So you’re on the trail, maybe hiking, running or on a mountain bike yourself, and up ahead you see another mountain biker heading your way. Picture what they usually look like in your mind’s eye.
Chances are it might look like this (terrain not withstanding):
Or perhaps closer to this (although this is on the road, I know):
What I want you to pay special attention to is the posture of the rider’s arms. Notice how it has that typical strong-looking mountain bike handlebar position: Hands wide, arms spread.
There’s one thing wrong with this position however…..look at the elbows. They’re pointing out, right? Each is pointing away from the center-line of the body. Now this is a strong position and we frequently need to assume it when we corner aggressively or are tackling a difficult section of terrain. But when we’re pedaling easily along, as these riders are (and the many you will encounter on the trail yourself), this shouldn’t be our default position.
Why? Because it’s not a very ergonomic position when you’re sitting. It doesn’t make good use of our muscular and skeletal system for sustained endurance-type riding. However, if you’re riding on aggressive terrain all the time and you have no aches or pains in your upper body then a straighter bar may be just fine. If you have some neck, shoulder, wrist or hand discomfort though, you’ll want to keep reading.
Looking more in depth at the posture: From the rider’s perspective their elbows are pointing to the 9 o’clock (for the left arm) and the 3 o’clock (for the right arm) positions. Basically both elbows are pointing out to their respective sides. This posture in the seated riding position will cause the latissimus dorsi (lats) to disengage somewhat while the pecs and shoulder internal rotators do more work. We also assume an internally rotated shoulder position, which helps to straighten our elbows and reduces the suppleness of the arm. Finally it puts our wrists into an “ulnarly deviated” position which locks out the wrist joint and causes more large and small vibratory forces to act through the arm. This posture can feel like it provides more stability in tricky situations because it relies on passive skeletal support rather than muscular control — which can be great for short periods but may cause problems when used long term.
Mountain Bike Handlebar Position: the proper starting point
So what’s the proper mountain bike handlebar position? Going back to the view of the arms from the rider’s perspective…..having the elbows pointing to roughly the 7-8 o’clock position for the left arm and about the 4-5 o’clock position for the right when seated pedaling is going to offer the most benefit.
This dropped elbow posture allows the lats to engage, and they are not only large muscles that do an excellent job of stabilizing the shoulders (they are large shoulder extensors after all), but they also attach to the lumbar spine providing stability to the low back and therefore the pelvis. So when they engage, often saddle problems begin to diminish.
This dropped elbow posture also allows the elbows to remain slightly more flexed and makes the entire arm more supple so we absorb more bumps and vibrations through the elbow rather than having it transmitted all the way up to the shoulders and neck. The wrist sees benefit as well since it has the chance to maintain a neutral position, which can remove a little pressure from the small carpal bones (and the nerves/tissue surrounding them) in the wrist.
In the next article I’ll talk about some ways you can achieve this with your own mountain bike handlebar position. I’ll go over some of the ideas that I use with my bike fitting clients, like proper handlebar sweep and reach.