How to set your saddle height: a beginner's guide

Struggling with discomfort, knee pain, or just don't feel you're getting the power out? Here's how to adjust your saddle height for perfect pedalling

saddle height

Setting your saddle height correctly can take a little time, but finding the sweetspot is essential to comfort, performance and injury prevention.

Locating the optimum saddle height is pretty much the foundation of bike fit - the distance between the bottom bracket and top of your seat plays a role in comfort as well as power output and overall performance.

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It’s not uncommon to see riders getting this adjustment wrong, but with the right guidance it’s fairly easy to get it sorted at home.

We spoke to former pro rider Jimmy George - whose new career is in bike fitting and coaching at V02 Cycling, based in the leafy cycling mecca that is Hildenborough, Kent.

“When I do bike fits, after the cleats, it all starts with saddle height. Then fore and aft. Everything else – handlebar height and reach - comes after,” he says.

“Getting your saddle height is important because you need to be comfortable when you ride, this will enable you to ride longer and to push harder. Getting the height right will also prevent injury – compression injuries from having it too low and over-stretching issues from having it too high. Really, cycling shouldn’t result in any injuries, unless you fall off the bike.”

The saddle height measurement, to be clear, is the distance between the centre of the bottom bracket and the centre of the saddle.

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There are many methods, formulas and magical calculations – but George recommends the old favourite.

To set you saddle height, sit on the bike, unclip, and place your heel in the middle of the pedal axle with it at the furthest point so that the crank is in line with the seat tube. Your hips should not have to rock to reach the pedal but your leg should be completely straight, so that when you clip in, there is a slight bend.

This is the gold standard method, according to George. But it’s important not to stop there.

Jimmy George at V02 cycling at work. Image: V02 Cycling

Jimmy George at V02 cycling at work. Image: V02 Cycling
(Image credit: Picasa)

“The other thing to check is the layback,” George advises; “with a friend, drop a plumb line from the knee. The back of the knee cap should be in line with the ball of the foot. The ball of the foot should be over the axle of the pedal.

“This done, you should repeat the saddle height check – moving the saddle forward will have shortened the angle, and vice versa.”

After this, George suggests riding the bike and a process of trial and error “if it feels too low, move your saddle 1mm up, if it still feels low, 1mm up again and vice versa. If you go too high, you’ll notice you rock on the saddle or feel a strain at the back of the knee. Pedalling will cease to be smooth and circular, and you may feel your snatching at the bottom of the stroke. If you go too low, you’ll feel compression at the front of the knee.”

Signs your saddle height may be wrong

One of the most common indications of an incorrect saddle height is knee pain.

Though there are of course others causes, and individual responses will vary, typically a saddle that is too low will result in pain at the front of the knee whilst one that is too high creates pain behind the knee - or in the hamstrings as a result of overextension.

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A rider whose saddle is too high usually rocks as they pedal, too - a friend should be able to observe this - and the excessive movement as your hips roll to allow you to reach the bottom of each pedal stroke may also cause pain.

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Is there another way?

If you prefer mathematics and formulas, there is another method that is based on inseam measurement.

To find the initial number, stand with your feet hip width apart (shoes off), place a spirit level between your legs, and mark a point on the wall where the top of the spirit level sits. Note down the distance from floor to the dot. Then multiply this by 0.9 to give you 90 per cent.

saddle height

Measure your inseam using a spirit level then apply to your saddle height
(Image credit: Andrew Sydenham)

George, who also builds custom bikes for customers at V02, based on their measurements, says: “We use this as a ball park measurement, when we’ve never met someone and are building their bike. I would say it gives the right figure 50 per cent of the time. When we put the rider on the bike, we’re likely to make adjustments.”

This is because the theory only delves so far as basic mathematics – and bodies are not formulaic.

The bike fitter explains: “People have different muscle tensions. So to a very mobile person, the resulting saddle height might feel too low. To someone with tight muscles, it might feel too high.

"The heel on pedal method takes that into account as a mobile person will have the leg totally straight whilst a tight person may have a slight bend and feel like its full extension, without being aware of any bend. It’s not a formula and takes individual differences into account."

Still can't get it right?

The heel on pedal method, then, seems to be the best option for those looking to ride a road bike in comfort.

However, there are more factors involved in ideal bike fit. There comes a certain point when you need a professional bike fitter to scrutinise.

“If you just can’t get comfy it is worth getting a bike fit. There’s so many factors involved, saddle tilt, fore aft, cleat adjustment.”

It’s also worth repeating the process for every bike, “some guys will say they use same measurement,” George says.

“But saddles vary – some have a slight dip. The pelvic pitch forward and position of the lower back might change between bikes.”

When it comes to time trial bikes, an area where the road racer turned triathlete hones his expertise, he’d always suggest booking in with a pro.

Matt Bottrill advises on time trial bike fit. Image: Chris Catchpole

Matt Bottrill advises on time trial bike fit. Image: Chris Catchpole

“The fore and aft is really different – particularly with modern [time trial] positions getting very far forward and low as you can. You’re asking your pelvis to be completely rotated.

"It’s a completely different topic and I would say there isn’t a formula. We need to make sure the rider can sustain the position and generate power there, you can only really tell that with a [professional] bike fit.”

Michelle Arthurs-Brennan
Michelle Arthurs-Brennan

Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is Cycling Weekly's Tech Editor, and is responsible for managing the tech news and reviews both on the website and in Cycling Weekly magazine.

A traditional journalist by trade, Arthurs-Brennan began her career working for a local newspaper, before spending a few years at Evans Cycles, then combining writing and her love of bicycles first at Total Women's Cycling and then Cycling Weekly. 

When not typing up reviews, news, and interviews Arthurs-Brennan is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 190rt.

She rides bikes of all kinds, but favourites include a custom carbon Werking road bike as well as the Specialized Tarmac SL6. 

Height: 166cm

Weight: 56kg

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