Even 10 minutes in an indoor cycling class can feel like torture if you don’t have your bike adjusted correctly. Sure, it seems fairly straightforward when the instructor gives you the top line information: seat at waist height, a slight bend in the knees when pedaling. But knowing how to actually set up your bike and make minor adjustments can make a huge difference in both the way you feel and how you perform.
“If your bike setup isn’t correct, you put undue stress on joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles,” says Stacy Vinge, an instructor with Riot Cycle in Seattle. When you’re properly adjusted, it allows you to use the right muscles to push through class successfully. “Comfort is really important because if you’re not fitted properly, you’ll fatigue much more quickly. When you’re in alignment, you’re able to engage your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, and brace with your core, so the power you’re able to generate from that position is much greater.”
Here, indoor cycling instructors share their top tips for adjusting your bike seat to maximize power and enjoy your ride.
1. Use your hip bone as a guide for adjusting the seat height.
The first thing to do when approaching a bike is to stand next to it. “Find that part of your hip bone that juts out, and adjust the bike seat so the top is aligned with the bone,” says Elizabeth Hill, a Los Angeles–based master instructor and director of talent development for Flywheel Sports. That’s your starting place.
2. From there, hop on the bike and check out your knees. Specifically, how much they bend on the down pedal.
When your leg is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, there should be a slight bend in that knee. Instructors and studios vary when it comes to how much of a bend they recommend; somewhere between 5 and 35 degrees is typical. If it seems really off, get off and adjust the seat height accordingly.
If the seat’s too low and your knees are too bent, you could put strain on your knees and end up with some pain or discomfort, Hill warns. If it’s too high, your pubic bone will probably press too hard into the seat (ouch). Plus, you won’t be able to keep your feet flat while pedaling—and when your heels come up, your calves end up over-engaging. “The calf doesn’t compare [in terms of strength] to your bigger muscles [like the glutes], so you don’t get the same power,” Vinge says.
3. Next, check to make sure your knees are aligned properly over your feet.
While you’re on the bike, put your hands on the front of the handlebars, and turn the pedals until both knees are bent and your feet are an equal distance from the ground. Then, think about a string hanging from your front knee with a rock tied to the end, Vinge says. That imaginary rock should hit the center of the clip on your cycling shoe (if you don’t have clips, this is the ball of your foot). If your knee is too far in front of your foot, pull your seat back a little from the handlebars; if it’s behind, pull the seat up a tad.
4. After you’ve adjusted your seat, adjust your handlebars so that there’s a slight bend in your elbows when you’re hands on are on them.
Some (but not all) bikes allow you to move the handlebars farther from or closer to the seat. Once your seat is in the right position for your knees and feet, you may want to move the handlebars if they’re still too close or too far away. You should have a slight bend in your elbows when your hands are on the front of the handlebars. You shouldn’t be scrunched up or reaching out with arms extended like you’re in Downward Dog. “When you’re reaching too much, you end up curving your back, your shoulders come up, and it’s not a very efficient position,” Vinge says.
And then there’s handlebar height, which often comes down to personal preference. Most indoor cyclists will set it at seat height or higher. “I always ask people when I’m setting them up if they have any back or hip issues,” Hill says. “If the answer is yes, I encourage them to put their handlebars a little bit higher because that protects the back.” For newer riders, it’s usually more comfortable to have higher handlebars. As you get more accustomed to the bike, you might choose to lower them.
5. Finally, check your body positioning and posture.
When everything is set, you should be able to ride in a biomechanically efficient position. “You want a straight back and a slight bend in the elbows,” says Vinge. “Drop your shoulders away from your ears, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and open up your chest. Lock in with the core.”
Once you have all those settings dialed in, write them down! Most bikes will have numbers listed with each position of the seat and handlebars, so you can easily jot those down to reference next time. Eventually, you may have it memorized, but until then, you don’t want to have to start over each time you go to class.
A caveat for beginners: You could do all the above perfectly and still feel some discomfort. That’s normal for about a week, but your body should adjust quickly.
The seat will still put some pressure on your pubic bone, and at first, it can feel really uncomfortable. “It’s sort of like volleyball—it hurts your arms at first, but all of the sudden, your arms just get used to it,” Hill says. “Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re hurting yourself, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong.” Padded bike shorts and gel seats, which many studios have, can be a big help. Also, while some discomfort and soreness when you’re starting out is normal, if you feel any sharp pains or have pain that doesn’t subside after a couple of days (or gets worse), it’s a good idea to consult a doctor to make sure everything is OK.
When in doubt, and especially if you still feel uncomfortable after a few classes, enlist an expert—there’s no shame in getting a second opinion, whether it’s your first class or 21st. “Ask your instructor to take a look and see if it’s right,” Hill says. “It’s better to set yourself up for success right away.”