Should I Position My Mountain Bike Seat Higher Than the Handlebar? An In-Depth Guide
Your mountain bike needs to be the right fit for you. Setting up your bike with the wrong fit will detract from your cycling enjoyment. One of the most important measurements to check for the best fit is the saddle-to-handlebar distance. Fortunately, you can easily adjust your seat and handlebar heights to find the perfect spot for you. In this article, we discuss the right position for your mountain bike seat and handlebar, as well as whether you should position your mountain bike seat higher than the handlebars.
Position a mountain bike seat 1 to 2 inches higher than the handlebars to provide more grip and correct understeering. Position the seat 1 to 2 inches lower than the handlebars to reduce arm fatigue and provide more control of the front wheel.
According to this paper, from the proceedings of the 15th international conference on Human Interface and the Management of Information, on the relationship between handlebar and saddle heights, it is essential to factor in the rider’s body dimensions and characteristics. The right heights to improve cycling comfort and diminish musculoskeletal injury usually vary depending on the rider. You may prefer a lower handlebar with a higher saddle or a higher handlebar with a lower saddle for many reasons, such as limb proportion, flexibility, or familiarity as explained by SHRED life with Sam in this video tutorial. However, the most important factors are your comfort and bike efficiency on your chosen terrain.
To learn how to fit a mountain bike saddle by adjusting angle and height for maximum comfort, check out our article. In addition, our article explaining how to add drop bars to a mountain bike for more hand positions while you ride, will also come in handy.
Should My Bike Seat Be Higher Than the Handlebar?
Depending on your needs, you can raise or lower your handlebars with respect to your bike seat. However, if you go for the wrong fit, you can experience discomfort as you ride. On one hand, a mountain bike seat higher than the handlebars can lead to discomfort around the hand, ankle, and back. On the other hand, higher handlebars with lower saddles can cause discomfort in the buttock area. Each dimension also has its advantages.
The mountain bike seat should be higher than the handlebar for an aerodynamic position, better grip on flat trails, increased pedaling efficiency, and correct understeering. The handlebar on a mountain bike should be higher than the seat for improved control, better visibility, reduced arm fatigue, and an upright riding position.
Read our article on how to improve mountain bike saddle comfort for information on optimizing your riding experience. You can also read through our article on mountain bike grip taping to learn how to improve the grip and comfort of your handlebar.
Advantages of Positioning Your Handlebar Higher Than the Seat
Advantage 1. Improved Control and Leverage
One benefit of higher handlebars is better control and leverage on steeper trails. With a raised handlebar height, you’ll be able to lift the front wheel more easily, helping you navigate on descents and over obstacles. If you’re constantly riding rough terrains, then higher handlebars are better suited for you. In addition, they help you better regulate your weight distribution on your mountain bike.
With the improved weight modulation and balance, you can ease up the weight on the front tire for better handling as you ride. This is particularly useful if your front wheel constantly feels heavy and challenging to lift over obstacles. Our article on choosing mountain bike tires for maximum grip will help you select the best tires for your riding terrain.
Advantage 2. Better Visibility
With a higher handlebar setup, you have improved posture and vision down the trail. This helps increase your confidence as you ride. With a wide view of the road, you can easily navigate your surroundings, avoiding obstacles and other bikers. As this study from the Institute for Road Safety Research discusses, vision and visual perception are crucial for safe navigation while cycling in areas where there is dense traffic. Having good vision will help increase awareness and reaction times while cycling at high speed. If you constantly find yourself leaning backward or rising for a better view of the road ahead, then you may need to raise your bars.
Advantage 3. Reduced Arm Fatigue
Another benefit of higher handlebars is that it helps to reduce arm fatigue. With the handlebars slightly above the saddle, you can comfortably reach the bars to cover and work the brakes. You’ll be able to stop suddenly while riding. Riders experiencing any sort of wrist pain or discomfort will usually feel better with a higher handlebar. This is because it helps keep riders more centralized on the bike, with the weight spread evenly between the legs and arms. In contrast, lower handlebars shift your weight far forward and require extra strength, making your arms and hands tired quicker.
