Bike Fitting: The Myth of the Upstroke

Pedal force diagram; thanks to Dr Jeff Broker

10 years ago, we at Cyclefit started plying our trade in a relative thought-vacuum about cycling biomechanics. This void gave us all licence to befriend the dangerous twins ‘feel’ and ‘folklore’ when it came to settling our bike-to-body arrangements. Appeals to their close cousin ‘common-sense’ also has risks because so much of cycling biomechanics is counter-intuitive and therefore inherently hidden from our conscious mind.

For example, when we are interviewing a new and injured client, it is very common for all the focus to be on what is perceived to be the ‘problem’ leg and for the other leg often to be described as ‘fine’ or even ‘better engaged’. Only later, when we scan the pedal stroke, do we find that the ‘problem’ leg is doing much of the work compared to its under-achieving partner. The ‘good’ leg feels better because it is relatively under-used and therefore more rested. As I say, this may be considered counter-intuitive because this is not how it ‘feels’ to the rider.

In this series we will examine some myths and assumptions about cycling and juxtapose them with our own experience working with individuals and trying to draw a bead on the bullseye of minimizing injury and pain whilst also increasing power and comfort. In this article we look at an issue that has been especially close to our hearts for every single day of those 10 years because of the potential for efficiency loss and even injury – the Myth of the Upstroke.

The Myth of ‘The Upstroke’

Almost all of us have, at some point in our cycling careers, been coached or advised to pull-up on the pedals by well-meaning friends and peers. And we have all dutifully tried our best to visualize ‘spinning plates’ or similar; because the logic of pulling up is irrefutable. There’s a longer and smoother pedal stroke at the end of the rainbow. Or is there?

Our bodies are perfectly evolved to deal with the ancestral environment of 150,000 years ago, when running and throwing spears was more important than getting gold at l’Etape or winning a race at Hog Hill. As a consequence our pedalling function will always be an extrapolation of our inherited walking or running function.

The Case Against The Upstroke

• Back to our evolved selves – look the image on the left and in particular at the huge mass of the glute muscle – our primary hip-extensors (opening the hip). The glutes make up the biggest and most powerful muscle-group in our body. This is a prime ‘moving’ muscle group, employed in exerting the forces that propel the walker or runner.

In contrast, the image on the right shows the smaller hip-flexors, which pull the thigh upwards. Relatively small compared to the glutes, they are clearly not evolved to produce a huge amount of power. In walking and running the hip-flexors simply move the legs, each lifting the knee towards the chin against the force of gravity acting on that particular leg.

• Unlike when walking or running, where each leg must move independently, in cycling the two legs are linked together by the cranks and bottom bracket axle. Why, then, bother pulling up on the right when you are already pushing down with your biggest movers – i.e the glutes and quads?

• Brain space. It is thought by some earnest biomechanists and cycling physios that we simply don’t have the available neural RAM or proprioception to be able to generate any meaningful force on the upstroke at anything approaching full cadence and full power. Try it for yourself and that is certainly how it feels.

• The research says we don’t  – Dr Jeff Broker has done extensive pedalling kinesiology tests on 100 elite and professional cyclists over 10 years and his data shows that not one of them produces a meaningful upstroke. So what hope is there for the rest of us?

Look at the diagram at the top and you will see that even elites and pros have a negative loading on the pedal during the ‘upstream’ or recovery phase of the pedalling circle. That is to say that even they don’t produce enough force at the pedal to offset the effect of gravity on their uphill-moving leg!

Problems Associated with Pulling Up on the Upstroke

Over-use of the hip-flexors when the hip joint is closed can cause all sorts of issues:

•        Lower-back pain

•        Tightness and pain in the hip

•        Loss of power and efficiency

•        A feeling of floating or disengagement on one or both legs

•        In extreme cases – impingement in the iliac artery!

Discuss on the forum

About the author

A director at London-based Cyclefit, Phil has worked in the bicycle industry since 1994. After switching from being a fairly useless mountain biker to a ‘useful’ 1st Cat roadie, he raced seriously before becoming a vet and retiring to calmer waters. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, contributing articles to Cycle Sport, MBi, Cycling Today, MBR and the US-based Road Magazine.
Having trained at the Serotta Academy in New York and under Paul Swift of Bike Fit bicycle fitting systems, Phil is a European SICI (Serotta International Cycling Institute) Fitting Instructor and Trek Fit Services Instructor.

