Motocross: Sit or Stand? The Great Debate

Original article from

Magazine articles, internet blogs, sports broadcasting, and thousands of motocross schools across the country have littered the motosports community with tips and advice on proper riding technique. It’s truly an amazing time to live in as we have almost unlimited access to information that we want or need. However, the abundance of knowledge available can also cause confusion and solidify misconception due to conflicting advice.

Let’s look at the advice from MXA:

… when a rider stands on the pegs, the control point of the bike is closer to the center of gravity; the rider has more leverage, and the pivot point of the chassis is moved closer to the mass of the engine (down by the footpegs).

This is partially correct. When normally sitting on your bike your weight is more offset from the center of mass of the dirt bike which is near the footpegs. The exact distance of this offset is equal to the length of your femur. If your bike was standing perfectly straight up and down and you stood up, you would be applying all your weight directly through the center of your foot pegs, which puts your center of gravity, and that of your bikes, in alignment. Why is this significant? To optimize traction and control you want the most force possible acting through the center of your bike. Think of the way Indy cars are designed. The mass of the car is low and balanced to maintain optimal traction.

Also, as mentioned in the Motocross Action article, standing allows your legs to become a shock absorber for bumps. I believe the benefits of this are obvious as sitting would require your torso, mainly your back, to absorb the shock from bumps. Put another way, if you were going to flat land off a huge jump would you want to be in the sitting or standing position? If you guessed sitting I’m surprised your still walking!

Now we will take a look at the advice given by Gary Bailey:

…..if the track is smooth or only has small bumps, sit down, don’t stand up. If you watch riders who stand up on short straight-aways and then sit down just before the corner, you can see the rear wheel stop for a split second, sliding the rear wheel and slowing the bike while giving up a little control as well. This causes a loss of momentum.

Here Gary is presenting an argument for why sitting is better than standing by highlighting a very key element, the transition phase. During the transition phase, going from the standing to sitting position, there is going to be a momentary lapse of momentum as you let off the brakes, squat, sit, put your leg out, and start to roll on the throttle. Although this transition is in the order of tenths to thousands of a second, it adds up corner after corner, lap after lap.

Years ago, when I was competing as an amateur, I attended a Keith Johnson MX school. He told me that the faster you can transition from the standing to sitting, putting your leg out, and getting on the throttle, the faster your corner will be. It follows that if you can by-pass the stand, to squat phase, then you will be saving yourself time and energy. This of course is only possible on smooth, or relatively bump-less tracks (As Gary points out).

Another point that Gary makes is that by staying in the sitting position you enhance your ability to set up for subsequent corners. This becomes more important when you are going faster and corners are coming up quicker. Think of road racers and flat trackers. They would simply never be able to react to corners quick enough if they were constantly going from the standing to sitting position. They must be able to transition and lean quickly which is only possible by staying in the seated position. If you’re not sold on this idea have a friend time you while you perform figure 8’s in both the standing and sitting position.

So what exactly is wrong with the arguments presented by each of these expert sources? Well it’s complicated, but I promise if you stick with this you will be a better rider for it!

Let’s dissect the advice from MXA:

Above I commented on how Motocross Action was partially correct regarding the physics of standing on a dirt bike. The problem with their physics assessment is that they analyze your center of mass and that of the bike in only 1 plane. This is fine when you and the bike are sitting perfectly perpendicular to earth but what about when your lean? When you are standing while cornering, your center of mass is no longer acting through that of the bike (in the perpendicular direction) and you’re are essentially acting as a lever. This has a negative impact on the traction and control of the bike. Going back to the indy car analogy, they keep the center of mass as low to the earth as possible so gravity does not negatively impact traction. When you stand while leaning it is analogous to putting a 6” lift on an indy car. Ever seen that?

Also, the MXA article establishes the apex (midway of the corner) as the point in the corner at which you sit. The next time you are watching professional racing on TV take note of when racers sit down. It is very rare that they are sitting at the apex. Why? Because this is SLOW! Most fast riders are already sitting leaning, leg out, and rolling on the throttle at the entrance of the corner. One of things that blew me away when I first made it to the expert level was how soon everyone was sitting and on the gas. I was standing way too late into the corner. When I reached the professional level I was astonished to see that these riders were sitting even more. Why? Because they start their arc’s to corners early and are already on the gas. They have to setup early to corner that fast.

