RBR reader John Meiers writes, “Being fairly new to road cycling (couple of years) and starting late in life at 65 I am finding my wrists are turning out to be a weak spot in cycling. Have my road bicycle on a rear wheel trainer indoors for the winter. Is there any information about making my wrists stronger?”
Coach John Hughes
John thanks for the good question. Weak wrists are part of a host of upper body issues:
- Neck fatigue and pain
- Shoulder fatigue and pain
- Arm fatigue and pain, especially the triceps
- Wrist fatigue and pain
- Fingers that are painful or numb
The following four factors help prevent / mitigate upper body problems. I suspect that what you perceive as weak wrists is a result of one or more of the following factors.
This winter is the time to work on the following four to deal with any upper body issues.
If you have a weak core then more of the weight is on borne by the chain from your shoulders through your hands, which may result in fatigue and discomfort anywhere in the chain. What you perceive as weak wrists may actually be a weak core.
When you are riding your hands should rest lightly on the bars like you are typing on your computer or playing the piano. On your trainer try riding with your upper body in your normal position, bent 30 to 45 degrees at the waist and with your hands on the bars as usual. Then lift your hands off the bars. If you fall forward then your core isn’t strong enough.
The surface muscles you use for crunches (flexion) run up and down your abdomen; similarly the surface muscles you use for arching your back (extension) run up and down your back. Below the surface muscles are the core muscles, which run around your body. Relying on the surface muscles of your back to support your upper body results in low back pain. Your deeper core muscles form a girdle around your core, support your upper body taking the weight off the chain from your shoulders to your hands. Your core muscles hold your back in neutral and provide a stable platform to anchor your leg muscles.
You want to activate and train the core muscles that run around the abdomen, not the surface muscles that run up and down. Core exercises are designed to teach you to activate your core abdominal muscles: the transversus abdominus and the multifidus.
You can’t feel the core muscles working because their action is subtle. Here are several ways to visualize engaging them:
- Imagine a clock is resting on your belly with the 12 toward your chin. Imagine you are pulling the 3 and the 9 down toward the floor.
- Imagine you are pulling your belly button down to your anus.
- Imagine you are tightening the muscles around your bladder and sphincter.
- Imagine you are trying to make yourself thinner to slip sideways among people in a crowded room.
- Imagine you are pulling on a tight pair of jeans.
Anti-Aging 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has a chapter on strength training including a section on core strength with seven exercises illustrated with photos.
Proper Bike Fit
I was riding with a friendly couple at a bike camp. The husband asked me to recommend exercises his wife could do to strengthen her weak neck. I rode next to her and it was very apparent that her bike fit was wrong. Her stem was too long and too low so that she was stretched out. To see down the road she had to raise her head a lot and – no surprise – her neck got tired. I showed them where the bars should be and recommended a new stem.
The lower your handlebars, the more weight is on your shoulders down through your hands. One way to deal with weak wrists as well as numb fingers is to raise your handlebars.
Here’s how to check the position of your handlebars. Ride with your upper body, shoulders, arms and hands in the normal position that you find most comfortable. Where are your hands? They should be on the brake hoods. If they’re on the tops of the handlebars near the stem or on the curve just outside the tops then your stem is too short / too low.
Proper Position on the Bike
Even with a proper bike fit if you aren’t sitting correctly on the bike fatigue and pain may result.
When your hands are on the handlebars are your wrists flexed or straight? For most riders the best hand position is riding with your hands on the brake hoods so that your wrists are straight.
If your wrists are still flexed with your hands on the hoods then you may need to adjust the position your brake levers on the bars.
Neck pain may result from poor position on the bike. If a roadie is riding with an arched back then the rider needs to flex the neck more to lift the head in order to see down the road. Riding a flat back reduces neck problems.
In addition to the above factors good technique can help reduce problems in wrists, hands and fingers. You have five positions for your hands on the handlebars: the tops near the stem, the curve from the tops toward the brake hoods, the hoods, the curve under the hoods and the drops. Develop the habit of moving your hands to a new position every few minutes.
When I started riding we didn’t have mirrors and I had to rotate my head to look behind me and I never had neck or shoulder problems. With mirrors riders tend to just look down the road and the neck and shoulders get more fatigued. Looking around can help prevent neck and shoulder pain – and you’ll see more scenery!
I’ve written several relevant columns for the newsletter:
- Aches and Pains II Upper Back, Shoulder, Neck Pain / Discomfort.
- Aches and Pains III Numb Hands or Hands that Hurt.
My eArticle Butt, Hands, Feet describes in detail the general factors that can cause discomfort / pain in cycling’s pressure points. I then discuss the specific factors that can cause butt pain or painful hands or hot feet and specifically how to prevent problems in each of these pressure points. If you unfortunately suffer from one of these I also describe what to do to alleviate the pain. The 12-page eArticle Butt, Hands, Feet is just $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
David Frost says
Saddle tilt is also a common contributor to sore wrists. If the saddle is tilted nose down, then constant effort is required to push back on the saddle. Saddle fore-aft location can also contribute to a lesser degree.
It’s surprising how riders are unaware of these simple adjustments and their significant effect on comfort.
You stated that if riding in a normal position and your hands are not on the hoods but on the bar tops or behind the hoods, then your stem is too short. Did you mean too long (or did I not understand correctly)?
Rick Schultz says
^ You are correct, if you can’t comfortably reach the hoods then your stem is too long. This is actually the case for 90% of my bike fit clients. Johns other points regarding bike fit are spot on.
One last note, if you do get a bike fit, get one from someone that knows what they are doing AND after the bike fit, don’t let your riding buddy ‘friends’ tell you that you need to raise this/lower that, etc. You cant believe how many clients come back in telling me they made the mistake of listening to a friend, made changes which caused them to change something else and now they are uncomfortable and in pain and want me to put the bike back to where it was after their bike fit. Sorry, but I have to charge you….
Besides core exercises, what other upper body exercises can be done to strengthen your upper body? I’m 59 years young.
Kerry Irons says
A “proof” of good core strength is to be able to ride in the drops and then take your hands off the bars without changing upper body position. Be careful when doing this, but if you can ride like this, you have a strong core.
Matt K says
.As Rick said above in the comments, the following is wrong and bad advice and should be corrected:
”Here’s how to check the position of your handlebars. Ride with your upper body, shoulders, arms and hands in the normal position that you find most comfortable. Where are your hands? They should be on the brake hoods. If they’re on the tops of the handlebars near the stem or on the curve just outside the tops then your stem is too short / too low.“
The stem is too long, not short, obviously. A rather glaring error.
John Meiers says
Finally getting around to reading this article since I asked the question. Read the part about hands on the handlebars. So I sat on my bike. Found myself stretching some to reach the brake hoods. Normal reach left me about 2 inches short of the brake hoods. Have about a 1 1/2 inch of bike saddle that I can move forward. Know I have needed to slide saddle closer to handle bars. My butt has been telling me that. Been too much going on lately. Didn’t realize one could raise the handle bars on these road bikes. Going to look into that also. Not going to be as easy to tighten up the core muscles on this old body. Thanks for the article.