now that I have a core, it doesn’t really matter. The dropper post on my geared bikes have confirmed it. Sometimes for fun I’ll just drop the seat down to descend and ride 10 miles standing. when I get on the single speed I am a machine now. I have had several riding buddies ask “Do you EVER just sit, relax, and enjoy the scenery or are you always standing and pinning it?” They never said that before these programs….

    Reply • March 27 at 7:05 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I;’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who gets asked that question! Thanks for sharing, glad the workouts have helped re-shape how you approach riding and how much fun you can have.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:45 am
  9. Kelly says:

    I race endurance events and couldn’t agree more that fit is definitely important – for efficiency, power, injury prevention, comfort and yes handling. The question is: where can ya get a GOOD fit? Most bike shops only do a cursory fit for mtbs and/or also just try to “settle” on a decent mtb fit bc their specialty is road/tri bikes. (I do both so I know there’s a difference…esp bc there can be so much more technical descending in mtb; ie. seat heigth, vs. aero, etc.) Who are the best mtb-specific fitters around? And are there any online resources w/specific data (angles, photos, etc) for those of us who want to do some tweaking at home. Thanks…

    Reply • March 27 at 8:06 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You are absolutely right – if you get someone trying to apply a road bike fit to a mountain bike you can end up ruining the handling and making it much more dangerous to ride in technical sections. Check out my buddy Greg Choat, he’s who I recommend for bike fits –

      BTW, make sure you check out the podcast interview I did with him linked to in this article.

      Reply • March 28 at 9:50 am
  10. Mick Warren says:

    Hi James Fascinating talk with Greg very true and to the point from both of you. When I was looking at getting a bike fit done I had a choice of a 3.5 hour drive to get a physio bike fit and 45 minutes to get a specialized bike fit and I took the 45 minute drive option and at the end i am riding better but they had no answers to the movement issues they pointed out which lead me to fining you. I now have my first kettle bell and have been doing the no gym program for 4 weeks now and i can already feel the difference with my speed comfort and handling on the bike great work cheers mick

    Reply • April 8 at 8:49 pm

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