5 top tips for dealing with arm pump

Sick and tired of sore arms? These tips will help you out when the riding gets tough.
Riders follow each other down one of the trails at Whistler Bike Park in Canada
Follow the lead © Reuben Krabbe
By Richard Bennett

Arm pump is a condition surrounded in myth and controversy, with many old wives' tales regarding what causes it and how to cure it. But one thing’s for sure: if you’ve ever experiencing that searing pain in your hands and arms makes for a pretty nasty ride, especcially because it often comes on without warning.

Fear not, here are five ways to help you deal with the dreaded arm pump next time it hits.

1. Relax the death grip

Mountain biker Curtis Keene riding at home in California
Curtis Keene riding in California © Sterling Lorence/Red Bull Content Pool

Riders often talk about experiencing arm pump most when the trails get steep and gnarly, or they’re riding on unfamiliar terrain. When things get tough, you can sometimes start holding on for dear life with a vice-like grip. This restricts the blood flow through your arms, starving them of oxygen.

That’s when the arm pump sets in. The next time you’re riding those tricky trails, repeat the mantra ‘relax’ and work on easing off on your grip, thus enhancing the blood flow around your arms.

2. Adjust your lever reach and position

Bernard Kerr uses Shimano Saint shifters on his 2016 Pivot Phoenix DH Carbon
Shimano Saint shifters and brake levers © Bartek Woliński

Having your brake lever position and reach setup wrong can be a cause of arm pump, but fixing it should only take five minutes. Ideally, you want to start with your brake levers running in line with your wrists and hands, as this is the strongest position. If they’re too steep or too flat, you’ll end up putting unwanted strain on your arms.

If your brakes allow, think about dialling in the reach, so you’re not stretching your fingers when slamming on the anchors. Again, this provides you with a stronger position for those gnarly descents.

3. Fine-tune your suspension setup

Angle profile of Luca Shaw's Santa Cruz V10 at Lourdes World Cup on April 27, 2017
Tinker with suspension settings © Bartek Woliński

These days we’re spoilt for choice with fantastic suspension, all designed to make our lives easier, safer and ultimately more fun. So it’s important to take advantage of that technology by setting it up right.

If you have your suspension set up too hard, the hits go straight into your arms. If they’re too soft and the front end will pack down, pitching you over the handlebars; again, putting more pressure on your arms. Setting up suspension correctly can seem like a dark art, but it’s actually pretty simple with a bit of practice.

4. Weight on the legs not the arms

Troy Brosnan riding during his practice run on the Mont-Sainte-Anne UCI DH World Cup course on July 30th, 2015.
Troy Brosnan stands to attention on his pedals © Bartek Woliński

Our engine-propelled friends over in motocross are the kings of suffering and dealing with arm pump, which isn’t surprising when you consider they’re flying about on much heavier monsters. One of the key techniques is learning to soak up hits using more of your legs and feet, and not your arms. This is the case in mountain biking, too, helping to take the pressure off your arms and hands. Just watch any pro downhill rider to see this technique in action.

5. Ride lots!

Holy Hansen mtb trail Venosta Valley, Italy
Sometimes it gets a bit rougher © Bartek Woliński

Much like anything in mountain biking, perhaps the biggest thing you can do to prevent arm pump is to get fitter by riding a lot. It’s certainly not a quick fix, but many riders have said their arm pump improved the most when they worked hard on their cardio and spent lots of time riding gnarly terrain. So remember: while all the tricks and small tips will help, becoming more efficient, stronger and fitter through riding can’t be overlooked.

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