Which Muscles are Really Used During the Pedal Stroke?

Aug 8, 2012 at 1:08
Aug 8, 2012
by James Wilson  
 
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One of the most persistent myths in the mountain biking world surrounds the pedal stroke and goes something like this: " Without being attached to the pedals you can not use your hamstrings properly, which forces you to rely too much on the quads to power the pedal stroke. By not being able to curl the knee joint during the upstroke of the pedal stroke you create muscular imbalances and tire out the quads faster." That is what most of us have been told. However, this understanding of which muscles are used and how they are used during a pedal stroke is completely wrong and potentially dangerous over the long run.

When I ask why someone thinks that the muscles are used that way during the pedal stroke, I am invariably led to some variation of this picture/ chart:

Photo of muscle use

According to this theoretical model of muscles used during the pedal stroke, the hamstrings are used maximally from 8 o'clock to 10 o'clock position, while the glutes and quads are responsible for the downstroke part of the pedal stroke. This paints a completely false picture of the situation and leads a lot riders to assume that the hamstrings are only there to flex the knee joint on the upstroke, which would be impossible to do if you weren't attached to the pedals. This, of course, would mean that it would be impossible to optimally pedal without clipless pedals, which is where the faulty logic that tells riders that it is impossible to pedal optimally without them stems from.

The problem with this whole notion is that this chart is completely theoretical and based on how the muscles work in isolation from each other. Unfortunately, the reality of how the muscles work together to create the actual pedal stroke movement is much different than the what this chart tells us. The model this chart is based on also assumes that all muscles that cross a joint are there primarily to flex that joint, as if the muscles on the front side mirror the actions of the muscles on the backside.

The human body is not set up so that the muscles are mirror images of each other - the hamstrings are not the "backside" quads. The hamstrings are made to powerfully extend the hips while less powerfully flexing the knee, the quads are made to powerfully extend the knee while less powerfully flexing the hip. Together they both work with and counteract each other to produce lower body locomotion. Train the hamstrings to flex the hips and stabilize the knee and the quads to flex the knee and help stabilize the hip joint - that is how those muscles function in real life and how we should train them, not based on the old model of training each muscle that crosses a joint to powerfully flex it.

In fact, trying to have a rider curl their hamstring to produce force on the upstroke is unnatural and asks the knee to produce force in an unstable position. Your hamstrings are not made to produce power by curling at the knee and instead are made to produce power at the hips while helping to stabilize the knee joint. The idea that you need to curl your leg through the bottom and upstroke portion of a pedal stroke is simply wrong and based on old and faulty logic - you want to flex the hip to push the leg through the bottom of the pedal stroke, not flex the knee.

Just like when running you don't want to produce power by flexing the knee, you simply use knee flexion to get the leg back into position for the next "push". The human body is made to push, not to pull, and trying to apply pulling (curling the knee is a pull) to lower body locomotion isn't the most effective thing to do.

You want to produce your power at the hips, not the knee joint. The reason that a lot of riders have the knee issues is because the knee joint lacks stability, not strength. On a side note this is why I am an advocate for standing up more to pedal because it forces the knee and hips joints to act and stabilize more naturally than seated pedaling does.

As an interesting side note, I came across this chart of a pedal stroke while researching this article. It looks like it was based on actual EMG readings, not a theoretical model.

The reality of what muscles are used during a pedal stroke.

As you can see the Biceps Femoris (fancy talk to hamstring) is most active on the downstroke and least active on the upstroke. In fact, where the first chart shows the hamstring to be most active is actually the place it is least active according to the EMG in the second picture. In other words, the first chart is flat out wrong and in no way represents what is actually happening during a pedal stroke.

Take another look at the second picture and you'll see how the downstroke finds all of the muscle groups lighting up and the upstroke sees very little activity by comparison. This also underscores the findings in the Mornieux and Korff studies, which was that a powerful downstroke with the lead leg and a more passive return of the trail leg was the most powerful and efficient way to pedal. You shouldn't be worrying about trying to create power on the upstroke, which means that you can create the most powerful and efficient pedal stroke without being attached to your pedals.

What does this mean for you?

1 - You can (and should) be able to pedal your bike very effectively with flat pedals. This myth is one of the most common ones I hear from riders as to why they don’t want to try flat pedals when in fact, flat pedals will actually clean up and improve your pedal stroke. I have written extensively about this on my site and before you assume that I hate clipless pedals, I suggest you read the article Just Because I am Pro-Flats, Doesn't Mean I am Anti-Clipless.

2 - You should train your legs to produce a powerful downstroke using the hips as the primary power source, not the knee joint. This means that leg curls and leg extensions are bad exercise choices since they reinforce this "knee powered" pedal stroke. Exercises like single leg deadlifts and single leg squats are much more effective since they train the legs to drive from the hips, not the knees.

