Mountain Bike Upgrades: How To, What First & What Next [Video]

Words by: Liam Woods

Should I Upgrade My Mountain Bike?:

Whether you are just getting into the sport of mountain biking or you’re a 20 year veteran, deciding on the best mountain bike upgrades can be a bit tricky. What do you want to buy first? Which parts would make your riding experience better? What works on your current bike and what is worth the money? All of these things take some thought, and with an endless number of options to choose from in every category, it can be hard to know what to get first. This really depends on your bike, how new or old it might be, if it's more entry level or high end, and what your commitment to riding is. We will cover everything from component compatibility, to diminishing returns, what and why you might want to upgrade something specific first. Then we will go through the most common upgrades, starting with bikes of all levels, and as we get down the list, we will eventually get into the higher end upgrades that might or might not be within your wants or needs. Lastly, we will caution you on when a bike might be too old and just not worth putting the money into upgrading, or what small upgrades you can make to then look at buying something more modern. 

How To Upgrade Your Bike

1. Compatibility

Compatibility is something that has become a bit of a joke in the bike industry because every few years a new size of a part or method of attaching it to your bike comes out and makes everything that precedes it incompatible. I prefer to focus less on standards and more on whether or not something is simply going to fit your current bike. Within the last five to ten years, it seems like this has gotten even worse, now with a few millimeters making some parts no longer work together, it can be a bit frustrating. Now many of these do make the overall package of a modern mountain bike perform better, and while it might be annoying to buy a bike only for certain parts to become outdated a year later, it’s really the same with technology. Every new edition gets better, sleeker, stronger for a better end result. Within the last five to ten  years, some of the major changes have been: tapered head tubes, thru-axle hubs/frames, boost thru-axle hubs/frames, superboost thru-axle hubs/frames, wheel size, brake mounting types, shock sizing, shock mounting styles, crank and spindle sizes, drivetrains, front derailleur absence, handlebar diameters, and even smaller things like fork offsets, frame sizing, rim width, and dropper posts/dropper post lengths. Wow, that's a lot! So as you can tell, much has changed and it can be extremely confusing, even for a self proclaimed bike nerd like myself. Even I get things wrong from time to time and have to keep learning when new products come out. 

How To Upgrade Your Bike

If you are ever having trouble finding the correct part for your current bike, or have no clue what that might be, I'd suggest contacting some experts to help walk you through it. Our customer service team is filled with bike nerds and it's actually their job to help get you the right part for your needs. If you have double and triple checked what will work on your bike, you still might want to be careful when opening the package and installing it as there is still a chance it could be wrong and if you catch it before the product has been fully installed or ridden you can return it and grab the correct one. 

2. Diminishing Returns

Diminishing returns are also something to consider before spending money on mountain bike upgrades. This mostly pertains to more expensive, modern bikes that might fall around the $5,000 range and above, from the last three to four years. When you have a bike like this, you are at the upper level of current product types, and buying some new parts might not give you the life changing experience you are looking for if you are spending a few thousand on some wheels or suspension. So be careful here! Don’t expect to buy a one year newer fork and be able to keep up with pro racers, which is something we all wished would happen. Or with wheels, you might already have wide, modern wheels with a solid engagement, so if you buy new, it might not change how much traction or control you are expecting. We are at a spot of product innovation plateau, meaning that parts continue to get minimally optimized, but no groundbreaking products have come out or will come out soon that will seriously change our bikes. Those groundbreaking products were 1x drivetrains, dropper posts, wide rims, and better tire choices, wide bar/short stem, and the last few years of suspension development. The RockShox Pike is considered the turning point for modern suspension. It really upped the game for high end suspension and showed that supple, smooth, stiff, and tunable suspension can really change how you ride. Recently, these have just been optimized, and we wouldn’t quite call them groundbreaking, so take that into consideration when spending a decent amount of money on new parts. 

How To Upgrade Your Bike

But, again, these can also be amazing MTB upgrades in some cases. A four year old fork can be considered three to four steps back in yearly changes, so a RockShox pike at 160mm from 2016 is a bit behind the new RockShox Zeb at 160mm, and that can have a major improvement on your bike’s performance. So again, everything is relative to your exact bike and the way you are using it. 

