Most riders are told that a powerful, efficient pedal stroke means that you need to spin circles or pull through the top of your pedal stroke. However, some recent studies are calling that advice into question. Based on this new understanding of the pedal stroke several top coaches now call for a powerful downstroke with the lead leg while minimizing the interference from the trail leg–a controlled “mash” in effect.

In this video I go over what science is now telling us about a powerful and efficient pedal stroke and demonstrate three exercises to help improve yours:

1. Single Leg Roman Dead Lift

2. Bulgarian Split Squat

3. Reverse Lunge with High Knee

Do these exercises a couple of times a week and you’ll be on your way to getting more out of your pedaling as well as benefits if you’re a runner, too.  For a more comprehensive mountain bike specific strength and conditioning program, check out the Ultimate MTB Workout by James Wilson of MTB Strength Training Systems.

# Comments

  • fat_billy

    Pedaling in circles is a technique to teach smooth and consistant pedaling to help prevent leg fatigue. I started riding mountain bikes and many of the people I rode with advised me to get a road bike. Once I got the road bike I fell into the pedal in circles montra. I laid off the MTB for the hot summer time. When I hit the woods in the fall I couldn’t believe how much faster I was. Part of it was better cardio fitness and part of it was muscle memory and fitness. Pedaling in circles is not a MTB technique but once you learn how to pedal it helps. You quads are your power no question, but on a long climb the rest of the leg can help when the quads are beat. The video shows some great muscle building techniques for the quads. At the top of the climb when the quads are burning you’ll learn to love your hamstring muscles as well. Later,

  • bikejames

    I really don’t want to come off as a jerk but if you insist on showing your ignorance I will continue to point it out – people reading your responses need to know that they are not based on facts.

    I’m just curious what your thoughts are concerning the studies and the advice from top road coaches that say spinning circles is not what you want to do?

    I’m trying not to sound antagonistic but we all know the party line you keep repeating – spinning circles/ using the hip flexors to pull through the top is supposed to be superior. What is your retort to this new evidence to the contrary?

    I’ve printed to references before but here they are again:

    Mornieux et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822

    Korff et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995

    BTW, the exercises I used are not quad dominant but hip dominant exercises, which emphasize the hamstring and glutes, not the quads. I use them specifically because they target the hips more than the quads. Again, I don’t know what to say because your knowledge in this area is so limited that you don’t know what you don’t know, and yet you feel compelled to disparage my info.

    I’m really a nice guy and a big believer in “disagreeing without disliking” so please understand this isn’t personal but you can’t just post half-cocked comments and expect for me to not point out why you simply are not right. I’d love to discuss it if you have some comments or questions based on the new evidence I’ve provided if you want to check it out and get back to me.

  • fat_billy

    Opinions are like handlebars and seat posts, everyone has one. Later,

  • armyslowrdr

    bj you most certainly do come off as a jerk. He was just leaving his comment to what he believes in–of which thousands of others I am sure share and are going to be reluctant to even hear about a new “technique”. I am not even going to watch the video. Pedalling in circles is proven and works. A “controlled mash” lol, doesn’t even sound right. I am sure science told us the circles technique was the correct method too. New “knowledge” i suppose–bleh.

  • dgaddis

    Science also told us the earth was flat and the center of the universe. We gain new knowledge all the time. Being skeptical and questioning is good, but simply refusing to consider new possibilities and evidence is small minded in my opinion.

    I’d like to know more about how testing is done to determine pedaling efficiency. Do they look at power output vs heart rate? Is cadence taken into account? What sort of timespan?

  • bikejames

    I guess I don’t understand – I’m trying to help people who are interested in getting better at riding their mountain bike. I look for the best ways to do that and then bring that info to the everyday rider. At the end of the day I’m just trying to help.

    If you don’t agree then that is fine but if you say that I am flat out wrong then I’d like some sort of fact based argument. I don’t think that it is fair to post whatever you want without having to answer for it in some way, kind of like I am doing right now.

    I totally respect your reply since it is honest – you have your way and you don’t even want to know about a “new” way since yours works just fine for you. I have no problem with that, but the truth is that there are a lot of riders who may benefit from knowing that there is more than one opinion on how to pedal a bike.

    If you don’t agree then just say so, but if you’re going to say that my advice, based on more than one study and coaches opinion, is flat out wrong then let’s have some sort of discussion about it. That’s how sports grow and find better ways.

  • bikejames

    If you do a google search for those studies you can find out more specific info. It was at a 60% effort and there were several interesting things, including an analysis of elite cyclists pedal strokes on flats and with clipless pedals. They found little mechanical difference in how they powered the pedal stroke with either pedal – they saw a strong downstroke with a less active return of the trail leg.

    Another thing these studies bring up is the difference between mechanical efficiency and metabolic efficiency. Pedaling in circles does result in an increase in mechanical efficiency, however there is a decrease in metabolic efficiency. Humans are not designed to power lower body movement by spinning circles and doing so is not the more efficient way for them to do it.