3 - When riding don’t worry about "spinning circles" or "keeping equal pressure on the pedals" or whatever else someone has told you that essentially means you need to curl the hamstring through the return portion of the pedal stroke. While a good, efficient pedal stroke may feel like you are spinning circles the reality of what your muscles are doing to produce that feeling are much different. Your body has one way to optimally produce lower body locomotion and you simply want to apply it to the pedal stroke.

The idea that you can not optimally use your hamstrings during a pedal stroke without clipless pedals is based on faulty logic and theoretical models. Now that we have a more accurate insight into what is actually happening we see that models like the first picture/ chart need to stop being used as a way to think about pedaling our bikes. The hamstrings are one of the more important muscles used during the pedal stroke, but it is how they work in concert with the other muscles of the lower body on the downstroke - not by themselves on the upstroke - that form the reality of pedaling your bike.


About James Wilson's MTB Strength Training Systems is a leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for World Cup teams and 3 National Champions, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit www.bikejames.com to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course.

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116 Comments

  • + 144
 Perhaps one of the more enlightening articles I've ever read on here. Top notch Smile
  • + 37
 I was thinking the same thing, beat me to it. Genuinely interesting and informative article, i didn't realise this kind of research existed.
  • - 46
 this model is flawed. it doesnt take into consideration pedaling over technical terrain...ie not applicable to the majority of mountain biking. I dont know about all of you, but pedaling on a stationary machine is way different than pedaling up through a rock garden. I think bike james' crusade against clippless pedals is a bit tired and over done.
  • + 16
 Very interesting indeed! Also explains why BMX racers do explosive hip exercises to help improve their snap and not leg curls.
  • + 19
 @ jlfkibikesail....... first off i'm no expert other than the fact i ride flats on my xc bike and raced xc very well with that setup. but i your comment on riding technical terrain is flawed as well. the amount of clipped riders i see spinning out the back wheel on steep technical terrain is a joke, the reason is they have no fluid pedal motion, instead they spike on the down stroke and spike again on the up stroke. putting in way too much torque in to the back wheel and wasting energy. theoretically getting more power should be better but its extremely hard to be efficiently smooth with clipless pedals, if you can do it then fantastic but until then you will be a faster rider on techy terrain using flats and less power but more efficiency with 2 controlled (fading out down stroke and taking over down stroke) downward pedal strokes. the other factor is rider upper body skill/strength and line choice.....you may think that counts for alot more than your pedal stroke and is entirely unrelated to what your legs are doing but if you are concentrating on wasting leg energy on an imperfect clipped in pedal stroke then you are not focusing on the main job of line choice and upper body manouvering.
  • + 5
 I think it's just showing basic pedalling and what muscle group acts in said positions on a flat surface on any bike. People shouldn't over complicate a simple diagram. I agree each riding type has differences but at the same time these muscles work acordingly to pedal position regarless of age or bike.
  • + 1
 wheni was racing xc, i would get my ass beasted on flat firetrack climbs and lose several places due to my flat pedal setup, but on any techy uphills or techy flat sections i would gain those places back and of course on the downhill i would then gain more places due to the restrictive nature of clipped pedals (yeah i know try telling that to the pro Dhers out there....but they have perfected the art of clipped riding......average joe rider hasn't !!)
  • - 3
 did you just buy a pair of flash clippless pedals or shares in Speedplay?
the great thing about the body is that its design, although fixed, applies the same principles effectively across an array of situations. pedalling is pedalling, the action and muscles involved for the best outcome are the same regardless of what the ground is doing. are you able to re-wire your tendons on the fly? cause thats what you're say. and why would you need to pull on pedals to turn the rear wheel just because the things get tricky? I can understand pulling on the pedals to manoeuvre the bike around but thats just like bunny hopping with clippless ped's cause you couldn't get pixie dust for your shoes like everyone who can hop on flats. Clippless have their place, I dont disagree but twisting the truth with ignorance...

thanks for the article James
  • - 3
 if you are a talented rider with both clipless and flats., then in general you will perform better in technical terrain with clipless....period. Like you said (@forkbrayker) theoretically you get more power, thus if you have the skills, you can use that extra power to get through sketchier spots (regardless of where you are in your pedal stroke). and if its hard for you to have a smooth pedal stroke with clipless pedals...you aint doin it right.
  • + 2
 Hmmmm.......

The biceps femoris is only half of your hamstring muscles, and attach laterally to the fibula which reinforces your LCL (opposite your MCL). The semimembranosus (which is for some reason omitted in the graph) and semitendinosis attach medially on the tibia. You do NOT want to overdevelop ONE portion of your hammy as it will create a torsional force that will stretch your ligaments and lead to early degeneration.

