Posted On:
Tuesday, March 26, 2024
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Coach Tip Tuesday: Don't Pull Up on Your Bicycle Pedals

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“Push down, pull up.”

This four-word cue has been passed down to cyclists all over the world from many, many coaches.  At face value, it makes sense, especially for riders who are using clipless cycling shoes and pedals.  (Very confusingly, the term “clipless” refers to a cycling cleat/shoe/pedal combination that allows you to “clip-in” to the pedals.  If you’re familiar with downhill skiing, the principle is the same as clipping into skis with boots and binding.)  Pushing down with one leg while actively pulling up with the other is going to actively engage both legs and make you a stronger, better, and more efficient cyclist, right?


Something has always felt off to me about this advice, even back when I was a new athlete and long before I even considered becoming a coach.  Even though I hadn’t studied anything at all about cycling or pedaling mechanics, something felt glitchy and wrong to me about the prospect of trying to simultaneously push down on one pedal while trying to pull up on the other.

After I became a coach and started studying biomechanics and physiology, I learned that the science and data backs up my gut feeling on this.  So while the advice to “push down, pull up” is certainly well-intentioned from the people who impart it on others, it is poor advice because it doesn’t actually help athletes pedal more efficiently or with more economy.

The Basics of Cycling Pedaling Mechanics

To understand why it’s best not to pull up on your bicycle pedals, you must first understand the basics of cycling pedaling mechanics, which starts with the cycling pedal stroke.  The pedal stroke is the action of turning the pedals to move the bicycle forward.  It is broken down into four phases:

  • Downstroke
  • Backstroke
  • Upstroke
  • Overstroke


The Downstroke starts at the top of the pedal stroke (0 degrees or 12 o’clock) and moves toward the bottom of the pedal stroke (180 degrees or 6 o’clock).  During the Downstroke, power is released by one leg; the power released is a combination of muscular, inertial, and gravitational power.  At the very top of the Downstroke, the hip and the knee are flexed (meaning that both the hip and the knee are bent) and the ankle is dorsiflexed (meaning that the foot is bent or angled up).

In the early part of the Downstroke (between 0 and 90 degrees or between 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock), the goal is to push down and forward simultaneously.  The gluteus maximus and the hamstrings are the prime movers; they initiate the downward push by extending the hip.  (Prime movers are also known as Agonists and they are the major force producers for a particular joint action or movement.)  Then, the quadriceps all contract to initiate the extension of the knee, and this assists in bringing the foot forward.  The plantar flexors of the ankle will start to push downward on the pedal.  The anterior tibialis (which runs from the outside of the shinbone near the knee around the front of the shin down to the inside of the foot) counterbalances the plantar flexors while the ankle is in a neutral position driving the heel to the ground. 

In the later part of the Downstroke (between 90 and 180 degrees or between 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock), the quadriceps and the hamstrings become the prime movers.  The quadriceps continue to extend the knee and the hamstring continues to extend the hip.  The plantar flexors increase their activity as they push down on the pedal, and they reach peak muscle activity in the 110-130 degree range (between 3 o'clock and 4 o’clock) as the cyclist tries to push the foot to the ground.  At the bottom of the pedal stroke, the knee should remain slightly flexed or bent (about 10-15 degrees); the knee should never be fully extended.


The Backstroke takes place between 135 degrees (halfway between 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock) and 225 degrees (halfway between 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock) and is a transition phase between the Upstroke and the Downstroke.  In this phase, you are “dragging” your foot across the bottom of the pedal stroke.

Once the leg and foot are past the bottom of the pedal stroke (180 degrees or 6 o’clock), the hamstrings activate, which causes the hip to go into further extension and the knee to begin to flex.  The anterior tibialis concentrically contracts, which causes the ankle to go into dorsiflexion.  In a concentric contraction, a muscle’s tension rises to meet the resistance that is being imposed on it and the muscle shortens while it is generating the force to meet and overcome that resistance.


The Upstroke is the movement from the bottom of the pedal stroke to the top of the pedal stroke; it takes place starting at 180 degrees (6 o'clock) and continues to 360 degrees (12 o’clock).  During the Upstroke, power is absorbed by one leg; the power absorbed is a combination of muscular, inertial, and gravitational power (this is the opposite of the power that is released in the Downstroke).  During this phase, the hip and knee begin to flex, and the heel begins to rise while the cyclist is seeking to pull the hip and foot to the top of the pedal stroke.

From 180 degrees until 270 degrees (from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock), the hamstrings are the prime movers, and they are extending the hip and flexing the knee.  The soleus and gastrocnemius (more commonly known as the calf muscles) lift the heel by plantarflexing the ankle.