  1. Jon Kelly

    I’d largely agree that ‘pulling up’ is a myth, but negative torque (i.e. force trying to turn the pedals backwards) on the rising pedal does NOT indicate that the rider is not pulling up. If their rising leg is doing nothing, the weight of the leg will produce a substantial negative torque. Therefore, if the negative torque recorded is less than that resulting from the weight of the leg, then they ARE pulling up. All be it only enough to reduce the negative torque, rather than result in a positive torque.

    The power the rider is producing is dependent upon the net torque (i.e. the turning force of both pedals put together) (and the cadence). Therefore, if a rider produces less negative torque at the rising pedal and their positive torque on the falling pedal stays the same, their net torque and therefore power output increases. Does this happen in reality? Yes, especially at higher power outputs and possibly with some stages of fatigue.

    Unfortunately, efficient pedalling is more complex that the common myth of pedalling in circles, even in a lab setting and as for out there in the real world….but I think I’ll leave it there. This was what I did my PhD on and I know I’m in danger of drifting off into geek land!

    Happy pedalling!

  2. Richard Hallett

    Aw… give us more! Your point about lifting the leg is important; no doubt some riders do it more than others and for sure it affects power output exactly as you describe. But then the article does point out the role of the hip flexors, which one may assume is replicated to some extent in cycling.
    The big question, and one given added force by the proponents of those one-way-clutch PowerCranks, which don’t use the downstroke to lift the rising leg, is; how much upward pull is optimal? The article would suggest that it is a little less than needed to lift the leg…

  3. Elaine BARROW

    How does this work in practice, on the road? I heard about a chap who turned up to ride a 10 mile TT and forgot his cycling shoes, so he rode in trainers. The result…..he did a PB and won!

  4. geronimo1789

    Hello

    thank you for your comment and to let us know that you diid a PhD
    but most of us would have like to know more and are ready to try to understand your science. I think we can.
    So please elaborate.

    Further if cycling is our sport those subjects are really interesting on an intellectual side not useful at all.
    As most of the “fitting” we do it is more marketing than anything else : personalization pushing our ego a bit further.
    After years on custom bikes (Serotta mainly) I got back to the good proven italian geometry with stock Moots an I never been so happy as I was on my Scapin and Colnago (when still made in italy).
    A personal experience to share, but unless you have very very specific issue no need to get custom.
    Who get custom shoes . or closes those days ?

    best

  5. gbsparky

    hi guys,
    i’ve only been riding for aout two years and always thought pulling up to help the down push was a help,
    it seems to help me especially when i get over 70 miles as the old legs get a bit tired, and any help is good, as it seems to help a lot when i’m up on the pedals,
    i also do spinning at the gym, and wear my old shoes as they clip into the spin bike pedals, and this seems to help in spinning too,
    now is anyone going to tell me this is wrong???

  6. Richard Hallett

    The point of the article is that, when tested, elite riders don’t pull up. Since they make the most power, it may be supposed (althought there are counter arguments) that pulling up is not part of an effective pedal stroke except in rare circumstances. Furthermore, even those who believe themselves to be pulling up turn out to be merely unloading the rising pedal rather than pulling up on it.
    I occasionally pull up, especially when riding out of the saddle, and sense this to be so by pressure felt on the top of the foot from the shoe upper and by a “clicking” from the pedal as the cleat is pulled upwards against the retaining jaws. It is a very rare occurence.
    If you do feel you pull up on the upstroke, bear these points in mind and also that if you favour pulling up and feel it helps, go ahead and do it.

  7. Monty Veda

    Qoute:
    gbsparky
    January 4, 2012

    hi guys,
    i’ve only been riding for aout two years and always thought pulling up to help the down push was a help,
    it seems to help me especially when i get over 70 miles as the old legs get a bit tired, and any help is good, as it seems to help a lot when i’m up on the pedals,
    i also do spinning at the gym, and wear my old shoes as they clip into the spin bike pedals, and this seems to help in spinning too,
    now is anyone going to tell me this is wrong???
    /quote

    it ‘seems’ to do this and ‘seems’ to do that.. no, you’re not wrong, misguided, but not wrong. Maybe if you didn’t try to pull up as well as pushing down, you would be as tied after 70 miles. :)

  8. Monty+Veda

    correction…
    Maybe if you didn’t try to pull up as well as pushing down, you wouldn’t be as tired after 70 miles. :)

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