My first formal exposure to bike fitting was in 2007 while working for a national sporting goods chain in the USA. Thereby followed 6 years of doing basic fits in the bike department with limited training, resources, and support but increasing fascination in the subject. In 2014 I established an independent fit studio and embarked upon a process of enhancing my skills and expertise. By 2019 I had attended many additional bike fit education courses and domestic and international symposia, however I recognized that there was still much to learn in order to provide the highest level of service and outcomes for my clients. Taking advantage of the IBFI mentorship program was the obvious next step to fill in some blanks, primarily the nuances of how the human body can function in a comfortable and efficient way to be most effective in riding a bicycle. It is with much gratitude that I thank Happy Freedman for stepping forward to generously offer me fresh perspectives and insights from his many years of experience. Our conversations and topics were far ranging, but for the purpose of this assessment I will anchor it in the overarching theme of “posture” and its relevance on a bicycle, which is what drew me to Happy initially.
The concept that “good posture” is needed to ride a bicycle well is assumed to be so self-evident that in the bike fitter’s practice it may be passed over without further examination and attention.
There may be an underlying assumption that appropriate postural alignment will be a natural byproduct of addressing and finessing the cyclist’s position.
In the past decade, “advanced bike fitting” has been driven by a focus on the cyclist’s position, which has been enabled by both analog and digital tools that can measure joint angles, either statically or dynamically, and bicycle setup. The importance of bike posture has been overlooked, as it is not easily measured and quantified.
The best bike fitting outcomes involve attention to the interactions and interdependencies of posture, position, and contact point management.
I will contend that if the bike fitter shifts their attention to viewing posture as an overarching driver of a fit, then elements of position and contact point management will more readily fall into place.
What is “posture”
Posture is how we align and hold our body to counter the relentless force of gravity.
Regardless of whether we are standing, walking, running, sleeping, or cycling, the influence of gravity is ever-present.
The central focus of posture is the alignment of the pelvis and spine, which provide the foundation for the movement of the upper and lower extremities.
From a bike fit perspective, the line of enquiry is how might a cyclist best align their pelvis and spinal column to function at an optimal level on the bicycle. This includes the applied concepts of pelvic stability with anterior rotation; hip hinging; appropriate spinal alignment; shoulder girdle stability; rib cage mobility; core activation and engagement; weight distribution, and respiration. Optimal posture in cycling involves mild lumbar and thoracic flexion with mild cervical extension. No section should be at end of range, and there should be no excessive directional changes at any segment that could result in disc compression or nerve entrapment. Indicators of suboptimal posture could include: a vertical or near vertical pelvis and lumbar angle (posterior pelvic tilt), excessive flexion in segments of the lumbar or thoracic spine (thoracic kyphosis), excessive extension in the cervical spine (cervical lordosis), protracted or elevated scapula, or a forward head position. A number of these conditions may be present concurrently.
How is posture different from position? Position takes into account the arrangement and movement of the upper and lower limbs in relation to the spine and each other. Body position is commonly defined by joint angle measures and indirectly documented by bike setup measures. Although the use of motion analysis can provide comprehensive data and useful insights into a cyclist’s position and function, point-to-point measurements oversimplify the postural presentation of the person. A cyclist may exhibit the same position as defined by joint angles, but significantly different posture with implications for metabolic efficiency and comfort.
Entering the words cycling posture or bike posture into a Google Search yields on the high side of 10 million results, indicating a strong association between these two words. Refining the search to the phrase “cycling posture” yields some 15,000 results. However, a perusal of the results shows significant conflation between “posture” and “position”. A clear distinction is rarely made between the two.
Applying the same search to the biomechanical literature in the PubMed database of the National Library of Medicine yielded some 3000 results for articles with the keywords cycling and posture, but only 8 articles for “cycling posture”. Substituting “riding” for “cycling” replaced bicycles with horses in most cases, and replacing cycling with bicycling further diminished the results. Adding bike fit to the search criteria yielded a scant 4 results from the past 10 years, and again posture was conflated with position. This dearth of research does not imply that the topic is unimportant, but it does suggest that it is difficult to apply a quantitative scientific method to the qualitative assessment of posture, whereas position is more easily measured.
In Cycling Biomechanics Optimization—the (R)Evolution of Bicycle Fitting, an examination of the bike fitting literature by Swart and Holliday yielded much to do with what happens with the legs, but summarized that “There is a paucity of data describing the optimal position of the upper body and pelvis in cycling.” The authors’ encouragement was to continue to use 2D and 3D motion capture systems to study the upper body position. However, Wendy Holliday, in a presentation at the International Symposium of Cycling Optimization in 2018 in Munster, Germany, noted the limitations of motion capture systems for capturing the posture of the cyclist.