From 270 degrees until 360 degrees (from 9 o’clock until 12 o’clock), the iliopsoas (which is a deep muscle that connects the spine to the lower limbs), the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps muscles), and the sartorius (which connects the hip and knee joints) - collectively commonly referred to as the hip flexors - all work together to initiate hip flexion.  (Fun Fact: The sartorius is the longest muscle in the human body!)  The anterior tibialis is dorsiflexing the ankle, and the cyclist is seeking to lift the foot over the top of the stroke.  As they do this, the heel is slightly higher than the bottom of the foot as the entire foot comes over the top of the pedal stroke.  By the top of the pedal stroke, the ankle is almost neutral.


The purpose of the Overstroke is to get the foot over the top of the pedal stroke and to begin the Downstroke.  The Overstroke begins around 315 degrees (between 10 o'clock and 11 o’clock) and ends past 360 degrees (12 o’clock).

As the foot crosses the top, the hamstrings and gluteus maximus initiate hip extension into the Downstroke.  At this point, the cyclist drops their heel to transition into the Downstroke.  The iliopsoas, the rectus femoris, and the sartorius (the hip flexors) continue to flex the hip.  The anterior tibialis continues to provide dorsiflexion of the ankle until the top of the pedal stroke at 360 degrees (12 o’clock).

Putting it All Together

This overview of the pedal stroke happens in both legs, but the phases happening in each leg are opposite of each other.  So, for instance, if the right leg is in the Downstroke, the left leg is in the Upstroke.  If the right leg is in the Backstroke, the left leg is in the Overstroke.

If the right leg is in the Downstroke, you do not want to push down at all on the left leg (which is in the Upstroke) because this would cause a counterforce to the right leg as it is going through the Downstroke.  The legs are connected to each other throughout the pedal stroke by the bicycle itself; specifically, the two legs are connected via the pedals, crank arms, and the bottom bracket.  

The crank arms are the levers that your pedals are attached to; collectively they are called a crankset.  The bottom bracket connects the crank arms to the bicycle and allows them to rotate freely; the force applied to the crankset via the pedals is what allows this rotation to happen.  In this example, the left leg is effectively using the forces generated by the right leg in the Downstroke to “ride” through the Upstroke.  In many ways, the Upstroke is a passive phase of the pedal stroke (it is much more passive than the Downstroke).  As one leg is releasing power (the right leg in this example) in the Downstroke, the other leg (the left leg) is absorbing it through the Upstroke.

Work With, Not Against (aka Work Smarter, Not Harder)

As paradoxical as it may seem initially, these counterforces throughout the pedal stroke are exactly why it’s not wise to pull up on your bicycle pedals.  At face value, it seems like pulling up on your pedal through the Upstroke would help assist these physics and mechanical factors.  Honestly, when considered strictly from a mechanical perspective, this is actually correct.  Pulling up on the pedal does increase mechanical effectiveness.  However, that mechanical effectiveness comes at the cost of efficiency, and efficiency loss is greater than the mechanical gain.  In other words, this juice isn’t worth the squeeze; pulling up on your pedals hurts you more than it helps you.

If you actively pull up on your bicycle pedals during one leg’s upstroke, you are working against the physics forces already in play throughout the entirety of the pedal stroke, and as a result, you are using more energy, which means that you are less efficient.  Less efficiency means overall lower economy (“economy” in this instance is defined as the balance between the force produced and the energy used to generate that force).  All of this means that pulling up on your pedals is more costly than if you don’t; if you just “ride” the Upstroke and let your Downstroke leg be active and do the work, you will be more efficient and economical.  You want to work with the mechanics and the machine of the bicycle to generate power and speed in the most economical way, not against it.

Because cyclists are completing an average of 80 pedal strokes per leg per minute, considering efficiency is incredibly important.  Over the course of an hour-long ride, the average cyclist is going to complete at least 5,400 pedal strokes in each leg.  Rather than pulling up on their bicycle pedals, cyclists seeking to increase their speed and power should instead focus on reducing the amount of power that is absorbed in the Upstroke by developing the ability to generate more power through the Downstroke.  This leads to greater economy over time, which is a desired adaptation and outcome over the long-term.

Finally, pulling up on the pedals in the Upstroke overuses muscles that are not intended to be used at this phase of the pedal cycle.  While this does cause the loss of economy we just discussed, it also causes premature fatigue in the muscles that are being utilized to perform this pulling up action, which can lead to several negative impacts. The most significant impact is that it increases the risk of injury.  When we use muscles to perform an action that they are not actually intended to be the prime movers of, it overloads them and greatly increases injury risk.  (Remember, managing load vs. capacity is critical, and mismanaging load vs. capacity is what leads to overuse injuries.) 

