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Pulling Up On The Pedals. Right – Or Wrong? (Part 2)

Part 2 of should you pull up on the pedals – or not?

pedalling a bike
Last week the newsletter featured part 1 of this wonderful article about pulling up on the pedals by Emma Colson, (for Emma’s full bio see the bottom of the article).

Part 1 discussed the biomechanics of pedalling and concluded that more is not better. The conclusion to this article, with specific recommendations on how to pedal correctly, is below. To read part 1 Click Here

Is Pulling Up Damaging the Downstroke? (Continued).

Patients often ask me ‘won’t every bit help?’ The answer from the research appears to be NO.

Unfortunately, it seems that by trying to develop an upstroke at this point of the stroke, there is some loss of the downstroke. In other words, a lot of work trying to make one group of muscles work results in a loss of power output in the most efficient muscle groups.

This has been shown in a few research papers: In a study by Coyle et al in 1991, the EMG (muscle activity) of elite vs subelite cyclists found that the more elite cyclists exhibited less activity in the upstroke than the subelite.

The elite cyclist created ‘larger propulsive torques by creating significantly larger forces in the vertical direction on the pedal during the down stroke and by not attempting to pull up during the upstroke.’ (Coyle et al 1991)

This EMG data (muscle activity recordings) correspond to the work of early researchers in the area (Jorge and Hull 1986). In another study in California in the year 2000, subjects were asked to pedal under different circumstances.

Firstly, bilateral (normal) pedalling was compared to unilateral (one sided) pedalling. It may seem obvious that unilateral pedalling recorded a much higher hamstring activity that bilateral pedalling.


What was interesting is that the hamstring activity in the back part of the stroke dropped off, even if the subjects just instantaneously statically contracted their quadriceps muscles on the other leg (ie, with or without motion of the opposite crank arm).

Hence, it seems that it may not be the motion of the crank arm that is the cause for the hamstring to reduce their activity, but the mere contraction of the muscles better suited to the task at hand (Ting et al 2000).

An explanation of this loss of power in the downstroke due to the creating of an upstroke could be either (or both) of the following:

The first relates to pelvic stability. In my clinical experience of video assessment, the cyclists who use their hip flexors tend to hitch the pelvis up as they are trying to pull on the leg with the shortened hip flexor muscles at the top stroke. The result of this is that the stable pelvis base now moves and so the drive muscles are working from a moving base, and hence are Correct Bicycle Pedalling Techniqueworking at less than optimum.

The second relates to that difficult concept of neurophysiology. Basically, the motor cortex has a stored program for power delivery to the crank arm. Trying to overcome that program may result in a deadening of the most effective part of the pedal stroke.

Put simply, the brain cannot coordinate the up and downstroke as well as just the downstroke.

Correct Pedalling Technique Requires A Focus Shift

Now that I have completely confused you all, I’d just like to clarify a few points:

Is cycling just pushing like when I was a kid? The answer is NO!

Pedalling in circles is about smooth transition of power. Not the push/pull of upstroke/ down-stroke, because that will have a thud or a dead spot that we can feel or hear at the top and bottom stroke.

If you currently don’t think of an ‘upstroke’ then good. What I am asking for is a ‘focus shift’ during the pedal cycle. The part of the pedal stroke that naturally happens is the push phase, especially with the dominant leg.

The part that the cyclist needs to focus on is pulling across the bottom-stroke with the hamstring muscles. This will smooth out power generation at the top and bottom sections of the stroke to allow smooth transition between the right and left leg.

Have a think about your pedalling technique and consider the ‘Do’s and Don’t’s’in this article (below). The trick is to be comfortable as well as efficient.

Most of all enjoy your cycling because it is also my observation that the most successful athletes are the ones who really love the sport!

Pedalling Do’s and Don’ts

Here are a few Do’s and Don’t’s for developing an optimal pedaling style:

Don’t – Do one legged pedaling exercises.

Don’t – Focus on developing an upstroke.

Do – Think of pulling across the bottom stroke with your hamstring muscles (a coaching term is to imagine that you are “scraping chewing gum off the bottom of your shoe”)

Do – You will find you automatically tap into muscles that are not being used much and have plenty left in them.

Do – Think of the down-stroke of the non-dominant leg, as this leg will tend to be underutilised for power generation compared to the dominant leg.

Do – Listen to the pedal stroke and try to get rid of any rhythmical thud, thud, thud at top and bottom stroke. Feel the pedal stroke and try to smooth it out. There shouldn’t be a jolt between the left leg/right leg transition.

Do – Concentrate on keeping a ‘stable’ pelvis, with a constant relationship between the saddle and your contact point on the saddle. I get patients to imagine they have a noise pressure sensor on the saddle that goes off every time they lose a little contact with the saddle.

Emma Colson is found on the Topbike website. She is a musculoskeletal physiotherapist and an APA sports physiotherapist. She was the Physiotherapist to the Australian Women’s Road Cycling team at the Sydney Olympic Games 2000. Emma was also a competitive cyclist who raced mountain bikes at National and International level and represented Australia in cycling at the Commonwealth Games.

References Capmal S and Vandewalle H, “Torque-velocity relationship during cycle ergometer sprints with and without toe clips”, European Journal of Applied Physiology. 76: 375-379, 1997 Coyle EF, Feltner ME, Kautz SA, Hamilton Mt, Montain SJ, Naylor AM, Abraham LD and Petrek GW, “Physiological and biomechanical factors associated with elite endurance cycling performance”, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Vol 23 No 1: 93 – 107, 1990 Jorge M and Hull M “Analysis of EMG measurements during bicycle pedaling”, Journal of Biomechanics. 19: 683-694, 1986 Ting LH, Kautz SA, Brown DA and Zajac FE, “Contralateral movement and extensor force generation alter flexion phase muscle coordination in pedalling”, Journal of Neurobiology. 83 (6): 3351-65, 2000.

Today’s quick tip – Don’t try any of this until you’ve mastered clipless pedals

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2 Responses to Pulling Up On The Pedals. Right – Or Wrong? (Part 2)

  1. Jason 28/01/2017 at 4:46 am #

    This past summer, I tried hard to pedal “smoothly” with a good upstroke. However, when going at my maximum up a short hill or standing or sprinting, I quickly realized it was impossible to maintain that upstroke. The only way I could keep up with the group was to abandon it and push harder on the down. At the time, I thought this was just because my upstroke needed more work. I resorted to focusing on a better upstroke when going easier, and abandoning the upstroke when I needed to go harder. Silly, right?

    This winter, I got some minor discomfort in my knee. Not so much a serious pain, but more like a feeling of tenderness/weakness. Of course, I took a bit of time off and went easier. It was either due to pushing too many 1-leg drills on the trainer to work on upstroke, or from overuse in general. Anyway, in recovering from the issue, I noticed something odd. I could ride for a couple hours a day with no discomfort at all and felt great, but if I consciously tried to ride with a stronger upstroke, I would get that slight tender/weak knee feeling again within 30 minutes. It seemed related somehow.

    I searched around and found a number of sites similar to this post. In retrospect, it seems my legs were naturally telling me not to focus so much on the upstroke. Oh well; still learning I guess.

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