That this topic is beginning to get attention can be evidenced by a recently published article: Bike Fitting as a Diagnostic Tool. Myers defines bike fitting in the opening paragraph as a “specialized form of posture and gait analysis”, and goes on to describe both normal postural expectations of cyclists, and common deviations from normal.
This is not to suggest that attention to posture is a new revelation to bike fitters. A cyclist’s posture both off and on the bike has always been of utmost importance to bike fit pioneers like Steve Hogg in Australia, and Happy Freedman in New York, whose fitting process has always emphasized direct observation.
The Fitters’ Focus
With the introduction of the Retul motion capture system in 2007 and other motion capture and video analysis systems since then, bike fitters have increasingly focused on what can be measured with instruments rather than what can be observed with the eye.
Bike fitters may have been drawn in by management guru Peter Drucker’s admonishment that you can’t improve what you cannot measure. With the introduction of tools enabling more detailed measurement and data collection, emphasis shifted initially to measurement and collecting data because we could, rather than discerning which elements of data provided relevant information for making informed adjustments. The knowledge needed to parse through reams of data, assess its relevance, and formulate protocols for application have taken time to evolve.
At this time the limitations of “data-driven” fitting have become evident to a cadre of bike fitters, and the pendulum may be swinging back to a more balanced blend of quantitative observations (instrument measurements) together with qualitative observations (sensory inputs). This would make for a more holistic scientific approach. There is still an art to bike fitting, and the art is in the interpretation of the measurements and observations, hypothesizing about causal relationships, making adjustments, and offering recommendations.
Posture in Life and Sports
The health benefits of practicing and maintaining good posture for daily living are well recognized. There are a multitude of methods and advocates available to advance an individual’s postural awareness and function. These include the various schools of yoga and marital arts, and more recent proponents like the Alexander Technique, Gokhale Method, Foundation Training, and the Postural Restoration Institute, to name only a few.
In any athletic and sporting endeavor, the serious participant will seek and benefit from skills coaching that includes the best movement patterns and the postural training that is needed to excel at their sport. From ball sports to ballet and golf to gymnastics, participants are educated, trained, and coached in how to use their bodies. How many cyclists, cycling coaches, or bike fitters place emphasis on first principles of aligning the body on the bicycle to contend with the relentless tug of gravity? In cycling the emphasis has been first and foremost on fitness: cardiovascular, muscular endurance, and strength in order to sustain force delivery to the pedals. A cycling coach may additionally offer guidance on hydration and nutrition; handling skills including cornering, climbing and descending; and race strategy. A bike fitter may be focused on improving contact point comfort to relieve aches and pains, and to prevent repetitive use injuries. Aerodynamic efficiency gets considerable attention in specialized versions of the sport. Posture gets scant attention, but I suggest that awareness of postural alignment establishes the context and parameters for which all other aspects are anchored.
Benefits of Optimal Bike Posture
A cyclist’s posture on a bicycle may be viewed as qualitatively optimal or suboptimal. Their posture will be either helping or hindering overall comfort and performance through the following attributes:
- Balance. A key role of optimal posture is to align the body to function and perform well in the presence of gravity. Hence, having the rider’s center of mass balanced over the primary fulcrum point of the bicycle will help optimize muscle recruitment and handling responsiveness. If the rider’s center of mass is balanced over the bike, then small postural changes can be more easily deployed for the demands of different riding situations, like climbing, sprinting, cornering, and descending.
- Airway and breathing. Optimal posture contributes to the maintenance of an open (vs restricted) airway to enable full use of the lungs. A sub-optimal posture will restrict the airway, limit the mobility of the ribcage, and inhibit the action of the diaphragm. Effective gas exchange is necessary to fuel the muscles to drive the pedals.
- Muscle recruitment. Postural alignment informs body position which affects muscle recruitment. We are looking for a balance of anterior and posterior muscle activity from the hips and lower limbs to drive the pedals, while minimizing unnecessary or compensatory upper body muscle recruitment.
- Neural transmission. Optimal spinal alignment minimizes the risk of nerve impingement to both the upper and lower limbs, supporting full neural activity which is needed for maximal muscle fiber recruitment and sensory feedback.
- Efficient Energy Use. The summation of the above factors will reduce the amount of energy used in maintaining postural compensations, extending the time taken to reach a state of fatigue. Poor posture likely hastens the onset of fatigue for any given fitness level.