  • limetownjack

    when it comes to technique and efficieny there are always going to be disagreements as to what is more beneficial (differnt folks different strokes). cycling is no different than running where there are multiple techniques (chi, natural, pose…) all with their own die hard advocates that swear theirs is the best.

    i won’t say their is no merit whatsoever to your claim that mashing is superior to circles but i will say in my experience i have found that this is not true and that there are other very credible cyclists, like lance armstrong for instance and cycle coaches, like thomas chapple and steve lund, who would also disagree.

    i did my own experiment awhile back and found that allthough i posted the same average time, speed and rpm using both techniques i averaged 7 bpm more pedal mashing than when i was spinning. i’m not expecting my results to sway yours or anyone elses position but it was enough to solidify that spinning, for me atleast, is more efficient than mashing.

  • element22

    Could you clarify metabolic effiency….I raced many years back and at the time my coach. Encouraged us to pedal in circles. Using the up stroke to further assist the down stroke of the other leg. He also encouraged us to work on our core muscles to help “cement” the pelvis on to the saddle and only allowing it to rock side to side.. Again for myself I found that worked great..

    It also worked well and preventing me coming off the saddle and mashing.

    On a mountain bike I found off the saddle rides limited my traction as the slight foward lift limited traction….

    Also wouldn’t it be a bit much if the terrain is soft wet as that controlled mash may make you loose traction?

  • eastwood

    Wow, this all got out of hand quick… In the video James says “a couple studies” “call into question” the old thought that pedaling in circles is the best…. that there isn’t proof that this new method is better… there are a couple studies out there that will prove whatever the hell you want them to prove. I think it really does come down to personal performance and preference. So for some pedaling in circles feels right, others may feel mashing is the way to go. After all, how many of us here are professional athletes who make a living off of riding??? I’d say the vast majority of us here are far from that, we ride because we love it. Unfortunately James, who is presenting material as a professional, as an expert, really does come off poorly attacking fat_billy for posting his thoughts on the matter. I didn’t read fat_billy’s comment as disregarding anything you stated or flat out saying you were wrong. He simply stated what he was taught and what he feels…

    Did you really think everyone was going to read your blog post and swallow it whole as the absolute truth?

    I’ve appreciated James’ exercises and knowledge in the past. You take it for what it is. He give you tools to improve – you use what you want, chuck what you don’t. He’s not your personal trainer, no one is obligated to follow every step of every piece of advice he gives.
    And advice it is. It’s not the bottom line. Which is something I certainly hope he agrees with.

    I have to say this is about the worst display I have seen on this site.

  • bikejames

    After re-reading FBs post I did over-react to it – I was reacting to an earlier exchange we had in the forum and he got my goat, so to speak. I have no excuse. I apologize for my reaction, I realize that it came off all wrong.

  • neil.beltchenko

    i appreciate the video! I’m going to work on things like that and concentrate pedaling with my leg not just in circles! thanks!

  • dozzerboy

    Lol! This is an entertaining series of replies to read!!! Hey fat_billy, what’s up with all they “laters,” ?

  • wbernest

    Until the new studies win 7 straight tour de frances I will keep on spinning.

  • bikecowboy

    James, I remember listening to one of your podcasts where you interviewed a road bike trainer. I seem to remember that he agreed with you. Might be a good one to check out. Sorry, can’t remember who it was.

  • fat_billy

    dozzerboy, I use “Later” so people know I’m finished with the topic but that I’ll be back. This topic has been fun but may become complicated in the racing classes. I’ll be in the spinner class with clip in pedals, then there’s the Masher class that can also be the flat pedal class, then the regular classes. Oh yeah don’t forget the Cocker Spaniel in the back pack class. Damn this is going to be complicated. Later,

  • bikejames

    Mechanical efficiency means that it was from the bikes perspective spinning circles is better. Metabolic efficiency means that it was worse from your bodies perspective. The amount of power you can produce is lower and the amount of energy it takes increases. Humans are simply not meant to power lower body movement by actively pulling with the hip flexors in an attempt to create forward momentum, we are meant to powerfully extend the hip and knee while getting the trail leg back into position with the hip flexors.

    What they are finding out is that what the pros told us they felt (spinning circles) and what they actually do (powerful extension on the lead leg with a more passive return of the trail leg) are two different things. This is actually common in sports as the best rarely know how they do what they do and amateurs like us do a poor job of actually recreating what they do based on their descriptions of it. I would bet money that if you hooked ol’ Lance up and checked his pedal stroke it wouldn’t be as “circular” as you think. And this is a MTB site, not a roadie site so what wins the Tour might not be the best thing for us.

    Lastly, there is a big difference between uncontrolled mashing and what I am talking about here. You still need to have a smooth, controlled pedal stroke that feels circular but you don’t want to actively pull through the top with your hip flexors. The cycling world has a very poor understanding of how muscles work together to create movement and this has lead to advice that emphasizes weaker muscles (the hip flexors) while de-emphasizing the strongest muscles in your body (the glutes and hamstrings aka the hips).

    How you pedal your bike should resemble how you run with a powerful extension of the lead leg and a passive return of the trail leg.

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