Additionally, premature muscular fatigue causes decreases in performance over the course of a ride.  For triathletes, this impact is even greater than it is for cyclists, as this overuse not only impacts their bike leg performance, but their run leg performance.  This is because imposing this unnecessary muscular fatigue on the bike causes triathletes to start off the run leg of a triathlon in an even more muscularly fatigued state than they should be.  This snowballs into accumulated fatigue being imposed more rapidly over the course of the run, which in turn leads to decreased performance on the run.

Clipless vs. Flat Pedals

As you can probably surmise, it is impossible to pull up on your bicycle pedals if you are riding with flat pedals.  Pulling up on the pedal is only possible if you have clipless pedals or pedal cages because you need an interface that connects you to the pedal if you are going to be able to pull up on it.  

For the Love of Clipless Pedals
Alignment of the pedal spindle in relation to the first and fifth metatarsal heads.

There are a lot of things to love about clipless pedals.  The most important thing that a clipless pedal system does (when set up properly as part of a good Bike Fit) is to keep the foot in an ideal position over the pedal spindle.  The pedal spindle is the part of the pedal that connects to the crank arm; the pedal body (the part of the pedal that you actually press on) rotates around the pedal spindle.  Ideally, the foot should be aligned over the pedal spindle so that the pedal spindle bisects the first and fifth metatarsal heads.  The metatarsals are the long bones in your feet.  The heads of the metatarsals are the “top” of these bones, near where your toe bones begin; together with the toe bones (called phalanges), they form the metatarsophalangeal joint, or the joint there you can flex and extend your toes).  Ensuring that this alignment is optimal and consistent means that more of your force and power is applied directly and you waste less energy and force controlling your foot’s position on the pedal.

Despite what many cyclists think, clipless pedals do not exist so that riders can pull up on one pedal while pushing down on the other.  And perhaps to the chagrin of all of the people who love clipless pedals, cyclists who ride flat pedals can have better pedaling economy than cyclists who ride clipless pedals.  Yes, contrary to popular belief, flat pedals are not just for kids and hipsters; they are appropriate for all cyclists and all ability levels.  Yes, even for athletes riding - gasp of shock! - aerodynamic triathlon bikes.  This improved economy comes from the fact that a flat pedal requires the rider to focus on that Downstroke drive that we were discussing earlier; as they focus on that, they reduce the force that is absorbed by the Upstroke leg.

Advantages of Flat Pedals

No matter how stiff the cycling shoe is, the cleat in a clipless system will always be smaller than the width and length of the shoe and of the pedal; it has to be.  This means that it cannot fully span the full width and the full longitudinal arch of the foot.  (The longitudinal arch of the foot is the distance between the ball of the foot and the heel.)  Since a flat pedal has more surface area that can be in direct contact with the foot, it can span the width of the foot and encompass a greater percentage of a rider’s longitudinal arch.  All of this means that there is a more even distribution of pressure through the triangle of the foot. 

If you’ve ever squatted, you have heard of this concept, as the principle is the same.  In order to both squat properly and get the maximum power out of your squat, you need to anchor your squat through your foot by applying pressure on the first metatarsal head (the ball of the toe), the fifth metatarsal head (the pinky toe joint), and the heel.  These three points make up the triangle of the foot.  

To get maximum power through your pedal stroke, you need to anchor your foot through this same triangle on the pedal of the bike.  Since the pedal spindle bisects the first and fifth metatarsal heads in a clipless pedal system, it is impossible to put the proper amount of pressure through the heel; the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles (the calf muscles) end up activating to stabilize the foot instead.  Since a flat pedal system does allow for the heel to be anchored without using the calf muscles for bracing, it can allow riders to be more economical in their pedaling and - perhaps surprisingly - get more power out of their pedal stroke.

For all these reasons, it’s a good practice to mimic flat pedal riding mechanics when we are riding clipless pedal systems.  Most importantly, this includes acting like it’s impossible to pull up on the pedals, as it is with flat pedals.  Over time, this leads to greater economy and better riding habits.

The Bottom Line

While you may have heard it many times over from many different, well-intentioned coaches, don’t pull up on your bicycle pedals.  In addition to reinforcing poor pedaling mechanics, pulling up on your pedals leads to less efficiency and overall economy in your cycling, which hurts your performance.  Instead, focus on driving through the leg that is pushing through the Downstroke so you can increase your force and power production - which will lead to speed gains - over time.


Coyle, E. F. et al., “Physiological and biomechanical factors associated with elite endurance cycling performance

Edwards, Lindsay M. et al., “Whole-body efficiency is negatively correlated with minimum torque per duty cycle in trained cyclists

Korff, Thomas et al., “Effect of Pedaling Technique on Mechanical Effectiveness and Efficiency in Cyclists

Bike Fit 2nd Edition: Optimize Your Bike Position for High Performance and Injury Avoidance by Phil Burt

Training and Racing with a Power Meter: Third Edition by Hunter Allen + Andrew Coggan, PhD + Stephen McGregor, PhD


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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