- Ongoing Participation. For injured or older cyclists with disc compression or herniation, spondylosis, spinal stenosis, and cervical or lumbar fractures or fusions, the ability to maintain optimal posture while riding is critical to being able to continue riding pain-free and without further aggravation to their condition. What is optimal for cycling will depend on the condition and the individual. The common default is to assume sitting more upright is better. For a herniated lumbar disc it may be, but this is not the case for all spinal or back conditions.
Contributors to Suboptimal Posture
- Body and postural awareness on behalf of the cyclist. The vast majority of cyclists are unaware of how they look and function on a bicycle, other than the metrics provided by their cycle computer. With the exception of some high performance programs, the culture of cycling has not embraced skills-based feedback and coaching, other than the skill of getting faster by getting fitter. Many cyclists do not know how they should be situated on a bicycle, and how to align and use their body to best effect for comfort and performance.
- Equipment Choice. Many cyclists present with poor posture due to subconscious compensations for unsuitable equipment choices. The saddle is a frequent culprit and is a critical piece of equipment as many postural compensations result from a poorly supported pelvis. However, the list is extensive and also includes seat post setback, crank length, stem length and angle, handlebar width, and most fundamentally the underlying frame geometry and size.
- Bike Fit Position. This refers primarily to saddle position (height, setback, angle) and handlebar position (reach and drop) that is deemed suitable for the cyclist. A person can present with a good as defined by normative joint angles based on static or dynamic measurements, and yet exhibit signs of suboptimal posture and suffer the consequences of that. If a fit position is determined and set up without considering posture, the rider is being locked into a position of ongoing postural compensation. If they subsequently attempt to adopt a position of improved posture, the fit position will make it harder, not easier to maintain. A “good fit” is not a good fit if it only takes into account position as defined by joint angles.
- Foot-Pedal Interface. An important subset of both equipment choice and the bike fit position is the choice of cycling shoe and related internal foot support, and external cleat position and modifications. Dysfunction in the stability of the feet on the pedals can have kinetic chain ripple effects up to the pelvis and spine.
- Pre-Existing Conditions. These include leg length differences, spinal (scoliosis, spondylitis, stenosis, disc compression, fractures, and fusions), overuse injuries, and carryover effects from prior accidents or surgeries. Any of these may produce postural compensations as the body seeks the line of least resistance to operate the bicycle.
Bike Fit Interventions To Promote Optimal Posture
Incorporating a postural-centric approach into an existing bike fit process may require a shift in mindset and process. The process begins with a pre-fit interview and off-bike posture, gait, and functional movement assessment; followed by an examination of the current bike presentation and set up. Once the cyclist is on the bike, begin with a global impression of their overall posture and relationship to the machine. If postural compensations are present, move to more specific assessments to flush out probable causes. This may include position assessments (e.g. max leg flexion and extension), pelvic stability, saddle pressure mapping, center of mass balance, frontal plane knee tracking, and deeper questioning of the rider. The purpose of this information gathering phase is to build up an evidence case to present to the cyclist and to hypothesize likely interventions. This is not ignoring the cyclist’s reason for a bike fit, be it performance gains or relieving discomforts. These specific objectives or issues are addressed within a postural context.
The traditional bike fitting process would follow a linear sequence of adjustments to the shoes/cleats, saddle and then bars. A postural-centric approach takes the form of a “cascading triage” model, in which the area of highest need and impact is addressed first, followed by the next most significant, and so on. In this model, an area like the foot-pedal interface might be revisited multiple times at different stages, instead of trying to do everything at once. The persistent theme that is returned to is to raise the cyclist’s postural awareness and to determine what fit adjustments will support the rider in adopting an optimal posture.
The primary interventions used in the bike fit process are:
Awareness Raising. First is discussing the importance and benefits of adopting an optimal posture on the bike. I liken this to being in a position of “athletic readiness” in order to function and perform well. This is equally applicable to any other sport, so if I have determined the cyclist is also active in other sports, I will reference those for an analogy. The intellectual concept is made more powerful with visuals, and the best visual is for the cyclist to see themselves on the bike via video. I primarily use the side view, but occasionally will use rear view to show pelvic instability, or front view to illustrate leg alignment. Often the cyclist does not know what to do on the bike to improve their posture, so we start off the bike.
Off-bike coaching. I will have a good idea of the person’s postural positioning potential on the bike through having previously assessed their standing posture, gait, strength, and mobility. To translate this onto the bike, I find it helps to start with a postural movement sequence off the bike. From standing, I introduce and guide the rider through hip hinging, spinal stabilization, core and shoulder engagement. In addition, I want the cyclist to achieve a balanced weight distribution fore-aft, and balanced recruitment of the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps while in hip and knee flexion. Initially, this is done with the feet side by side, and then with one foot in front of the other to simulate being on cranks. This is done with live video feedback so the person can see themselves while they increase proprioceptive awareness.
