Make the most of every pedal stroke with our expert advice on maximising your cycling efficiency and power. Words by Marc Abbot

It’s one of the most basic functions of riding a bike — whatever kind of bike you favour — but many of us don’t give the efficiency of our pedalling a second thought. Or, even worse, follow outdated guidelines for getting the most out of it. Scott Tomkinson of Kernow Physio lifts the lid on the pedalling myth.

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“For years people always said to pull up as well as push down, and make circles with your legs,” says Tomkinson. “After studying this and performing in-depth analysis of riders’ pedal strokes, I found that this, far from making you better, actually slows you down.”

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Tomkinson has worked with WorldTour and domestic professional racers, so is used to being tasked with getting the maximum power and optimum efficiency from his customers. How does he do this? “The evidence now shows that maximising the power at the 3 o’clock position, when the cranks are both parallel to the ground, is the most beneficial for forward movement,” he advises. “Pulling up on the pedals jeopardises this, so don’t do it.”

Lunges and other off-the-bike exercises can help build the strength needed to pedal efficiently

Lunges and other off-the-bike exercises can help build the strength needed to pedal efficiently

The essentials

  • Don’t pull up
  • Maximise power
  • Push for 3 o’clock
  • Strengthen glutes

He offers some help on how best to arrive at this phase of the pedal stroke with the most power: “You need to start pushing your foot forward at the top of the pedal stroke from the 10 o’clock to 1 o’clock position. Then push to the floor.

“This ensures the power is maximised at the correct phase of the stroke. If you’re pulling up with your pedals all you’re doing is delaying the delivery of power.”

>>> Body imbalance: Are you pedalling symmetrically?

You can help even further by ensuring your muscles are best equipped to lay down the power, especially your glutes. It’s these muscles that you need to squeeze in the direction of your pedalling motion to get every watt to the ground.

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Tomkinson explains why strong glutes are essential: “If your glutes are tight and weak, this can cause the iliotibial band to tighten up, which can also cause knee tracking issues. Performing some strengthening exercises such as lunges and squats will strengthen them.”

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So, pedalling myth busted, next time you get on your bike, concentrate on that 3 o’clock sweetspot. Do your exercises, and you might just be surprised by how much quicker and stronger you get — whether in the local 10-mile time trial or your next all-dayer.

Bradley Wiggins in overall lead, Criterium du Dauphine 2012, stage two

Sir Bradley Wiggins is known for his high cadence, smooth pedalling style

Key points

To pedal smoothly your legs need a strong, stable base to push against, so off-the-bike core work will help maximise your pedal power.

It’s impossible to isolate the individual elements of a bike-fit without giving consideration to the rest of the body. Getting your pedalling sorted relies upon many things such as the position of your seat and reach to the bars.

Your glutes are big, powerful muscles and contribute most to your pedal stroke. Get your glutes firing by doing some off-the-bike exercises such as squats and lunges.

If you’re setting up your own cleats, mark off the cleat positions independently on each foot. We’re not all perfectly symmetrical so don’t be surprised if your feet are slightly different shapes or sizes.

As a rule of thumb, place the cleat under the middle of the ball of your foot. Measure where this is while wearing your shoes, and then mark off a line on their underside.

Thanks to Scott Tomkinson of Kernow Physio
article first appeared in the May 14 issue of Cycling Weekly 

  • min

    Haha haha

  • Dave2020

    I’m never one to parrot any ‘expert’ advice, but I came across this today (4/3/16). It supports the “pull back” part of biomechanics, which is ignored here. More to the point, it directly contradicts Tomkinson’s advice to “concentrate on the 3 o’clock sweet-spot.” and “push to the floor.” On the assumption that “the floor” is “the bottom of the stroke” your power would obviously be wasted (radial force) by “pushing down” so late, instead of pulling back. Back to the drawing board Scott. .

