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Pulling Up On The Pedals. Right – Or Wrong? (Part 1)

Do you pull up on the pedals as well as push down? Is pulling up REDUCING your pedalling efficiency?

correct bicycle pedalling technique
Today’s newsletter is about a subject that I’ve debated with others for a while. Pulling up on the pedals. Should you or shouldn’t you?

It’s a little longer than usual, so I’ve broken it up into 2 weeks, with part 2 of this wonderful article coming next week. It’s well worth the read for a better understanding of correct road bike pedalling technique, so stay tuned for the conclusion next week.

The article is by Emma Colson, a musculoskeletal physiotherapist, member of the Australian cycling team for the Commonwealth Games, and physiotherapist to the Australian Women’s road cycling team. For a full bio of Emma see below.

Power to your Pedals, by Emma Colson

In my practice as a physiotherapist in a large sports medicine clinic in Melbourne, many cyclists present to me with a variety of injuries related quite simply to a misunderstanding of what is correct pedal technique.

Commonly, the cyclist presents with an onset of symptoms that is related to trying to increase their pedalling efficiency. Sadly, they have made their pedalling less efficient rather than more, and have often developed an injury in the meantime.

Incorrect pedal technique can cause the following injuries:

• Knee pain.

• Hip flexor (psoas) overuse syndromes.

• Lower back pain.

• Gastric irritation, ie nausea and abdominal bloating. Due to the tension of the psoas muscle on the sympathetic chain—the nerves that supply your internal organs.

• The feeling that despite the hours training, they feel like they are getting slower.

The good news is that with attention to detail during their pedalling action the symptoms disappear as quickly as they appear.

Getting Technical about Pedalling Technique

Pedal technique is as much a skill acquisition as a tennis serve. You wouldn’t see a young tennis hopeful out bashing the ball as hard as possible every shot. They would spend a good deal of their training perfecting their technique, getting a feel for the racquet/ball interface.

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Cycling should be the same.

Getting faster is not always about training harder, but doing quality training and developing a proprioceptive feel for the bicycle and power output through the pedals. National MTB team coach Damian Grundy says the most important advice for an up and coming junior is not the hours they spend on the bike, but getting a real feeling for the pedal-stroke and their body position on the bike.

The acquisition of skill in developing power output is why a de-conditioned elite class athlete can often hop in to a club level race and blow the ‘fitter’ athletes away. They have spent many years developing their correct motor programs. Their fitness may not be what it should be, but they use what they have in the most efficient way.

Common Mistakes in Pedalling Technique

The greatest mistake in pedalling technique lies in the following two commonly quoted statements:

• “Cleats help you generate an upstroke.”

• “Pedalling should be in circles.”

Be very careful about what you are thinking of with these two statements.

In 1997, French researchers put force transducers on the pedals of six cyclists. They measured the force going through the pedal at every two degrees of the pedal stroke.

They found that in the back part of the stroke, there was a negative torque on the pedals (an uplift). However, the quantity of this uplift was the same with the subjects with toe cleats and without toe cleats. Hence, they concluded that the leg creating the upstroke (negative torque) at this point was the opposite leg during the down-stroke.

Their conclusion was that the hamstring and hip flexor muscles were insufficient to be able to lift the leg at a greater rate than the quadriceps and gluteal muscles on the other side, which push the back crank up by pushing down on the opposite crank.

The same study concluded that the role of cleats is a proprioceptive one—cleats enable us to develop very high forces on the pedal at high cadences without slipping off the pedal (Capmal and Vandewalle, 1997).

In steady state submaximal cycling, the power output across the 360 degree cycle of the pedal stroke is NOT even, and nor should it be.

Power to your PedalsFirstly, there are muscles that are optimally placed to generate tension at various points of the pedal stroke. The major power generators during the pedal cycle are the ‘antigravity’ muscles, the gluteal (buttocks) and quadriceps (thigh muscles or your ‘quads’).

Secondly, cycling at high cadence is a type of locomotion similar to walking and running. At high velocity, the brain appears to be ‘preprogrammed’ with a particular motor pattern, hence it actually sorts out the best source to deliver power generation between the two legs at any instantaneous point of the pedal stroke.

This power will not be equal for each leg at any given time. Muscles have contractile components. The ability of a muscle to generate tension is dependant upon what is known as its length/tension relationship.

Put simply, a muscle that is shortened or lengthened beyond optimum is no longer easily able to develop tension. As an example, try to lift a dumbbell with your biceps muscle (see Illustration 1 left). The easiest point of lift is at about the 90 degree or right angle position of the arm.

At the extremes of range, with the arm stretched out or the arm ‘close packed’ the weight is harder to lift as the muscle is not in its best range of length/tension relationship. Also, the forearm is less efficient as a lever when the biceps attachment is effectively closer to the fulcrum.

Trying to develop an ‘upstroke’ at the back part of the pedal stroke (around the 240 degree position for the back foot) is asking the hamstring and hip flexor muscles to pull the pedal up in a shortened position, at a very quick rate.

Meanwhile this position corresponds to the most powerful muscles of the gluteal and quadriceps (and the weight of the leg) pushing maximally downwards on the opposite pedal (maximum power occurs just beyond the 90 degree position of the front foot).

Is Pulling Up Damaging the Downstroke?

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.

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.

Sorry, maybe I’ve got you wondering about the ending now, you’ll have to wait for next week for the next newsletter to find out if you really should be pulling up on the pedals, or not. Part 2 of this excellent article coming next week will give you the answer.

Till then, keep pedalling.

To read Part 2 of this article click here.

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.

Today’s quick tip – Don’t miss next weeks newsletter for the conclusion, should you pull up or not? Or is there a better way?





One Response to Pulling Up On The Pedals. Right – Or Wrong? (Part 1)

  1. John 16/12/2016 at 1:58 am #

    thanks for this article. I bought cleats and did no research. I assumed you were supposed to pull on the upstroke. I got a hip flexor strain within a month. Makes sense now.

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