A lot of things have changed since I first started riding mountain bikes over 15 years ago. Bigger wheel sizes, tubeless tires, carbon everything and dropper posts are all things I have seen come into prominence over that time.
If you go too narrow or too wide with your hands you start to lose your natural support and lines of movement.
Besides the obvious new stuff you see on bikes today, some of the old stuff has changed as well.
For example, while we still have handlebars on our bikes, the specs on our handlebars have changed over the years. When I started riding 25 inch wide handlebars were considered “wide” and a lot of handlebars were less than 23 inches wide.
The thought process was that you needed to stay as narrow as possible for aerodynamic reasons, mainly borrowed from the road riding world.
However, the problem was that aerodynamics don’t play much of a role on the trail but upper body stability did.
As we all know, on the trail your upper body plays a huge role in your technical skills. A more stable upper body allows you to ride faster and safely navigate more technical features. This makes it much more important on the trail than on the road.
Eventually the mountain bike world started to learn its lesson handlebars started to get wider. Now you can find handlebars that are 31+ inches wide, giving you a lot of options.
One problem that you run into, though, is that it isn’t as simple as “wider is better”. You can actually get handlebars that are too wide, which will also reduce your upper body stability.
A common way to help riders understand the value of a wider handlebar is to have them try doing a push up with their hands in narrow and again with their hands out wider. As I’m sure you can imagine, it is easier to do with your hands out wider (which is why narrow “Diamond Push Ups” are harder than regular push ups).
Once you note how much stronger you feel thanks to the extra stability you start to see the value of the wider handlebars. Besides the extra stability, they also allow for better breathing and mobility on the bike as well.
However, I’d add one more test to the mix – put your hands out even wider and do a push up.
Most riders find that this is actually harder than the previous hand position. You may also find that this wider hand position creates some pain/ discomfort in the shoulders as well.
What you are seeing is that the hands have a sweet spot where the upper body is strongest and most stable. If you go too narrow or too wide then you start to lose your natural support and lines of movement.
A simple test is to see what hand position feels best for you is to do a Push Up or Push Up Plank (basically a plank with your arms locked out and driving your palms into the ground). Try moving your hands in and out until you find the “sweet spot”.
Measure from the outside of one hand to the outside of the other to get your ideal handlebar width.
I also recommend getting handlebars that are close to this length. I know that theoretically you can just grab further in on wider handlebars and it should be the same as having slightly narrower bars but I’ve found that this isn’t the case. Something is off with the feel and control when you move your hands in on wider bars, which is why I recommend you stick within 1 inch or so of your ideal hand width.
This advice goes hand-in-hand with my advice to run shorter stems (50-60 mm), which is something else to consider when looking for your ideal cockpit set up (handlebars + stem + grips).
Try the Push Up/ Push Up Plank Test and find out your ideal hand position to maximize your upper body stability. Your contact points with the bike are extremely important and making sure that your hands are in the right spot can help a lot with your skills and confidence on the trail.
And while wider handlebars are better in most cases, this advice can be taken too far. Find what works best for you and you’ll enjoy riding much more.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems