So I know that this one might catch some flak. If so, I’ll admit that part of it is going to be my inability to articulate my points as well as I would like. Anytime I try to introduce a new concept like this I usually need a few tries to dial in what I’m trying to say and, unfortunately, a lot of that comes from seeing where I didn’t do a good enough job explaining myself in the first place.
However, this is something that I have thought about for a while so I hope I am able to communicate the gist of it. And after spending a weekend working with some riders and seeing how bad this advice can be when taken too far I think it finally needs to be said…
“Light hands and heavy feet” is at best incomplete advice and at worst something that can make it harder to maneuver your bike.
I know, I know…this is one of the Holy Grails of mountain bike skills training advice and universally taught as a key to proper body position. Hell, it’s something I’ve used myself and taught to other riders.
But before everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind, hear me out. At the heart of this isn’t that Light Hands-Heavy Feet is bad advice, just that a lot of riders are misapplying the advice. They are taking the concept too literally and that is causing them to develop bad habits that actually make it harder to maneuver their bike.
So let’s start there…what is meant by “light hands, heavy feet”? Taken literally, this would seem to mean that you want little to no weight on your hands and as much weight as possible on your feet. And considering the source of this advice this application would make sense.
Great advice for moto but not for mountain biking?
Like a lot of things taught at mountain bike skills training courses, this advice comes straight from motorcycle skills camps. This isn’t good or bad in and of itself, it just needs to be known that this advice wasn’t necessarily meant for mountain bikers or arrived at based on our experiences.
It is something that “the best motorcycle skills coaches in the world” teach and so it is assumed that it is something that we need to apply verbatim as well.
However, as I’ve pointed out before, piloting a mountain bike is not like piloting a motorcycle. While the principles for piloting a two wheeled vehicle are the same, the methods used to achieve it are going to be different based on the simple fact that you ride a motorcycle while you need to be driving a mountain bike.
On a moto it is the bigger, stronger factor in the equation. It is the driving force and you will tend to ride more on and behind it, letting it pull you through stuff.
On your mountain bike you are the bigger, stronger factor in the equation. This means that your body is the driving force. It is more like piloting skis, a skateboard or a surfboard where you need to be a little in front of the action and leading the bike through stuff.
Because of the realities of riding a pedal powered vs. engine powered vehicle on the trail, the balance points that you need to achieve on each is going to be different. Specifically, on the trail this means that you will want to have some pressure on your palms.
Now, notice that I didn’t say “weight”. There is an important distinction that I think needs to be made.
Having weight on your hands comes from one of two things. The first is leaning into the handlebars to support your torso instead of using your core to hold yourself up. You usually see this result in a bent wrist, which places too much weight on the handlebars and puts your wrists in a bad position for steering/cornering.
The second reason for having too much weight on the hands comes from death-gripping the handlebars all of the time. This usually results in excessive hand fatigue and a stiff upper body that is unable to quickly react to the trail.
Both of these habits should be addressed, but the end result shouldn’t be having no pressure at all on the hands/handlebars. There is an important difference in how the pressure is being applied and purposeful pressure is different than worthless weight.
How to use Purposeful Pressure
Purposeful pressure on your hands comes from having your palms resting on the handlebars in the right position. You should feel pressure from the webbing between your thumb and pointer finger all the way across to the outside lower edge of your palm. When you do this you ensure that your wrists are in the right position (it is impossible to get the pressure across the palm like that without your wrist being in the right position) and that you will be able to most effectively apply pressure into the handlebars when cornering.
On a side note, there is something I call the “triceps trigger point” on that lower outside edge of the palm. There is a bundle of nerves that act as a signal to the brain to recruit to the long head of the triceps. That long head crosses both the elbow and shoulder joint, making it important for upper body function and stability. If you don’t have pressure on that pressure point then your triceps won’t work as effectively, giving you yet another reason that this palm position and pressure is important.
This also means that you will have some weight on the front end to help you steer effectively. Since you don’t have a throttle and have to rely on momentum you must have more weight on the front end of your mountain bike to get it to track properly. Obviously you can have too much weight on the front end as well, but I can tell you from experience that it is hard to steer a mountain bike properly with little to no weight on the front end.
