Raise Your Handlebars to Avoid Shoulder, Neck, and Back Soreness - Doug Barnes

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Raise Your Handlebars to Avoid Shoulder, Neck, and Back Soreness

When volunteering as a bicycle mechanic, I hear a common complaint. “My shoulders, neck, and back hurt when I ride my bike.” This is followed by a question, “Is it possible to raise my handlebars?”

Poorly fitting bicycles do produce aches in the neck, back, arms, and hands. This problem is becoming more common as a result of the increasing prevalence of buying a “bike in a box” over the internet or picking up a bike at Walmart. People without any mechanical experience have to assemble their internet bicycles. In such cases, seats are often too high or too low. Front stems are too long or too short. I have talked to several people about brakes that aren’t working properly because the forks have been installed backward.

The reality is that many variables can cause riders to have sore hands, shoulders, and backs.  These include the height, location, and angle of the seat, the length of the top tube, the type of stem, and the style of suspension. It should also be remembered that parts of the body carry the weight of a bicycle rider. They include your feet, your bottom, and your hands. Any adjustment in the handlebar height will inevitably shift the weight between these body parts and perhaps require muscles to pick up the slack.

A couple of things are important to remember when considering adjusting the height of the handlebars or purchasing a bike with high handlebars. The first issue is that raising handlebars generally puts more pressure on your seat. This is the reason you see beach cruisers with thick rubber pads on the seats. Low handlebars also may increase pressure on your hands, shoulders, and neck.

Low handlebars may not cause problems for younger riders who can use their back muscles to lift their torso so that only light pressure is on their hands. The back also will be more angled or perhaps even curved for bikes with lower handlebars. This is fine for young adults who want to cut down wind resistance because they have the requisite strength and flexibility in their backs. However, this can be a problem for older adults with weaker muscles and less resilient disks between their back vertebrae.

The second issue is that raising the handlebars can mean that the cables connected to the brakes or gear shifters may have to be replaced with longer ones. This can complicate and increase the expense of adjusting the height of the handlebars. Each individual bike must be examined to see if the handlebars can be raised without the extensive work of replacing the brake and gear cables.

For each individual, there is a position that is just right for putting the proper amount of pressure on the feet, seat, and hands. The hands should carry very little or even minimal amounts of the distributed weight on the bicycle. The hands should be used for guiding the bicycle rather than carrying any of the load. Finding the right position can be a matter of trial and error. For younger people that are more flexible, getting the handlebar and seat position just right is not as critical compared to older riders. But even for younger adults, getting the right height and reach for their type of riding can mean the difference between pleasant and unpleasant rides and the ability to ride longer distances.

The Best Solution: Consult a Bikefitter

Bike fitters are the best choice for having a bike adjusted to your particular body composition and style of riding.  Many local bike stores have staff knowledgeable of bike fitting and they can make recommendations on how to ensure that the bike is properly set up for the rider. They also have all the parts necessary to make fine-tuned adjustments. I previously had written some tips for older riders that cover some of these issues.

Although bike fitting is the best solution, many riders just want to try raising or adjusting the reach or height of their handlebars themselves. After giving the warning that many different variables contribute to a properly fitting bike, I give my advice on whether or not it is possible to raise handlebars on a specific. The unsatisfactory answer is, “It depends.”

This answer needs to be more accurate because it is always possible to raise or adjust the reach of handlebars. It just costs time and money. The amount of time and money depends on how much the handlebars need to be raised or lowered, whether or not the cables need to be lengthened, and the type of headset. Raising the handlebars a half-inch is easily done for all headsets. Unfortunately, this may not make much difference for aching shoulders, arms, and hands. Raising them one or two inches can sometimes result in stress-free riding.

In this article, I will concentrate only on how to raise handlebars on a threadless headset.  In a subsequent article, I will discuss the adjustments necessary for a threaded headset. Threaded headsets are still made today but they are more common on older bikes.

Threadless Headset: How it Works

Two main types of headsets exist for most bikes. They are called either threaded or threadless headsets.  The names threaded and threadless are misleading because both styles have threads. The difference is in the way that they work.

The headset is the hardware that allows a bicycle to turn left or right (Figure 1). It consists of a set of top and bottom bearings to smoothly turn the bicycle's front wheel either left or right.  The threadless headset has an internal “star nut” that is pressed inside the bicycle steering tube. The steerer tube is part of the front fork assembly and runs through the front head of the bike. The head badge is typically on the steerer tube.

