Does “elbows out” actually make it harder to corner your bike?

A couple of weeks ago I posted the replay from my webinar on the Top 3 MTB Skills Training Myths, and while I got a lot of great feedback on it I also know that not everyone had the time to get into and see everything I talked about.

One of the myths I talked about is something I wanted to touch on today because I think it is important that every rider knows what it is – the advice to “get your elbows out” when on your bike. This advice has resulted in an epidemic of what I call the “scarecrow posture” since riders have their elbows so far out that they look like they could be plucked off their bikes and hung in a cornfield.


The problem is that while this advice was well meaning, what it does is push riders from one compensation/ dysfunction into another one. You still don’t have what you really want, which is a stable upper back and good palm pressure into the handlebars.

The truth us that when you push your elbows too far out then you disengage your lats and create a bend in your wrists. Among other things, when this happens it makes it harder for you to corner your bike properly. This makes “elbows out” incomplete advice at best and the start of bad habits at worse.

As part of the webinar I shot a short video going over how all of this affects your ability to corner your bike. I also show you how your wrist position, upper back and palm pressure should be your focus, not the position of your elbows. Once you “feel” what I describe in this video your elbows will be where they need to be.

Just to be clear, this advice in and of itself isn’t bad. If I see someone with their elbows caved in and despite my cuing them to get their shoulder blades tucked and good palm pressure into the handlebars they still have their elbows in a bad position, I will tell them to get their “elbows out”.

The problem is that creating balanced, efficient movement is the goal and without understanding how that should feel you end up with a lot of riders trying to act out good riding form. I’ve had to tell riders with the “scarecrow posture” to get their elbows in so that they were in a better position to stabilize their upper back and apply pressure into the handlebars.

Learn how to focus on the right things and riding suddenly becomes a lot simpler and more fun. Hopefully this video will help you do that.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

p.s. For a lot of riders, getting their upper back engaged on the bike is pretty tough because they have trouble getting it engaged off of the bike. Living in a sedentary society where we sit too much also has a lot of riders fighting common dysfunctions like tight pecs and shoulders and rounded shoulder posture.

All of this makes it much harder to apply skills training advice on the trail. What you need is a plan to help you 1) move better, 2) stress proof your improved movement and 3) show you how to apply it all to the trail.

If you want to get a plan that is made specifically to help you improve your MTB specific movement, strength and skills then you should check out the 90 Day MTB Skills & Fitness Program. For just $19 you can get the only program that encompasses everything you need to see a dramatic improvement in your riding.

If a step-by-step plan like this sounds like something you could use, then click here to learn more and get your copy today.

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  1. Vinay says:

    Dear James,

    thanks for sharing this article. I’m a shade under 6ft tall and ride a 16″ DMR Switchback (same geometry as the old DMR Trailstar). Everyone told me I’d need at least an 18″ frame but I love to have my toptube low to be able to move it around when cornering. Obviously this also means the bike was going to be short. I’m tried to measure it with the forks (130mm travel) unsprung and I think reach is about 380mm or so. Short by modern standards. I run a 50mm stem and 780mm handlebars, low rise. It is probably cramped by modern standards but then again everyone is also all over these dropper posts and steep seat angles which don’t mean a thing if I can ride 2hrs hardly sitting down. I’m constantly in doubt whether I should invest in a frame with longer reach (now that they have these with a low top tube). I occasionally hit the handlebar with the kneepads when doing tight steep climbs but it actually stimulates me to twist my upper body in the proper direction and that works out great.

    But now you show a different issue in the video. I think I keep my wrists fairly straight when riding (at least for riding straight) but my lower arm probably does point up when climbing and I do pull on the handlebars. I thought it is nice actually to have the leading foot and the hands close to each, it feels efficient. A bit like riding MUni (mountain unicycle) where you grip the handle in front of the saddle to be able to push down harder on the pedals. But if you recommend to have the lower arm pointed more forwards, I think I’d need considerably longer reach there (which is available, nowadays). If it is all about the attack position when on flat or descending terrain, I probably do get it. But that’s because I keep my body low and bend my elbows somewhere between 90 and 60 degrees (I think). I don’t have them over 90 degrees for this type of riding when I have my weight centered, only when momentarily lean back.

