As any cyclist knows, setting up the bike correctly is vital for efficient and pain-free riding. Among the things to consider are saddle height, angle and fore/aft position and stem/handlebar height and stem length.

This of course assumes that the size geometry of your frame is reasonably matched to your body dimensions in the first place. Of all these aspects, saddle height is probably regarded as the simplest and least troublesome adjustment to make – just loosen the Allen bolt, adjust and retighten.

And maybe that’s a good thing because new research by Spanish scientists suggests that getting your saddle height absolutely spot-on is even more important for efficient cycling than was previously believed.

The science
Researchers set out to investigate the effects of small changes in saddle height on the movement of the limbs during the pedalling action and the gross efficiency of cycling. Gross efficiency or ‘GE’ basically refers to how much energy in terms of forward movement is created per calorie of energy expended by the cyclist when pedalling.

The higher the gross efficiency, the more effectively a cyclist can convert his or her expended energy into forward motion – an important part of determining endurance performance.

In the study, 14 well-trained cyclists performed a sub-maximal pedalling test where they rode at 70-75 per cent of their maximum oxygen uptake capacity (moderately hard), while sustaining a pedalling cadence of 90rpm.

Each cyclist performed three separate six-minute blocks where they rode at their preferred saddle height, two per cent higher than preferred and two per cent lower than preferred. These six-minute blocks were also performed in random order so that the GE measurements in each saddle position wouldn’t be skewed by increasing levels of fatigue.

In addition to measuring the GE of each cyclist in each saddle position, the researchers also measured the movement at the hip, knee and ankle joints to see how saddle height affected the actual pedalling motion.

In a nutshell
The first finding was that GE was significantly lower when the saddle height was raised two per cent above preferred (GE dropped from 20.4 per cent to 19.9 per cent). Also, the cyclists required more oxygen to sustain the sub-maximal pace in the two per cent above preferred height position – oxygen consumption rose from 42.8ml per kg per minute to 43.8ml per kg per minute.

Dropping the saddle height below the preferred position also reduced GE, though the reduction was smaller.

Overall, a drop of 0.8 per cent in GE was observed when comparing the saddle heights where the best and worst GE was obtained.

When looking at movement of the joints, the scientists discovered that either raising or lowering the saddle height away from optimum increased the range of movement in the hip, knee and ankle joints by an average of one, three and four degrees of movement respectively.

So what?
These results suggest that having the saddle height out by as little as just 1-1.5cm can make a very big difference in your cycling efficiency.

And although interim heights between optimum and +/-2 per cent weren’t tested, there’s every reason to believe that smaller height differences of as little as 0.5cm could still make a significant difference. The reason for this seems to be that when the saddle height is not optimised, unnecessary and inefficient movement is created at the hip, knee and ankle joints.

The study suggests that setting the saddle height too high is worse that setting it too low. If you have access to a heart rate monitor and an accurate power meter you’ll find that your optimum saddle height will be the one that produces the lowest heart rate for a given sustained power output!

This article was first published in the August 22 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!

  • Dave Smart

    Many years ago, another piece of incompetent research (hamley and thomas 1967) set the optimum saddle height at 1.09 x inside leg and that is still quoted to this day. Garbage in, gospel out!! The primary factor you have to focus on, to achieve the best possible “gross efficiency” is technique – muscle motor patterns – biomechanics. Saddle height, the fore/aft setting, crank length AND cadence are ALL determined by an individual’s specific technique, which anyone is free to modify, if they so wish. By adjusting only ONE variable, this research is based on a pig-ignorant false premise and can teach us nothing. (My apologies to the pig – a very intelligent animal, I understand) 5mm “could still make a significant difference.” You’re joking! Slide forward one inch and your saddle height drops one centimetre. Try investigating the pros and cons of that (very common) bad habit. Then we might get somewhere.