On Bike coaching. Back on the bike, I have the cyclist apply and practice the same techniques, principally hip hinging and by lifting and leading with the sternum to prevent excessive thoracic flexion. This may be supported with hands-on physical cuing to help rotate the pelvis, relax the back or engage the shoulders or core. I’ll have the person ride for a while with live video feedback so they can experiment and connect what they feel with what they see. The person needs to understand where they need to be on the bike, and how to get there, and your guidance may be needed for this.
Equipment Selection and Positioning. At this stage, the bike fitter will be determining if the existing fit-related equipment on the bike is suitable or should be changed, as well as working to refine the rider’s position such that it supports the practice and maintenance of good posture. Everything is up for revision, including the bike itself, but common candidates are changes to the saddle, saddle positioning, cleat positioning, and handlebar positioning. The primary contact points are manipulated to allow the person to ride in a non-compensatory manner.
Assign Homework. Work with the cyclist to find one or two mental or physical triggers that they can take away and use to cue themselves into having an optimal posture for specific riding situations (climbing, descending, cornering, etc.). For example, if the cyclist practices yoga, encourage them to bring the same alignment and breathing principles to the bike.
The role of the cyclist is to consider the bicycle their yoga mat, dojo, court, ski slope, or sports field. It is a place for mindful use of our physical abilities. Instead of climbing onto the bike and then slouching on the couch, the posture-aware cyclist will focus on adopting a position of “athletic readiness” and in doing so will likely enhance their performance, as well as mitigate common cycling aches and pains.
In addition to increasing proprioceptive and mental awareness, some riders will benefit from a program of exercises to improve posterior chain and spinal mobility, and core and glute strengthening and activation.
Advances in the accuracy and use of technology for bike fitting has swung the pendulum towards a strong focus on data collection and analytical thinking. This has made a positive contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the human interaction with the bicycle. The risk is in losing sight of the ecology of the whole forest, and only seeing the individual. By focusing on the cyclist’s posture, the bike fitter can blend qualitative observations together with quantitative data to achieve a superior outcome. A shift in thinking is required, from an overly analytical approach that looks at the parts in isolation, to a critical thinking mindset that contextualizes and combines multiple factors.
There is ample opportunity for further exploration and research into what constitutes optimal posture on the bike, and the first step is to draw a distinction between position – as defined by measurement and angles, and posture as defined by presentation and function. An early first step could be a shared understanding of what constitutes optimal posture on the bike.
This article is the full version of an article provided to the International Bike Fitting Institute a the end of 2020, as a requirement of undertaking the mentoring program, and was a component of my successful application for IBFI Level 3 Certification. A heavily condensed version was published in the International Bike Fitter Magazine #4 published in Jan 2022.
The mentoring program has been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.
Working with Happy over (well over) the past 12 months has provided me with additional insights, lines of inquiry and resources that I did not have prior to commencing the mentoring program.
I’ve been able to incorporate new assessments, interventions, and recommendations into my fitting process, with the aim of improving my clients’ cycling experiences to a higher level of satisfaction.
My fitting process has definitely evolved from a narrow linear sequence to a more flexible triage-based approach. In the case of some clients, the most significant changes in their bike fit have been a result of the postural coaching, not the bike adjusting.
Anecdotal evidence of doing better work is the increased fit bookings and higher number of online reviews I have received over the past year, and enhanced “word of mouth” recognition in the local cycling community.
Personally, I have paid increased attention to my own cycling posture, and changed saddles from a long time favorite to one that better supported my own adoption of optimal posture on the bike.
- Happy Freedman for being extremely generous with his time and knowledge above and beyond what would be reasonably expected for this assignment.
- Andrea Myers for diligently reviewing and critiquing the paper, resulting in improved grammar, definitions and explanations.
- Swart, Jeroen MBChB, MPhil (SEM), PhD; Holliday, Wendy BSc, Physiotherapy, PhD Cycling Biomechanics Optimization—the (R) Evolution of Bicycle Fitting, Current Sports Medicine Reports: December 2019 – Volume 18 – Issue 12 – p 490-496
- Freedman, Happy: Bike Fit Unplugged, Lower Extremity Review: May 2020
- Myers, Andrea, PT, DPT; Bike Fitting as a Diagnostic Tool, Lower Extremity Review: August 2020
- Hogg, Steve: Cycling in Alignment Podcast with Colby Pearce, Episode 25: November 2020
John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists – although a few have won races! Many don’t race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)