You might also find interest in our guide to mountain bike handlebar width, so be sure to check that article out too. And if you find that your seat doesn't want to stay in place, be sure to find out how to fix a mountain bike seat that keeps sliding down.
Advantage 4. An Upright Riding Position
Riding with a higher handlebar will help you ride in a more upright riding posture. As this article from the Applied Ergonomics Journal discusses, this is one of the most comfortable postures for cyclists. The upright position is natural and relaxed, easier on your neck, and perfect for descending steep hills. You’ll be more balanced on your bike, although less aerodynamically positioned. However, with your back straight and elbows slightly bent, you can better absorb impact from the front of the bike. You can also better reach the handlebars for convenient steering and braking. If you prefer a more upright position while riding, a higher handlebar is the best choice.
Additionally, you're going to want to read our related article explaining how to choose the best mountain bike handlebar sweep. Be sure to follow those tips and tricks to find out more.
Advantages of Positioning Your Handlebar Lower Than the Seat
Advantage 1. Optimal Aerodynamic Position
As this article from the Science of Cycling discusses aerodynamic drag is the major obstacle to your speed while cycling. With high air resistance, there is a need for a streamlined position to decrease this effect and increase speed. A mountain bike seat higher than the handlebars allows for a lower and more aerodynamic riding posture. You’ll be able to easily lean forward, helping you ride faster. This makes your bike as efficient as possible. If you intend to race with your mountain bike, then set your handlebars low to ensure a more streamlined position. You’ll be able to increase flat-out pedal speed and enhance the performance of your bike.
Advantage 2. Better Grip on Flat Trails
Lower handlebars provide better control when riding on flat trails. Unlike higher handlebar setups where there is less weight over the front wheel, you can increase the weight on the front wheel. This is useful for increased grip and maximum traction on gradual slopes. In addition, you’ll be able to corner more precisely and feel more grip from the front tire. You’ll also be able to make those uphill climbs easier. If you lack front-end grip in the corners or your front tire feels light, you might have to drop your handlebar height a little.
Advantage 3. Increased Pedaling Efficiency
A mountain bike seat higher than the handlebar can help you transfer more power to the pedals, making cycling very energy efficient. You’ll be able to extend your legs properly and maximize power and comfort naturally at the downstroke. In addition, this setup is best for longer riders so you can get a good angle on your legs for maximum efficiency in the pedal stroke. You can also approximate and maintain that power for an extended period. Dropping your bars will help you follow a comfortable natural movement pattern, allowing you to perform with increased performance.
Advantage 4. Correct Understeering
Understeering refers to the handling condition where the front tire turns slower than the rear. This means the front tire pushes or slides first as it has significantly less grip. As a result, you must turn the handlebar excessively to get around a corner. Dropping the handlebar helps correct this drifting condition as it increases grip on the front tire. This compensates for understeering, helping you increase the lean angle for more precise cornering.
Does Handlebar Rise Affect Reach?
Handlebar rise refers to the vertical distance measured from the center of the bar to the bar end. This determines how tall or short the handlebar feels.
Handlebar rise affects reach due to its effect on the forward lean angle, stack, and weight distribution on the bike.
As we explain in our mountain bike reach calculator guide, your bike reach is the horizontal distance measured from the middle of the bottom bracket to the center of the head tube. This determines how roomy your bike feels or how stretched out you are on the bike. These two factors influence each other and determine the best fit for your handlebars. In this section, we’ll examine the relationship between the two dimensions.
