One of the most disheartening things I’ve seen over the last few years is the popularity of wide handlebars. Almost every rider I see is on bars in the 800 mm range, with few if any using bars in the 700-725 mm range.
This is a result of the infamous “elbows out” advice that was born in the days of super narrow handlebars and elbows collapsing into the rib cage as a result. Wider bars made it easier to keep the elbows out and, in typical human fashion, the industry thought if a little wider is good then really wide must be better.
The skills coaching industry jumped on the “elbows out” bandwagon as well, encouraging people to go from simply getting their elbows off their ribs to sticking their elbows out as far as possible. And since you could get your elbows out wider when you got the hands out wider, growing bar sizes helped push this trend along.
Fast forward to today and you see an epidemic of what I call the “scarecrow posture”, where riders have their elbows sticking straight out, looking like a scarecrow on a bike. We’ve been told that this makes you look “pro” and is the key to unlocking your stability and skills on the bike.
The problem is that this is not true. The wide elbows/ scarecrow posture on the bike actually robs you of range of motion and stability on the bike, especially as you get lower into your Attack Position.
I’ve posted a few articles about this and the other problems the wide hands/ elbows out posture cause, but, in the end, talk is cheap. Everyone has their theory but the real test is how does it affect your movement and stability on the bike.
So this time I had the chance to perform a case study for you. My wife Kiele just got a new bike and, of course, it came with 800 mm wide bars.
These were way too wide and in this video I got the chance to show you how this posture affected her range of motion and stability on the bike, as well as how I suggest finding the right handlebar width for you.
Like I point out in the video, the wide hands/ elbows out posture is a common compensation for having weak upper back and core muscles specific to that position. Just look at how a lot of kids perform their push ups with the same posture – they lack the strength needed and create a compensation by “suspending” their upper body between their arms.
I know it isn’t popular in today’s atmosphere of “don’t tread on my self esteem by pointing out how I can improve”, but the reason that a lot of riders prefer the feel of wider bars is that it lets them tap into this same compensation. If it isn’t a compensation we would allow off of the bike then it isn’t something we should be relying on the bike as well.
In my experience almost no one needs bars wider than 800 mm and the vast majority of riders should be in the 700-725 mm range. Much wider than this and you are probably trying to tap into this same compensation since it is compromising your movement and stability.
For example, I’m 5’11” and run a 710 mm bar. I built up with everyone else to an 800 mm bar and gradually cut back to a 750 mm bar before taking the plunge to 710 mm. Doing this made standing pedaling easier, improved my cornering and helped relieve some elbow pain I had been having after years of wide bars and having my elbows too far out.
But, again, talk is cheap.
You can do the same test I show in the video and if you can’t go through a full range of motion – getting your chin all the way down to within a few inches of the stem – or you can’t do it without losing your shoulder position then your hand position is compromising your movement and stability.
Don’t let your handlebars width interfere with your riding. Develop good, strong movement off of the bike and apply it to the bike through bars that allow for a more powerful, stable hand position and you’ll find it easier to move on your bike.
Until next time…
p.s. I would like to proactively point out that yes, I know that riding a bike isn’t like doing a bunch of push ups. I don’t know why when I use an exercise to demonstrate a wider movement principle people like to latch onto it and say that is all I think riding a bike is, which simply isn’t true.
In this case, I started to make the real connection with how my wide handlebars were really affecting me when I got into Steel Mace Training. You learn real quick with exercises like the row that having your hands too wide reduced the range of motion and stability for that leverage based tool.
There are a lot of movement and exercise examples that show that we have a sweet spot for our arms/ elbows and having them too narrow or too wide causes problems off the bike. By applying these lessons to the bike we can improve our position and movement on the bike.