My shoulders hurt. Are my bars too wide?

Whoa. Mind blown.

Today I learned some important things about shoulder stability — and maybe handlebar width as it relates to shoulder pain.

Story and video:

First the video:

And now some context:

When we ride (and Live), we want to keep our shoulder blades packed on our backs and our upper arms externally rotated and locked into the joints. This is the strongest, safest and most studly-looking position. Be like this:

Dane DeLozier from REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance shows a strong, studly, externally rotated shoulder position.

Most real people have the opposite pattern. We tend to ride (and Live) with our shoulders shrugged forward and our upper arms internally rotated. This is weak, dangerous and does not look studly. Don’t be like this:

Dane shows a weak, meek, internally rotated shoulder position.

Because of my shoulder injuries and resulting bad movement patterns, the muscles that keep my shoulder blades packed on my back and upper arms locked in their sockets are very weak. The right side isn’t great. The left is so bad it will eventually get replaced with an artificial one. Artificial shoulders are not built for shredding, so I need to keep this one as long as possible.

I’ve gotten a lot stronger over the past year, but lately riding has become extremely painful. When I’m tired or the terrain is crazy, my left shoulder shrugs forward and I lose control of my upper arm. Strength disappears — and it hurts like hell!

ARRGG! There it is! Even doing a cornering drill on pavement, my left shoulder is creeping upward. Not cool.

Working with the guys at REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance, I have two goals:

1) Strengthen the weak stabilizing muscles so I can keep my shoulders in a better position. This is the only way I can ride strong, live with less pain and delay shoulder replacement. This is an ongoing project.

2) Change the way I ride so it’s more fun and less painful. I try to keep my shoulders packed whenever I’m on the bike, but I eventually get tired, and some moves like steep roll-ins require more range than I can provide correctly.

Luckily, I’m blessed with a team of smart people to help me manage this stuff. Today Dane DeLozier at REVO did some soft-tissue work to loosen up the left shoulder, then he schooled me.

As Dane explains, the farther your elbows are from your torso, the more your shoulders tend to shrug upward and internally rotate. Also, the wider your elbows, the more torque is being driven into to your shoulder when you ride rough terrain. This can be bad for everyone, and it’s really bad for me.

This made me wonder, would I be better off with a narrower handlebar? My current handlebars are 29-32 inches (725 to 800 mm) wide. This is a lot wider than my hands like to be when I’m doing strength work off the bike. Would a narrower bar (and correspondingly narrower elbows) help me maintain a stronger shoulder position? And it will it let me handle more violence with my arms rather than my shoulders?

When you’re at REVO, you don’t have to guess. Dane put EMG sensors on two sets of muscles:

Upper trapezius. This hunches your shoulders upward and is part of my issue. Active upper trap = bad.

Infraspinatus. This rotates your upper arm externally while pulling it away from the bone at the top of your shoulder joint. Active infra = good. My infraspinatus is pretty much off duty.

Dane gave me a long plastic bar, which I pushed and pulled kind of like a handlebar on a fun trail. We started with a very narrow hand position then gradually got wider. As soon as Dane saw my upper trap spike, I stopped, and he measured the width of my hands. Most of the measurements were …

… 25 inches!

Whenever my elbows got wider than 25 inches, my left shoulder automatically hunched upward. This hunching has been torturing me on rough trails, and I can’t ignore it any more.

See the two light blue spikes? My left upper trap hunched when I pushed at this grip width.

So: I’m going to start experimenting with narrower handlebars. If I can shred with less pain, that’ll be sweet!

As for the rest of you: Don’t run 800mm bars just because they’re fashionable. Thing about what your body is doing, and feel free to make changes.

Stay tuned as I learn more.


Injury prevention, injury treatment and high performance done right: REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance

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17 replies
  1. Alex says:

    Wow Lee this is interesting stuff, does bar height have much of an effect on this compared to bar width? My thoughts being that a higher bar and flatter brake lever setup encourages externally rotated shoulder compared to being too aggressive on lower bars with steeper levers and forcing an internally rotated position. Hope this helps!

  2. Tracy says:

    Thanks for posting this. Someone I ride with was just asking about this. She felt like her bars may be too wide. I’ve cut my own down in the past, and recalled that the way I figured out how wide to make them was to find the hand width where I felt strongest when doing pull ups and push ups. That’s how wide my bars are, and incidentally my grip on my Kayak paddle is also close to the same, all pretty wide for my body size or suggestions I’ve seen based on shoulder width or height the case of paddles.

  3. Dan Lehnberg says:

    Very cool stuff and functional as well. Sometimes we have to peel back to move forward. Injury and/or weakness predicates this concept; when strength and function are established at the new bar width, one can progress slowly to a wider bar if so desired.
    Ride-On, Dan

  4. Chris Gauk says:

    Great stuff Lee. I too suffer from shoulder injuries and have contemplated the impact of bar width. I recently succumbed to the fashionable wide bar craze but my reasoning is based on the last wreck I had. I hit a root mid turn which torqued the bars and tore my bicep and lat. At the time I was riding narrow bars and I’m convinced that the larger 29″ wheel size contributed to the force applied that my body and had my bars been wider I wouldn’t have had the injury. This science certainly seems more compelling for the long run. I might have switch back or mave to a different style bar all together.

