Handlebar Adjustments and Hand Position in Bike Fitting

These 5 categories of hand position and handlebar adjustments used by the best professional bike fitters on the planet.  

Diagram illustrating 5 hand position categories: stem height, reach, bar rotation, lever placement, and lever medial/lateral.

Many people experience discomfort in cycling specifically focuses on one of the 3 contact points: the hands. While the most popular change is likely stem length or height, today we’ll talk about the changes every bike fitter should examine.

Hand positioning on a bicycle is a mix of the bar’s height, depth and width, bar rotation, length and rise/decline of the stem, and brake type/hood and position (including the lever’s reach). The position can be augmented by changing any of these variables. Finding the right one for you is a level of trial and error and most likely a visit to a professional who examines all of these factors and how they contribute to your overall position. Each contact point change on the bicycle may impact another contact point but for this specific article, we’ll examine hand position in isolation.

General Hand Position

Illustration highlighting angles of a cyclist's riding position

Generally, your hands should be placed in whatever position you most frequently ride. The most comfortable position for the majority of road and gravel bike cyclists is where the angle between the torso and the upper arm is around 90 degrees (see illustration right). You should have a slight bend in the elbows to maximize comfort and control. This bend can increase if you want to become more aerodynamic such as when time-trialing, racing, or riding into a significant headwind.

Once you’ve found your sweet spot you can begin adjusting the position. Don’t forget to move your hands around on the bars to try different positions. We also recommend testing standing on the pedals to accommodate climbing or sprinting out of the saddle.

If you ride more upright, the angle at the shoulder may be less than 90 degrees. This less than 90-degree angle applies to road bikes, touring bikes, and indoor bikes.

Comfort should be your guide when adjusting the height of the handlebars. The road bike racer typically has the top of the handlebars below the seat height. For non-racers of many disciplines, the top of the bars may be even with the saddle or even higher.

Stem Height / Handlebar Height

The height is impacted by 2 factors:

  • # of spacers under the stem
  • Stem Angle

Headset Spacers

When you purchase a new bike, the fork is uncut which means you’ll have the option to choose to cut the fork height lower, which would accommodate fewer headset spacers. From a bike fitting standpoint, it’s unhelpful to do this from purely aesthetic motivation until you’ve discovered proper position. The only exception to this would be a custom bike where your measurements from a previously fit bike were used to create a custom geometry for you minus the spacers. A small side note here is that fit changes with fitness, age, injury, and other factors. As a result, having the ability to make adjustments with your bike is extremely helpful unless you want to continue buying bikes regularly. If financially feasible, this is not the worst problem on the planet. For reference, most bikes will offer about 40-60mm in spacer height.

Two drop bar handlebar bikes face each other with focus on the stems

Photo Credit: https://www.cyclingweekly.com

Stem Height

An adjustable stem or sizing stem is the best way to find your ideal stem height. A BikeFit pro with this tool can help you test from -30 degrees to +30 degrees while also easily examining your stem length as well.

A BikeFit stem sizing tool shown from the side

Without the use of this tool through a professional fitter or bike shop, some companies offer adjustable stems. We define an adjustable stem as having more than one axis of adjustment. There are many one-axis adjustable stems that don’t allow for adjusting the stem’s length. From our standpoint, if you are going to invest the money into an adjustable stem (not many left on the market), you’re likely better off visiting a fitter where they’ll aid you in finding the right stem and then you’re afforded with the opportunity to purchase one (with the proper specifications) that matches your bike and style. Comfort first; style second.

Speaking of style, many cyclists see professional bikes and want to emulate their stem length and drop. While many of those parts may be available including some sexy looking one-piece bar and stem combos, how do you know before purchasing if the reach, drop, and length are right for your riding style, goals, distance…etc? We are not saying that these products are not great or don’t offer advantages but style without fit is worthless. For example, if someone purchases a -17 degree stem and “slams” their bike (removes all the spacers) but can barely survive a ride for more than an hour without dismounting to stretch negates the potential “aero” benefits of that position. They also will potentially be forced to book an appointment with a reputable spine surgeon in a few years. That’s not to say that no one should ride in an aggressive position. There are some flexible, solid-core individuals who can sustain that position while remaining comfortable for hours. Most of them are professional or aspiring racers but just because they do it, doesn’t mean you must to experience true cycling enjoyment. In the end, we like the advice from “Big Jonny” posted on the Drunk Cyclist Blog, “Forget slamming. Ride what your body requires.”


Stem Length

Although this may seem like a shameless self-promotion, it’s the truth. A sizing stem is again the best possible way to efficiently test different stem lengths. If you visit a bike shop or fitter and they are forced to remove and install a stem each time you want to try a new angle or length, how long would this take? Removing a stem isn’t difficult per se but it is tedious. There are multiple points to examine on a bicycle and spending half an hour trying 6 different stems may not be the best use of time. If we can stress anything in your bike fitting journey, it’s to test positions until you find the one that’s the most comfortable for you (hopefully in the most efficient manner).

