Why Are Bike Seats So Small: And how to make them more comfortable


Many new cyclists wonder why on earth in the 21st-century bike saddles are still so uncomfortable. Just by looking at the saddle, most people realize that the main culprit is the size of the saddle itself, and so there are many people who wonder why they are so small and narrow? I thought I’d take some time to explain why bike saddles are made in the way they are, with a particular focus on why bike seats are so small.

Bike saddles are designed to be small enough that the majority of your weight is put onto your sitting bones. This puts you into a flatter position, making pedaling more efficient, limiting chafing, and improving your control over the bike. Narrow seats also improve circulation while cycling and reduce bike weight.

So, we’ve established that there are many benefits to a smaller bike seat, but why does a narrow bike seat actually do this? Through the rest of this article, I’ll look into this in more detail, as well as look into the advantages of using a wider bike seat, and other ways to make your saddle more comfortable.

Why are bike seats so small?

Bike saddles are very narrow, with the average male saddle being 12cm wide and the average female saddle being 13cm. Initially, this may seem far too narrow to be comfortable, but when you look into a little more detail, you realize why this is the case.

First of all, we need to clarify that bike saddles are not designed to work in the same way as a dining chair or sofa seat. This is because as you cycle, you do not sit in the same upright position, but instead, you are trying to get into a “flatter” position where your legs are able to push the pedals in the most efficient way.

So why does this mean a bike saddle has to be so narrow? Well, that comes down to the way our bodies “sit down”.

The sitting bones

As we sit down, the main bones we put our weight on are called our sitting bones. These are made up of 2 bones called your left and right ischium and 1 called your pubis. However, the majority of your weight actually sits on 2 specific areas called your right and left ischial tuberosities.

Bicycle seats are designed with the left and right ischial tuberosities in mind (I’m going to call them sitting bones from now on), matching the size between these two areas so it fits in between them.

In fact, when you go for a formal bike fitting, you actually sit on a gel pad that marks out these two areas, and then they pick a saddle that best fits this gap. But why do they get designed this way?

What are the advantages of a narrow saddle?

First of all, saddles are not designed to carry your whole body weight, only part of it. On a bike, the 3 main areas that carry your weight are both pedals and the saddle, with the saddle designed to be carrying the least weight of all three. This narrow design helps to position you in such a way that the pedals can take on the most weight as you cycle.

Efficient cycling position

On top of this, we’ve already established that the position that the narrow saddle puts you in is more efficient for cycling, allowing the power you put out through your legs to be most effectively put into the pedals and thus turn the wheels. Especially when it comes to road bikes and racing, the narrow seat allows you to get into very “aggressive riding positions” that can be very fast.

Reduces chafing

In general, narrow saddles are also better at limiting chafing, saddle sore, or nerve damage as you cycle. It sounds counterintuitive but a larger saddle causes your weight to be shifted from the sitting bones, onto areas of soft tissue (such as fat, nerves, or veins) which are less well designed to carry our weight.

More control over the bike

A narrow saddle also helps to give you more lateral control over the bike. Imagine trying to lean a bike to the side with a very wide saddle between your legs – The saddle will hit the inside of your legs before it can lean far enough. When cycling at high speeds, riders have to “lean” into the corners to help them keep their balance while maintaining their speed, narrow saddles are better for this.

Improves circulation

As well as this, a narrow saddle also allows better circulation of the air around your legs, but also blood around your bottom area. This helps to regular your temperature around the saddle area and can help to supply your muscles with the energy you use for cycling.

Reduces the weight of the bike

Finally, while it may seem negligible, many cyclists really prioritize a low weight for their bikes, a smaller and narrow saddle is going to weigh less than a larger one.

What are the disadvantages of a narrow saddle?

Really the main disadvantage of a narrow saddle is the reason you are probably looking at this article in the first place. Narrow saddles are generally more uncomfortable, especially when you first start using them.

Saddles can actually be too narrow in some cases. If this is the case the sit bones will hang over the sides, and the soft tissues that lie between the sitting bones will have to bear the extra weight. Causing similar problems to a wide saddle.

