Over the past few weeks I’ve posted several things about how having your hands wider than you need affects things like your range of motion, your ability to lean your bike and your ability to apply pressure into your handlebars. Like most things in life, there is a sweet spot between too much and too little and that applies to your handlebars as well.
However, I still get some questions from people about things like jumping, dropping, downhilling and the more aggressive side of riding. They want to know if the wider bars helps them absorb impacts better, which would make them better for that style of riding.
My answer, as always, is to ask how does the human body optimally create the movement you are looking at off of the bike and then how do you apply that to the bike.
In this case, the movement we are looking at is absorbing energy with the arms/ upper body in what is known as the Sagittal Plane, which is just a fancy way of saying front-to-back. The best movement off of the bike to look at this is the Push Up, which uses the same principles of moving our upper body around a fixed point (our hands).
When we look at the push up we see two things that are of interest here. The first is when we look at a common compensation used by people who lack good core and upper back strength, which is to widen their hands.
This creates a suspension affect that requires less energy to hold the upper body at the top position, which “feels” more stable. But as you can see when someone tries to do push ups with their hands too wide, they quickly lose their stability as they come down.
They have to roll their shoulders up and their elbows out to come down and they can not get all the way to the floor without some massive compensations. This is why a good trainer won’t let someone do push ups with their hands out that wide and will find ways to regress the exercise to help keep their clients hands and upper body in the right position through the whole range of motion.
So while wider hands feel more stable, they actually take away from your ability to remain stable through the full range of motion on the bike. This is important for riders who have to absorb impacts because they need to use their full range of motion to help.
If you find that your upper body position is getting compromised as you get deeper into your range of motion then you are actually creating a less stable position as you descend. This is the exact opposite of what you need to absorb impacts in a safe, effective way.
The second interesting thing we see when we look at the push up is when we look at how your hands respond to the Falling Push Up. It is a great way to test yourself to find the best hand width for you while also serving as a good exercise to use in your program as well.
From your knees, fall forward and let your hands catch you as you absorb the impact with your arms. Do 3-5 reps until you find you are getting a consistent, comfortable hand position to absorb the energy from the fall and then measure your hand width.
This will tell you the optimal hand width for you to absorb energy in the Sagittal Plane, which is where the majority of forces are coming at you from on the trail. Trying to land with your hands out wider than this will quickly show you how hard it is on your shoulders and unstable it feels to try to absorb energy in that position.
What you will find is that this test till correspond to the Push Up Test I advocate for finding the optimal bar width for you. No matter what test you use, you find that there is a sweet spot for your hands when it comes to creating and absorbing energy on the bike and having your hands too wide takes away from that.
I shot a video demonstrating the points in this post, check it out to see them in action:
We need to get away from this simplistic view of “wider bars = more leverage = more stability” and start to take the human organism into account. Using things like the Push Up and Falling Push Up Tests are a good way to start doing that with your own bike fit, making it custom to you and how you move instead of how the bike industry says you should.
BTW, this stuff matters to me because I want to make sure that you are getting everything you can from your training and riding. If you are training your body to move one way off of the bike and then trying to force it to move another way on the bike you aren’t going to get the best from either. This stuff matters and helping riders avoid the problems that stem from bad movement on the bike is one of the main missions behind MTB Strength Training Systems.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems