When not to use your middle finger

Is your braking holding you back?

Much of an experienced mountain biker’s control, skill and speed lies both in the way they use their brakes (ease the squeeze!) AND the way they set-up their brake controls on the bars.   In this article, we’re going to focus on the importance of proper set-up of your brake levers.   Correct brake lever positioning is a critical component to maintaining positive control of your bike.

Modern mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes have brake levers that are specially designed to be used by one finger, your index finger, in ALL situations.  With your hands positioned correctly on the handle bars, the last joint in your index finger (distal interphalangeal) should line up perfectly with the bend at the end of your brake levers.   When checking for this alignment, make sure your hands are completely on the hand grips — if the side of your hand is hanging off the bars (grips) you’ll be putting pressure on your Ulnar nerve.  This pressure can cause numbness in your hand and arm, fatigue, discomfort and diminished control of your bike.

Adjusting the positioning of your brake levers so that your index finger naturally lines up with this bend in the brake lever, will give you better bike control, a better feel for what the brakes and tires are doing and greater confidence in your riding.

Let’s talk about the “why”.

With one finger braking, three fingers from each hand are sharing the job of holding the bar– even during gear shifting and using your dropper post.  Your hands are more secure and balanced on the bar.  Any less than three fingers on the bar and your ability to control the bike will diminish.   Correct lever positioning leads to reduced hand and arm tension, an overall reduction in stiffness and improved flow and easier shifting.  This secure control of the bar will allow you to push your limits, use the brakes less and keep momentum while riding.

Not convinced?  Still want to brake with your middle finger or your middle finger and index finger?   Let’s do a quick experiment to explore the science behind all of this from science made simple.

Try this…

Bend your middle finger and place the center section on a table or hard surface.  You will be able to lift your thumb, index, and little finger without moving your middle finger.  But it is impossible to lift your ring finger.

What is happening?

The tendons in your fingers are independent from one another apart from the ones in your middle and ring finger. These tendons are connected, so that when your middle finger is folded down you cannot move your ring finger.  It feels like your ring finger is stuck!


Now, let’s bring this back to the bike.  If you use your middle finger to brake, your ring finger strength is compromised because it can’t independently hold onto the bars.   For optimal braking and control, let your free bending index finger do all the braking while the rest of the hand focuses on control, shifting and operating your dropper post.

Take the leap and switch to one finger braking.  That nervous feeling of not having enough steering control at high speed will be a thing of the past.

About Ninja Skills Guru

The Guru’s #1 passion is taking bike skills and breaking them down into tangible, progressive steps. Is there a skill you just can’t master? A maneuver you don’t understand? A fear you can’t seem to get past? Turn to the Guru! The Ninja Skills Guru has spent years riding bikes and carefully breaking down riding skills into easy digestible steps so you can tackle the trail with confidence. Yup, the guru is that friend who doesn’t talk about anything but bikes!

2 Thoughts on “When not to use your middle finger

  1. Can you do this if you don’t have disc brakes? Does it work with the cantelever brakes?

    • Hi Eli! Thanks for your question. It most cases, yes — you should use one finger (your index finger) for braking regardless of your braking system. However, I can see where (with cantilever brakes) you might find situations (steep / fast descents) where one finger isn’t enough — and unfortunately, you’re going to have to sacrifice some handling / grip control and add another finger to your brake levers. Keeping your brake pads clean and properly aligned can go a long way for maintaining the best possible braking power.

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