    “Analysis of the pedal stroke (in LeMond’s 1987 book): Many cyclists pedal incorrectly by stamping on the pedals, applying force at the wrong time, and under-utilising major muscle groups. e.g. The heel naturally lowers in the down stroke, power can be wasted by pushing down at the bottom of the stroke, and pulling up on the up stroke is very inefficient. A better technique is to pull back at the bottom with a scraping motion to employ the large hamstring muscles of the thighs.”

  • n o

    attaching is easy and anyone can do it…. perfecting a fit and getting the cleat in the exact right spot (both vertical and horizontal) along with saddle and other fit elements is where the skill set comes in.

  • RS

    Actually there is no confusion as far as I am concerned. I didn’t say frame flex wouldn’t affect things. In fact I gave various examples of its effects. What frame flex won’t do is cause signifcant energy dissipation. And that is not my “opinion”. It is a fact.

  • Dave2020

    Sorry RS, but you confused the issues by mentioning ‘aerodynamic drag’ (off topic) and claiming that “losses from deformation of the frame and other components can be ignored.” You can keep stating your opinion on that, but repetition won’t make it any more accurate. You accept that tyre pressure “is going to affect things”. It’s illogical to say that frame flex isn’t.

    The article is about “how the cyclist pedals”, so my comments address that subject matter.

    “Push for 3 o’clock” and tyre pressure becomes a factor in energy loss. Pedal very smoothly and it isn’t an issue. Watch a mountain biker pedalling slowly up a climb, especially if they ride without cleats. If they have a suspension fork, you may see it compress with each and every push.

    This article claims to have identified the definitive ‘technique’ for efficient pedalling. It’s so bad, I should repost a comment I made on Team Sky’s secret weapon: April 2nd.

    “This article should have been published on April 1st. All the best jokes shroud reality in the smoke and mirrors of an almost plausible story. This breaks no new ground. It changes no games. It is as incurably compromised as every other attempt at making ‘independent’ suspension ‘work’. The laws of physics dictate that it (front and/or rear suspension) can never escape the inherent compromise.”

    This is just one of many technical contradictions in the bike. Riders, mechanics and designers have to settle for what they think is the best compromise:-

    “We threw time away yesterday, Geraint and myself,” said Porte. “We were in a fantastic position and to both crash like that; We had a little too much pressure in our tyres.”

  • RS

    You are the one who appears to be confused. You also come across as rather rude.

    I have explained repeadly that I am talking about efficiency in terms of power at the pedals, i.e. (power applied at pedals minus power “wasted” overcoming drag, rolling resistance etc.) / power applied at pedals. This efficiency is to all intents and purposes independent of pedalling technique. The bike is not interested in how the cyclist pedals.

    How efficiently the cyclist himself applies power to the pedals is a completely different matter. As I said before, am not disputing that pedalling technique is important for this.

    My “analysis” is by no means flawed. A bike with a less stiff frame might feel bad and steer horribly. Frame flex might cause the cyclist to pedal less efficiently. That has nothing to do with energy loss in the frame. It is simply a matter of rider response.

    As for your comment on tyre pressure: of course reducing pressure is going to affect things. Who has ever suggested anything to the contrary?

  • Dave2020

    “Efficiency will be independent of how you pedal.”

    “I am not disputing that pedalling technique is important.”

    Make your mind up. You seem very confused. The more power a rider puts in, the more important it is to get their pedalling technique perfect, so that most of it is converted into acceleration.

    Scott asserts that “Push for 3 o’clock” is more efficient, but “push to the floor” implies that you’re still pushing down with the glutes at 5 o’clock, which is the wrong direction (the hamstrings take over at that point). That still puts torsional stress on the bike, so any ‘elastic return’ is in the wrong direction to go into the chain drive.

    Your (flawed?) analysis asserts that, “energy lost due to frame flex is negligible”. The empirical evidence disputes that.