Is a bigger bike seat better?

So, we’ve seen all the advantages of a narrow bike saddle, but is a bigger bike seat ever better?

The advantages of a bigger bike seat

In reality, there are a few key advantages to a wider saddle, however, these will not be beneficial for everyone.

First of all, a wider saddle is better suited for a bike that sits you in more of an upright sitting position. For example a touring, leisure, or commuter bike.

As well as this, the position that a wider saddle puts you in will give more support to your pelvis than other cycling positions. For example, if you have particularly weak glutes, or are suffering with these areas in general, a wider saddle can help to support these more, putting less strain through them.

The disadvantages of a wider bike seat

While there are some advantages to cycling with a wider saddle, there are three main negatives to larger saddles that cannot be overlooked.

The first is worse chafing. Wider saddles move weight from your sitting bones onto the soft tissue areas. The saddle rubbing against these soft tissues can cause sores, sweating, rashes, irritation, or even nerve damage if the saddle rubs against one of the many nerves in the pelvis area.

The other main disadvantage of a wider saddle is that a wider saddle will limit how fast you can pedal. This makes a wider saddle worse if you care about your speed, for example, if you plan to use your bike for racing.

Finally, while it is dependent on the saddle itself, wider saddles tend to have more padding which can absorb rain and water when the bike is outside. This can make a ride home much more uncomfortable, especially if it starts soaking through into your trousers.

The more upright you are on a bike, the wider a saddle you will need for comfort. On the other hand, the further you lean forward on a bike, the narrower the saddle needs to be.

Why are bike seats so uncomfortable?

So, we’ve established that bike saddles have to be narrow, but does this mean they have to be uncomfortable? The main reason that bike seats are uncomfortable (apart from how narrow they have to be), is how hard bike saddles are.

Why are bike seats so hard?

In the same way that the softest mattress is not the best for sleeping on, the softest saddle is not the best for cycling.

A harder saddle seat can help to limit saddle soreness and chafing. The softer a seat is, the more it is able to squish into nooks and crannies around your bottom area. This means that the softer areas of the seat can cause chafing in those areas.

On top of this, the new areas of your bum that the seat may be now touching may contain nerves or blood vessels. This may result in the seat pinching these nerves or restricting blood flow to the area.

Apart from these, a firmer saddle is also better at supporting the sitting bones to hold your weight on the saddle, and better supporting areas such as your lower back as you cycle.

A harder saddle is also better at limiting heat and sweat buildup in the crotch and saddle area. Limiting overheating in these areas can again limit chafing, but also help to make your pedaling more efficient. Not only this, but the seat hardness also helps to make your overall cycling more efficient, as a harder seat absorbs less of your pedaling force, allowing more of it to be passed on directly to the pedals.

Finally, while more uncomfortable initially, a harder seat can help the skin and muscles in your saddle region to harden up more quickly, meaning that even if it is more uncomfortable at the beginning, in the long run, it may be better for you.

Are bike seats supposed to hurt?

At the end of the day, a properly adjusted saddle, when you are riding your bike regularly, and wearing suitable cycling shorts should not hurt. However, in reality, even professional or regular cyclists do experience some discomfort around the saddle area when on particularly long rides.

Many riders will also experience some pain after returning to cycling in the spring, especially if they have not been spending time cycling or using an exercise bike over winter.

How do I make my bike seat more comfortable?

So, we’ve established the reasons that a saddle is hard and narrow, but how does that help you if you find the saddle uncomfortable?

Give it time

First of all, make sure you are doing all the basics. It is important to know that when you start out cycling, it can take a little while to “break your bum in”.

Just like any part of your body, the area around your sitting bones need time to acclimatize to the new strains you are putting on them. You need to have been consistently riding for at least a few weeks before this will start to take place.

The best way to do this (especially if you are new to cycling), is to try slowly increasing the time of your rides over the course of a few weeks.