    So in short, yeah my lower arms are probably under the proper angle unless I’m climbing steep or otherwise pedaling hard through loose terrain. Do you go with the current trend of longer and longer reach to also get my lower arms under the proper angle there or do you simply say that if it feels strong and controlled then it probably is?

    I still need to send you an e-mail as a thank you as I bought two pairs of your catalyst pedals when in pre-order. The blue pair matches the Kris Holm mountain unicycle perfectly (I hope you approve), the red pair matches all the small red details on the mostly dark green DMR mountainbike. More importantly, they work great. I’m coming from pretty concave platforms and I wasn’t expecting so much grip from such flat pedals (no concave). I think they indeed work better with the 5.10 Freerider shoes but I still use them mostly with the 5.10 Impact (low) shoes. Simply because when the Freeriders are soaked, they’re soaked for a week. That doesn’t take anything away from these pedals, they’re great!

    Reply • June 27 at 3:42 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I like a tight cockpit myself and ride a medium frame with a 50 mm stem myself. In general, the longer the top tube and/ or stem is the harder it is to really get your butt behind the seat. I think you can achieve the same elbow position with either set up, it comes down more to how your weight is spread out over your bike. Having your wrists straight is something you should shoot for with every set up but some set ups – like a tight cockpit with a short stem IMO – are better for trail riding.

      And glad you like the Catalyst Pedals and thanks a lot for your support, they wouldn’t have become a reality without the support of riders like you.

      Reply • July 4 at 10:51 am
      • Vinay says:

        Thanks James, interesting to see you’re going against the current trend of longer cockpits. I guess I can then happily stick with my current frame and maybe invest in some slimmer kneepads (currently still using these old 661 Tomcat kneepads). Of course the compact bike is easier to upset when you’re a bit off but then again it is also easier to move about on steeper sections and tighter corners.

        Reply • July 18 at 5:20 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          Yeah, I’ll trade agility for stability in the bike and just work on being more stable myself!

          Reply • July 19 at 3:34 pm
  2. Mike says:

    Hey James,

    I have a question regarding your comments about engaging your upper back… What are your thoughts when it comes to handlebar sweep? Do you feel the standard 9 degrees on most handlebars is sufficient for everyone, or do you think some people wound benefit by having more degrees of sweep?

    Out of my own curiosity, I improvised a fixture in my garage that would help me experiment with handlebar sweep. I have a couple of protractors that have an adjustable arm on them. I zip tied some thick wooden dowels to the arms, and then clamped the bases of the protractors to the top edge of my workbench, in a way that similated the width of the handlebar on my bike.

    I then set the protractors to 9 degrees to match the sweep of the current handlebar on my bike. By leaning over and grabbing the dowels in both hands, I was able to duplicate the same feeling that I have on my bike. But when I began pulling the dowels back toward me to increase the angle of the sweep, the more I could feel my lats engaging. The protractors rotate very easily, so there was no force in the equation. It was simply the angle of my hands that was making all the difference.

    With 16 to 17 degrees of sweep, I could feel a noticable difference in my lats, and around 22 to 23 degrees I could really feel it. My shoulders and my upper back felt really well supported.

    So what do you think? Am I on to something here, or do you think I’m compensating for a dysfunction? I’m no stranger to your programs. I have been following them for years. I also do a lot of stretching, foam rolling, and dynamic flows. I feel as though my functional mobility is pretty good, but after my trail rides I’m always dealing with knots in my shoulder blade area, as well as in my upper back.

    Reply • July 7 at 7:00 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’ve thought about that myself but the problem you run into is the more sweep you have the more your wrists are bent at an angle as your arms extend. As you get closer to the chest the increased sweep helps keep the lats engaged, which is why some sweep helps, but too much and you start to create problems at the other end.

      Reply • July 8 at 11:00 am

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