    Give any sprinter a bike where the cranks, frame, stem and bars are a little more elastic – take a bit of pressure out of the tyres – and then ask them if it has “virtually zero effect on energy lost”. When they “yank on those bars” – if they’re daft enough to ride that way – they want to feel the response under their foot.

  • RS

    Where else is the energy going to go if not back to the chain drive?

    I am not disputing that pedalling technique is important. My point is that it has virtually zero effect on energy lost due to frame flex, which is negligible anyway.

  • Dave2020

    Frame flex may be elastic, but it’s not “returned” into the chain drive. All these simple (bio)mechanical principles are perfectly valid. It’s just bad technique to concentrate your power input into a forceful ‘push down’ on one side, however ‘natural’ that may be.

    The losses I’m “now talking about” relate to forces applied to the pedals in the wrong direction, which are therefore ineffective. In some riders these ‘losses’ can also be seen in the heel dropping at 2 o’clock. Inefficiency in technique is energy wasted. “How you pedal” is very important.

  • RS

    That’s why I asked what you meant by “efficiency”. You then started talking about deflection of components and about no bike being able to contain the forces involved. That was what I was responding to and why I wrote “power at the pedals”. The losses you are now talking about relate to energy that is not transferred to the pedals.

    How can I reach the conclusion that energy losses due to deflection of the frame etc. are negligible? Because the components are deforming elastically. Virtually all the mechanical energy supplied to them is returned. Very little is converted to heat.

  • Dave2020

    “Efficiency will be independent of how you pedal.” No it won’t! If you apply forces a long way off tangential (to the crank circle), your power will go to waste. Those muscular contractions must be ‘mechanically’ inefficient, as they consume energy, which isn’t converted into forward motion.

    Tomkinson makes an observation that cyclists can generate more FORCE at 3 o’clock, but wrongly concludes that must equate to “maximise power”. – It’s a non sequitur.

    The quads, glutes and hamstrings work (in that order) from 12 o’clock. Concentrating on the one point where they all work at the same time makes no sense. The so-called ‘down stroke’ is started by the quads (pushing forward) at 12, then the glutes act as hip extensors (from 2 to 4), and the hamstrings do their part best after 4 o’clock, since they’re the only muscles which can pull the foot back, all the way through to 8 o’clock. If the saddle is too high, or your foot plantar-flexed, or your knee straight when out of the saddle, then the hamstrings can’t do that job and you create the so-called bottom ‘dead centre’. NB: The hamstrings’ pull back balances the other leg’s easy ‘pick up’ at 12 o’clock, ALL without adding any stress to your ‘core’.

    The laws of physics disagree with Scott. Power = force x distance moved, over time. His advice, to “concentrate on that 3 o’clock sweet-spot”, effectively removes both ‘distance moved’ (i.e. the arc of travel around the circle) and ‘time’ (cadence) from the equation. So, he’s actually telling us to use maximum (peak) FORCE in order to generate more power! Put simply, it’s rather like saying – ‘Pedal as if you’re walking up stairs.’ (with a stoop!)

    Even if we accept his premise that ‘pushing down’ is more ‘efficient’, he should at least advise us all to practice spreading the ‘push’ from 1 o’clock to 4 o’clock (but he gets that wrong too). This is the way cyclists learn to pedal smoothly, if they’re riding without cleats.

    “losses from deformation of the frame and other components can be ignored.” Really? How can you reach that conclusion? Do you think all the extraneous movement of bike and body exhibited by an over-geared sprinter can be ignored too?

    Google – ‘push on those pedals and yank on those bars’ – for the theories of another coach from the ‘do-what-comes-naturally’ school. That very premise is wrong. These are all voluntary muscles, so you can learn to use them ONLY at the right time, in an efficient manner (smooth/gentle, not with brute strength). It’s just a question of knowing HOW to get the best out of yourself and practicing the skill till it’s second nature – an automatic ‘muscle memory’. Are there any swimming or rowing coaches who’d say – “Get in/on the water and just do what comes naturally”? I don’t think so!!