I find it interesting that the graph shows that the biceps femoris and semitendinosis were NOT working together to stabilize the knee.
  • + 5
 Can what he is saying about power be applied to clipless as well? If you are using good, hip driven pushing form what difference does it make if you are clipped in or standing on flat pedals?
  • + 5
 Dirtbagluvin, you are correct and this article is really poorly written. He is contradicting himself in it:
" Train the hamstrings to flex the hips and stabilize the knee and the quads to flex the knee and help stabilize the hip joint - that is how those muscles function in real life and how we should train them, not based on the old model of training each muscle that crosses a joint to powerfully flex it."
, which is absolutely wrong from a kinesiological stand point. Hamstrings are hip extensor, they can't flex the hip joint! Quadricep extends the knee, so these muscles can't possibly flex it. Looks, that at the end the author was confused on the topic and proper muscle actions and terms describing body movement.
  • + 4
 Polishbob-agreed. The other point that I failed to mention is the idea of ECCENTRIC contractions. Each muscle is able to perform a "controlled" lengthening of the muscle as opposed to the CONCENTRIC shortening of muscles. This is the only way a hammy can "control" the knee extension movement (straightening), however it's secondary action is hip extension. The BIG problem with that is the LONG length of the muscle POORLY controls the precise motion needed to center the ball in the socket of the hip. It really shears the ball forward on the socket and stretches out the structures at the front of the joint. The INTRINSIC hip muscles- quadratus femoris, sup/inf gemelli, etc. are the main controllers of precise hip motion. Use the hammy's instead and your hip will become wrecked!!
  • + 3
 "Appears to be from EMG readings." Was that diagram from a clipped in or flat rider because thats actually a pretty big deal.

Needs more information, less conclusions.
  • + 2
 One key point that was glossed over is stability of the SPINE when pedaling. I see all sorts of people bobbing away while pedaling. All they're doing is creating a selective hypermobility in their lumbar spine. After all, you need a solid, well aligned lumbar spine and pelvis by which to power those legs.
And the in-depth nature of how we "brace" with certain muscles in an isometric fashion to stabilize the joints, while concurrently moving them precisely concentrically/eccentrically. I like where he's going with it, analyzing EMG's with biking, but a real study is needed.
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  • + 43
 how many pedal strokes per beer?
  • + 43
 you should ask steve peat
  • + 14
 so that's 1 then.
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  • + 30
 you can pedal a bike? so whats the uplift and the gravity for?
  • + 73
 People who never stand on podiums.
  • + 9
 not everyone gets to stand on podiums! my life isnt about being better than everyone else! but being the best i can and above all enjoying myself.
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  • + 15
 Power from the hip makes sense, This article is about maximum pedal stroke not flats vs clipless.
  • + 8
 there seems to be a few people missing that point. it`s not a vs battle for pedals, just a science based suggestion on how to pedal better without hurting oneself
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  • + 10
 I've read a lot of James' articles and I agree he is on a bit of a crusade against clipless pedals, but I think for the right reasons. He's not a researcher (he's a physical trainer), so it is a bit suspect for him to use science to back him up. He should stick to his opinions. I got tired of falling over with clipless pedals on technical climbs, not descents. I also wanted better shoes for HIB. It's been a few months and I'm really enjoying flats. The only time I feel slower is when I need a burst of speed on steep, technical and loose sections. Otherwise, I haven't slowed down, but my cornering technique, speed and descents have improved. With flats, you really need to read the terrain and stay weighted and unweighted at the right times - a great way to learn how to MTB. Once a person starts racing, then they can progress to clipless and get the speed advantage.
  • + 1
 I agree. Great points.
  • + 1
 @throttlemire and @byrd

completely agree

I only use clipless (shimano 520 SPD) on my road bike for commuting

for serious riding on my mountain bikes its Nukeproof flat pedals and 5-10 Sam Hill flat shoes with the sticky rubber soles

never had any issues with "power", I ride very quick whether its climbing, zinging along singletracks or fast descending...tried clipless for about 4 months last season and hated the way it changed my pedalling stroke and my approach to aggressive, technical ride (either going up, along or down!)

with the flats I feel much more connected to my bike (more body 'english'), have a better pedal stroke off road and can attach technical sections with real convinction

and yes, I used and raced clipless pedals in XC at National Level for 5+ years before anyone accuses me of being 'anti clipless'...bearing in mind I still use them daily on my road commuting bike, where its lots of track stands at traffic lights and short sprints between sets of traffic lights where the pedal stroke is probably terrible but its all about moving quickly Wink
  • + 2
 I did the traditional "clipless for XC, Flats for DH" setup, also clipless for road. I'm no pro so your mileage may vary depending on your skill level but those are my observations:

With the road setup I kinda like using hamstrings for "power starts", when you want to get back to cruise speed asap (stops signs, red lights). Even though I have relatively strong hamstrings (315lbs deadlift at 145lbs bodyweight), I find that using the hamstrings for every pedal strikes tires your legs way too fast. I don't do it anymore once cruising speed is reached as it's quite devastating on energy consumption for a longer ride.

