Correct bike set up & positioning helps performance & injury prevention

Cycling has become an incredibly popular sporting activity that along with the enjoyment the activity alone gives, also has many health benefits.   Ensuring the correct set up of your bike and the position you ride in, can have a major bearing on your riding comfort and efficiency.  Checking your set up is correct from the start will help your performance and injury prevention.

This month our Physiotherapist Paul Carnell, a very keen cyclist, is reviewing posture and positioning to help you cycle at your best and to prevent injury occurring whilst cycling.  We are referencing to a RealBuzz article that we enjoyed reading, relaying from a Physiotherapist’s perspective, the benefits of correct set up and positioning.

Correct Riding Position

The correct riding position is unique to the individual.  what may be comfortable for one cyclist, may be quite the opposite for another.   The set up for a road bike will be different for each person as each individual has different sizes for our arms, legs, torsos and any other parts of the body as well as varying degrees of body flexibility.

Paul will help to review a few basic set up and posture tips, to help you gain a cycle posture that will perfect for your body.

By maintaining the correct cycle position, the advantages are:

  • Greater comfort
  • Avoid or manage injuries aggravated when riding a bike.
  • More efficient riding
  • Improved bike handling

When purchasing your bike, always consider sizing guides from manufacturers, or advice or a bike fit from our local bike shop.

Key details to consider in setting up and maintaining good posture on the bike are: saddle height, knee position, reach, hand position and foot position.  A look at each of these in turn will help determine the final size of the cycle best suited to the rider.

Saddle Height

The saddle height is measured from the top of the bicycle seat to the pedal when it is at the bottom of its turning circle. When the pedal is at the bottom of the stroke, the cyclist’s legs should not be fully stretched out, but there should be a slight bend of around 25 degrees from a straight line.

Less than this means the rider doesn’t allow their leg muscles to operate near maximum extension where they are most efficient. It can lead to the knee over extending which may cause impingement of the soft tissues underneath our knee caps and pain and swelling in this area. If the cyclist rocks back and forth in the saddle, then it is a sign the saddle is too high.  An increased knee bend again will disrupt your pedalling stroke and cause inefficiency. In this position increased forces can be placed on the tissues underneath the knee cap causing pain and knee cap tracking injuries.

You can achieve a good saddle height position by placing your heel on the pedal and pedalling backwards slowly. If your knee just barely locks out at the point of maximum extension, you’ve found a good starting point. If you have to reach, it’s too high. If you don’t quite lock out your knee, it’s too low.  However, it is important to take into account the height of the cleats or shoes being worn by the rider.

Knee position

You will also need to take into consideration the position of the knee relative to the bike pedal.  Hold the pedals in a horizontal or level position as shown in the above photo.   A plumb line from the centre of the knee joint should be vertically above or just behind the axle centre of the crank arm or ball of your foot. If the knee is slightly in front of the axle centre of the pedal, this tends to force the rider out of position when riding hard.


This is the distance between the shoulders and the top brake levers when the cycle rider is sitting in the more upright position. The correctly set reach should allow the rider to sit an angle of around 45 degrees to the top tube of the cycle. However, the type of cycling you do may alter this angle. Racing cyclists may have a less than 45 degree angle due to minimising aerodynamic drag. However, any effort to adopt a lower position should still maintain good shoulder and arm positions highlighted below. To attain these positions a cyclist will need increased hip and hamstring flexibility to lower the torso without over flexing the spine to compensate.

You can adjust the reach by adjusting the length of the handlebar stem.   Having a correct setting allows reduced muscular strain in the neck and muscles, and also means that breathing is unrestricted leading to improved performance.

When sitting in this position the rider should have a straight spine while being able to maintain the natural spinal curves. If the handlebars are too far away the shoulders can roll forwards and upwards, rounding and increasing the curve in the upper back. This can lead to neck and shoulder strain.

When in position you should be able to keep your shoulder blades back on your torso and your collar bones open.

Hand positions

Here this photo demonstrates good hand positioning, with the hands being shoulders width apart.   You can see the bike handlebars are positioned slightly below the level of the top of the saddle.   Having the handlebars too low can result in pain the lower back and the shoulders as the whole spine becomes over rounded.  A significant bend in the elbow, with a near horizontal forearm, is good and helps reduce shock from the road.

Bike handlebars are shaped to give the rider three positions where they can comfortably grip – the tops, hoods and drops.

Tops – these are quite literally as they sound the top straight portion of the handlebars.

Hoods – the hands grip the brake level hoods at the top of the curved portion of the handlebars

Drops – The hands hold lower down the curve on the dropped or curved section of the handlebars.

If you suffer with neck pain make sure your handlebars or the position you adopt on the handlebars allows your hands to be shoulder width apart. If hands are placed too close together the shoulders can become rounded leading to neck and shoulder strain.

When riding long distances cyclists can suffer pain in the hands and this can be helped with use of gloves and bar tape on the handlebars. Regularly varying the position of the hands on the handlebars can also help.

Pedal foot position

The foot position is mainly determined by the adjustment of the shoe cleat, or how you position your foot on the pedal. A good starting point is to aim to get the ball of the foot over the pedal spindle. This help producing maximum efficiency, while reducing the risk of injury. If the pedal centre is positioned too far to the toes excessive force can be generated on the Achilles tendon and knee, causing over strain and injury. Generally if you suffer with Achilles or knee problems sometimes having the pedal centre a little more behind the ball of the foot reduces the forces exerted to these structures.

The cleat and foot should be adjusted so that the foot is directly in line with the cycle’s direction of travel and not splayed out or turned in. Having the foot excessively turned out can lead to strain on the ligaments on the inside of the knee. Many people may have a natural tendency for the foot to splay out. Having normal pedals without cleats will allow the foot to naturally slide on the pedal and accommodate this. If you are considering starting to use cleats on cycle shoes choose cleats with the maximum amount of float. Float will be a natural amount of free rotation that occurs between the cleat and the pedal, which takes the strain off of the knees.

This is a very basic guide. Bike set up and posture are inter related. If our set up is incorrect, attaining correct posture is very difficult. However, even when our set up is correct for us, without a little attention to how we hold ourselves on the bike we may not be making the most of our set up. If you are having issues with pain or recurrent injury when cycling then seeking the assessment of a Physiotherapist who can check your body’s flexibility, biomechanics and strength to see if these issues are affecting your condition. If you regularly cycle considering a professional bike fit may also be a good option to make sure your bike set up is optimised for you.