  • RS

    I’m not sure that I follow you. If by “power output” you mean the power at the pedals, then the efficiency will be independent of how you pedal. Power wastages due to aerodynamic drag, rolling resistance and transmission losses are not going to be influenced by pedalling style, and losses from deformation of the frame and other components can be ignored. “Pushing at 3 o’clock” might be bad for other reasons, but not because of poor mechanical efficiency.

  • Roger

    OK, genius. Tell me which bit of attaching and adjusting cleats you aren’t capable of doing.

  • Dayummm

    Come… Allow me to clap for you… Cleats fitting pro… Why not help contador set up his cleats next time since he doesnt do it on his own?

  • Dave2020

    “Efficient” would be the proportion of a rider’s power output that is actually turned into forward motion. No experiment has been devised to measure that, nor could it ever be. Even a feeble cyclist can put all their bodyweight on the pedal at 3 o’clock. The quads, hamstrings and glutes are ALL active at the same time, not to mention the all-important calf muscles! Looking at it from a purely ‘mechanical’ standpoint, this can’t possibly be the most efficient way to pedal, because no bike is capable of containing the forces involved. A little energy will be absorbed by each component deflecting, from the pedal axle to the tyre. “Deliver your power as gently as possible” is sound advice, both for sprinting AND endurance. If you feel a lot of pressure under your foot you’re doing it wrong.

    “concentrate on that 3 o’clock sweet-spot” is the worst advice you could give any young riders in their formative years. Why do kids race on restricted gears? It should be to ensure they learn how to pedal smoothly and efficiently, but coaches are ignorant of that lesson and see bouncing around on the saddle and pedalling ‘pointy-toed’ as quite ‘natural’. The acquisition of the specific skill is win/win – no dodgy weightlifting required.

    So, “Push for 3 o’clock” is the exact opposite of what is required. Any coach with even a sketchy understanding of “the essentials” should know that. Other research has shown that ‘maximum power’ is produced at around 155 rpm. This article makes no reference, either to cadence or the rider’s position/technique. Ergo, it is not a competent piece of ‘research’.

  • RS

    But what do you mean by “efficient” though?

  • Conscience_of_a_conservative

    Efficient pedal stroke is way more important than bike weight or having an aero frame.

  • Roger

    That is beside the point. What you know or offer has no bearing on the fact that attaching shoe plates is a trivially easy task that required about as much technical expertise as dealing with a puncture.

  • ESTrainSmart

    Google “Stuart McGill” and “Gluteal Amnesia”

    This will tell you exactly why your pedaling technique isn’t efficient. I work on this with all of my athletes (cyclists). If you’ve ever wondered how the Cat 1 guys can hold a 30+mph tempo, it’s because they’re able to use both glutes effectively. Basically, if quad fatigue always limits your performance, you’re pedaling wrong.

  • ESTrainSmart

    Sorry you feel that bike fitting is a scam, but bike fitting is more complex that you think it is. I am a Kinesiologist who has full knowledge of motor control, biomechanics, anatomy and sports physiology. I provide bike fitting services to athletes and high-risk individuals. I know how to adjust the bike for clients with scoliosis, sciatica, fused vertebrae, fused ankles, total hip replacements, total knee replacements and many other conditions. Athletes come to me because I can predict injuries and prevent them from occurring- this means more time for training (getting faster) and zero time rehabilitating an injury (going nowhere).

  • david

    man that’s really nothing, I’m 91 years old and on the hottest or coldest day, I finish every 112 mile ride with a 3 mile climb on a 90% grade while wearing weights. I avg 23 mph too. yeah man.

  • Roger

    I’m not sure what you mean by “knee is parallel to the cleats”, but you would be very foolish to pay a “fit specialist” to do that. Look and Time provide precise mounting instructions with their shoe plates. The level of technical ability required is minimal. Cyclists were fitting shoe plates, and setting up their bikes, long before the scam called “specialist bike fitters” was invented.