Reasons Why Handlebar Rise Affects Reach
Reason 1. Handlebar Rise Affects How Far You Lean Forward
The rise of your handlebar dictates how far you have to lean forward on your bike. Switching from flat bars to high-riser bars will add two inches or more to your handlebar height and reduce the bike reach. With higher rise bars the reach on the bike will be shorter, leading to you not having to lean as far forward. This straightens out your back, causing you to not stretch as far out over the front end of the bike. On the other hand, lower rise bars add more reach to your bike causing you to lean forward more. Changing the rise can help compensate for any excess arm extension or bending at the waist.
Reason 2. Handlebar Rise Affects Stack
Stack represents the vertical distance between the center of the bottom bracket and the center of the head tube. Depending on your handlebar’s rise, the stack may be too much or too little. Increased rise on the bar will increase stack, causing decreased reach on the bike and vice versa. For every increase in rise, you gain a more effective stack but lose more reach. With decreased reach, the bike will feel too upright, while longer reach will make the position feel too stretched out.
Reason 3. Handlebar Rise Affects Weight Distribution on the Bike
The higher the rise on the handlebar, the more you can shift your weight backward and straighten your back on the bike. This slightly shortens effective reach but helps maintain stability, maneuverability, and braking power on steeper technical descents. On the other hand, lower rise bars help push your weight forward and lengthen effective reach on the bike. This helps increase performance on uphill climbs but can make the bike’s rear end less stable.
Can You Raise Handlebars on a Mountain Bike?
There is no ‘recommended’ one-size-fits-all bar height. The ideal handlebar height for you depends on your physiology, mountain bike choice, riding terrain, and riding conditions.
Raise handlebars on a mountain bike by adding spacers to adjust the stem angle or adding a riser bar to increase handlebar height. Lower handlebars on a mountain bike by using a flat bar.
Fortunately, you can easily change your handlebar position in a few minutes to optimize your bar height and maximize comfort. If you’re only making slight changes, you should be able to raise or lower the handlebar without changing any other component. If you’re also trying to adjust your saddle for the best fit, check out our article on how to choose the ideal MTB saddle position.
How to Raise Handlebars on a Mountain Bike By Adding Spacers to Adjust the Stem Angle
If you’re looking to dial in the perfect bar height, then your first step is to move the headset spacers. These spacers are aluminum or carbon rings around the stem which can be fitted above or below to lower or raise the stem respectively. By adding spacers under the stem, you adjust the position of the stem on the headset, which is at an angle. Start by loosening the clamp bolts on the stem and undoing the top cap with an Allen key. You can then slide the stem and spacers up and off the steerer or headset. To raise the bar height, add spacers and reassemble the stem above the spacers. For every 10mm of spacers you add, the bar height is raised by 9.06mm.
Then refit the top cap and tighten it until it is secure. Next, align the stem with the front wheel and tighten the pinch bolts firmly using a multitool like this. Finally, check your headset adjustment for play. Apply the front brake with one hand on the headset and try to rock the bars gently back and forth. Feel for free steering and headset play and tighten the top cap or stem side bolts.
Adding a Riser Bar to Increase Handlebar Height
Another effective method for increasing your handlebar height is to invest in a bike riser bar. These bars can add two inches or more to your handlebar height. They are commonly used in trail biking, allowing for a more upright position. In addition, they offer more leverage and control, making turning easier and more efficient.
Begin by removing the old flat handlebars. Next, take off the grips, brakes, shifters, and any other accessories from the bar. If you have a faceplate stem, loosen any faceplate bolts and remove the faceplate and bar. If you have a compression slotted stem, loosen the compression bolt and slide the bar out of the stem. You can then install the riser bars.
Route the brake cable through the bar, grease all the bolts, and apply this assembly compound to the stem where the bar fits. For faceplate stems, place the bar in the stem and thread the bolts in. For compression slotted stems, insert the bar and secure it by threading in the compression slot bolt. Finally, ensure the bar is centered on the stem and set to the desired amount of roll. You can then reinstall the controls and grips.
