Let's start by saying: there is no such thing as properly ‘setting your bike seat height’. However, there is such a thing as ‘setting your seat’. The difference? Seat height, fore/aft, and tilt should all be addressed simultaneously to ‘set your bike seat’.
This article was last updated in June 2017.
Get all three of these things right and you’re off to a good ride. Get any of the three wrong and it can lead riders straight back to their golf clubs, ping pong racket or walking shoes.
But wait, there’s good news! The perfect bike saddle height, fore/aft, and tilt are all a range – we just need to tinker around a bit to find yours.
Let’s begin by determining where your bike seat is now by taking a couple of measurements so you can learn from the changes you make, and what the difference is between good, better and best.
Where is your bike seat today?
The three critical measurements are saddle height, fore/aft and tilt. There are several ways to measure, but the methods described allow anybody with a tape measure and a smartphone to accomplish this task. Document your starting position! It will come in handy in the future.
The foundation for this measurement system is that it eliminates saddle-specific features. It doesn’t account for the differences between seats, as there is no such measurement. But it does allow you to measure any saddle accurately, and that’s a great starting point.
1. Bike seat height
Measure the length of your seat from front to back and find a mid-point. Mark this spot on the saddle with a sharpie, small pen, chalk, etc.
Use your tape measure to start at the center-top of your saddle and measure in a straight line to the center of your bottom bracket (ignore the seat tube angle).
Some cranks are best measured from the drive side and some better from the non-drive side. Document your measurement to the millimeter (764mm, for example).
2. Seat fore/aft
Place your bike in a stationary trainer or leaned against a wall, but make sure the bike is vertically perpendicular to the floor and horizontally perpendicular to the wall. Measure from the wall to the bottom bracket for measurement #1. Measure from the wall to the tip of the saddle for measurement #2. Measurement #1 - Measurement #2 = saddle setback.
3. Seat tilt
Because many seats have contours, the most favorable way to get consistent measurements is to measure the overall seat tilt.
Place a clipboard over the seat and use your smartphone or inclinometer to find the overall seat tilt.
Did you check to see if you bike was level before you started? I recommend documenting to the nearest 1/10th of a degree.
Once you have your three measurements, it’s time to get started.
There’s no shortage of ‘old school’ methods for seat height – ‘Holmes method’, ‘Lemond method’, armpit on the saddle and fingertips to the center of crank, and so on. To some extent they’ve all been discredited by the science minds, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.
As a place to start, the ‘heel method’ is a very quick way to establish a baseline height. Despite a science background, I still find it quite useful.
This process can be done in a doorway, or better yet with the bike on a stationary trainer.
Hop on the bike and place your heel atop the pedal, in whatever shoes you plan on riding in. Clipless pedals or flats, it matters not.
Pedal forward or backward, but do it slowly. If the saddle is too high, you’ll not be able to pedal smoothly without having to rock side-to-side, overreaching. Move your saddle down 1-2cm at a time until this back and forth stops.
Conversely, if it’s easy to pedal smoothly, try going up a few centimeters at a time until you have to start reaching for the pedals. Once reaching, go back down until you find yourself in an ideal starting height.
Lights, camera, action
Leave the ‘heel method’ in the rearview mirror and try putting your foot on the pedal as you would when riding. If this means clipped in to clipless pedals then go for it. And no, that’s not an error – ‘clipless pedals’ means you’ll be ‘clipped in’.
If you’re going the platform pedal route, then put about 1/3 of your foot in front of the pedal axle, and 2/3 behind.
At this point, a stationary trainer is pretty much a necessity if you want to give a proper evaluation of your seat height. If you don’t have one, it’s still certainly possible, but it requires help from a friend and some fancy smart phone camera action.
With the bike in a trainer, it’s time to snap a few photo/videos. I recommend downloading any one of a number of free apps for capturing and analyzing motion.
The app I’m finding easiest lately is Technique, but there are plenty to choose from. Any app that can create still images from action will suffice.
Ride the bike for a few minutes, as you would out on your daily rides, adjusting your position to what feels best in terms of the seat. Once situated, capture some imagery. The goal is to be able to quantify how much bend is in the knee throughout the pedal stroke, and to the approximate location of the center of your knee.
Generally speaking, at full extension (which is not 6 o’clock – more like 5 o-clock) 30-40 degrees of knee bend is the generally accepted range.
If you’re feeling tension at the front of the knee or a large amount of work only from your quads, that seat height is bit low.
If you feel a dull ache at your low back, or you can feel your hips rocking a bit, that saddle is likely too high.
Using the same images track to a point where the crank arm is forward-horizontal and look to the knee.
Approximate the center of your knee, or the point where it appears to hinge. Where in relation to the pedal axle is your knee? In front, behind, or just above? If it’s behind, try sliding your seat forward a bit, until the center of the knee is vertically in line with your pedal axle. The opposite of course if your knee is in front of the pedal axle.
When you moved your seat forward or backward did you notice your seat height seemed to change? If you moved your seat forward to move your knee forward, you’ll likely need to raise your seat, too. The opposite is of course true if you moved your seat rearward.
This little dance goes until you’ve found something that feels smooth and balanced. No rocking back and forth, no muscle groups feeling like they’re doing more than their share of the work, and no aching knees or hips.
Now take your bike out for a few short spins, and bring your allen keys with you. A few small tweaks can help finalize a good position. But don’t overdo the first couple of rides, or you’ll be minimizing the opportunity for proper and painless adaptation.
Make the saddle work for you
All of this has been under a major assumption that your saddle properly supports your sit bones.
So, does it? Do you feel definitive pressure on the two sit bones of your pelvis? If not, it could be for two reasons: 1 – your saddle shape or width aren’t matching your anatomical structure; or 2 – the tilt of the saddle isn’t enabling your sit bones to do their job.
It’s the latter of the two that’s worth discussing, largely because you can check for yourself if your seat is capable of providing more support.
The tilt of the saddle is a determining factor for where pressure is applied to the pelvis. If the front of the seat is too high, it makes it difficult, if not impossible for the sit bones to provide support.
Conversely, if the saddle is too far down in the front your sit bones can support you, but you’ll be sliding forward and subsequently applying too much pressure on your hands.
Use a clipboard and a digital inclinometer (or smartphone level app) to determine saddle tilt. Write it down! Make sure your bike is level, and if not take in to account the fact that it’s not. Now try moving things around to see what provides the most support, structurally speaking.
Most saddles fall in to a 0-6 degree range, with positive (nose up) numbers rarely a possibility. Yes, it’s a bit of an arbitrary number, but I find it prevents extremes for new riders, which isn’t uncommon.
Now, you’re all set.
After adjustments have been made, if you still haven’t found true comfort, keep moving things around. Don’t forget to document your changes, and how your body has responded.
If you’re not finding comfort within a few centimeters of your starting point, it’s likely time to head to your local bike shop to investigate your seat shape and width.
Following the instruction above provides only a good starting point for setting your bike saddle up correctly. The way you move on the bike, what your lifestyle is like off the bike, and what types of self-care you engage in all dictate how you sit atop and pedal a bike.
Don’t listen to what worked for your friends, listen to your body. If something aches, try something new. If things are good, document the position and leave it alone!