Know-How, Workshop -

How to set up the Seat Height and Saddle Position on Your MTB

Getting your bike set up so you get the best from it and that you have years of comfortable riding is fundamental to enjoying your cycling. We talked to the expert bike fitters at gebioMized to find out how to get your seat height dialled.

There are now so many shiny upgrades you can buy for your bike to make it better or faster or lighter, in the excitement many of us forget to spend some time on getting the engine ticking over nicely. Getting your saddle height spot on is a free way to get more out of your bike and the outcomes are so extraordinarily beneficial that it’s just crazy to think that we might have been getting it wrong for so long.

With the introduction to the market of the most brilliant of all devices, the dropper seat post, a lot of people have forgotten about seat height adjustments. When the height of your seat is adjustable and the push of a button, is it really important? YES IT IS! On climbs and flats when you need the power, that’s when you need your seat in the right place.

So What if my Saddle isn’t at the Right Height?

A saddle that is too low not only makes pedalling more difficult but can cause knee and back pain which can last longer than your ride.

1. Saddle Discomfort – the one That you’ll Notice Right Away

Too high and it’s going to hurt, you’re going to wiggle about on your saddle trying to compensate. Lab research at gebioMized has shown that a reduction of 5mm in the seat height can reduce the maximum pressure on the saddle by 15-20%.

2. Knee Problems – the Long Lasting one

Sitting too low or too high can strain the knee, especially in the patella (knee cap) area, the stresses and strains caused by the action of pushing the pedals is increased and focused on the knee joint.

A saddle that is too high can cause you to rock on the saddle and to over extend your ankle to make up for the lack of reach.

3. Lower Back Pain – the one That Makes you Groan Like Your Grandad

An incorrect saddle height makes left-right movements of the hip more likely, leading to straining the spinal discs in the lumbar region.

4. Hamstrings – the one That Will Have you Waddling Like a Duck.

Especially if you have short hamstrings, a high saddle can cause muscular tension and even cramps.

A saddle that is too high can cause you to rock on the saddle and to over extend your ankle to make up for the lack of reach.

At the optimal saddle height the tension on that all important Gluteus maximus provides 20-30% of your force on the down stroke – if your seatpost is a few millimeters out on set-up, the muscle firing patterns and tensioning are all thrown out of kilter and you lose power.

I Think the Message is Becoming clear – so how do we get This Sorted?

The best, be all and end all way of getting your saddle at the right height is to see a professional bike fitter who’ll use a dynamic knee joint measurement to align you – but, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. We take you through some easy ways to determine if you saddle is optimised.

After a few hours in the saddle with your seat too low, you’ll be causing yourself unnecessary discomfort in your ankle, knees, hips and back – time to get it sorted.

Visual Clues

There are a number of visual indicators that will give you an idea of whether your saddle is way out. You’ll need to ask someone else to check out your riding style!

  • Rocking in your saddle – Either your saddle is too high or WAY too low
  • Ankle extension – are you pointing your toes to keep the pedals going round? – your saddle is too high
  • A lot of the back part of the saddle is visible from behind – your saddle is too high and you’re compensating for the pain by sitting on the nose of your saddle.

The Famous ‘Heel Rule’

The heel rule will get you in the right ball park, it will get you playing the game and away from the wall but it isn’t the be all and end all!

What you need:

  • Your bike
  • Allen keys
  • Your normal shoes and pedals
  • A stationary/turbo trainer OR a wall to lean against

Put your regular shoes on, jump on your regular bike and put your feet on your regular pedals. Place the heel of your foot on the pedal and spin the cranks backwards for a couple of turns. You are aiming for your knee to be almost locked out when your foot is at the bottom of the turn (6 o’clock). Adjust the saddle so you are ‘just’ sitting on it with your heel almost losing contact with the pedal at the bottom of each stroke.

Sit on your bike with your heel on the pedal and the pedal at the lowest point of the revolution. If your leg is bent (as above) raise the saddle until your leg is straight.
Raise your saddle until your knee is almost locked out with your heel on the pedal when it is at the lowest point in the revolution.

Now, put your foot on the pedal normally, you should have a nice bend in your knee as you spin the pedals. You must make sure that you are never rocking your pelvis, get someone to ride behind you on your first ride with your new saddle height and make sure you aren’t wiggling. If you are, reduce your saddle height immediately.

Place your foot on the pedal as normal and you should see a gentle bend in your knee – make sure it’s comfortable and you aren’t rocking.

The ‘Heel method’ is excellent for it’s accessibility to all but the correct saddle height is a lot more intricate than this and it doesn’t take into account flexibility or variations in tibia, femur or foot length.

The Holmes Method – Now we’re Getting Serious

There are a couple of formulas you can use to work out your saddle height based on your inseam but we think this one is the most effective.

The kit you’ll need to use the Holmes method to set your saddle height and position.

What you need:

  • A stationary/turbo trainer OR a flat area to ride around and a wall to lean against
  • A goniometer – (amazon do one for £5.99)
  • Coloured sticky dots/any non-clear tape
  • A good friend

Set your bike up on the Turbo Trainer and spin for a couple of minutes until you feel like you’re in the right position on the pedals and saddle (or ride around and come to a halt by your wall). Finish up with one of your feet in the downwards, 6 o’clock position. Place sticky dots on 1). The bony lump on the outside of your ankle, 2). The outside of your knee where it protrudes the most and 3). The lump at the top of your femur where it meets your pelvis. Someone will have to feel for them hence the need for a good friend.

Use pieces of tape or sticky dots to mark your joints for alignment.
Place a marker on the ankle joint on the bony lump on the outside of the ankle.
Place a marker on the knee joint where the joint protrudes the most.
Place a marker on the hip joint where the femur meets the pelvis.

Place the goniometer on your knee joint so the centre aligns with the coloured dot there and line the arms of the device up with the coloured dots on your ankle and hip. Take your reading from the goniometer with your leg extended on the pedal.
You want your reading to be between 25 and 30 degrees for optimum power and comfort. Move the saddle up or down until you get it right. It will feel weird for a while if it’s a big change from where you normally have it, but stick it out and you’ll start to feel an increase in output and performance.

Place the goniometer on the knee marker and align the arms so they line up with the ankle and hip joint markers.
Check the angle measurement on the goniometer and adjust the saddle height until it reads between 25 and 30 degrees.

For this article, we’ve working in conjunction with Lotte Kraus, a Physiotherapist and a biomechanical expert at gebioMized, a bike fitting and analysis provider. At gebioMized Lotte is in charge of the International School on Cycling Optimisation (ISCO), where they are educating fitters from US, Europe and Asia. As a cycling analyst Lotte is currently working with the World Tour Team Cervelo Bigla and top athletes like Andre Greipel so she knows her stuff.

For more information from gebioMized check out these blog posts on saddle height estimates and saddle height and force transmission relationships.