Become a Better Climber – To Sit or To Stand?

By Jiri Kaloc

Should you stand up when climbing or stay seated? It’s a commonly discussed question among cyclists. Why do some cyclists enjoy getting out of the saddle? Is it more efficient? When should you stand up and how to do it well?

Why do cyclists climb standing?

The main differences between seated and standing cycling are intuitive. When you stand up, your notice that your cadence goes down but you’re able to generate more power for a short period of time. This is because you’re able to use more of your body weight to push on the pedals and engage your upper body too. But all of this comes at a cost of a lot of inefficient movement side to side and it’s usually not sustainable for long.

So, why do some cyclists find climbing standing difficult to do while others prefer it? It is hard to get objective answers because it is very difficult to replicate the process of climbing in a laboratory. Scientists typically use stationary bicycle turbo trainers for research. These can’t fully replicate the actual free movement of climbing. Thankfully, we have a study that looked at how cyclists climb outdoors.

Scientific comparison climbing

In 2018, a study was published in the Journal of Sport Sciences that compared seated and standing cycling during outdoor time trials. They selected 13 elite cyclists and established their VO2max, which was on average 79,8 mL/kg/min, and maximal aerobic power, which was 6.3 W/kg. Each of them was asked to do 3 self-paced time trials on a 3-km-long climb with an average 7% gradient. They had 30 minutes to recover between each of their 3 rides. They were free to sit or stand during the climb as they wanted. Each of them was equipped with a power meter and portable analyser to collect metabolic and other physiological variables such as oxygen uptake or heart rate. The researchers followed the cyclists in a car from which they marked when the cyclists changed from seated to standing and for how long.

Climbing peloton
To sit or to stand? © Profimedia

There are no differences in speed between standing and sitting climbing

Most of what the researchers found was as expected, cadence decreased when standing while the torque and power output increased. But there were a few surprises.

  • Cyclists spent 22,4% of the climb standing.
  • The speed did not differ between seated and standing climbing positions. This suggests that they used standing to maintain speed during steeper parts of the climb.
  • The longer they spent standing, the lower their cadence got. This suggests that standing for too long is more demanding.
  • Their metabolic measures such as VO2 and heartrate HR did not differ between seated and standing climbing positions.

It is important to note that the time trial took fewer than 6 minutes and only the last 4 minutes of climbing were analysed. Changes in VO2 and heart rate might not be noticeable in this short time trial but it doesn’t mean that changes would be noticeable in longer climbs.

Choose what helps you maintain speed

Even though cyclists are able to produce more power while standing, some of it is lost because of increased wind resistance and mechanical losses such as bike sway, friction, and rolling resistance. Also, this increased power output is not sustainable for long. This is why the study didn’t see any differences in speed.

Any drop in speed is very costly during a climb because it takes a lot of extra power to gain that speed back on a steep hill. The important thing to take away from this study is that standing up is mainly used as a way to maintain speed. Try to maintain a steady speed during your climbing to preserve energy. Use standing up as a way to maintain that speed if a steeper part comes up.

The correct stand climbing position

If you feel like standing up is not allowing you to push as much power as you would like then you might be doing it incorrectly. Here are a few tips for getting your body into the right position.

  • Torso – Chest and hips should move forward when you go out of the saddle so you can drop your full body weight into the downstroke on each side. If you can look straight down in front of your stem, you can be sure you’re forward enough.
  • Arms – Your elbows should be slightly bent. Move your right elbow in and your left hand out on your right downstroke.
  • Legs – Don’t try to drop your heel like in a seated position. You want to drive your body weight down through the ball of your foot. Your toe should end up slightly down and heel slightly up.

The next article in the series will look at other tactics and nutrition tips to help you take away the fear of climbing and become a better cyclist.