  • robaroo

    you’ve obviously never been professionally fit to your bicycle. it’s not unheard of to have a bike fit specialist properly affix the cleats to your shoes. they will position the cleats so that your knee is parallel to the cleats and the cleats sit at the ball of your foot.

  • Neilo

    That’s nothing. I’m 73 years old, and in the winter I finish every ride with two ascents of a 20% climb in 53 x 12 fixed, first with my right leg (left foot unclipped), and then with my left leg (right foot unclipped). I also do 50 deep squats with 300 kg three or four times a week. I never do anything for my upper body though and have a fairly substantial paunch which has meant I have had to raise the bars quite a bit over the years to keep my abdomen clear of my thighs. This does make handling the bike on fast, tricky descents a bit of a challenge as the weight distribution is far from ideal. It also gives rise to a noticeably increased drag at speeds in excess of say 70-80 km/h, especially if there is a headwind. That unfortunately is the price you pay for being old and overweight.

  • JoshLyons

    Ha ha ha – I finish every ride up a 40% climb!!
    Wow, really? I’m impressed. There’s only one single 40% climb in the UK and it’s just 40m of a 300m climb, which is mostly 20% – in Harlech, Ffordd Penllech in Wales. There too the altitude gain is only a mere 61m… but even the balance 260m at 20% is not easy.

    I’ve done it a few times and enjoyed it every time…but when I climb (always out of the saddle) and the lactate starts to build in the quads, I do begin to pull up from about the 7 o’clock to 11 o’clock – swinging my knees outward a bit (but this is my personal technique after 40 years of riding hard). It works for me.

    Anyway, I don’t disagree with your views on this article and most of what you say in your 1st (long) comment is true – except bits you threw in because you couldn’t help yourself…like the first two lines of the final paragraph.

  • Dave2020

    You don’t understand Mj. Read my post on ‘core’ strength. (CW 26/5/15):-

    “An accomplished athlete remains still on the bike because their body is relaxed, not because they have a mess of tension holding themselves ‘rigid’. How dumb can you be?”

    “Naturally, it makes sense to keep your whole body strong and supple, but not for the ‘reasons’ given here.”

    I’m half a century ahead of you pal. My glutes and quads could shift 500lbs. They are probably still stronger than yours (I finish every ride up a 40% climb!!), but if the strength of your hamstrings and calf muscles isn’t IN PROPORTION and your biomechanics aren’t well BALANCED, it’s of limited performance benefit. ‘Push-hard-slowly’ is never going to help you to perfectly adapt to pedalling in circles, which is both faster AND less stressful. QED.

    Pilates is excellent. My beef is with the coaches who put their riders on maximal weights doing squats, clean & jerk or deadlifts. They should be stopped. The incidence of serious injury bears me out.

  • Mj

    thats kinda wrong pal. I took a Pilates class which is really yoga/strength training and what this girl was doing is exactly what cyclists need, you would be shocked at how a little more glute strength and upper mid and lower back strength aid in forward motion on a bike. try it, you will be as surprised as I was.

  • Roger

    No, I haven’t been to a “professional bike fit with all the bells and whistles.” I set my bike up by the method described by Bernard Hinault. I also had my position determined by means of another well known system used by a lot of professional riders, which produced almost identical results. Both assumed a pedal axle position directly below the ball of the foot.

    Why do you ask?

  • Hyun-ji Song

    Yes I’ve done it myself; but what’s with the condescending tone? A lot of people who are new to clipless pedals aren’t exactly that confident, and it’s possible with slightly incorrect angles that you can develop knee and back pain. Have you ever been to a professional bikefit with all the bells and whistles?

  • Roger

    A “bike fit specialist”? That is a joke, right? Have you ever attached shoe plates to shoes? It’s not exactly a challenging task.

  • Hyun-ji Song

    A bike fit specialist.