Bought a XC bike this year and set it up with clipless to give it a shot. It's true that you get a short boost by using hamstrings going uphill, but I find it greatly overshadowed by hurting you more often and destroying your bike a lot faster when you run out of speed in steep sections or get stuck on an obstacle if you can't unclip in time. I put my DH flats pedals on my XC bike and I'll try it this week. Akrigg seems to ride the nastiest stuff using flats, so I don't think you really need clipless to power through obstacles.

On the DH bike though, the very rough/steep stuff tends to knock my feet of the pedals (DMR V12 + 5-10s, the grip is insane). I don't fall often and like 75% of the falls I get are due to feet getting knocked out of the pedals, so I'm gonna try DH clipless this week also.
  • + 1
 I have trouble riding technical climbs with flats, just because there is more surface area to bang into rocks. Pausing for even a second to miss a rock can kill your moment when you're grinding up a steep climb in your granny ring. Clipless pedals are both shorter and narrower, and I've found that trying to climb technical climbs with flats just results in more rock strikes and less success for me.
  • + 2
 Ended up doing some testing. When I bought my clipless pedals I bought into the whole "you can pull with your legs", "you're more commited" and "your feet don't get kicked off the pedals" deal. After trying with flats I noticed that the whole pulling thing is good to get some speed before a technical climb but you have to be really careful when you pull as it takes weight (grip) off the back wheel and it's easy to lose grip on the slippery stuff. One of the rides I did with flats was under heavy rain and I climbed soaking wet rock faces I didn't even know were possible when dry. Also figured that you're not as commited as you want as you always want to leave yourself a little room to unclip in time as opposed to using flats, where you can go all out always as you're not stuck to your bike. It's highly psychological but psychology is everything sometimes. As for feet getting kicked off the pedals, it's nothing a better line choice can't solve and at the speed/terrain you usually ride XC on, I don't find it that much of a problem. Skinnies are also a lot easier with flats for obvious reasons. It all comes down to tastes I guess but on that one I'll side with james when he claims that the improved risk of injury (and bike damage) isn't worth the performance gains with clipless.

Gave a chance to clipless in DH too. The little performance gain and having your feet glued to the pedal really doesn't overshadow the fact that crashing at high speed while clipped is just not fun.

I'm not an anti clipless fanatic and I plan on revisiting them later on as my trail riding skills increase but right now flats are just a lot more fun.

After all, most of us are weekend warriors and performance means absolutely nothing... it's all about fun.
  • + 1
 @PLC07

the thing I really dig about running flat pedals on my MTB is the ability to really push the performance of my tires, especially in loose, flat corners

to the point where I lose grip from extreme cornering angles / speeds and have to "dab" my foot to stop a crash

there is no way that a clipless system can allow me to dab in the same minimal time-frame it takes to pull my foot off my flat pedal, stomp my foot on the dirt and adjust the bike trajectory to stop a crash

on my road bike I have had situations where I take a corner in the wet to turn onto a cobbled stone street, the front tire loses grip and I start to slide, and end up stubbing my toe because its taken me too long to unclip my SPD setup before I can "dab" compared to the MTB with the flat pedals where there is no unclip but just a sideways movement from pedal to the dirt..
  • + 1
 Yeah, riding clipped on my DH bike, I found out that sometimes you'll magically be able to unclip for an emergency dab but when it's a pure "wtf???" moment you never saw coming, it's usually too late before the thought of unclipping even has the chance to come to mind.

Also, when you're clipped and you had to dab in steep and technical rock climb, it's often quite a mess to clip back in and resume the climb. That's a non-issue with platforms. Just bought a pair of Straitline AMPs for my xc bike, can't wait to try them.
[Reply]
  • + 8
 I was a die hard platform guy and insisted I would never go clipless. I rode flats for 10 years and decided I would give clip less a try. First round I couldn't stand them. Felt completely un natural and was sketched out by the fact that I was attached to the bike. Although I must say that i did feel a performance gain on climbs and had more endurance on the climbs but could not deal with going downhill.
I gave up after a couple of rides and went back to flats. About a year later I tried again. This time I made myself ride in them through the winter. Again it felt unatural and sketchy at first. I just couldn't get over the fact that I was attached to the bike and was very tentative on the downhills. After a couple of crashes I realized that my feet come unclipped on their own. So that alleviated some of my "being clipped in while crashing" fear.

It took about 4 months of riding clip less before I finally became 100% confident riding in them. I have now been riding clip less for almost a year and must say that I prefer it now. Tried going flats again a couple of weeks ago and couldn't deal with it. Felt like I couldn't get my feet positioned right so I was constantly adjusting them. Noticed my feet bouncing around and coming off my pedals in the rough.

I used to to talk sh!t about clip less and now I am all about them. I think some people that try to switch to clipless don't give themselves enough time to get used to them and the fear of not being able to come unclipped scares them.

