The Push/Pull Continuum of Cycling

The Push/Pull Continuum of Cycling

By Coach Sarah

Sometimes I experience such a big “ah-ha” moment in the world of coaching, that it sticks in my mind permanently, and it imprints how I find myself teaching certain concepts going forward.

And for most who know me, they know that I have a certain affinity for biking and all things related to making us be better/stronger/faster cyclists.  I’m about to share a super-big ah-ha moment with you all that has the potential of making you a more efficient cyclist, if I can just explain it properly!  (gulp).  So, stick with me for a bit here, and I promise I’ll explain this concept a couple of ways, as part of my ah-ha was the realization that everyone hears/learns concepts differently!

Here goes…

There is a concept with cycling that carries the trait of being both elusive yet highly effective for cyclists to grasp.  It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, and is actually limited to those riders who make use of clips and cleats as it entails using the ENTIRE circumference of the pedal stroke.   It is the concept (though perhaps a myth) of there being a constant pushing and pulling tension between both pedals.  This is “myth” in the sense that our pedals are stuck in place.  They are fixed on our crankset, so how can one put any kind of pushing or pulling tension on them?!?

But think further than the pedals themselves.  WHAT moves the pedals?   Our feet, obviously!  And what moves our feet?  Well, our legs of course.  And what moves our legs?  Our hips, our glutes, our core, our quads, our hamstrings—our muscles!  What can we control with thought and purpose?  Those very things that move our legs, and therefore our feet, and therefore our pedals—our muscles!

So here’s where my coaching “ah-ha” moment came in.   As a massage therapist, my brain naturally processes any and all actions at the muscular level.   And my coaching default is to want to teach things this way.  That’s great for some, but as I recently learned, doesn’t work for all!  (See, sometimes an old dog CAN learn new tricks!)

The ah-ha came about during my Friday morning ET CompuTrainer class last session.  One of my athletes logged something in her notes after a Friday morning CompuTrainer class that Coach Kurt was covering for me.  She logged something to the effect of, “Coach Kurt explained the pedal stroke in a way that made a ton of sense to me.”  And so I replied to her log something along the lines of, “Awesome!  What did he say?  Do you remember?  Because I want to be able to explain it that way too!”  J  (This is where my ah-ha started, that maybe all athletes do NOT grasp concepts the way I naturally tend to teach them!)  And she said, “Um, I don’t remember, but he was explaining something about the chain to Jim (rider next to her) while we did single leg drills, and it just clicked for me.”

Okay, so now I was REALLY curious, and I found myself on a mission to figure out this “other methodology” of teaching riders how to have the most efficient pedal stroke!

I’m going to move off-course a little bit here, and give my quick muscular activation concept of how to efficiently work through the pedal stroke, making full use of the push/pull continuum.  For some, this way of explaining it will make sense (i.e., those who think the same way my brain thinks!).  For others, it’ll probably sound like a lot of “blah, blah, blah”…

The Push/Pull Continuum of cycling from a muscular level:  The pedal is in constant movement.  Whatever one pedal is doing, the other pedal is doing exactly the opposite.  As one pedal is pushing forward and downward, the other pedal is pulling backward and upward.  Wherever one pedal IS in the scope of its circular rotation, the other pedal is exactly at the opposite part of the circle.  Now stick a foot onto each of those pedals via a pair of cycling shoes and cleats.  Wherever one foot IS, in relation to this big pedaling circle, the other foot is in exactly the opposite half of the circle.  This means, that from a muscular standpoint, one leg is driving one foot and pedal forward and downward, while the other leg is driving the other foot backward and upward!  If these two legs can’t play nicely together, they will actually start fighting each other, inhibiting the movement of the other, much like two squabbling siblings.

I often find myself walking over to athletes during CT, if I sense their legs “fighting each other,” and will ask, “Which leg were you just thinking about, out of curiosity.  Or were you thinking about both legs working together?”  And inevitably the answer will usually be that they were focusing on one leg.  And from appearance sake, that was indeed the leg that “looked” like it was working harder.  So here is the part where I think about this from a muscular level:  When one leg is pushing the pedal forward and downward, it is concentrically firing its glutes and quad muscles to OPEN the knee and hip up on that leg.  (Other muscles are helping here too, but those are the main players.)  Meanwhile, the other leg is sweeping the pedal backward and upward, using primarily the hamstrings and hip flexors to make this happen.