  • Dave2020

    Same old, same old . . yet another dose of pseudo science masquerading as proof of some wacky theory. Scott Tomkinson hasn’t even correctly identified any ‘myths’. It certainly is pointless lifting the pedal up at 9 o’clock, but it’s evidently beneficial to pull the pedal back at 6 o’clock (if you’ve developed the specific skill and co-ordination) – ask Greg Lemond. (but don’t repeat his metaphor, “like scraping mud off your shoe”- that’s not strictly accurate.)

    Far from busting a myth, Scott tries to resurrect a 50-year old myth – that ‘push-hard-slowly’ is the way to “maximise power”, as he puts it. Oh no it’s not. It’s the way to a world of pain and injury. Ask Jack Bobridge, or Bernard Hinault. Concentrating your effort, pushing down at 3 o’clock is a mug’s game, even when riding at a higher cadence, like Victoria Pendleton, or Chris Froome, or Marianne Vos. They have all injured themselves by following bad advice from coaches like Scott, who say, in simple terms, “Just do what comes naturally.” Pedalling isn’t a natural action – the bike’s only been around for a century. That’s a blink of an eye in the millennia of evolution. You have to teach yourself to adapt to the circular motion. That takes years, even if you know what you’re doing, and the majority of cycling coaches don’t have a clue when it comes to biomechanics.

    “Don’t pull up.” Try telling that to a rider who’s out of the saddle, climbing or sprinting. You must be joking – right? The hamstrings are powerful muscles, but only when the rider moves forward do they act in an ‘up’ direction. Lunges and squats are terrible exercises, risking injury. Do hamstring curls instead.

    Scott’s confusion of “pull up” with ‘pedalling-in-circles’ is laughable! Pendleton was given this bum steer by her coaches; “Pull up as hard as you are pushing down”, but that is not how you pedal in circles! The term ‘pull up’ is far too vague. Let’s be specific – “don’t lift the pedal up (at 9 o’clock) with your foot (using the Tibialis Anterior), but do dorsiflex it.” It’s a critical distinction.

    They’ve obviously not done any competent analysis of biomechanics, as the riders’ position is not discussed, cadence isn’t mentioned and the role of the hamstrings and calf muscles is ignored.

    All you can learn from “performing an in-depth analysis of riders’ pedal strokes” is what style that individual is habituated to; doing what comes naturally to them. Any meaningful analysis has to test a rider’s efficiency pushing down at 3 o’clock, teach them to pedal in circles (entailing years of skill training in a different position) and then test them again to compare results.

    The idea that “The evidence now shows that maximising the power at the 3 o’clock position is the most beneficial.” is GIGO. Hamley and Thomas made the same error in 1967. They experimented with different saddle heights and found that the ideal was achieved when the seat was positioned at 109% of your inseam length when measuring from the pedal axle to the top of the saddle. “This has proved an extremely popular method and is recommended by many top-level coaches.” – It’s the epitome of ‘garbage in – gospel out’.

    Telling us to “use your glutes” is the mother of all bum steers. As Bobridge said:- “I can’t even describe how much pain my glutes and quads are in.” There you go – theory disproved.

    “To pedal smoothly your legs need a strong, stable base to push against.” – Arrant nonsense: Your legs need the specific strength, to use the hamstrings’ knee flexion, thus reducing the workload on the quads. Then ALL the major muscle groups contribute to turning the pedals efficiently, without placing undue stress on your back or adding tension to your ‘core’, which can accelerate fatigue and inhibit good respiratory function.

    Most riders who follow this dumb advice will often be seen ‘nodding’ in rhythm with ‘the push’ and/or sitting ‘on-the-rivet’ – both indicative of an inefficient imbalance in technique. “the correct phase of the stroke.” is no more than an ignorant assertion. Scott Tomkinson has yet to learn that perfect technique is a stroke-free zone, whether you’re pedalling at 80rpm or 180rpm.

  • Roger

    “If you’re setting up your own cleats”? Well who else would be setting them up???