So if you’ve read my previous article on bar position you’re familiar with the position you’d like your arms to be in during easy pedaling — basically your elbows should be pointing to roughly the 7-8 o’clock position (for the left arm) and the 4-5 o’clock position for the right from your perspective as the rider.
The question is then, how do we make sure we can assume this position? If our bike fit isn’t correct we won’t be able to force ourselves into this position and maintain it for any length of time.
The first thing we need to ensure is that our bar reach is set properly. This is generally a lot easier on a mountain bike than a road bike because mountain bikes lend themselves to a shorter more upright posture on the bike. There is a bit of the subjective in this as well. I know for myself, I prefer to have a little longer bar position on a cross-country-style mountain bike – one with 4 inches or less of travel – and a little shorter position on my 6 inch travel bike so that I can manipulate it a bit more aggressively on the technical terrain that this particular bike excels at.
Once the reach is settled we come to the most important factor to attaining the proper arm position: the amount of bar sweep.
What is bar sweep? It is the amount the bar bends back towards you. You have probably seen bars that have rise built into them – that’s when the bar bends upward to raise the hand grip position. The bend to increase sweep happens in a different plane to bend the bar back towards the rider so the hand grips are no longer pointing directly out to the sides, they’re pointing slightly back towards the rider.
Most modern bars have some sweep built into them — roughly 3-10 degrees exists on most bars these days. But others bend aggressively to 20, 30, or even 45 degrees of sweep like the Answer 20/20, an H-Bar, or Seven Tiberius (among many others).
Why would you want the bar to bend back toward you like this? Simple. It allows the wrists to sit in a more neutral position, it allows the elbows to drop down to the 7 o’clock/5 o’clock position which gets the lat muscles involved and relaxes our shoulder posture.
This will lead to long periods of very stable and comfortable upper body positioning on your mountain bike.
Some mountain bikers are proponents of low-sweep bars only and feel that bars with more sweep are an anathema to mountain bike handling. I can understand this in a number of riding situations. A very aggressive amount of sweep — say 30°-45° — might not feel like the most stable position if you’re riding a lot of steep and/or technical terrain. That said, there are many serious mountain bikers that tackle all levels of trails and prefer bars with more than 20° of sweep.
I have read an article or two online that says swept bars put you in “unathletic” that will “hurt your bike handling.” It’s important to remember that the internet allows anyone to present an opinion like this as fact even without any supporting evidence or background in biomechanics.
To roundly state that bars with sweep will hurt your bike handling is silly. It certainly can be true in some circumstances, but by no means is this information applicable to all (or even most) riders. I get it — outlandish blanket statements get more of a response online. It’s not nearly as traffic-friendly or sexy to always inject reality and logic into statements.
To call the elbows-in posture “unathletic” is just uninformed. Never mind that you have better engagement of the latissimus muscle and therefore better spinal stability, but you also get more supple posture in your scapulae and cervical spine, and a more neutral (and less strained) wrist position. All of these have more resemblance to the “ready” position we use in other sports, as well as the posture we assume when we lift weights, do push-ups or execute agility drills.
To be clear, I’m not calling straight bars bad. You can still assume a relaxed, elbows-in posture on a straighter bar, but it’s a heck of lot more difficult and the bar will tend to draw you toward the elbows-out stance. Also, elbows-out isn’t always bad — in fact there are times on steep and/or technical terrain where it will be of benefit to assume this posture. But to have this posture all the time isn’t necessary and could cause problems because it it relies on passive stability through the upper body (you can read more about this on my previous post on this topic).
Some people respond poorly to the extreme bends seen in some of the swept handlebars, and if a bar doesn’t work for you that’s okay.
A safe rule of thumb is that as the sweep increases so should the amount of easy cross-country riding you do. So if you are riding on aggressive terrain you will likely find a bar with more moderate sweep angles (in the 5-15 degree range) more to your liking because although the added sweep is very neutral and “relieving” on easy and moderate terrain, a straighter bar provides more of what I call passive resistance to some of the more extreme inputs that come through the handlebars on aggressive trails. Having the hands and wrists closer to the more traditional mountain bike handlebar position may make you feel more powerful and in-control. The passive resistance we see in a straighter bar comes from a locked (or close-packed) wrist position, a straighter elbow and an elevated shoulder blade and glenohumeral joint — all are relying on a skeletally-locked posture but come with a price of potentially increased risk of joint irritation (in the wrists, elbows, shoulder and neck) and soft tissue strain.
So experiment a little and figure out what works best for you depending on your preferred type of riding and what your body is telling you. You might find that a bar with a few degrees more or less of sweep will work for you.