Before we get going, let me say that if you do sit on your saddle correctly, fantastic, but if you don’t – and I’d say there are a heck of a lot of riders out there that don’t – this will be of interest.
One of the questions I ask new clients on our first call is How do you sit on your saddle?
You’d be surprised how many have never really thought about it, beginner, intermediate and expert level riders alike.
Why is this important though?
Because sitting on your saddle correctly will lead you to save energy, improve pedal stroke and become stronger and faster. And yep, sitting on it incorrectly will lead to the opposite.
How so? Well, because if seated correctly you will:
- Reduce tension in the upper body, specifically neck, arms and shoulders
- Be able to fully isolate the leg muscles
- Improve your pedal stroke
- Engage your core more
- Save your backside
CHOOSING A SADDLE
Before we get into sitting on a saddle correctly, we first have to look at how to choose a saddle in the first place – because if it is the wrong size, you have zero chance on ever sitting on it properly.
When I first got into cycling 35 years ago, saddles were supposed to hurt. That was the sole purpose of the damn things. If, after 40km you didn’t feel like you’d been violated by a large cinder block, you’d go back to the bike shop to demand your money back.
The main issue with the old saddles wasn’t the material nor even the general shape of the things, but the fact that you’d need the narrowest of sit bones to be properly supported by one. There was a one-size-fits-all approach to saddles and just about all came in only one width – narrow as feck.
The result? Lots of stress on the taint leading to numbness at best, eye watering pain at worst.
Sit bones, also known rather lah-de-da-ish as the Ischial Tuberosity, are the two bones you feel supporting your weight when you sit on a stone wall or a wooden bench or chair. If you suffer from backside pain from your saddle, you likely haven’t wondered just why you can sit on a hard chair for hours, as we did at school or do in a cafe, and yet 15 minutes on your bike saddle is crippling. This is most likely because your saddle is the wrong width for you and so it is not supporting sit bones.
How to remedy that? Go get your sit bones measured at a bike shop (you simply sit on a foam pad and your sit bones leave an impression which is then measured), or do it at home. You can sit on a piece of corrugated cardboard for 30 seconds and then measure the space between the deepest impression (center to center).
Your could also fill a baking tray with frozen peas, strip naked and sit on that for say 5 minutes, which is my preferred method.
Most of us sit between 130-150cm, which is reflected by modern size choices that most brands offer.
Right, that’s that, you’ve no excuse if your saddle hurts.
A word on saddle prices: they are insane in some cases. My current saddle cost me $50 and two years in and we are still friends. Yes, it’s a little heavier than a $350 model but on the flip side I have more money to spend on Belgian beer and trips to Thailand and Japan to actually ride the thing.
Another word, this time on padding: too much padding and your bum will go numb as you are slowly ‘suffocating’ the blood circulation back there. Also, your sit bones are not isolated as we want them to be. I once was given an all-carbon saddle to test, zero padding. I thought it would be a nightmare but it was just about the best saddle I ever had, until it broke in a race and I had to stand for the final 40km, which is likely the world’s longest sprint ever…
You may also have this thing, Dead Butt Syndrome, which, yes, it’s a thing.
HOW TO SIT CORRECTLY
Now that you’ve got the correct size of saddle for your body, you also need to sit – as much as you can – towards the back of the seat where the sit bones are directly supported. In that space you can sit for hours without significant pain. This is easier of course on the flats than in the hills on steep inclines. However, if you can make that area on the saddle your ‘favourite chair’ in the house that is your bike, you’ll have a more comfortable ride and reap the benefits mentioned at the start of this article, which we will look at now.
REDUCING TENSION IN THE UPPER BODY
I see way too many riders putting far too much weight on their handlebars, especially those with locked out arms. Watch the top riders and you’ll invariably see bent arms and a loose grip on the bars. The ‘loose grip’ element is the crucial part here.
Because this releases unnecessary tension in the shoulder and neck area, and forces the rider to sit in a position that better supports their weight. With the great majority of the rider’s weight now *in* the saddle, the upper body can be stiller. Remember, the legs are pistons when on the bike, and the upper body should be a smooth as possible, head still and arms and shoulders relaxed so they can better absorb shocks from the front wheel.
Also, and this is very important and oft overlooked, a stiff upper body, one that is full of tension, is a waste of valuable energy. Not only can it prevent you from fully sitting in the saddle and therefore reduce the effectiveness of those pistons, it drains watts. It might be minimal, but over a 140km race, it is not.
Next time you ride, especially on a climb, imagine you have a shot of espresso on your stem. This is the last liquid on the planet and you cannot drink it til at the top of the hill, so don’t spill it!
This will force you to focus on riding smooth.
BETTER ISOLATE THE LEG MUSLES
When we perch on the saddle, whether it be the middle or the front of it, we tend to bob about. All this bobbing about is reducing the effectiveness of your pistons. Just as a gym workout is a waste of time if the athlete is not using strict form and not properly isolating the biceps say, the same is true for us when cycling.
Sit back in the saddle, sit ‘heavy’, release the tension in the grip, imagine your legs are truly pistons, and you will find that you are not just hitting those muscles you over-use but also engaging muscles you’ve neglected. Doing this at first hurts, and you will notice that your times up your favourite hills suffer. But stick with it, because in isolating the legs more effectively, you are making them stronger – and stronger means, of course, faster.
Think about what you are doing, then feel the effect.
When standing you can try this too, this is quite hard and leads to a proper burn in the legs. When you stand up, try to keep that espresso in the cup. You will have to get ‘deeper’ into the pedal stroke because you won’t be swinging the upper body as much as previously and because, yep, the legs are more isolated, ie being used fully. You’ll also notice that you will have to pull the leg back up much more to ensure a ’round’ stroke, as this keeps you straighter.
A quick word on sitting when climbing: sometimes sure, we end up at the front of the saddle when hammering, that’s inevitable, especially when the hill is steep, so try this technique on shallower hills. Soon you may find that you can remain seated, and more on the sit bones, when tackling steeper gradients.
This isolation of the legs will get you focussing on your pedal stroke, because now that the muscles are all being stressed, you will notice better the flaws in your stroke and begin to search for ways to remedy these.
BETTER ENGAGE YOUR CORE
So, you’ve got less pressure on the bars, you’re settled in to the saddle and you’re isolating those leg muscles, and all this works to more effectively get the core involved in proceedings.
Why is this important? Because an engaged core allows you to hold the upper body more stable, helps prevents injury (especially to the lower back) and, because it is all connected, cos hey, it’s your body, this brings the hip flexors more into play, which all ties in to isolating those legs.
SAVE YOUR BACKSIDE
This one has already been explained but to reiterate: sitting on the sit bones is where we are supposed to sit. Something to do with our ancestors not having IKEA sofas all over the place.
Thy say ‘tain’t a thing’ but as anyone who’s suffered a sore ‘middle region’ from an ill-fitting saddle will tell you, the taint is very much a thing. Save it for better days. Sit on those sit bones – that’s what they are called sit bones. They can take it.
This is why sitting correctly on the saddle is so important. Give this a whirl, try some of these points, and I guarantee you that if you stick with it, not only will you get stronger, your arse will be happier too.