East Coast tech: My hands hurt!

Hey, Lee. Your answer to my burnin’ quads question a while ago was really helpful, so here’s another one: hand fatigue. I recently moved to New England, and the terrain around here is steep, slow and technical, and I find myself relying on my rear brake a lot more than I’m used to. Lately my right hand has been getting so fatigued that I’ll have to stop and rest in the middle of a descent. I’ve noticed a loss of grip strength off the bike, too. I put on a bigger rotor, and tried moving my levers around on the bar, but nothing really helps. Any suggestions?


Hey Jesse,

Lee Likes Infographics dot com

It sounds like you’re still riding defensively. To all of you who Like Bikes(tm), some of this will sound familiar:

Ride with your feet. I’ll bet you’re too far back, and you’re pulling on your bars. This reduces front traction and tires you out. It also encourages bumps to buck you forward. Not cool. Practice riding with heavy feet and light hands. And roll your hips back to engage your glutes — Remember?

Use both brakes! If you’re braking properly, with your weight driving through your bottom bracket then to your wheels, your front brake provides about half of your braking power. If you’re stiff and fearful and using only your rear brake, you’re getting way less than half of your potential braking power. Whenever you brake to slow down (rather than to steer), use both brakes evenly.

Hot DH Pumping Action at Left Hand Canyon. Compare with the diagram.

On or off. I’ll also bet you’re dragging your brake(s). Look ahead. Slow way down before the tough section — you can almost stop for all I care – then coast through the goodness. This is so important: Constantly scan the terrain, and choose smooth spots to brake. If you must brakes across roughness, you must continually adjust your position so the net force goes into your pedals.

Pump it. Yes, pumping is a great way to increase speed on rough terrain. And it’s also a great way to increase control. When you actively unload frontsides and load backsides, your wheels stay in contact with the ground — instead of bouncing willy nilly and beating you up.

Loss of grip strength. Not cool. My dad is a doctor, which qualifies me to say this: It’s possible that you’re chronically overtraining your grip muscles, and that’s why you feel weak. It’s possible that you’re inflaming one of your nerves. It’s also possible that you’re hurting yourself. Work out all the setup/technique issues. If you’re still hurting, talk to a real doctor. Not a son of a doctor. 🙂

More about brakes, arms and hands:

I feel sketchy and I want better brakes!

Downieville Hand Syndrome

Have fun out there. When you get this thing dialed, you’ll use your whole body in an integrated way, and no one part will hurt more than the others.


— Lee

21 replies
  1. bas says:

    I used to have the same problem after breaking two of the tiny bones in the palm of my hand that never really healed properly. So, in addition to all of the above, I would like to add:
    – Cheaper alternative: a pair of GE1 grips from Ergon (www.ergon-bike.com). They are a company from Germany specialising in ergonomic grips. They are shaped to support the curve in your hand and took a lot of pressure from those bruised bones in my hands.
    – (potentially waaay) more expensive alternative: I built me drivetrain around a pair of SRAM X.9 shifters coupled to a pair of Juicy diskbrakes with something called a Matchmaker. This allows you to mount your shifters on the same spot as your discbrakes levers, because the Matchmaker has an extra bolt that the shifter mounts on. Apparently Formula has a similar component.

  2. bas says:

    to finish the second alternative: this allowed me to put my levers in a place where I could comfortably use them with only my indexfinger. leaving me with three fingers to calmly hold on to my bar.

  3. jimmy says:

    Not enough braking power????

    I use to have the same problem with my old bike that was equipped with Hayes Mags. Both arms would get pumped so I would have to rest.

    My new bike came with Magura Gustavs. Night & day. No arm pump and I can ride downhill all day. I even had to switch the brake pads to weaker ones because the brake felt too strong. No more arm pump.

  4. Chris says:

    Try some of the Specialized Body Geometry gloves with an ulna nerve pad. The BG Ridge is my favourite but it is not good for cold weather. I tried BG gloves with gel on the palms, but I feel I have less control, so I ended up with a thin glove and a fat grip (I switched from ODI Ruffians to Rogues). These things won’t cure your problem, but they may help a bit. Or a lot. My hands haven’t hurt since the switch (which I made before a visit to Whistler). I get the size so that my gloves fit tighter than OJ’s! I end up wearing them out prematurely but the control is excellent (like a good fitting ski boot). I find I grip the bars softer as I am not trying to stop the glove moving around on my hand.

  5. leelikesbikes says:

    Yep. I did that diagram for BG gloves. The other view is “with BG,” and you can see how the pad protects your ulnar nerve. A great idea for many riders. As for me, I like a very thin glove.

