More on Saddle Height

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’re probably aware of the fact that I’ve been recovering from an “overuse” knee injury for the past couple of months. The injury might be better described as an overuse/maladjustment knee injury; I’m convinced incorrect saddle adjustment, as well as overuse, played a role. As part of of the process of resolving the injury, I went back and took a very close look at the saddle height on all of my bikes and now feel confident that they’re consistently adjusted and very close to where they need to be. I’ve always known correct saddle height is important for long-term knee health, but it’s never been as clear to me as it is now, after going through this process.

In an earlier post I outlined some of the common methods for determining saddle height:

  • LeMond Method – Adjust the saddle to a distance equal to your PBH* x .883, measured from the top of saddle to the center of the bottom-bracket
  • Petersen Method – Adjust the saddle to a distance equal to your PBH x .873, measured from the top of saddle to the center of the bottom-bracket
  • Hamley Method – Adjust the saddle to a distance equal to your PBH x 1.09, measured from the top of saddle to the pedaling surface (with the crank at bottom-dead-center inline with the seat tube)
  • Holmes Method – Adjust the saddle so your knee is bent 25-35 degrees with the ball of your foot on the pedal (with the crank at bottom-dead-center inline with the seat tube)

My pubic bone height (PBH) is 88.5cm (34.84″). Using the LeMond and Petersen formulas, I come up with 30.77″ and 30.42″ respectively; these measurements are used to set the distance from the top of saddle to the center of the bottom-bracket. After doing a fair amount of experimentation, I’ve settled on just over 30.5″. The Holmes method, which uses the knee angle as a way of setting saddle height, closely corresponds to the LeMond and Petersen methods.

Once you’ve used one of these formulas to get your saddle within a safe range, listen to your body to determine if you need to make small adjustments.

Crank length isn’t mentioned in regards to the LeMond and Petersen methods, but it needs to be considered since both methods use the bottom bracket to set saddle height without factoring in crank length. If you use either of these formulas, you’ll need to adjust the saddle up or down slightly to compensate for longer or shorter cranks. Most people are running 170-175mm cranks, so adjust the saddle up or down approximately .10-.20″ depending upon which crank you’re running.

Among the above methods, Hamley is the only one that gives a significantly different result. According to Hamley, my seat should be set nearly .75″ higher than what is indicated by the other formulas. Even though the Hamley method gives me what appears to be an incorrect result, I like the fact that it factors in crank length by setting the saddle height based upon the distance to the pedal surface.

By taking a few measurements and doing a little math, I determined that by modifying the Hamley formula from PBH x 1.09 to PBH x 1.07, you end up with a seat height nearly identical to what is indicated by the other methods. Modifying the Hamley method in this way puts it in line with the other methods while also taking into account crank length. This is probably the most accurate way to set saddle height short of employing a professional fitting service.

Once you’ve used one of these formulas to get your saddle within a safe range, listen to your body to determine if you need to make small adjustments. Conventional wisdom says pain in the front of the knee indicates a saddle that’s too low, and pain in the back of the knee indicates a saddle that’s too high. This has been consistent with my experience. Many people may find their saddles were too low prior to using these methods (Rivendell’s Grant Petersen says 80% of the riders they see have their saddles adjusted too low). If you’re one of these people, give yourself time to adjust to the new position; it will feel strange at first, but in the long run you’ll be doing your knees a favor.

*PBH – Pubic Bone Height. Read this for instructions on how to measure your PBH.

24 Responses to “More on Saddle Height”

  • cafn8 says:

    I’m curious as to how you arrived at your final saddle height. The difference between the LeMond and Peterson methods is nearly 3/8″, which makes a pretty big difference in feel. I guess what I’m concerned about is that if 80% of riders have their saddle too low, and think that it feels about right, but are actually causing ourselves harm, how do we know what height actually is best? How does your new saddle height compare to your pre-injury, or injury-inducing height?

  • Alan says:

    I think if you split the difference between the two, you’re in a safe range. There are many factors that effect the final setting such as the thickness of your shoe soles, whether or not you use padded shorts, how much your seat deflects, whether you ride toe-down or flat-footed, etc. The point is to get close and make subtle adjustments from there.

    In my case, I started at the lower setting and worked up in approximately 1/8″ increments until I started to feel as if I was reaching and pulling on my hamstrings, then I backed of just a bit. My current setting is .75″ higher than where it was when I injured my knee.

