cycling seated and standing

Cyclists: Seated and Standing Climbing Mechanics to Ride Uphill Faster

A cyclist’s speed going uphill is the product of power, weight, and technique. The first two get the lion’s share of the attention, but the last one can make a huge difference in how comfortable, confident, and economical you are on climbs. Improving your body position for seated climbing and standing climbing on the bike gives you the opportunity to maintain momentum instead of losing it, use your body weight more effectively, spread the work of climbing across more muscles to improve fatigue resistance, reduce back pain, and prevent numbness in your hands.

There are two basic body positions on the bike for climbing: seated and standing. Most people will spend more time climbing in the saddle, interspersed with shorter periods pedaling out of the saddle. Coaches Adam Pulford and Renee Eastman discussed how to decide when to sit or stand in this Trainright Podcast.

How you sit on the bike and where you position your body when you’re out of the saddle can be the difference between dragging yourself up the mountain and dancing on the pedals.

Body position for seated climbing

Within seated climbing I think there are two variations for body position that are notable: Front Seated and Rear Seated.

Front Seated Climbing Position

Front Seated is useful for short, steep, punchy hills because it moves your center of gravity forward on the bike and lets you focus on a very forceful downstroke. Think about what you do when you want to forcefully stomp on something on the ground. You lean your upper body forward so you have more weight over your knee when you use your big hip and knee extensor muscles to bring your foot down. This is the same principle, only you’re stomping on the pedal. Bend your arms and bring your chest forward and down toward the stem.

seated climbing on gravel bike

Canyon racer Kathy Pruitt digging deep and illustrating the Front Seated climbing position.

Grasping the brake hoods is the best hand position for Front Seated Climbing. When you move forward on the saddle, having your hands on the tops of the bars can feel cramped, particularly as you try to lower your chest toward the bars. No matter where your hands are, you should not have a death grip on the bars or hoods. You want your hands to anchor your upper body so you can maintain a strong platform so you can direct all the power in your core and hips to the pedals.

seated climbing on road bike

Front Seated climbing position. Note hand position on the brake hoods and bent elbows.

Heel Position for Seated Climbing

In both front and rear seated climbing positions you want to drop your heel as your foot moves through the one or two o’clock position of the pedal stroke (as viewed from the right side). This means your heel will nearly level with. the ball of your foot, not necessarily below it. Because moving forward on the saddle reduces effective seat height you should almost feel like you could stomp through the bottom of the pedal stroke. This shortened stroke and your relatively closed hip angle mean you may not be able to use your hip flexors much on the upstroke, but remember to push your foot forward over the top of the pedal stroke.

The Front Seated Position is best for short periods where you need some extra punch or super steep hills on road, gravel, or mountain bike.

Rear Seated Climbing Position

On long and/or moderate climbs your body position on the bike can remain very similar to your flat road cycling position or you can move back in the saddle. Where the Forward Seated position puts the emphasis on a forceful downstroke, moving back in the saddle seems to promote a more balanced pedal stroke that includes kicking your foot forward over the top, engaging the major hip and knee extensors for a powerful downstroke, scraping back through the bottom of the pedal stroke, and using hip flexors to unweight your foot on the upstroke.

rear seated climbing position on road bike

The Rear Seated climbing position. Note the foot position at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The heel and ball of the foot are about level.

 

To compensate for the lengthened reach to the handlebars, you may want to move your hands back to grasp just behind the brake hoods or on the tops of the bars. As with Forward Seated, you don’t want to pull back on the bars; you want to anchor your upper body so you can put more power into the pedal stroke.

climbing heel down

The Rear Seated climbing position with hands anchored behind the brake hoods and heel down.

One visualization tip for Rear Seated climbing is to envision your power originating in your hips and glutes and growing as your quads and hamstrings join the power party on the way to your foot.

Standing Climbing Position

Getting out of the saddle to pedal standing up is a great way to leverage your full body weight to generate force at the pedal. The Standing position can be used for hard accelerations and attacks, or it can be used to maintain momentum. The latter is an important distinction because beginners often think they have to increase their effort level (accelerate) any time they stand. You don’t. You can use a bigger gear and your body weight to ride at the same speed and same – or sometimes lower – effort level.

If you want to have a chance to “dance on the pedals”, pay particular attention to the position of your chest and hips when you get out of the saddle. Both need to move forward so you can drop into the downstroke on each side. You’re in the right position if you can look straight down in front of your stem. Your elbows should be slightly bent rather than locked out, and you can either visualize moving your right elbow in on your right downstroke, or pushing out with your left hand on your right downstroke. Either way, your bike will tip away from your downstroke side as you center your body weight directly over the pedal.

hand position climbing on bicycle

Canyon racer Kathy Pruitt demonstrating hand position during Standing climbing.

Hand position for Standing Climbing

Hand position is important for Standing climbing because your hands and upper body will be supporting more of your body weight than while seated. You want to avoid excessive extension of the wrist and excessive pressure on the median (middle of the wrist) or ulnar nerve (lateral side of the wrist).

climbing position hips forward

Standing Climbing position. Andrew Jackson’s hips and body are forward, his weight is supported by his triceps, and his heel is up on the upstroke.