How to Lower Handlebars on a Mountain Bike by Adding a Flat Bar
Flat bars like these are more horizontal and level, making them great for decreasing bar height. They’re an alternative to having a mountain bike seat higher than the handlebar. They allow for more precise steering at low speeds and increased traction from the front wheel through turns. You might be interested in reading our article on choosing mountain bike drop bars vs. flat bars for more information.
To install flat bars, remove the old handlebar. First, push the lever hoods forward, pop the end plugs out, and remove any bar tape around the bar. Next, remove the brake levers and cables, gear shifters and cables, and other accessories. Then, remove the old handlebar with the appropriate method, depending on whether the stem has a removable faceplate system or compression slot system.
Install the new flat bar into the stem and ensure the bar is properly aligned and attach the stem faceplate or thread the compression slot bolts. Make any necessary adjustments and tighten all the bolts. Next, set up the brake and gear cables and reinstall the grips.
Summary of MTB Riser Bars & Spacers
|Handlebar Adjustment Method||Advantage||Disadvantage||Amazon Example||Example Price|
|Riser Bar||They offer accurate elevation and a more comfortable position on the bike||They are non-adjustable and limit the rider to one bar type||Mixsuper Mountain Bike Riser Handlebar||~$25|
|Spacers||They are flexible and can be used with different handlebar types||They insert at an angle and decrease the effective reach of the bike||Sumind 11 Pieces Bike Carbon Fiber Headset Spacer Bicycle||~$15|
|Flat Bar||They offer improved handling, leverage, and stability||They can cause overstretching with excess weight on the arms and wrists||Upanbike Mountain & Road Bike Aluminum Alloy Flat Bar||~$25|
How to Determine Correct Handlebar Height
A suitable handlebar height can really make all the difference to your mountain biking adventures.
To determine the correct handlebar height, use a handlebar height calculator or measure your body proportions.
These are the methods for determining the correct handlebar height for your mountain bike:
Method 1. Use a Handlebar Height Calculator
A handlebar height calculator like this will help you figure out your optimum bar height. You can then easily finetune the height for the best results. First, determine and enter the headtube angle, stem extension, angle, and height. The calculator then measures and compares your bar height and reach. You can also use a stack-and-reach calculator like this to find the appropriate fork length and rake. You can experiment with the calculator to see the effect of various stem lengths and bar heights on your bike’s geometry.
You may also find interest in learning what mountain bike seat tube length you need or tips for finding the optimal mountain bike seat tube angle. If so, be sure to read our related articles for more details.
Method 2. Measure Your Body Proportions
To get the handlebar height on your bike, measure the vertical distance from the center of the saddle to the ground using a tape measure like this. Also, measure the distance from the top of the handlebar to the ground. The handlebar height will be the difference between the two dimensions. If the saddle is higher than the handlebar, then you have a negative rise, and if they are the other way round, it means you have a positive rise. You can also calculate the reach by measuring the horizontal distance between the center of the saddle and the handlebar.
To get the optimum bar height, measure your body height. If you measure between 5 ft to 6 ft, then your handlebar should be about 1 to 2 inches above the saddle. If your height is more than 6ft, then your bar height should be between 2 to 3 inches above the saddle. For optimum saddle height, measure your inseam – distance from the top of your thigh to your ankle. Then multiply the value by 0.885. This will be the height from the top of the saddle to the center of the bottom bracket.
However, these values will vary based on your riding discipline and preferences. Always check that you can reach the ground with both feet when seated on the saddle. The balls of your feet should be touching the floor without being too flat. You should also be able to conveniently and comfortably reach the bars with your fingers covering and working the brakes easily. You will have to experiment to find the sweet spot for your bike fit.
Can You Change the Handlebar on a Mountain Bike?
Yes, you can easily change the handlebar on your mountain bike for the correct height. You can add riser bars for a higher bar height or flat bars for a lower bar height.