From my personal experince I would have to disagree with James. I feel that I have more power and more control of the bike clipped in.
  • + 2
 To each his own, but I have found that flats are something that you have to practice regularly in order to maintain efficiency. I went clipless for about a year and when I first tried flats again it was the same as you described. I was frustrated with my feet coming off and annoyed by any slight deviation from perfect foot position on the pedal. I realized that riding clipless I basically forgot about my feet and didn't always apply the "heavy feet" mantra. It seems that the more you ride exclusively clipless, the worse it will make learning flats. I feel that this is the reason so many stick to clipless and perceive massive gains over flats.

I went back to clipless for awhile after giving up flats, but I read a lot on riding technique and tried to apply flat pedal techniques and other good overall riding techniques while riding clipless. Then I went back to flats and within about 2 rides I could keep my feet in place much better. Eventually you also just stop caring about small differences in your foot placement and you just ride it out. The better and more comfortable on flats you get, the less your feet come off and when they do you naturally put your foot right back into a good position. Flats take more work so I can see why the average rider doesn't want to take the time when they can just slap on clipless and only have to get over the clipping out fear and they're good to go forever.
[Reply]
  • + 6
 I find it strange that there was only 2 of the quadricep muscles analysed and I can't tell what colour the rectus femoris is meant to be on the chart? I would have thought the psoas major and ilicus muscles would have been more useful for measuring hip flexion than the rectus femoris. A link to the study/paper would be nice to see what power outputs where being created when the results where taken as I'm sure there would be a variability between sprinting and spinning. A standing position pedal emg would be interesting too.

I agree that people only think that the hamstrings cause knee flexion and the mis-conception of being quad dominant using flats, the downstroke will always out power the upstroke but I think that muscular recruitment would differ if you are just spinning or grinding the pedals. I've found that good grippy flat shoes, a decent set of flat pedals and my saddle at the right height is just as good as riding clips for me but that's my preference for my riding style. At the end of the day 99% of competitive road riders and triathletes ride clipped in for a reason, I personally think it depends on what/how you ride....
  • + 0
 Only reason I ride clipped in is so I don't destroy my shins if my foot slips off a drop. And no I will not wear shinguards.
  • + 5
 The reason they only put EMG on rectus femoris and vastus lateralus, and not muscles like illiopsoas, is because illiopsoas is a deep muscle and you can not put an EMG in with out performing minor surgery, and personally like most people I am not going to let someone open me up for research, furthermore illiopsoas is a hip flexor, while rectus femoris is both a hip flexer and knee extender, and on the downstroke of a pedal you are forcefully extending your knee and hip so illiopsoas should not be really involved until the upstroke.
  • + 2
 @damo thats a valid point with regards to it being a deep core muscle and hard to obtain results without invasive action, my point was that they're measuring the full rotation including the upstroke which would involve hip flexion. So maybe using one of the hip flexor muscles rather than rectus femoris which is also involved with knee extension therefore will be recruited more giving emg results on different parts of the pedal stroke (hip flexion - upstroke and knee extension - downstroke)??? Some researchers go to the extent of invasive action for validity of the study, I was just being critical of the study and pointing out a few areas of concern where results may be misinterpreted and what could be considered from the information given.
  • + 2
 EMG is generally done with a fine needle electrode. Pretty easy to target the deeper hip flexors through the skin and overlaying muscle. Routinely done for investigations on plexopathies and upper lumber radiculopathies. Done it many times.
[Reply]
  • + 5
 Crap like this is what perpetuates misinformation for years to come. Kids are going to be running around spewing quotes from this article without really understanding what they're saying and other kids are going to assume it's true. This wouldn't be published in any reputable journal. In fact, it would be used as an example of how not to write a fact based, researched, and balanced piece.
  • + 0
 You mean like the crap that people are spewing right now and other people are believing? How do you know that your way is the best way? Someone states something different than what you think is correct and they are full of crap? How is this a fact based, balanced comment? Where is this journal article you speak of that states the way you are doing it now is totally right and better than they way he is suggesting? Why is a suggestion to keep your knees from doing weird shit such a terrible idea?
  • + 1
 I didn't claim a better position (either literally or figuratively). I'm critiquing what was posted which lacks any of the necessary and fundamental points to establish it as a scientific/fact based article as opposed to a simple opinion piece. Anyone with a basic B.Sc. degree will understand what I'm talking about. You... not so much.
  • + 0
 Of course it is an opinion piece, it is Pinkbike after all and not a reputable journal (last time I checked). You state that this article is crap, w/o giving any reason/facts why you think so, other than your opinion. I agree that this particular article lacks tons of science within its content, but overall the author appears to be relatively well versed in his trade (just my opinion) and has something to gain from knowing how to make riders pedal more efficiently. I guess my question is how is one kid spewing quotes from this article any different than how most of us have been told how to pedal more 'efficiently'?
  • + 3
 With more than a basic B.Sc., I can tell you that what is being taught in classrooms in regards to evidence based/ science based techniques and theories is basically garbage. The majority of evidence based ideas are funded by pharm. companies that are trying to make a profit in the end. Take all that, throw it out the window. Learn from personal experience, believe what seems to make the most sense, not what some college paper or so called "science based" article tells you.
  • + 1
 I agree, this is poorly written article with so many mistakes, it's not funny. Like Bicep Femoris is not a fancy name for Hamstring- it is one of the muscles in Hamstring group, the two others are Semimembrenosis and Semitendenosis. The main issue is that the author doesn't even mention term reciprocal inhibition, which means that if the agonist (muscle performing the movement) contracts, the antagonistic muscle has to be in relaxed state.
  • + 2
 Thanks for the wise statements, Powderface, Dualsus and polishbob, i agree completely. While it is indeed an interesting topic the evidence used here is pseudo-science, with no solid basis.
[Reply]
  • + 7
 For those of us who are research inclined, could we please have the reference for the 2nd pedal chart?
  • + 6
 On page 62 of Lee McCormack's Mastering Mountain Bike Skills, there is a similar diagram that shows similar results. The source for that is Ericson et al 1980 - Power output and work in different muscle groups during ergometer cycling:

