Your Handlebars Are Too Wide – A case study

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.

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  1. Dan Roatcap says:

    Here’s another POV. Elbow up and wide is a function of Moto-x riding. That being said, I see this as more of a range of motion issue. Here’s how I approach this.

    In the bench press position with a bar, place hands as close to the body that allows one the ability to push. If you’re hands are hitting shoulders, to narrow, big gap outside the shoulder to wide. The idea is the ability to slip between the hands for greatest range of motion.

    Take me, I’m 6’6″ and wide shouldered. My bar width outside my hands are 810mm. You see, it’s not about the length of the arms, but the width of the shoulders.. This allows relaxed shoulders and arms to operate with maximum range of motion in relation to the body.

    Tai Chi Chuan Instructor

    Reply • June 10 at 10:51 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Bench press is another good example of hand width affecting strength and stability. If you can bench press the most weight with your hands that wide then it is a good width for you. I’d still check the push up test as well just to confirm since on the bike you it is more of a bodyweight movement.

      Arm length and shoulder length both play a role, which is why you have to test your movement off of the bike to see what works best for you on the bike. Any formula based on just one of two things will always have flaws because you have to check the entire system in the context of the movement you are looking for.

      Reply • June 12 at 1:18 pm
  2. Toni says:

    i would like to bring another aspect in. I learned during my singing lessons, that there are 2 kinds of people. Some prefer to breath in and getting power through it, while having the shoulders more wide. The others getting power trough breathing out and they are more seen in a more bent position. I’m a breath-in person and 1.95m tall, therefore i like to have my 780mm bar.
    Not sure how this affects your advice…
    Is there a recommendation for handlebar length in connection trough arm length?

    Reply • June 10 at 6:20 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’d have to look more into that but I don’t think that breathing in or out for power affects your hand width. Where/ Who did you learn this idea from? I’d like to look more into it.

      In the end, you have to test your movement off of the bike to see what works best for you on the bike. Any formula based on just one of two things will always have flaws because you have to check the entire system in the context of the movement you are looking for.

      Reply • June 12 at 1:20 pm
      • Toni says:

        I didnt want to tell, its about how you breath, but how the shoulder position benefits the breath-in type, independently how you should have the bar with. It might not affect your advice though, but the breath-in type will have less overall power with to narrow handlebars, which might not come on mtbs
        I can ask my singing teacher for an english website…

        Reply • June 13 at 3:13 am
  3. Josh says:

    James, any thoughts on the various “alt” bars out there for mountain biking? Most have a lot more sweep than a traditional bar; for instance, the Jones H-bar has something like 45 degrees of sweep. How does that sweep affect the right size of handlebar for a particular rider?

    Reply • June 13 at 10:36 am
    • James Wilson says:

      In general, the width is going to be roughly the same. The principles of you having a sweet spot of hand width where you’re able to push and pull effectively are the same. Changing your hand grip won’t change the width that is most comfortable for you to a huge degree.

      Personally, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with these bars. In the few times I’ve used them, it interfered with my ability to push and pull effectively. While it may help some riders improve their comfort, there’s not a lot in the way of overall performance benefits.

      Reply • June 25 at 2:58 pm
  4. Dan says:

    Hi Josh, I find that about 12-16 degree bend engages my lats more efficiently than the standard 6-9 deg bend.

    Reply • June 21 at 1:39 am
  5. Steven says:

    Are you also increasing stem length to compensate for narrower bars?

    Reply • July 14 at 7:38 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, I leave the stem length the same, it is not really directly tied to handlebar width.

      Reply • July 18 at 9:52 am

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