To change the handlebars on a mountain bike, unwrap the bar tape, disconnect all cables, and remove the old handlebar. Next, install a new handlebar, finetune the adjustments, tighten the bolts and finally, reattach all the components.
If you’re doing this, and other maintenance, then our mountain bike tool kit essentials guide will prove useful for you to make sure that you have all the tools you need.
In this section, we provide a step-by-step guide to changing your handlebars but you can also check out this video tutorial from Park Tool to see how to replace your handlebar.
Tools to Change the Handlebars on a Mountain Bike
|Tool To Change Handlebars||Typical Use||Amazon Example||Example Price|
|Bar Tape||To improve grip and comfort on the handlebar||Eva Bike Handlebar Tape||~$15|
|Allen Key||To loosen or tighten bolts and screws||MulWark Allen Wrench Set||~$20|
|Torque Wrench||To check and adjust the torque of nuts and bolts||Bike Torque Wrench Set||~$40|
|ThreadLocker||To prevent nuts and bolts loosening and rusting||Anaerobic Threadlocker||~$10|
|Carbon Paste||To increase friction and eliminate slipping between moving carbon fiber components||ParkTool Carbon Assembly Compound||~$15|
|Self-fusing Tape||To secure and seal cables and wires to surfaces||Permatex Self-fusing Silicone Tape||~$15|
|Inline Barrel Adjuster||To fine tune cable tension adjustment for derailleurs and brakes||Sram Inline Barrel Adjuster||~$25|
|Screwdriver||To loosen or tighten screws||Portable Multi-purpose Screwdriver||~$10|
The steps to change the handlebar on your mountain bike are as follows:
Step 1. Unwrap the Bar Tape
The first step to removing the old bars is unwrapping the bar tape from the handlebar. First, pull the lever hoods forward and unplug the end bar caps. Then remove any bar tape on both sides of the handlebar. Use scissors like these to cut off any extra tape securing cables and housing, carefully.
Step 2. Disconnect All Cables
Next, dismantle the bar. Loosen the mounting bolts located under the lever hood and remove the brake levers. Also, unbolt the gear shifters from the bars. Finally, you can use a screwdriver or Allen key from a multitool like this to detach the brake and gear cables or brackets.
Step 3. Remove the Old Handlebar
For threaded headsets or compression slot stems, loosen the locknut in a counterclockwise direction until the handlebar moves. Then slide the bar out of the stem. You may have to roll the bar slightly or use a lever to push the bar out gently.
For threadless headsets or removable faceplate stems, unscrew the faceplate bolts and take the faceplate off. Then, lift the handlebar off the stem assembly.
Step 4. Fit the New Handlebar
You can now install the new handlebar, whether it is a drop, flat, or riser bar, depending on your preference. Begin by wiping the bar, stem, and faceplate with a clean rag. Then apply a drop of grease or threadlocker to all the bolts. If you’re installing carbon fiber bars, apply some carbon paste like this where the bar connects to the stem.
Next, fit the new bars onto the stem. For threaded headsets, thread in the compression slot bolt but do not tighten fully. For threadless headsets, secure the faceplate and bolts in place and partially tighten the bolts.
Step 5. Fine Tune the Adjustments
Make any necessary adjustments to the setup. Ensure the handlebar is properly aligned and centered. Adjust the stem and bar angle, bar roll, lever position, and rotation as needed. Also, make sure the lever positioning is the same on both sides.
Step 6. Tighten the Bolts
Next, tighten all the bolts. For threaded headsets, torque the locknut to the recommended manufacturer specifications. For threadless headsets, tighten and torque the faceplate bolts in an “X” pattern sequentially and incrementally. This helps to distribute the pressure equally during the process.
Step 7. Reattach All the Components
Finally, reinstall all the components. Connect the cables and secure the housings to the bar with strapping tape. Then wrap the bars in bar tape to improve grip and comfort while riding. Inspect the tightness and alignment of the components for a final check.