Bicycle stem

Figure 1. Design of a Typical Threadless Bicycle Stem.
(Photo: Internet Public Domaine)

This “star nut” gets its name because it looks like a star and has a thread on the inside that makes it a nut. Once the star nut is embedded inside the steerer tube a bolt from the top cap is screwed into the center of the star nut. Tightening the top cap bolt on the top of the front assembly draws the steerer tube upwards pressing the bearings against the bearing races on both the top and the bottom (Figure 2).

The advantage of this system is that the headset is easy to adjust. You just slowly screw or unscrew the top bolt in the center of the headset and it will alternatively tighten or loosen the fit bearings. The cap should be tightened just right. If it is too tight it with bind the bearings and make the bike hard to turn. If it is too loose, the front wheel will make a clunking sound when you lift it off the ground and drop it from a short distance. The goal is to get the bearing pressure just right, not too loose or too tight.

Figure 2. Functioning of a Typical Threadless Bicycle Stem.
(Photo: Newman and McKeegan, 2017)

A second advantage is that the stem that contains the handlebars connects directly to the stem and the stem connects directly to the steerer tube. This means that the headset does not have to be taken apart when adjusting or changing the handlebars. They simply bolt directly onto the stem. Similarly, to change the sem all you have to do is removed the handlebars from the stem and the stem from the steerer tube. This means that all the brakes and derailleurs on the handlebars do not have to be removed from the handlebars when changing the stem.

Figure 3. Stem Connects Handlebars to Steerer Tube.
(Photo: Barnes 2023)

A major disadvantage is that adjusting the height of the handlebars is more complicated than for the traditional threaded headsets. Generally, this type of headset comes with spacers. Spacers can be added or subtracted above or below the stem within a narrow limit (see figure 3), but this amount of height adjustment is barely noticeable for most riders.

Ways to Raise the Handlebars on a Threadless Headset

Raising the handlebars on threadless headsets can be done in a number of ways depending on the amount that is needed for a comfortable position. I will review these methods based on the least to the greatest amount of movement (Forgave 2015). Threadless headsets make removing the fork from the bicycle very easy, but the drawback of this benefit is they also make raising and lowering the handlebars more difficult.

Move the Spacers

The first way already mentioned is to move the handlebars either up or down by rearranging the spacers. If all the spacers are above the stem then it is possible to raise the handlebars and vice versa. The technique is not difficult. The stem screws are loosened and removed. The spacers then can be moved below the stem. Then the stem is reinserted on the steerer tube and retightened. The adjustment of threadless headsets is done by drawing the steerer tube up through the headset tube and the space and because of this changing the number of spacers is possible but quite limited.

Figure 4. Spacers on a Threadless Headset.
(Photo: WikiHow 2022)

Change the Orientation of the Stem

Changing the orientation of the stem should only be done for those that are slanted either up or down. This is similar to the last procedure but with a twist. Instead of removing and reinstalling the stem with different spacers, in this case, the stem is removed and flipped upside down.

The procedure first involves the removal of the handlebars from the stem. The stem is then removed and flipped upside down. It is then reinstalled on the steerer tube. Finally, the handlebars are then reattached to the stem.

If the original position of the stem is slanted downwards, flipping the stem will raise the handlebars. If the stem is already slanted upwards, then flipping it will lower the handlebars. The impact of raising or lowering the handlebars with this method depends on the angle of the stem. A slight angle may not result in much of a difference but a steeper angle could produce significantly higher handlebars.

Figure 5. Change the Stem Orientation by Reversing It.
(Photo: Product Image Modified by Doug Barnes 2023)

Replace the Handlebars

Replacing the handlebars is also a way to raise the level of your hands relative to the seat on the bicycle. Handlebars that have an upward slope are popular on comfort bicycles designed for the beach or just easy riding.

Replacing the handlebars is not a small task. Different types of handlebars have different types of brakes and for multispeed bicycles, the shifters might need to be replaced. This means that replacing the handlebars may also require new brakes and shift levers. Also, the brake and shifter cables may not be long enough and may need to be replaced.

This is probably my least favorite way to raise the handlebars, but it may be a nice solution for those wanting to replace their drop handlebars that often put the ride in a crouch position.

Figure 6. Moustache Handlebars Found on Many Comfort Bicycles.
(Photo: Internet Public Image)

Install a Stem Extender

Probably the best way to raise the handlebars on a bicycle with a threadless headset is to purchase and install a stem extender. Stem extenders can raise your handlebars 1 to 2 inches. They are not difficult to install once you know how threadless headsets work. One of the models of stem extenders (Figure 7) even allows you to easily adjust the handlebar height within a small range by only loosening the bolts that attach the stem to the steerer tube. The gives some flexibility in case the cables are too short to reach the gear and brake levers on the handlebars. Also, there is no need to change the handlebars because they are just attached to the new stem extender.

