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…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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.

9 thoughts on “Your Handlebars Are Too Wide – A case study

  1. Bob says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment! I ride with my elbows pointed to the rear, not flared to the side. I can handle bars between 600 and 700ish, but wider absolutely limits ROM. The width and lack of rear sweep really pushes the elbows into scarecrow mode. In 30 years of mountain biking, I never had pain in my hands or elbows until I tried wide bars.
    Many thanks for the excellent article!

  2. Avery says:

    Thanks for posting this! It seems like such an obvious biomechanics thing, but so many people just go for bigger is better. I’m a 6’1” guy with wide shoulders and the most comfortable mountain bike bars for me are WTB dirt drops. About 535mm wide in the drops. That flared drop gives me a more neutral shoulder position than a flat bar. I can do some gnarly riding with those bars. I think there’s a misconception that very wide bars have better leverage, but I’ve never ever found myself needing more leverage, and this way I can get much closer to trees without fear of catching a bar end.

  3. Jacques says:

    My new bike came with 780mm wide bars, but measures 800mm with grips on. They are definitely a bit wide for me. Not actually uncomfortable, but their are sections of the trail where I clip trees with them and that can throw you off balance.
    I’ll either trim them or get narrower bars of +-750mm. Narrower bars will increase reach, right? Which is fine bc the reach is actually a bit short atm, so I’ll be putting on a longer stem as well.

  4. Jacques says:

    Shouldn’t the width also be discipline and stem size specific? After riding a bike with wide bars and a short stem one with narrower bars and a long stem feels much twitchier and difficult to control. I do agree that bars are mostly wider than they need to be these days.

  5. Jacques says:

    Different subject, but what’s your take on modern geo and steep seat angles on trail / enduro bikes? I went from an XC bike with +-73 angle to a trail bike with 76.8. I find that seated climbing is better (and I think dropper posts work better with steeper seat tube angles), but my quads are more sore towards the end of a ride. I’d actually want it a bit slacker at about 75 degrees. It would still climb well seated, but not hurt my quads so much. Although it could also be other factors like seat height and using the dropper (my old bike didn’t have one), so I’m sometimes pedaling through corners at a lower seat height than before.

  6. LeeAnn Murphy says:

    excellent post thanks for making it ,does it make a difference on a 29er mtb my bars are 800 and I never bother to cut them down due to my mtb being a 29er ,however I’ve had rib issues for the past 3 weeks which the drs can’t fathom what’s wrong with me slowly slowly getting better but I’m wondering if I’ve pulled my intercostal muscles from overly large bars I’m only 5ft ,4 inch female and not super strong, late 40s in age any reply would be appreciated as I’m desperate to get back on it .

    • bikejames says:

      I would agree with your hunch – your handlebars are too wide and putting you in a bad position on the bike which resulted in the pulled muscles. Try the push up test when you are healed up and then cut your bars down a but at a time but I’d guess that you’l be close to what Kiele ended up at in the video since she’s 5’4″ as well. Please let me know how it goes.

  7. Stuart Marr says:

    Perfect video showing that mtb handlebars are simply to wide…. as well as your assessments you can also add that by narrowing handlebars it will lessen the strain/pull on you lower back when turning. Also you will be able to turn sharper especially in hairpin turns as the bars won’t hit you in the midriff, they’ll turn inside your body instead., you won’t be overstretched on the outer arm when you turn as well and you’ll be more aero dynamic in a straight line.

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