  • ted hutton

    in the 1950′s we used to ride fixed wheel and I found that the best saddle height

    was to have the saddle so that you could pedal with proper ankling without your

    hips rocking from side to side but not too low as to have your thighs touching your

    rib cage but the trouble is we dont all have the same measurements so get comfortable

  • Simon Roberts

    Yes, come on guys – Interesting article, but I need to know how to find MY optimum height without an expensive bike-fit. More articles on ‘Old school’ Bike fit please.

  • William

    Another completely pointless article by CW

    What should the height be?
    Did they confirm that the cyclsts tested had their saddles at the exact correct height before adjusting?
    What was the effect of moving the saddle back or forward?
    What was the effect of reach?

  • Spott

    This article is purely bad science. Since when is a decrease of ONE HALFOF ONE PERCENT considered “significantly lower” and “a very big difference”? Also, I very much doubt that biometric GE can be measured to 1/10 of one percent.

    Sure, correct saddle height is beneficial to the rider, in many ways. But it is not nearly as critical as the author of this article, or the reseachers in this study, would like to fool you into believing.

  • Peter Cash

    The ‘preferred’ height is… the rider’s normal height? The height according to a bike-fitter? Calculated according to a formula of some sort? You really ought to have told us at some point!

  • Ken Evans

    Everybody is different, you need to find what works best for you. Michel Pollentier rode more awkwardly than a crab trying to ride a unicycle, Chris Horner climbs very strangely. Don’t just copy the pro stars, don’t just repeat what the text books say. People sometimes have imperfections such as un-even leg lengths. Every millimeter matters, pros will often adjust their positions from one day to the next, just for a change. Everybody needs to experiment to find what suits them. Bike fitting services are the first place to start.

  • ted hutton

    Nice article but does not answer the question how to get the correct height there are so many supposed methods but they all seem to contradict each other . So is there a universal approved method .I would be most interested to hear of one TED HUTTON

    • RichS

      No Ted there isn’t a universally approved method and while the various bike fitting systems place marketing and revenue ahead of the rider, there never will be.
      The short answer is that there is a ‘right’ saddle height for everyone but it isn’t the same for everyone. It will depend on rider experience, age, physiology, flexibility, adaptability and these factors change for each rider (and also over time too). Get someone to fit your bike to you properly (not a quick 15 minute session by the bike seller). It’s a worthwile investment if comfort and performance are your long term goals.

  • Andy Taylor

    So what’s the best way to get it spot on then? That would be the most valuable piece of information to have in the article (assuming not everyone can afford to get properly fitted).

    • RichS

      Andy. I don’t know your situation but I am a bike fitter (which might make me biased to a certain degree) but many people spend upwards of £2000/$2500 on a bike but think that £175/$250 is too much to spend on a fitting. If long term comfort and lessened injury risk is your goal then the bike fit is worth it. I’d also argue that the increase in performance you’d gain from a proper fit outweighs the gains you’d make from spending $250 extra on a bike. So maybe get a 105 bike instead of Ultegra and spend the extra on a proper bike fit or an alumiium stem instead of carbon. Doesn’t matter how light your bike is if your hamstrings/calves/hip flexors etc can’t complete the last part of your ride at maximal effort

  • Robert

    It seems that in the study cited the cyclists were not given any time to adapt to the new positions, so it is perhaps no wonder that GE was affected. For example, if they had ridden in the new ‘higher’ position for a few hundred miles, giving time for the tendons to stretch and the muscles to adapt to a modified motor program, the GE might well have being higher than previously. Another way to view the study would be to say that it found that the most efficient saddle height at any given moment is whatever you have got used to, even if this is higher or lower than the true optimum!

  • keith aitchison

    ….and the right height is?

  • Chris

    So then what IS optimal saddle height… inseam * .883…. 25 degree bend, 30 degree bend?? Any cyclist who has been racing or riding for several years will feel the slightest change.. the question is without a fitting session, what IS the ideal spot…