Figure 7. Stem Extender for Raising Handlebars.
(Photo: Doug Barnes and Delta Product Image)

Swap the Stem for One that is Adjustable

Stems are available that adjustable. The old fixed stem can be replaced with one that rotates the handlebars up to as much as 70 degrees. The angle can be adjusted depending on the inclination of the rider. This has two advantages. One advantage is raising the handlebars by about an inch is possible. The second is that it shortens the length of the stem so that the rider does not lean over as far as they would compared to a fixed stem (figure 8).

Figure 8. Adjustable Stem for Raising and Lowering Handlebars.
(Photo: Product Image Modified by Doug Barnes)

Which Method is Best?

My personal favorite is the use of a stem extender. It is quite easy to install. If the cables are long enough it doesn’t require replacing anything but the existing stem cap. The stem extender also allows for a larger adjustment of the handlebar height. Depending on the extender, it might be possible to fine-tune the adjustment of the handlebar height to the need of the rider. For the Delta extender, which I use, you just loosen the stem bolts, slide the stem up or down and then retighten the stem bolts at the desired handlebar height.

My second favorite is the adjustable stem. These come in a variety of sizes and once installed are easier to adjust than the stem extender. You simply loosen the bolts at the pivot of the stem and move the handlebars up or down depending on your need.

Replacing a non-adjustable stem with one of a different length or a higher angle also can be a good option, but it has the drawback that it is very inflexible. Once you replace the stem, if you want to make a further adjustment, then you have to buy another one with a different dimension. You keep doing this until you get just the right height. If you don’t hit a home run on the first stem, then it eventually can get very expensive. The same reasoning goes for replacing the handlebars.

My least favorite method of adjusting the handlebar height is moving spacers from low to high or high to low. This only gives a fraction of an inch adjustment in most cases and for me, it doesn’t really feel much different. Perhaps in a fine-tuned racing bike for someone looking for the ideal position, this might work. However, for most of us with aching backs, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Should you adjust the height or the reach of your handlebars?

Doing nothing is easy. Making changes is difficult.

If you feel uncomfortable riding your bike then changing the height or the reach of your handlebars is a good idea, but it will cost time and money. Another problem is there is no guarantee the new configuration will solve the problem. You may hit a home run on the first go, but it’s more likely that you will need to make several small adjustments before getting the right bike fit.

Probably the best option is the most expensive one. A bike fitter can observe your style of riding and come up with a solution. They generally have a stock of various bike parts to match your style of riding.

The performance of the bike will change when the handlebars are adjusted. On level ground, raising handlebars puts more pressure on your backside and less weight on the handlebars. Heavy handlebar bags also may impact bike balance. This may cause problems on a technical course, but it probably will have no impact if most of the riding is done on open roads or paths with gradual inclines.

As we age and our backs get stiffer and raising handlebars to the right level will give a more comfortable ride. Riding a bike should almost be as comfortable as sitting in an easy chair. Raising handlebars shifts weight from the arms to the seat, so the right balance is necessary. There is no reason that handlebar height and reach can’t be adjusted to make it more comfortable to ride a bike. This will mean both more time riding and increased enjoyment of the great outdoors.

The bottom line is that if riding your bike makes your back ache, your shoulders sore, your wrists ache, or your hands numb, it is probably time to think about changing the height and the reach of your handlebars. You can do it yourself according to the the different methods outlined in this article, but probably the best idea is to hire a bikefitter.


Note: The image at the top of the article is from the Park Tool Website.

Brown, Sheldon. 2021 "Servicing Bicycle Headsets." Sheldon Brown Website. Accessed March 2021.

Forgrave, Bob. 2019. “Why threadless stems? And five ways to raise your bars.” Flat Bikes Website.

Huang, James. 2017. “Origins: How the AheadSet threadless headset changed bikes forever - CyclingTips“ Cycling Tips Website.

Newman, Adam and Eric McKeegan. 2017. "Nuts and Bolts: Wrapping your head around headsets", Bicycle Times. Illustrated, August 28.

Phender, Benedict, 2020. "The Ultimate Guide to Headsets". Bicycle Radar Website. Accessed 2023. https://www.bikeradar.com/features/the-ultimate-guide-to-headsets/

WikiHow. 2022. “3 Ways to Raise Road Bike Handlebars.” WikiHow Website. Accessed. 2023.

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