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3396551

James is featured on pages 202-203 of Lee's book.
  • + 1
 Is the 2nd pedal chart based on readings from someone using flats or clips?
  • - 4
 I can only assume that it doesn't matter on the trail. People talk "pedaling technique niuances when on trainers, but when they get tired on the trail they forget all bullcrap and just stomp on pedals as this diagram shows. I talked to the guy who supervised my lactic threshold test, they also do efficiency tests. He said that judging by his own tests best pedallers are XC racers, then absolute noobs, then come roadies. The worst pedallers are advanced riders who try to apply some techniques they've read about...
  • + 1
 Woops. I jumped in too soon.

Firstly, that paper I linked too was the wrong one. It was done by the same guy, but it was 'Mechanical muscular power output and work in different muscle groups during ergometer cycling', not 'Power output and work in different muscle groups during ergometer cycling' (research paper titles.. phew!).

The paper I should have cited was this:

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3732250

Now, the above paper is similar to James' first graphic - the ones where the hammy is purported to 'pull' the pedal on the beginning of the upstroke, which is contrary to James' point about the hammies being used to push the pedal to a greater degree than we think. The above articles used biomechanical modelling, so I'd be going with James'/Thordarson's methods if they used EMG.
  • + 2
 LemonadeMoney, you are on the money - I'd be interested to see charts for both clips and flats. What are the differences?
  • + 0
 The fact that clipless will provide better performance results than flats is I think undisputable. The question though is: "what kind of results are we talking about?" Getting 1st instead of 45th, getting 3rd instead of 10th or 81st instead of 82nd? And I think it is the flats the give you a higher chance to develop your technique, both pedalling and riding technique in general.

So for me the question is not "which pedals make me faster" but "which pedals help me to become a better rider".
  • + 2
 What about which pedal is more fun... faster is more fun... clipless is faster... more fun is better. Logic.
  • + 0
 There is only one logic in fun: the stronger and the more skilled you are - the more fun you have. Now which pedal leads to better skills and better pedal stroke? Which pedal allows for better execution of skill drills? Which pedal allows doing stuff in a bad way?
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 @sfd656 Faster is more fun, yes. But clipless is less work and technique required IMO. I feel bored when I ride clipless. Riding flats I have to think and not just forget all about my feet and pedals.
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 All I'm saying is for some reason people look way to hard into the sport of mountain biking. Sure he's a smart qualified person and probably a wicked dude too. Articles like this just fire everyone up and get us thinking ( not saying that's bad ) . But why is it so over analyzed
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  • + 3
 I've actually done an XC race using flats and I was still very fast. But flats are probably less efficient because the shoes aren't as stiff, and you are using stability muscles to keep the foot centred on the pedal. Short bursts on technical climbs to get up over roots and rocks as well as sprinting are also better with clipless. But pedaling up a long road to get to the top of a DH run, choose whatever is better for you on the down.
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 as a power-lifter it's always been common sense to me that flats are more efficient. when dead-lifting (utilizing the most muscle fiber of any exercise) your feet are completely flat and are only pressing down, and in fact your hamstrings are engaged very strongly as well. deadlifts (single leg or traditional) are the king of exercises for building total power and endurance, and will make even the most punishing climbs feel like a walk in the park (i'll skip the lactate threshold advantages). i'll use clipless on a road bike when time is an issue, but that's it. it's great to see trainers getting guys into deadlifting.
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  • + 2
 James Wilson has been writing about this stuff for some time now, and has been working hard to carve a niche for himself in the saturated market of trainers and instructors by focusing specifically on weight training and pedaling theory.