  • Jacob says:

    Dear Alan,

    I have been a mechanic and salesman for five year professionally. That is only a fraction of time compared many, however I can say you are overlooking two major issues.
    The first issue which is equally as important as saddle height, is the saddle fore/aft adjustment. Even if your saddle is at the perfect height (if possible) you can still cause serious knee and hip damage, and discomfort if the saddle is too far forward or too far backward. If the saddle is too far back your knee will be behind the ball of your foot when your pedal/crank is at 3 o’clock. This can cause pain in the knee from trying to stay on the saddle while having to “reach” forward with your whole leg to the pedal during the downward pedal stroke. At the same time your body will try and correct this by sliding forward on your saddle which would move your weight from your sitbones resting on the wide supportive part of the saddle, to your soft parts resting on the narrow part of the saddle. This is a common reason for low back pain, numbness and saddle sores.
    If the saddle is too far forward you can also cause knee, hip, and low back problems. If this is the case then your knee will be farther forward than the ball of your foot when the pedal is at 3 o’clock. This will put a tremendous amount of strain on your knee because you will be using your knee to push against to get your body farther back on the saddle. This will also put you in the wrong position on your saddle and cause similar problems as above.
    The best way to set saddle fore/aft is to put the bike on a trainer or lean against a wall and put your foot on the pedal at 3 o’clock. With your pedal at 3 o’clock, the center of your knee joint should be directly above, if not a slightly (2mm max) in front of the ball of your foot where you press into the pedal. Keep in mind that by changing your saddle fore/aft adjustment you will be altering the length of the cockpit and stem height and length may need to be altered because of this. To be most accurate I use a plum-bob when working with customers. Also remember whenever you adjust the height you need to readjust the fore/aft, and vice-versa.
    The second issue is that saddle height is not a static thing. As your range of motion changes with your flexibility, and the seasons (it does!) your saddle height will change. This is much more an issue with new riders, or riders recovering from an injury. Normally with these riders there stride will lengthen out as they ride more and their flexibility increases. When I sell new bikes to people I do three fit sessions. One when they buy the bike, getting a general fit with regard to saddle fore/aft and height, and then stem length and height as well as handlebar width. The following fits are done after about 100 miles of riding, to check those issues and answer any questions the rider may have. Finally, I do a fit about six months after the purchase and about 7 times out of 10 I will raise the saddle height due to this increase in flexibility.
    This is not the whole process I do during a fit, I left out my description of setting saddle height because it sounds like you have found the height that works for you. However please remember that these calculations do not take into account a vast array of issues that complicate bike fit, that can range from shoe and pedal thickness to the massive issue of the ratio of femur to shin length. I believe that these calculations must be taken with a grain a salt, and that they can never replace the trained eye of a professional, or even an enthusiast with a strong intuition.
    Good luck, feel free to email me with any further questions.
    Cheers,
    Jake

  • Alan says:

    Jake,

    Thanks for your valuable input. It sounds as if you do a wonderful job of taking care of your customers.

    These calculations are no replacement for a fitting session with a trained professional – to quote: “This is probably the most accurate way to set saddle height short of employing a professional fitting service.” My intention is to help the large percentage of non-enthusiast riders who will never get a professional fitting and whose saddle heights may be off by as much as multiple inches; these formulas at least get them in the ballpark.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Charlie says:

    Another thing to consider is to use shorter cranks, like 155 mm. Then you of course need to raise the saddle by the 15 or 20 mm you just lost by shortening the crank. But the result is a smaller range of motion in the knee and less strain on the knee.

    I think of it this way: With the saddle too low, you have one kind of problem (knee bent to much). With the saddle too high, you have another kind of problem (reaching too far). With shorter cranks, you have more room between those two problems.

  • Pamela Anderson rides a bicyle - Cult of the Bicycle says:

    [...] rides a pink Paul Frank cruiser bicycle by Nirve while sipping her coffee. Pamela may want to read this post from Eco Velo about her saddle height.Via Velo Vogue. See more photos of Pamela Anderson on this pink bicycle at [...]

  • andy parmentier says:

    and ONE more thing to consider (this relates to range of motion/flexibility) is your CADENCE. i have found that “spinning” is what gets more of my body into the ride-hence, my hips are going thru a more complete range of motion, as opposed to pushing a heavy gear in “benchpress mode”
    (i’m referring to my tour easy recumbent here).
    unicycles are usually offered with short cranks, which means higher foot speed/range of motion to help you balance. longer cranks work better on climbs, where your range of motion is reduced anyway, unless you’re on a stand-capable mountain bike?

  • Alan says:

    @Jake

    “The first issue which is equally as important as saddle height, is the saddle fore/aft adjustment.”

    I’m curious, how do we account for recumbents, crank forwards, cruisers, etc., when considering the above.

    Thanks-
    Alan

  • andy parmentier says:

    p.s.
    i purchased “kneesavers”-type pedal extenders for my unicycle (“q factor”?) even though i’ve got bmx platform pedals, my leg type is “bowlegged” so i need a wider horse i guess..the pedal extenders widen out your pedals 20-30mm or so

  • jameso says:

    Sorry, this post less about saddle adjustment and more about knee health.