Let’s see where Gary Bailey could have expanded:

I don’t disagree with Gary’s assessment with sitting vs. standing nor do I find inaccuracies in what he was saying but I did notice that he could have expanded on his argument for sitting. For example in the advice given below:

”…if you watch the rider who stays seated on the short straight-away, you will see that this rider can be more aggressive out of the first turn and into the next because he can now focus on charging corner to corner. Sitting maintains more traction and allows you to set up for the next corner with more ease.

Well why does sitting maintain more traction? And why does it let you set up for each corner with more ease. The first “why” directly relates to my physics analysis I presented to refute MXA’s assessment for standing. To optimize traction, you want the most force acting through your tires and into the earth. Period. It’s that simple. When you are flat tracking around a hard pack corner you are generally sitting and leaning over one side of the seat with your butt while applying pressure through your outside peg…..WHY? Because this is aligning your center of mass with that of the surface of the earth/dirt which creates the most traction. In the standing position, you are limited with how much you can lean because your inside foot is on the pegs. As a result, you cannot manipulate your body weight to one side of the bike to drive your center of gravity through the outside peg.

So what is the key take away here? Why the conflicting recommendations? There is a time and place for sitting and standing. I think a lot of novice and vet riders tend to sit too much and as a result the overwhelming majority of coaches and riding tips in media tell you to stand. However, with proper timing, technique, and track conditions its more optimal to sit and here’s why:

It’s More Economical. No, I’m not talking about managing your financial portfolio. In sports, particularly endurance sports, economy refers to how efficient you are at performing a task. The more efficient you are the less energy you use. By sitting as much as possible you are saving energy that would otherwise be consumed by standing. The better your economy, the longer you will be able to maintain a given pace.

Better Traction. Sitting allows you to manipulate your body weight about the seat to optimize traction. Furthermore, because you are sitting, you can extend your inner leg out to act as a counterweight. With proper riding technique, you squeeze the bike with your inner thighs to add stabilization. In the standing position, you can only use your knee’s to stabilize the bike. Again, you have less leverage in this position so the amount of strength applied to your bike is minimized.

Better Feedback. The more contact points you have on your bike the better you will be able to feel differences in traction and control. Sitting engages more of your bodies surface area on the bike which results in a better feel for what the bike is doing underneath you.

Faster Transition. Going back to the flat tracker and road racer analogy, can you imagine them riding faster while standing? What about if they stood in the straights and sat before the corner? They simply would not have enough time to react. The faster you go the EARLIER you must set up. Ever see people high side in corners? This is due to a lack of commitment and setting up too late i.e. the bike is not leaned enough into the corner thus the net force is projecting outward rather than inward.

Faster Corners. Closely related to #3, the faster your transition, the faster your corner will be. Faster speeds require you to set up earlier thus you must already be leaning with your leg out when the turn begins. If you wait too long to drop to the sitting position or you’re standing through the corner you will high side UNLESS you slow to a speed that balances the forces acting on you and your bike. Again, siting allows you to lean both your body and your bike more so you can take corners at faster speeds.

Still not convinced? I’m going to walk you through two turning examples, a rut and a flat corner, and breakdown the approach, entrance, apex, and the exit using the sitting and standing position.

Example 1: Shallow Rutted Left Hander

The Approach

In Figure A, the rider is already seated with his leg out with a good lean angle as he approaches the entrance to the corner. In Figure B, the rider is standing into the entrance of the corner. His lean angle is limited since both legs are on the pegs.

The Entrance

In Figure A the rider approaches the corner in a sitting position and is now committing to the entrance of the rut with a good lean angle. This is possible since his leg was already out before the corner commenced and his lean angle was already started. This angle has his bike and body perpendicular to the rut so his center of mass is acting through his tires giving him maximum traction. This allows him to maintain more speed into the entrance and allows him to get on the gas at this point. In Figure B the rider has committed to the rut but is limited with leaning because the rut will take his inside foot off the peg. Since his lean angle is limited his body must remain virtually perpendicular to the earth and not the rut. As a result, he has to slow down so he does not high side out of the rut. He is NOT able to get on the gas yet.

The Apex

In Figure A the rider has fully committed to the rut. He was on the gas at the beginning of the corner and is carrying good speed and momentum through the apex. He MUST lean to prevent high siding, and can do this because his leg is up. In figure B the rider is trying to stand through the corner. He could not accelerate at the entrance because standing limited his lean angle. To much speed at this point will cause him to high side. Now, at the apex, he can gradually and cautiously get on the gas.