The first time I read his stuff I was intrigued. And I was compelled to scour and find whatever else he has written to learn more about his non-conventional ideas.

However, the more I read his stuff, the more I came to the conclusion that he is more of a hack than fact. He goes on and one adamantly about his theories, without really attempting to come with solid evidence to support his claims. We have generations of professional grade athletes that far surpass people like me and people like Wilson himself who have trained on the principles he calls "myths" and they have excelled.

Just as an example, check out his videos on youtube. For every 3 hours of video he has uploaded talking about theories and techniques, there is only 0 minutes of him actually on a bike demonstrating their application. There is a 10 minute video of him going on and on in excruciating detail about the pedaling principles he talks about in this article and talking about how everyone else has had it wrong all along, but not one second of him actually getting on a bike to show us how the proper technique he is selling actually works. Hell, you will not find a pedal and two wheels in any of his videos. He says flat pedals make you a better rider for blah and blah and blah reason. Fine. I'm not saying that is right or wrong, but for love of god, he should get on a damn bike, and actually show for two seconds how it helps with technique and why. The only video of him I found doing anything was a basic instruction on how to do basic cornering.
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 This is a great example of interpretation of others research to enforce ones idea. It would be great to have links to the original studies so the validity of the research could be assessed. I could hop on a trainer with an emg connected and show the majority of force coming from my hamstrings. One little extract shows nothing. And yes pulling up with the hamstring may be unnatural but so is cycling from an anatomical point of view, we are not born on bikes. Just my 2 cents
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 A great article, except the author is contradicting himself within the article itself. First we are reading that a Hamstring Muscle group (Bicep Femoris is just one of the three muscles, this group also includes Semimembrenosis and Semitendenosis) is a hip extensor. Then the author correctly states Quadricep muscle (Vastus and Rectus Femoris) promary function is extending the knee joint. Then he goes with a phrase:
" Train the hamstrings to flex the hips and stabilize the knee and the quads to flex the knee and help stabilize the hip joint - that is how those muscles function in real life and how we should train them, not based on the old model of training each muscle that crosses a joint to powerfully flex it."
, which is absolutely wrong from a kinesiological stand point. Hamstrings are hip extensor, they can't flex the hip joint! Quadricep extends the knee, so these muscles can't possibly flex it. Looks, that at the end the author was confused on the topic and proper muscle actions and terms describing body movement.
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 Just to help clear some stuff up, James has said that Flats are the way to go for training (paraphrasing here) and clips for race day. As in, the flats will aid in the development of a good stroke technique. Then you can reap the benefits on race day with clips. Or something to that effect, I would tend to agree with him as well.
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 If it mattered which pedal you used THAT much, BMX riders would be using one or the other exclusively, IMO. Not very scientific, I know, but if you have watched them race, you'd probably agree.
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 Interesting. sounds like an intuitive model that also might be conclusive. But, by any means: "I came across this chart of a pedal stroke while researching this article. It looks like it was based on actual EMG readings, not a theoretical model."
Seems not like scientific working method or quotation to me. So it still remains theoretical...
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  • + 1
 I have strapped a number plate on my bike a few times and always riding flat pedals. Clipless riders always look at them like training wheels. I just smile when I'm passing them up a steep power line climb while they are walking. If I rode for a living I would switch. I'm not going to miss a month or two of riding with a broken wrist from my Wednesday night ride cause I fell over! Shit happens - step over it with flats!
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  • + 1
 Unfortunately James's many articles on "clipless" kept me off them for the longest time. It wasn't until I read his bit about him falling over at a stop sign on one of his first tries clipless that led him back to flats, that I thought maybe he just has a chip on his shoulder.

I ride dh, am, xc and the odd day on a road ss. First of all, the myth of getting stuck in during a fall are grossly misrepresented. I fall a lot. More than most because I always outride my abilities and I've always unclipped in time. I haven't made the switch on my dh bike. But that will happen soon.

James forgets one simple thing, and that is that while riding techy bumpy shit, some of us like having our feet stay on the friggin pedals.

James is on a crusade against clipless, it's undeniable after reading his website and the posts he makes convincing advanced riders to switch. I agree newbies shouldn't start with them, but often his articles convince people to go back after being on them for years. Which they have no need. There are no benefits to flats for xc if you're an advanced rider.

