Ride Further, Feel Better: 4 Steps to Perfecting Your Bike’s Saddle Setup

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We look at the four simple steps to getting your bike saddle set up so that it’s comfortable, just right for your body, and allows for efficient pedalling. The four step process to setting up a bike saddle includes: Height, Nose angle, Position fore/aft, Side-to-side angle. Get these right and you’ll be thinking about the ride, not the saddle. Get them wrong? Yeah, all you’ll be thinking about is the saddle and the pain in your butt.

We’ve seen already that choosing your perfect bike, from the many, many different bike options available is a challenging process involving much soul searching, deliberation, and quiet meditation in a darkened cave high up in the Andes.

Once you’ve got your new bike you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re home and dry.

Sadly, that’s not the case.

Before you head out for your inaugural bike ride you need to check that the bike is setup optimally for your unique body shape.

And one of the most critical bike components to get setup correctly (as far as your personal comfort is concerned) is the saddle.

If you’ve bought your new bike from a bike store, then the strong likelihood is that they’ll have set this up for you.

However, if you’ve bought from an online retailer, or you’ve picked up a secondhand bike, then it’s important to adjust the saddle to your liking.

Let’s take a look at the process for getting this done so you can get cycling.

Step-by-Step Guide to Saddle Adjustment

Before we dive into the process, let’s take a moment to consider WHY it’s so important to get your bike’s saddle adjusted correctly before you use it.

If you think that having the perfect saddle setup is only relevant to competitive cyclists looking to shave another 0.0001 of a second of their personal best times…then think again.

The reality is that a poorly adjusted saddle can lead to discomfort, inefficiency, and potential injury whether you’re a pro cyclist competing in the Tour de France, a long-distance bike tour adventurer, or just a regular girl or guy who likes to do a few park rides and maybe hit the trails now and again.

So, let’s go through the four steps, step-by-step. We’ll discuss the tools needed for each, the problems with having that step setup incorrectly, and the solution so that you can it adjusted just right for you.

Setting the Correct Saddle Height

saddle height adjustment

Tools required:

  • Nothing (if your bike has a quick-release seatpost clamp)
  • M5 (5mm) Hex key (if your bike has a bolt seatpost clamp)

Saddle height problems:

Most bike owners tend to think that the height is the only option possible on a saddle. As we’ll see shortly, this is not the case.

That said, saddle height can have a big impact on the comfort and fit of a bike.

In general, you’re looking for a saddle height which allows you to sit on the saddle with your ischial tuberosity (i.e. your ‘sit bones’) placed squarely on the rear pads of the saddle. In this position, you’re knee should have a slight bend when you’re pedalling and that foot is at the lowest point in the pedal’s revolution.

If your saddle is too high, you’ll find that your feet won’t quite be able to reach the pedals at their lowest point. In order to compensate, your hips will have have to seesaw side-to-side in order to drop your feet a little further to hit the pedals. This can be uncomfortable on your legs and backside.

If your saddle is too low, your knees will still be bent lots at the bottom of the pedal stroke. As you get power from the push of your legs, you won’t be able to deliver maximum push to the pedals. This can get real tiring real fast. Imagine cycling around on a little kids bike for any length of time and you’ll get an idea of how this would feel.

Solution:

There are a whole host of methods for getting your saddle height correct:

The 109% Formula. The Pruitt Method. The LeMond Method.

These are all fairly complicated and can often lead to different recommended heights.

What we need is an easy rule-of-thumb that will allow you to easily gauge whether your saddle is correctly set.

Enter the ‘Heel-to-pedal Method’:

  1. Put your regular cycling shoes on and get on the bike for an easy pedal
  2. Place your HEELS on the pedals (not the toes/ball of the feet as normal)
  3. As you pedal note whether your hips are rocking side-to-side
  4. If your hips are rocking your saddle is too high and needs lowering
  5. If your hips aren’t rocking your saddle is either perfect or (more likely) too low
  6. To make adjustments to the height, loosen the quick-release or hex bolt on the seatpost clamp and raise/lower the post, before re-tightening the seatpost clamp
  7. Try riding the bike again with your heels on the pedals and check if your hips are rocking
  8. Adjust the saddle height until your hips JUST stop rocking
  9. Now, with your toes/balls of the feet on the pedals, try pedalling and check that your knees have a slight bend only at the bottom of each pedal stroke

Note: it’s best to make very small adjustments to the saddle height each time e.g. 1/2″ or 10mm

Adjusting the Saddle Angle (Nose Tilt)

saddle nose tilt

Tools required:

  • Hex key (size required varies by manufacturer so it’s best to have a full set of Metric sizes)

Saddle angle problems:

The saddle angle refers to the overall slope of the upper surface of the saddle.

You can gauge the starting angle by placing a large hardback book on the top of the saddle (this flattens out any bumps and dips in the surface).

Place a spirit level on top and you can see whether the saddle is tilted nose-up or nose-down.

Problems can be caused when the saddle is too steep an angle for your body, either one way or the other.

If the saddle nose is too high up, you may feel as though you are constantly slipping back towards the back wheel.

The bigger problem with this too-high saddle nose is that it can cause pain and/or numbness to the perineum (the line that goes from the back of the genitals to the anus) and potentially additional issues including loss of bladder control and erectile dysfunction.

On the other hand, if the saddle nose is too low, then you can constantly feel as though you’re slipping forwards towards the handlebars.

Clearly, saddle angle is important to get right.