So the goal on a mountain bike is to spread your weight out on it so that most of your weight is supported by your feet while having enough weight/ pressure on the front end to steer effectively. This means that you need a little bit of weight on the front end, which means that you will end up with a little bit of pressure on the palms. To me this still follows the “light hands, heavy feet” principle but it is a more realistic application of it for mountain bikers.
Sometimes you need to put weight on your hands.
With that said, there are times that you shouldn’t be afraid to put your weight on the handlebars, i.e. your hands. Finding your neutral position in a parking lot is fine but on the trail there are times that you need to shift your weight around. Taken too far, “light hands and heavy feet” can stop you from being able to move efficiently on your bike.
For example, when standing up to pedal – especially when climbing – you want to get your center of gravity slightly in front of your bike’s center of gravity. You should have a sensation similar to running where your center of gravity is just in front of you and you are chasing it without ever catching up to it (thanks to Bruce Lee in his book Jeet Kun Do for this wonderful description of the sensation).
Note: Obviously you need to be ready and able to shift your weight back as the trail dictates, but most of the time you can get into this position without any danger of ending or losing rear wheel traction. In fact, you’d be surprised at how quickly you can transition your weight and how safe/ fun this position is once you get used to it.
My point is that when you stand up and get into this optimal standing pedaling position you will end up shifting some weight to your hands and the handlebars. If you took the “light hands and heavy feet” advice too literally then you wouldn’t allow yourself to do that and you would end up keeping your weight too far back, which would keep you from being able to tap into the true power and stability of the standing pedaling position.
You also need some weight/pressure on the handlebars when cornering. Trying to corner with no pressure on the palms while on the trail is impossible, which is why we hear about the need for “counter-pressure” when steering.
In fact, I first heard that term after a skills coach admitted that there was indeed some weight/pressure on the hands when cornering and you couldn’t apply the Light Hands-Heavy Feet advice in a literal sense. The term we settled on was counter-pressure and it now seems to be a more popular description of what you feel.
Applying it to the trail.
I personally use and teach this palm pressure as one of the gauges for upper body position. If I feel that I am getting pressure on the fingers then I know that I am getting my weight further back than what will allow for the most effective steering. If I feel too much pressure on my palms or pressure in a different place, then I know that I need to fix my upper body position and/or stop leaning on the handlebars.
The point is that a lot of riding comes down to knowing how and when to shift your weight in order to achieve the most efficient balance points on your bike. While you are mostly looking for that light pressure on the palms with heavy feet, you will have times that you need to shift your weight forward or backward. Your goal isn’t to avoid it as much as learn how and when to use it.
Taking the “Light Hands-Heavy Feet” advice too far will make it harder to get into the right position at the right time, especially if that position results in some weight/pressure on your hands. Just understand the difference between putting “worthless weight” and putting “purposeful pressure” on your hand and where you want to feel that pressure on your palms, and you’ll be able to apply this advice much more effectively on the trail.
Before I wrap up, I would like to point out that I think every good skills coach would agree with most of what I said here. While we may not agree on 100% of how to apply this concept to mountain biking, they know that there are exceptions to the Light Hands-Heavy Feet rule and they do a good job of explaining that in their camps. Like I said, things like standing pedaling and cornering are hard if not impossible to do without some pressure on the handlebars and this is usually talked about.
The problem is that a lot of riders hear or read this advice and assume that it means that any weight on the hands is bad and they develop a riding style to avoid it. You also have a lot of, shall we say, less than competent people teaching bike skills at the lower levels, and they tend to simply repeat slogans since they lack the experience needed to discern when it is all right to shift your weight forward some.
All I am trying to do is give the average rider who may not have access to a good skills coach some insight into why taking Light Hands-Heavy Feet too literally isn’t the ultimate goal. I’d also like to propose that we almost never need a true neutral position on the trail where we have no weight/pressure on the palms.
While it is a good drill to get the feel for it in a parking lot, on the trail you need to proactively have purposeful pressure on the hands to be ready to deal with the realities of maneuvering your bike on the trail. Try it for yourself and you’ll see that proper use of this concept can make a big difference in your riding.
Until next time…