To verify this point, we asked several bike fitters to give their expert opinion on the proper stem a couple of years ago. We began by showing them a number of different cyclists. Of the 8 fitters, we questioned, 6 of 8 failed to recommend the proper stem length the rider ultimately chose after utilizing a sizing stem. Not once did more than 2 fitters guess the desired stem for the rider. This test was only for length—we didn’t ask about the stem’s height or angle. Finding the right stem is challenging (and sometimes expensive) to do by yourself and is definitely an area where a BikeFit Pro can help you. If a bicycle fitting expert recommends a stem without testing or trying a few lengths, we strongly advise you gently recommend they use a sizing stem or find another fitter.

Handlebar Reach and Drop

Illustration of drop and reach on a drop bar handlebar

Handlebar reach is the distance from the center of the stem connection to the bar and the furthest point in the “drops.” The “drop” is the distance from the highest point of the bar to the lowest point.

The implications on fit are how the bar affects your position and comfort on the bike. If you see a handlebar at your local bike shop with some appeal to you, it’s important to find out where it stacks up in both of these variables before you purchase. For some, the bar upgrade is focused on the material (aluminum vs. carbon), weight or personal choice in a different shape. The reach, drop, and shape should be comfortable and appropriate for your riding style.

Handlebar Rotation

Historically the most frequently used method of determining the handlebar’s rotation was putting the bottom of the drop parallel to the ground or level like the photo on the left. If you walk into most bike shops today, this is what you’ll most likely observe. This position, while aesthetically pleasing, is usually not comfortable for most riders. The rotation of your bars is determined solely by what is comfortable, not the bar’s alignment with the earth’s surface. Rotate your bars upward until you achieve a more neutral wrist position (this can also be achieved through hood placement). Let comfort be your guide to fine tune as your body will guide you to the best position. This simple adjustment helps improve hand comfort and reduces numbness.

Diagram that shows correct and incorrect wrist position while riding.

Lever or Brake Placement

Much like the rotation, the goal is a neutral wrist position. The brake levers on both road, gravel and mountain bikes are mobile and can be adjusted to impact not only wrist position but also reach. Mountain bikes, like any other type of bike, brake lever position is imperative when establishing a neutral wrist position.

Illustration that shows poor arm and wrist alignment while riding
Another illustration showing incorrect hand and wrist placement while riding
Third illustration showing proper hand and wrist position while riding

Lever Tilt

This seemingly minuscule change significantly impacts riding comfort. Like the myth that all handlebar drops should be parallel with the ground, levers do not need to follow the contour of the drop; they can be shifted inward or outward based on comfort. As much as manufacturers have worked on the ergonomic designs of hoods for comfort, placement on the bar and tilt provides the most natural hand position for the individual preferences and bodies. Over the years of fitting thousands of riders, here’s what we’ve found that seems to help most riders.

When hoods are set up in line with the handlebar, the hands are in an unnatural position. Tilting the brake levers inward provides pain relief and increased control.

Illustration of brake lever on handlebar with no tilt
Illustration of brake lever on handlebar tilted inwards

Below the unnatural position, we are forced into when conforming to untilted hoods shown without the handlebars.

Two drawings showing the natural position of hands when elbows are hinged and when hands are hanging.

Here the hands hang and move naturally. The brake lever placement should mimic the natural inclinations of the body.

Side by side illustrations comparing how hands hang naturally.

For most people, that natural position is achieved by rotating the levers/hoods inward on a road or gravel bike.

Illustration of brake levers tilted in on a set of drop bar handlebars
Illustration of a rider's hand on a handlebar with the brake lever tilted inwards.

Final Hand Position Info

Hopefully, this article provides you with some ideas on the different adjustments and hand position changes on the bike. We should mention that these are not the only factors and implications in handlebar fitting. Handlebar shape and width are two variables in hand position and overall comfort that should be part of your fitting process as well. Consequently, the best possible advice from BikeFit is to not be afraid to try some out-of-the-box changes suggested in this article. Secondly, and most importantly, setting up an appointment with a qualified BikeFit professional provides crucial advice, the ability to test many of these methods (including products), and an outside set of eyes to observe your riding with the ability to offer vital insight into the best changes for you. In the end, fitting is a personal experience and although humans have trends, everyone is asymmetrical and unique.

Good luck and happy fitting!

-Your BikeFit Team, Paul and Damon


Interested in expanding your knowledge? Bike retailers and shop employees with a QBP account have access to educational resources within the U of Q Training Library. Get started now.
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