And before you neg prop me... Have you tried clipless yet and are making an informed decision? Or just married to your flats? And for the record... I do ride both and switch my pedals regularly to see the difference.
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 great article... and so correct... your legs are made to push across the top of the stroke and down, then pull across the bottom... no trick to eliminate the dead spot or "pull up" and no such thing as "spinning in circles"... the only point that i think could be added for anyone who cares is that to get the most out of your glutes and hamstrings, you would need to have your heel drop to the level of the pedal spindle or below when the crank is at 3:00...

typically XC riders are pretty good about efficiency because it means a lot to rear wheel traction... although top level riders in any discipline can be counted upon to be efficient pedalers... you cant ride at the world level if you are really sloppy...

so good to see this on pinkbike...
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 thats interesting. sadly im to lazy to go to the gym to put it to use.
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 You don't have to, you can just go ride!
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 You just wont be as fast as the "fast" guys who are also doing proper strength training
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 As with most things in the sports/fitness world there simply isn't enough research to say definitively what is going on during a pedal stroke. I think the general suggestion is correct in that you shouldnt have stuck in your mind that down=quads, up=hams. There is a lot of muscles working synergistically throughout the entire stroke. In most cases if you want an answer, look at the best in the sport and emmulate that.
But thats just my opinion and what do I know?!
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 Very interesting article. I'm no a big fan of clips but I use them for my hard tail, they are very useful on rocky or bumpy stuff, since it keeps my feet on the pedals, also for climbing I find them very comfortable.
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 This was a really kool article. I find every time im riding the trails and try to"circle" pedal i loose my rhythm. Here's to MASHING!
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 Go out and do some timed training rides on your road bike. Then put flat pedals on it and do them again. Now compare the times...
  • + 0
 Yep. After spending years in flats recovering from a knee injury, the day I finally got back onto clips I smashed all my Strava roadie times - and did it with less output.
  • + 4
 he is not saying you wont be quicker on clips just that why everyone says that it does is wrong. you are quicker on the clips because you can pull up too but you use more muscle on the downstroke.
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 I've been following James Wilson for a while now. He does not claim that flat pedals are "better" than clipless from a performance perspective, just that flat pedaling helps you to have a better pedaling technique which transfers to better performance on clipless pedals. Especially new riders who use clipless allow themselves to become dependent on them to maintain contact with their pedals and develop a pedaling stroke that uses a pulling motion which is unnatural and may lead to injury. If these riders learned first to pedal on flats then they would not develop this dysfunction in their pedaling technique. Experienced riders can also benefit from riding flats. Clipless offer a performance advantage with proper technique but flat pedaling is the way to get proper technique.
  • + 1
 He used to claim that flats were better for performance and that even roadies could benefit from riding flats. He also said that clipless masks poor technique and that you couldn't pedal the same with clipless as you could on flats. Then everyone shredded him apart and he back tracked. The fact is, learning on flats is a great tool, but clipless will always be faster if done correctly.
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 DrSanchez - That is not an accurate description of the claims James has made or how the debate has unfolded. As for which is faster. I am of the opinion that clips are generally faster. However speed isn't everything. I ride platforms because a couple percentage points of pedaling efficiency isn't worth the tradeoff. If you aren't aware of what those tradeoffs are, perhaps you should be studying the subject rather than lecturing others.
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 Does watching video on pinkbike helps?
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 Hmmm. I use my hamstrings to give my quads a break when they're tired. Cranking up a steep pitch on a singlespeed at 50rpm puts demands on both the hip flexors and hamstrings that they don't see in "regular" riding. A sprint in a big gear can do the same.

I think this is one of those situations where the field and the lab don't match up super well. Edge cases are always tough to account for in studies; the researchers often have to restrict their focus in order to have any hope of producing a meaningful study. Something as variable as pedaling style is tough to account for. Do you restrict the riders to 90rpm or not? Use roadies or mtn bikers? In the lab or on the trail? Treat the test like a ride or a race?
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 Just stand up and f*ucking pedal, jesus.
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 haha that's actually rather cool!
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  • + 1
 Great Artikel !! Finally somebody explained the different pain Iam feeling Smile
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 I wonder if the riders were using clips or flats in the EMG study cited by James?
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 squats are a good exercise for biking? never would have guessed that one without a scientific study. actually a few roadies told me i should be doing pushups on my handlebars while clipped in but if i did that on flat pedals, it would actually activate my upper body muscles instead of my legs - go figure.
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  • + 1
 Would you have different charts of how muscles are working with flats or clipless pedals? This would be a great comparison
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 I'm still going to use clipless on my road bike flats would just be plain silly
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 totally agree.. except for when Im pedaling up a steep incline.. I like to have the pulling power available
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  • + 1
 hip power was confusing, i think i know the burn he is talking about, like a pull where your shorts pocket would sit??
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  • + 2
 It's no coincidence that chris hoy is not bad at squatting..
  • + 0
 He is an absolute beast. I've read his ATG max is around 225kg (500lbs in old money give or take). My favourite Olympian. Sheer class.
  • + 1
 Whats his BW?
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 This was interesting, thanks!
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 Crazy!! You learn somthing new everyday Smile
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  • + 1
 Excellent article, thank you!
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  • + 1
 Well done, this has got me considering flats on my xc/trail bike!
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  • + 1
 ...and that is why people who ride bikes have sexy asses xD
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  • + 0
 Just had an operation on my hip REALLY helpful
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 Very interesting read Smile
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  • + 0
 interesting.
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