Essentially we are patting our heads and rubbing our bellies at the same time.  (Or walking and chewing gum at the same time.)  Point being, we are doing two very opposite things at the same time, in this case the right leg doing exactly the opposite as the left leg, at any given moment in time while pedaling a bike.  When it becomes possible for a cyclist to grasp the sensation of both legs doing different things, at the same time, and to actually MAKE these things happen by purposefully firing these muscles, it instantly gains that rider more power (“horsepower”, or watts) in their pedal stroke via having a more forceful downstroke and engaged upstroke.  It also instantly lends towards smoothing out the entire pedal stroke, allowing the rider greater pedal efficiency, which also leads to more power with less long-term cost to the muscles.

I like to give the image of a “see-saw” to riders, encouraging them to think about one leg pushing down (forward) while the other is pulling up (back), via the image of a diagonal see-saw.    When a rider can engage their core muscles at the same time, it allows for both legs to do opposing actions WHILE HELPING EACH OTHER OUT (versus fighting each other)!

SO!  My go-to with this concept has always been muscular in nature!   I mean, it makes sense to me….so wouldn’t it just naturally make sense to everyone else?!?

Um, no.  Apparently not!  J  And here is the ah-ha moment to my coaching, that I’m tying into this article as I’m pretty sure not everyone reading this will think the way I think.  That Friday in CompuTrainer, I finally got to the bottom of what methodology Coach Kurt was using to explain an efficient pedal stroke to riders…the methodology that made sense to both my athlete and the guy riding next to her.  Which means it’ll most likely make sense to other people too.  For those who think at the BIKE level, as in the bike itself, think of the chain, and keeping a constant state of tension on it!  By thinking about the tension on the chain, regardless of where your foot is throughout the pedal stroke, you will naturally be heading in the direction of a more efficient pedal stroke. 

Best way to test this?  Single Leg Drills.  Especially in your small ring, with an easy gear.  I coach these drills, surprise surprise, from a muscular engagement standpoint.  But using this other approach, if you do a set of Single Leg Drills and focus on keeping perfect tension on your chain, it’ll naturally make your muscles do what they are supposed to.   Switch between gears while doing these Single Leg Drills.  With every gear change, the chain takes on more slack or less slack…and by focusing on keeping that tension constant, your muscles will follow along as they ought to.

So the quick summary here is this:

  • An ideal pedal stroke indeed has both legs working together, versus fighting each other.  The muscles of each leg need to learn their actions at any given part of the pedal stroke to be efficient, alone.  Put the other leg into the equation, and now these two legs must learn to play nicely, and work together while doing opposing things.
  • Doing Single Leg Drills in your SMALL RING allows the greatest opportunity to practice smoothing out your pedal stroke.  Use Coach Kurt’s concept of chain tension to smooth out the pedal stroke as much as possible.  By making your goal be that of “feeling” the chain tension in any given gear, and trying to respond accordingly, your muscles will naturally follow suit.
  • When you put both legs together, work on engaging your core muscles (abs and glutes especially!) so that the legs can do independent things while helping each other out!
  • Once you’ve mastered Single Leg Drills in your small ring, (“mastered” means you are smooth the entire way around the pedal stroke), add Single Leg Drills in your BIG ring to the mix.  Doing these allows you to work on actual muscular strength throughout the pedal stroke—super handy when getting ready to do hard interval efforts.

One more quick thing.  Experience Triathlon has a whole battery of Sports Performance Testing available for athletes to utilize.  Click HERE to learn more about ET Testing Services.

There is one test in particular I would like to highlight as it pertains directly to our pedal stroke….and I would encourage in one quick heartbeat that anyone looking to better their cycling game consider having this test done. The test is this: Advanced Biomechanicl Pedaling Efficiency Profile.   It is positively amazing how seeing our pedal stroke on a screen in front of us while we pedal can help us become more efficient at pedaling!  There’s obviously much more to the test than that, but the general function of this test pertains exactly to what I’ve written about here.

Happy Pedaling to you all!  Looking forward to seeing many of you on the open roads once our 2017 outdoor Group Ride season commences!

Sarah Farsalas is the Director of Cycling Programs and Massage Therapy at Experience Triathlon.   She is also a certified USA Cycling coach, USA Triathlon coach and Licensed Massage Therapist.   Learn more about Coach Sarah, Experience Triathlon and Experience Massage at

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