  5. Robin Bayly-Jines says:

    Thanks Lee! The lights just came on! I have a dicky shoulder from an old injury that gets inflamed from some activities – think tennis and hammering nails. Recently it has been really painful and I couldn’t work out what was causing it. Now I know – a month ago I fitted some new wide handlebars because that was what all my friends are using! Guess I’m going back to the narrow ones to see if it helps.

  6. leelikesbikes says:

    Chris, that sounds like an awful crash. Not having seen it, I’ll guess your weight was too far back — that seems like the only way your bars could apply that kind of force to your body.

    Bike setup is important. So are biomechanics and technique.

    At this point, I’m tweaking my setup and technique to work with my terrible shoulder mechanics.

  7. David Chrislip says:

    Hi Lee: Thanks for putting some good thought into this. Your left shoulder sounds like my right shoulder. Andy Pruitt recommended that I trim my bars to 26″ and to 24″ if I needed to. Your analysis corroborates his thinking. Since I cut the bars down, I have had much less pain since my shoulder doesn’t turn down and in like it did with the wider stance.

  8. Dan Lehnberg says:

    I was thinking more about this subject while on my ride yesterday and had these thoughts Lee. I think what Revo did regarding the shoulder issue and wide bars is a great start. Why not take this to the next level, though? Revo has the equipment and the expertise; set your bike up on a trainer with the original fit/wide bars. Apply the EMG pads and have you ride in different body positions to establish real life EMG measurements versus the blue bar/standing position they used in the above study. Seeing how the EMG registers while in the attack position would be more helpful and more accurate in determining whether you need a narrower bar or better yet, maybe just some facilitation drills/shoulder torque exercises to perform while using the bar you’re used to using and have been shredding with. This will save you a lot of time in the long run due to the neuro-patterning that needs to happen with the shorter bar and then again when you progress to the bar width you truly prefer. Also, how does your shoulder width measured tip of shoulder across the back to tip of other shoulder correlate width the wider bar you’ve been using? In the end, you may need a narrower bar , however, decreasing to 24 from 29 is a big difference and lends to a lot of time and relearning that may not be necessary. Just some thoughts.

  9. Jim says:

    I’ve thought a little bit about this lately.

    I know these days a lot of guys want to use 800mm bars, and I just can’t think of too many people who would actually need bars that wide. It’s kind of gotten like the old days of skiing, when the longer your skis were, the bigger bad-$%& you were.

    I like to imagine doing push-ups. I place my hands in a certain place while doing push-ups. Too narrow, and the pushups are much too hard. I’ve got to work harder to balance, and all the work is being done by the triceps, a relatively small muscle group compared to my chest and lats. Too wide, and I no longer have range of motion and my shoulder get pushed in, as described above. In either scenario, I’m off balance, and balance is everything in every sport.

    So… I’ve come to the conclusion that 680-700mm is probably my sweet spot when it comes to handlebars. I’m currently running 720mm, which might be a little too big, but it’s not bad.

    Another trend these days — shorter stems. They go with the longer bar trend, and it makes sense. However, I know a lot of people like stems these days in the 35-50mm range. I’m currently running 50mm, and I’ve found my lower back in a little more pain. I’m thinking 70mm for me and my bike might be a better fit. Heresy, I know.

    I’ve also got to say, though, that I had my worst back pains (herniated disc!) when I was running old(er)-school long stem/short bars combo.

    In the end, I think the best bet is to find the longest bars and shortest stem that fits YOU. Don’t worry about the trends.

  10. JJ says:

    Great insight. I have bars on various bikes ranging in width from 22″ on my old school rigid all the way to about 32″ on my AM bike and bikes with bar widths in between. I know 32″ seems wide, but I am tall with wide shoulders and long arms so they feel Comfortable.

    The one constant between them is that the stem length gets shorter as the bars get wider and vice versa. I was wondering if you are going to go down to a 25″ wide bar, will you need to increase the stem length to keep the same riding position?

    Thanks, JJ

  11. Slim says:

    And besides width there is amount of sweep to consider.
    As the grips angle more back they allow for proper upper arm rotation, even at wider widths.
    Instead of going to a narrower bar, what does it function like with a more swept bar?
    Or perhaps a bit narrower and more sweep.
    The Answer 2020 bar is 720mm wide and has 20 degrees f backsweep, the Syntace bars come in 12 degree Backsweep, and Salsa has some higher sweep (>10 degree) bars too.
    I’d be very interested to see what the effect of sweep is in your test.
    Let me know if you need to borrow a bar.


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