  6. chris says:

    Like bas said above, its best to use ONLY your index finger for breaking. It took me a little time to switch from using 2 fingers to 1 finger. all i did when i was riding (even if it was down to the store), was concentrate on using only my index finger. evently it became second nature and now I feel wierd when i but 2 fingers on the lever. doing that also helped me relax my death grip off the bar which helped my hands not hurt any more. Give it a try Jesse

  7. Stefan says:

    I tend to disagree with the statment that says “the front break does half the work”. I think it is more like %75 to %95. Try this experiment, find a short steep down (5′- 15′ ramp. roll down with one hand on the bars. Now try controlling your speed with only one break , then the other. You will see that with the rear, when you apply the break wieght will shift forward and the rear will skid and not slow you down much. And when you repeat the hill with the front break you can controll your speed very easy.
    Just what works for me.

  8. Chris says:

    Stefan, on asphalt that may be so, but you are asking for trouble on loose surfaces or on stuff so steep your centre of gravity is not far behind the front tyre patch (vertically speaking). And Jesse is talking about tough conditions. Also, sometimes it would be suicide to touch the front brake, like in wet roots, you want to keep the front wheel rolling, you don’t want brakes to be using up any of the ‘traction bucket’ or whatever Lee calls it.

  9. leelikesbikes says:

    If you are inert on the bike, then — yes — the front brake does most of the work.

    To brake well you must shift your weight back. How far back? Just far enough for the net force (gravity + braking) to drive into your pedals. See the dotted line above.

    This lets you brake maximally on steep, rough terrain with great control and no punishment.

  10. Paul says:

    If you 1 finger brake then try switchig between index and middle finger. A trip to the Alps really showed me the benefit such a small change can make. When I got arm pump 1/2 way down a long decent I swithced fingers for a while which really helped. Didnt stop my hands swelling up by the end of the week but thats another story. If you try middle finger braking in training it can be handy on the hill.

  11. Chris says:

    Paul, I tried it once or twice a while ago. In my rockclimbing days I used to do one finger pull-ups. They were much easier with my middle finger than my index. I think the reason is that, for the middle finger, the tendons have a straight path to the muscles in the forearm, while the other fingers’ paths bend twice. You can see it in your hand (back and front). Maybe the muscle is stronger too, I don’t know. From that experiment I thought I would have more power in my middle finger. Regardless, I’ll stick with index braking.

  12. leelikesbikes says:

    I believe one should hold the grip with the middle finger. Like you said, it’s a strong fellow.

  13. Scott says:

    Bird has worked best for me, though in Austin the downhills aren’t very long. Also found it easier to work my X9s while braking. And, seems like a more consistent hand position whether on the brakes or off completely b/c the angle of my wrist doesn’t change so much…

  14. Scott says:

    Oh, and I switched to ergons gp-1 and stopped using padded gloves – that really saved my wrists and palms. Besides the gel bubbles (on PI gel-lites and Spec Ridge) would pop anyway leaving a worthless flap.

  15. cogs says:

    The root cause for hand fatigue when downhilling New England is improper brake level placement. When the lever is too far forward on the bar (almost under the bars), you have to reach further forward to pull up on the levers. This is an unnatural position when at a steep angle. Every rider I talk to who claims to be suffering from hand fatigue (even after a couple of runs) has improper brake lever positions. Once the individual moves the brakes handles up, it is almost instantaneous that the rider feels an improvement in hand fatigue. Combine proper brake handle positioning and the above riding suggestions, you will have a great downhilling day in New England.

  16. Sebastian says:

    Another thing I have noticed that is critical -at least for me- is brake lever reach. I had my levers at a good angle, well tuned, and I was suffering too much loss of strength in my finger after too short time period. Finally, I decided to get my levers closer to the bars.

    I was surprised at how much improvement it was. Not only stress went away, but also I got much more control over the leverage on the brake lever.

    All hands are different. Some are wider, some have longer or shorter fingers, etc. The brake lever needs to be fitted not only to the appropiate angle but also for appropiate reach.

    Best regards,

  17. leelikesbikes says:

    Great idea.

    This is especially important for women and kids.

    Many women-specific bikes come with short-reach levers.

  18. Sebastian says:

    I forgot, I have one question (a little off topic, please pardon me): everybody runs the brakes in the same way, front on the left lever and rear on the right lever?

    I’ve heard some people that runs inverted and report better control over braking, but I guess it will take some time -and probably some endos- to get used to having the brakes inverted. It would be no problem on streets to make a small mistake, but I guess that when I’m doing urban, some jumps, etc., a mistake in which wheel has to brake would be catastrophical…

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