Heel position for Standing Climbing

With your feet, you’re not going to want to drop your heel like you do in either seated climbing position. Instead, you want to drive your body weight down through the ball of your foot. You don’t need to dramatically point your toes down, but you will naturally end up with your toe slightly down and heel slightly up.

When you are in the right position with your body, hips, and feet, you can drop into the downstroke and feel your foot scooping through the bottom of the pedal stroke. This is the key point of “dancing on the pedals” because you’re carrying enough momentum through the bottom of the stroke that you can engage the hip flexors to unweight the pedal on the way up. If it feels like your feet are stalling at the bottom, try moving your weight forward on the bike and shift into a lighter gear.

standing climbing position heel up

Standing climbing position. Note Coach Jim Lehman’s foot position on the left at the bottom of the stroke and mine on the top of the stroke. In both positions our heels are slightly up.

As with Rear Seated climbing, visualize your power originating in your core and hips and driving into the pedal from your hips, not just your thighs. Remember to shift into a harder gear as you get out of the saddle and shift back into a lighter gear as you sit down.

Takeaway

These three climbing positions can be used at any intensity level, gear ratio, and cadence range. You can climb out of the saddle at a moderate effort level or launch a powerful attack, spin a small gear or smash a big one in the Front Seated position, and ride a steady tempo or set a new hill climb record in the Rear Seated position. Even better, you can move between these positions to manage your efforts and match the technique to the terrain and situation.

By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

 

Comments 17

  1. I did not see any comments or regards to climbing out of the saddle and staying in the drops? I recall the great Marco Pantani using this position often.

  2. Pingback: Should You Climb Out Of The Saddle? - CTS

    1. My feeling, for what it’s worth (not much), now a retired gym rat, but continuing to cycle regularly, is that quad specific gym workouts buy you little or nothing for cycling. The latter is such a high repetition activity, and the former, even at 25-50 reps so short an effort, that there is little effective overlap for most cyclists. The only possible beneficiary I see would be a track sprinter who needs maximum explosive effort over very, very short distances. I enjoyed my heavy weight leg presses and squats when I did them, and in my 60’s backed off to higher rep (20+) full depth (heels to butt) incline leg presses (great for the glutes), but it really did nothing for my climbing strength. Better if you do 5+ minute efforts of “muscle tension” climbs – heavier gear, very low rpm seated repeats on a good hill (watch your knees!) That I felt, had considerable benefits. Gym exceptions of course might be to rehab from injury, or perhaps work on left/right muscular imbalances. That my two cents worth from 50+ years of cycling. But then, I don’t really know anything, just personal experience.

  3. My main limiter on standing while climbing is that my quads burn up quickly. Standing doesn’t last long when that happens. What am I doing wrong?

    1. Post
      Author

      Mike,
      Fatiguing quickly while riding out of the saddle is pretty common, and there are a few things you can try:
      – Get out of the saddle sooner: Some riders wait until they are really suffering before standing up, basically using their bodyweight as a last-gasp effort to maintain the power they have been putting out to that point. Instead, get out of the saddle earlier and use your bodyweight and a heavier gear to maintain speed/momentum rather than accelerate.
      – Support more of your weight with your arms/triceps: Instead of basically jumping from one pedal to the other with all your weight, move forward enough to support a significant amount of weight on the bars with your upper body.
      – Practice: Extending the time you can comfortably/effectively ride out of the saddle comes from spending more time riding out of the saddle. It’s an exercise that responds to training stimulus like any other. So practice when you don’t NEED to ride out of the saddle.

      – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach & Co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

      1. Very helpful Jim, as I experience similar effects as Mike, and intuitively have been working on the advice you’ve given here.

    2. “Moser drills” are a great way to work on this and are done on relatively flat terrain. Warm up for about 30 minutes in a moderate gear. Shift to your highest (hardest) gear and ride out of the saddle at a moderate tempo for five minutes, then sit down, shift to your lowest gear and ride for ten minutes at 120-130 rpm. Repeat five times then cool down for 30 minutes.

  4. After 30 years of training and racing only lately have I come to appreciate Pantani’s style of climbing in the drops. After training to be comfortable in that position this year, I’ve found that it allows me to recover for 30-60 seconds at a time when climbing hard in the saddle. The position seems to use different muscles, thus allowing for recovery without lowering wattage. Pretty cool discovery!

    1. Phil,
      I have also found that climbing in the drops offers an extra boost. You seem to use different muscles and the movement is more forceful with less total extension of the quads. For me it is the same as riding on the flats in the drops. I can get much more power with much less effort. The only negative seems to be the fact that my chest is not as open and breathing is a little harder.

  5. I’ve often wondered about this. I spent most of my life playing sports where technique is crucial but I rarely read articles about technique in cycling. I’ve always figured there had to be a lot more to it than I know, and I don’t know anyone knowledgeable enough to teach me things like this. I’m going to go out now to concentrate on these tips and to try to feel what you are coaching here.

  6. As someone who has lost almost 100lbs, I automatically thought I was going to be the next Pantani of climbing. Well, weight lose doesn’t always translate to excellent climbing. However, with the right technique/s, what it will do is make you more efficient and that translates into more energy to complete the ride.

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