Adjust your position as you cycle

Even the most experienced cyclists will suffer from an uncomfortable saddle area on long cycles. In reality, riders often tackle this by regularly changing up their sitting position, spending some time standing up in the pedals every so often to reduce pressure on the saddle area and give it a break.

You should also look to sit in a way that puts more weight on the pedals and less through the saddle itself. The saddle is meant to carry less weight than both your pedals, so putting more weight on the pedals can help to alleviate some of the pain.

You could also look for other ways to reduce weight on the saddle area, by carrying less weight in your rucksack (if you carry one), or losing weight in general.

Improve your cycling ability and fitness

A new cyclist, or one that has had some time away (perhaps due to injury), is likely to be less fit or effective at cycling than they could be. This means that their legs are more likely to tire during their cycle, and as such their saddle area will have to start taking more of the weight than their legs do (as your legs get tired, they carry less of your weight).

This will put more weight on the saddle region than there should be and can make the saddle more uncomfortable. Again, this can be alleviated by spending more time cycling and training, but ensuring that you slowly increase the length of your rides over time.

Get some cycling shorts

Most bike saddles have been designed to be used with cycling shorts. Cycling shorts are padded shorts with padding around the sitting bones that help to make the saddle more comfortable and wick away sweat at the same time. If you don’t already own a pair of cycling shorts, this could be a great first step to making your saddle more comfortable.

If you want to take a look at bike shorts, take a look at my article on the longest-lasting bike shorts here.

Try some Chamois cream

Chamois cream is an anti-friction, anti-rub, anti-chafe cream that cyclists use around the saddle region. These creams are quite common and are often suggested to alleviate saddle sores, so you may find that these will help to make the saddle more comfortable.  

Get a saddle fitting

We’ve already mentioned it briefly, but you can also get yourself a formal saddle fitting. Here they will accurately measure the area between your sitting bones (often with a gel saddle), and then pick a saddle that is best suited to this size. Here you will be able to try upwards of 50 saddles in the space of 30 minutes and find the one that is right for you.

Get a bike fitting

Apart from ensuring that the saddle is the correct size for you. It is also important to ensure the whole bike fits you properly. An incorrectly fitting bike can put you in the wrong sitting position, moving your weight onto the wrong area of the saddle, and causing pain, even if the saddle is actually the right size.

The key areas to review when getting a bike fitting for saddle pain would be your saddle height, the angle of the saddle, your seat setback, and handlebar reach.

Get a new saddle

While this should be the last step, some people will find that their saddle is actually just the wrong size for them, and even after taking all the above steps, their saddle is still uncomfortable.

If you are looking to get a new saddle, consider a few options and make sure to get it fitted properly. You can look into getting a male or female designed saddle (which are designed to help accommodate for the differences in male and female anatomy). Some people find these more comfortable, however, others do not, so you should try these first before you buy.

Many riders are big advocates for traditional leather seats. For example, the Brooks B17 (which can be found here on Amazon) is a leather-wrapped bike saddle. Some people prefer that these seats are slightly softer than the alternatives, without losing the key advantages of a “hard” saddle. Bear in mind, they can be expensive though!

Some newer riders will suggest a soft “gel” seat such as this one you can find on amazon. However, many more experienced cyclists are strongly against using these. These gel seats often suffer from the worst features of a wide saddle (worse chafing and possible compression of your nerves as you cycle), and so suggest you do not use them.

In reality, these can be useful, but only in the very short term and for short cycles where this is less likely to be a problem. If using a gel or padded seat helps to get you back on a bike then you should consider using one. However, look to switch these out for a normal saddle as soon as possible, and again, only aim for shorter rides when using them.

Overall

As you can see, there are many reasons why a saddle is designed to be as narrow as it is. Be that to reduce chafing, to improve pedaling efficiency, or to give you more control over your bike.

However, your saddle should not be painful or uncomfortable in the long term, ensuring your bike and saddle fit you correctly, as well as taking a few steps to properly position your body on the saddle, can help to alleviate any discomfort.

if you’re looking to get back into cycling, take a look at my article here on whether or not you can forget how to ride a bike, and the best ways to get back on the saddle.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.