So, how do we achieve that?

Solution:

We’ve seen how to determine the current angle of your saddle, using a large hardback book and a spirit level.

The best start point is to set the saddle angle between 0-5 degrees. This means either perfectly level or with up to a very slight downwards tilt at the nose.

There are two hex bolts on the underside of the saddle attached to the seatpost. These adjust the saddle angle.

If you crouch down next to your bike, you’ll see that there’s a front bolt and a rear bolt:

  • Loosening the rear bolt and tightening the front bolt DROPS the nose
  • Loosening the front bolt and tightening the rear bolt RAISES the nose

So, use the following process to find the correct saddle angle for you:

  • Bring the saddle angle to 0 degrees (totally flat) using hex wrenches to adjust the bolts and checking with the book/spirit level
  • Take the bike for a test ride and see how it feels: are you slipping forwards or backwards? Do you feel the pressure on your sit bones (good) or your perineum (bad)
  • Adjust the downwards nose tilt by 1 degree at a time (or as close as you can!) by adjusting the bolts until it feels just right

Note: 1 degree is a very small amount, so you need to make correspondingly small adjustments to the bolts. As a general rule, I turn each bolt a quarter-turn, then re-check the saddle by going for a short ride. Keep going with the quarter-turns and ride checks until you’ve got it bang on.

Adjusting the Fore/Aft Position

saddle fore/aft position

Tools required:

  • Hex key (size required varies by manufacturer so it’s best to have a full set of Metric sizes)

Fore/Aft position problems:

Saddle height and nose tilt have the biggest impact on feel of the saddle and, therefore, on your comfort and ability to transfer maximum power to the pedals.

The fore/aft position (and side-to-side position, as we’ll see in a moment) have less of an effect but are still important to get right.

So, what is the fore/aft position and what effect does it have on your cycling?

Most saddles are are attached to the seatpost with two parallel rails the go front to back on the saddle underside.

Fore/aft refers to the distance to which the saddle is slid forwards or backwards along the rails.

A neutral position is one where the saddle is positioned so that it is fixed at the center point of the twin rails.

If the saddle is too far aft (i.e. too far back) you will feel as if you are having to stretch a long way forwards to reach the handlebars.

This can put undue stress on the hands, wrists and forearms. It can also put significant pressure on the perineal nerve (i.e. the perineum) with the problems that that can lead to.

If the saddle is too far forwards, it may feel like you are being forced into a more upright body position than you would like – which would also have an impact on your aerodynamics.

How do we fix this?

Solution:

The fore/aft fixing is the same one that sets the nose tilt angle.

As we’ve seen this is typically a pair of hex bolts, one at the front and one at the rear.

We address the fore/aft position at the same time as the nose tilt angle then.

Best practice is to start with the neutral position (i.e. mid-point on the twin fixing rails).

Check whether this feels good on your wrists, etc when you’re doing the nose tilt adjustments and make micro changes as you do that until you get it the way that feels most comfortable.

Note: initially, you may need to undo the twin fixing bolts a larger number of turns in order to loosen the saddle rails. Make a note of the number of turns so that you can tighten the bolts back up again to the same nose tilt angle when you’ve adjusted the fore/aft position.

Adjusting the side-to-side angle

saddle side to side position

Tools:

  • Nothing (if your bike has a quick-release seatpost clamp)
  • M5 (5mm) Hex key (if your bike has a bolt seatpost clamp)

Side-to-side angle problems:

The side-to-side angle is the degree to which the line of the saddle is inline with the crossbar.

We adjust the side-to-side angle with the same fixing (i.e. the seatpost clamp) as we use to make adjustments to the saddle height.

It may not seem as if it would have a big impact, other than possibly giving a bruise on your inner thigh from the saddle nose. But, a swing to one side or the other can throw your weight off to one side. This can lead to pain in your hip on that side, plus potential knee issues.

What’s the answer then?

Solution:

The answer to this problem is to ensure that the saddle side-to-side angle is set to fully neutral i.e. following the exact line of your crossbar.

When re-tightening the seatpost clamp after adjusting the saddle height, always have a check before fully tightening to make sure that the saddle is in line with the crossbar.

READ THIS NEXT Simple Guide to Choosing the Right Seatpost Clamp (Plus Size Chart)

Final thoughts: Fine-Tuning and Other Bikes

Getting your saddle position exactly right is what’s known as an iterative process.

Basically, you won’t get it right first time.

The point is to set it to a neutral position, go for a quick pedal to check how it feels.

Then hop off, make micro adjustments to the four parameters, and go for another cycle.

Repeat until it feels just right.

Bear in mind to that these instructions are for ‘regular bikes’, hybrids, road bikes and other bikes that are going to be used on road, pavement or light-duty trails.

Mountain bike saddles are set up differently in terms of height.

  • For flat trails and ascents, the saddle will be set to ‘road bike’ height
  • For steep descents on rough trails, the saddle will be dropped right down

This dropping the saddle allows for the rider’s knees to be used as shock absorbers…without running the risk of getting hit on the butt when the rear wheel goes over large obstacles on the trail.

Bolt style seatpost clamps are a great way of deterring petty thieves (unless they go around armed with a set of hex keys). But they’re not great for quickly dropping a seatpost at the top of a trail.

For that reason, many mountain bikes come equipped with quick-release (QR) seatpost clamps or, on premium MTBs, a dropper post with handlebar mounted trigger.

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