    After going back to some previous posts about your injury, I’d like to know if you have ridden your bike at all during your injury, or stayed off of it completley. I have a very similar overuse / poor bike fit knee injury that I’ve been dealing with for over a month. I’m doing a number of treatments including R.I.C.E. and physical therapy. I’ve been to couple of doctors but I never seem to get a straight answer on when it’s ok to begin riding, at least moderately again.

    I suppose the answer is get on the bike and listen to your body. When it hurts, stop. But I’m just wondering what your experience has been in terms of getting back on the bike and working your way back up to 10+ mile rides again. Or should I just stay off of it and let my body heal completely?

    Any advice from you or fellow readers is greatly appreciated.

    Thanks1

  • Alan says:

    @jameso

    Having patience is the most difficult part of recovering from an overuse injury. You have to give it time to heal. Initially, I tried to get on the bike too soon, and ride too far when I did. After doing so caused a couple of setbacks, I finally settled in for the long haul and stayed off the bike for a few weeks before even attempting a ride around the block. Once I did start riding, I took very short rides in the neighborhood and got off the bike at the first sign of pain. At first this was no more than a few blocks at a time. As I got better, I was able to ride further, but I continued to stay relatively close to home so if the pain set in I didn’t have far to go. Now I’m up to 10-15 mile rides, but I’m still not able to do that everyday of the week without irritation setting in.

    So my advice it to take your time, work back slowly and methodically, do your best to not irritate the injury, and like you said, listen to your body. And most importantly, don’t get discouraged – you will get better!

    Alan

  • andy parmentier says:

    ..and “cross-train”! my favorite pet example:
    say you own a frisbee and a kite.
    on windy days you fly the kite.
    on calm days you throw the frisbee!

  • jamesmallon says:

    What’s worked for my high-cadence riding is simply to adjust the seat as high as I can, but without going high enough to make me rock my hips to reach the pedals.

  • John says:

    Alan,

    For what it’s worth, Brol just had a posting on saddle positioning. check it out http://www.sheldonbrown.com/kops.html

    John

  • jameso says:

    Thanks Alan and Andy for your suggestions. Patience does seem to be the best advice for these types of injuries. I keep searching in vain for the “magic wand” answer but of course I’ve realized that it doesn’t exist. If there’s any magic, it’s in the human body’s ability to heal itself. It just takes time. Argh.

  • Alan says:

    @John

    Thanks for the link…

    Alan

  • -x- says:

    Alan my 2cents for what it worth, (really only about 2cents) I know that your a real experienced biker but for me this seat height thing may not be the issue here unless it were way out of wack (many inches too low which I can’t see you doing). The only time I’ve had knee problems was from pushing to big of gear up inclines while touring, with slow cadence. The fix was just down shifting and spinning when I first started getting the pain and it would work it’s self out if I caught it early. The first time I didn’t know what was going on or was it denial and it took a couple of days to work it out after that I always caught it early and it would only take minutes to spin it out.
    Have you tried to reduce your gearing on those heavy ss bikes that you ride?
    Do you spin your folder or slow pedal to keep from sweating?
    -x-

  • Adjusting Saddle Height | Stephen's Personal Blog says:

    [...] … Once you’ve used one of these formulas to get your saddle within a safe range, listen to your body to determine if you need to make small adjustments. Conventional wisdom says pain in the front of the knee indicates a saddle that’s too low, and pain in the back of the knee indicates a saddle that’s too high. This has been consistent with my experience. Many people may find their saddles were too low prior to using these methods (Rivendell’s Grant Petersen says 80% of the riders they see have their saddles adjusted too low). If you’re one of these people, give yourself time to adjust to the new position; it will feel strange at first, but in the long run you’ll be doing your knees a favor. from Eco Velo [...]

  • Johnny says:

    I’ve had a similar experience, where seat height didn’t seem to be making my knees hurt. I was mashing my way home uphill in high gears. Spinning more has gotten my knees feeling much better. I’m glad it’s not just me:)

  • Alan says:

    @x

    I tend to ride with a relatively high cadence, so in my case the injury was probably brought on more by the saddle height issue, as well as not resting the knee when it started feeling strained. That said, yes, pushing overly big gears can wreck your knees – even more so if your saddle is not adjusted properly.

    Alan

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    [...] More on Saddle Height [...]

  • Greg says:

    A new method I’ve recently learned:

    While sitting comfortably on the saddle and with both feet in the normal pedaling position, rotate the cranks so that they are perfectly vertical. With the lower pedal, slide your foot forward until your heel is centered over the pedal spindle. With an ideal saddle height adjustment, your leg should be extended comfortably with no bend while your heel ever so slightly grazes the spindle. Once your return the ball of your foot to the center of the pedal you should have the ideal amount of knee bend.

    I work for a bicycle touring company and throughout a season ride as many as one dozen different bikes. This method works perfectly every time, without the need for calculators and tape measurers.

  • Alan says:

    @Greg

    That’s a good method for quick adjustments, though I’ve found it tends to result in a saddle height that is too low.

    Alan

 
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