The Exit

In Figure A the rider is now aggressively applying the throttle as he exits the corner. His must maintain his lean angle at this speed to keep his body weight and that of the bike acting through the tires into the rut. In figure B the rider is only lightly on the throttle and his speed is limited by his lean angle since he cannot put his leg out. Even if there was no rut to grab his foot his speed is to slow to lean as much as rider A. As a result his arc must be wider coming out of the exit otherwise he will force the front end to wash out.

I would like to point out that standing too long into a corner will produce comparable results to standing through a corner. Standing for too long into the corner limits your lean angle and you must reduce speed to prevent high siding. Also, if you are transitioning in the entrance to the sitting position then you are getting on the gas later than those who were already sitting at the entrance.

Now let’s look at a flat corner.

The Entrance

In Figure A the rider approaches the corner in the seated position as the track surface is smooth. His body is slightly leaning with his elbows up and his line of sight looking towards the apex. In Figure B the rider is standing and slightly leaning the bike by bending his knees and tilting his lower body. In this scenario the approach angel is similar between the two riders.

The Entrance

In Figure A the rider has approached the flat corner in the sitting position. His inside leg is out as a counter weight and this allows him to shift his weight to the outside peg. The force the rider is applying on the outside of the peg has put the rear wheel into a controlled slide while he lightly applies the throttle. In Figure B the rider is standing in the entrance of the corner. Since his leg is on the inside peg he cannot counter a lot of his weight to the outside peg so traction is now reduced. Therefore, he is forced to slow down to prevent his tires from washing out.

The Apex

In Figure A the rider is steady on the throttle and maintains control by keeping his elbows up and countering his weight to the outside peg. His entrance body position put him at a mechanical advantage from a traction standpoint, and as a result he is able to maintain more speed evident by the small trail of roost coming from the front tire. In Figure B the rider is slightly and steadily on the throttle. He cannot counter his weight to the outside peg since he is standing so traction and speed is limited.

The Exit

In Figure A the rider is now rolling on the gas more aggressively and the sitting position allows him to control the pitch and direction of the bike out of the exit because he has more freedom to manipulate his weight on the outside peg. In Figure B the rider is limited with his leaning and degree of weight manipulation on the outside peg since his inside leg on the peg. This lack of weight control also limits where and how the rider exits the corner. Trying to turn or lean to sharp at this point will cause the rear tire to push or the front tire to tuck.

So When is it Good to Stand?

So far I have addressed some scenarios where it is advantageous to sit, but what about standing? Below I have outlined some instances where it is more beneficial, and at times a necessity, to stand.

Downhills. The angle of your bike on downhills require that you counter the pitch with weight over the rear end of the motorcycle. The leverage you are applying over the rear end keeps traction driving down through the rear wheel and prevents your front end from sinking into holes.

Rough Sections/Whoops. This may seem obvious, but again you want to keep the front end light by applying leverage over the rear end. Sand tracks, or tracks with a lot of loam, may develop gentle sweepers with deep bumps. It’s better to take these corners standing while leaning back. This helps you stay on top of the bumps rather than sinking into them. Also, your body will take a beating if you are sitting down.

Offroad/Enduro. Offroad racing is a special scenario where I tend to be an advocate of more standing. If you are riding on tight trails where you cannot see far ahead it’s good to be in the standing position. This elevates your line of sight and prepares you for unseen obstacles such as rocks or roots. If you are on fast flowy singletrack it’s even more important to stand because even the smallest bumps will be like hitting street curbs. If you are sitting down you will likely end up crashing.

Rough Straights Leading to Corners. This is where a lot of riders need improvement, particularly beginners and vets. Lack of conditioning and experience generally drive riders to sit in large braking bumps when entering corners. As a result they must slow to a safe speed or otherwise be subjected to being tossed off the bike. I think this is really the area that coaches are trying to improve by telling riders to stand more. Standing in this scenario will allow you to maintain more speed into the corner. Once you reach the entrance you must transition very quickly in order to maintain your speed. A great example of this fast transition is the exit of whoop sections in supercross. The fastest riders will actually be transitioning to the sitting position and lean while they are in the air off the last few whoops. This prevents them from wasting precious time when they are on the ground and should already be getting on the gas.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the scenarios to sit and stand on a dirt bike. Doing so would be impossible since there is an indefinite number of variables in this sport. However, this is part of what makes motocross so challenging and so much fun. If you are struggling to understand where to sit and stand, try having a friend time you using the two different positions. Time doesn’t lie! Also, don’t overthink certain situations. Let your instincts guide you. With more riding and experience your instincts will get honed in on the most efficient lines and techniques. This is the art of motocross!

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