Cycling technique: pedaling in circles

“So can I ask how many of you actually use the push and pull method of pedaling and if you do does it make climbing hills that much easier?”

“Will push pull make hill climbing easier? Yes it will, but you have to learn how to do it and repeat it often to develop underused muscle groups … there is a proven benefit to hill climbing and the evidence is what my body tells me … I can immediately feel the difference in climbing speed and ease when I pull, so I’m convinced.”

This came up recently on a cycling forum. Push-pull pedaling is when you ‘pedal in circles’ by doing more than simply pushing down with each foot separately. The theory is that by extending the effort of your legs further round the revolution of the cranks you can deploy more muscles and gain power. This extra power comes from using more actual muscles (with the pulling muscles as well as the ‘pushers’) and more continuously (less ‘dead spots’). It only works with special cycling shoes that can be fastened to the pedals.

The theory seems to fall at the first hurdle. Except in sprints when maximum all-out effort is required, cycling is not about muscle power. The best climbers in bike races are not the ones with the most muscular legs. Cycling is normally a sustained aerobic activity. No-one can deliver 100% of their muscle strength for more than a very short period – one or two minutes – so when you ride a bicycle you instinctively regulate the amount of power you deliver with each pedal stroke at a level far less than maximum, otherwise you’d soon come to a stop, heart pounding and gasping for breath when you’ve reached your maximum aerobic capacity: your VO2 max, a measurement of the millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (ml/kg/min) that you are able to use.

VO2 max is a ‘whole body’ thing. The body works as a single system with one VO2 max regardless of how many muscles are being used. It cannot be increased by “developing underused muscle groups.” Whether you are using one set of muscles or spreading the work over several requires the same amount of overall energy. Of course, when you are cycling from A to B or up a long hill you can always put on a spurt by jumping up off the saddle to sprint at maximum power for a few seconds. A mix ‘n match combination of sustained aerobic effort and anaerobic sprints is probably the fastest way to cycle over a distance:

Tour de France hill climb (Thomas Voeckler and Lance Armstrong)

Is anyone pulling up with their legs?

Michael Smartt, elite level cycling coach with USA Cycling, wrote: Dr Ed Coyle and his cohorts published a notable paper comparing “elite national class” and “good state class” cyclists. What they found from a simulated 40k time trial on a laboratory ergometer was that the more powerful national class cyclists had higher peak torque values during the down stroke compared with the other group; i.e. the slower group pedaled in smoother circles compared to the faster group that relatively mashed … at the intensity most highly correlated with successful road/mountain performance it was of primary concern to put power to the pedals as effectively as possible during the most naturally powerful part of the pedal stroke, the down stroke.

FWIW, I cycle up hills at a cadence of 60-70 pushing from around 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock on the pedal revolution (when looking from the right of my bike)*. The aim is to keep the bike moving smoothly at a steady speed and stop it decelerating after each push, as I reckon having to re-accelerate it repeatedly wastes energy. I’ve tried the recommended practice of actively ‘unweighting’ the upcoming leg but I think this is a movement that comes naturally without conscious thought. I can imagine how deliberate unweighting might lead a cyclist into a sense of pulling up when in fact this is not actually happening.

For reference: the Ed Coyle study metioned in Michael Smartt’s article (High Efficiency of Type I Muscle Fibers Improves Performance).

*I’ve noticed that if I tilt my heel slightly upwards at the top of the circle (12 o’clock) – a heel position that doesn’t feel natural – the push phase of the down stroke begins slightly sooner. This might be a useful technique for extending or smoothing the ‘power phase’ of the down stroke but as it doesn’t feel natural I don’t use it. Throughout my youth I played the violin, then again in my 20s when I was taught by a renowned teacher who insisted I hold the bow in a different way I’d been used to and which he said was more technically correct. Not only did it not work for me but I could also see how concert violinists all held their bows in different ways. So I think with pedaling a bicycle, do what comes naturally.

Added to this Post: extracts from papers found when researching this topic…

Modification of the pedaling technique after a training based on the pedal forces feedback

G. Mornieux et B. Stapelfeldt, 15 Mars 2011

“The aim of the study was to investigate the influence of a training form leading to an active pull-up action on the pedal during the upstroke on both the pedaling technique and the cycling performance. After a four weeks training, cyclists applied a significant higher effective force during upstroke while generating a lower effective force during downstroke (at a 300 watts level). However, such changes in the pedaling technique did not influence the performance measured during a maximal incremental cycling test.

“Therefore, even if an active pull-up action on the pedal during upstroke seems to present a mechanical advantage, the benefit in terms of cycling performance remains to be demonstrated.”

Effects of pedal type and pull-up action during cycling

G. Mornieux, B. Stapelfeldt, A. Gollhofer, A. Belli 04/2008

“The aim of this study was to determine the influence of different shoe-pedal interfaces and of an active pulling-up action during the upstroke phase on the pedalling technique. Eight elite cyclists (C) and seven non-cyclists (NC) performed three different bouts at 90 rpm and 60% of their maximal aerobic power. They pedalled with single pedals (PED), with clipless pedals (CLIP) and with a pedal force feedback (CLIPFBACK) where subjects were asked to pull up on the pedal during the upstroke. There was no significant difference for pedalling effectiveness, net mechanical efficiency (NE) and muscular activity between PED and CLIP.”

The pedaling technique of elite endurance cylists

Steven A. Kautz, Michael E. Feltner, Edward F. Coyle, Ann M. Baylor (circa 1991)

“Having noted the production of propulsive force throughout much of the upstroke, we want to reemphasize the relative unimportance of the upstroke for doing work when compared to the downstroke. The importance of the upstroke at the high workload was that, by decreasing the negative torque [leg load on the upstroke pedal], the cyclists effectively decreased the work that must be done during the downstroke of the other leg, thereby doing less positive work for the same power output. The positive work during the downstroke was 98.6% at the low workload and 96.3% at the high workload.”