3. What To Upgrade First On Your Mountain Bike

The first thing to upgrade is anything that might be bothering you, or to fix any annoyances on your bike. That might look like different grips, wider bars (or in some cases to cut your bars down), a shorter stem, more grippy or lighter tires, a saddle and pedals. These are all things we consider “contact” points; you either touch or are positioned on the bike with these parts, so making them more comfortable for you really matters. Read that again: what is more comfortable for you really matters, not what your buddies are doing. An 820mm wide handlebar might be great for someone who is 6’2 or taller and riding where there are no tight trees or spaces, but if you are 5’8 and riding in a forest, something like a 750-770mm handlebar width might be more reasonable. Tires can also make a huge difference in how your bike performs. The most common upgrade is getting more grip out of your tire. By upgrading to a more burly tire tread, and sometimes a thicker tire casing, you can turn your bike into a downhill machine with just these upgrades. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Next would be looking into the most noticeable changes. These might overlap with your annoyances as they are mostly what your body contacts, or how your bike contacts the ground. Again, these will be grips, bar/stem, tires, saddle, pedals, but now also includes wheels, suspension and dropper posts. By upgrading any of these parts, you will most likely feel them right away, especially if you are moving from a few years old model to something current. I always stand by upgrading your tires to your style of riding. Tires are the main part between the terrain and your bike, helping you stay in control, gain confidence, ride faster, and have a more fun experience on your bike. 

4. Most Common MTB Upgrades, Starting Under $2.5k and Getting More Expensive

Now, this is where things get crazy. We will be listing out some of the most common mountain bike upgrades, starting with what we think are the most necessary upgrades, as well as parts best suited for entry level bikes. As you move down the list, you will get to more parts that are mid-range and working into higher end upgrades. Take a look, you might find something you need. 

Dropper post

The dropper post is quite possibly the most significant upgrade to happen to modern mountain bikes in the past 10+ years. With the press of a remote, you can drop your saddle out of the way to have better handling for going downhill, then by pressing the remote again, you can raise the seat back up to your pedaling height and go back uphill. Now, not all droppers are created equal, and there have been some reliability issues with dropper posts, but current posts are pretty refined and reliable. So if you have an older dropper post but want something more reliable, you can look for new options, or if you want a longer travel dropper post, there are now a ton of options from 150mm, 170mm 175mm, 180mm, 200mm and even 210mm. You can also look at better dropper remotes that go under the handlebar like a front shifter, or look better and match your bike. 

How To Upgrade Your Bike

Tires, So Many Options

Again, tires, have I mentioned tires yet? Upgrading your tires can make a night and day difference. But there are a ton of options and depending on what type of bike and what type of terrain you ride, you will want to choose tires based on those. We have a ton of videos to help you decide, from best front enduro tires, to best rear enduro tires, to best XC tires, a Maxxis tire guide, a Schwalbe tire guide, best Maxxis XC tires, best Maxxis Tire Combos, and even thicker tire casings explained. So if you still can't decide on those videos, contact our customer service team, they love to talk tires also. 

How To Upgrade Your Bike

Tubeless Tires & Inserts

Along with tires, making your tires and wheels tubeless is a game changer and should be done on every mountain bike. You can run lower pressure, greatly reduce your chance of pinch flats, and really any flats with the use of tire sealant, and overall have a better connection to the terrain. While you can still get flats, it’s much less common with tubeless than with tubes, if you do get a flat, checkout the Stan's Dart Tubeless Tool. There are also tubeless tire inserts, so you can put some foam inside of your tubeless tires to help further reduce the chance of flats, dinged rims, and reduce the amount of pressure you can run even further. CushCore is one of our most popular tire inserts, but there are plenty of options to choose from. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike


Pedals are another great part to look at upgrading your mountain bike. If you run flats or clipless, you can possibly improve how your feet feel on the pedals. This is much more common with flat pedals for which we have a ton of videos explaining our top flat pedal options. With brands like Deity, OneUp, RaceFace, Canfield, iSSi, Crank Brothers, Chromag, and HT offering multiple models to choose from, there are options from large or small platforms, alloy or composite, and pin style as well. For clipless there are slightly fewer options with the couple big names of Shimano and Crank Brothers being the most popular. You can choose from XC style with no platform, or more trail and downhill oriented options with a larger platform for your foot. Some smaller brands in the clipless realm like Time, HT, and iSSi also have clipless options to choose from with similar styles of platforms that their flat pedals have. No matter what you choose, the most comfortable and confident pedal option you like will make your riding better. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Wider Handlebars/Shorter Stem/Better Grips

Wider bars are a great option for many mountain bikes, and when you go wider on the handlebar you also want to pair that with a shorter stem. This helps with control on your bike and better fits your shoulder width. We have a video explaining how to choose your handlebar width as it’s different for everyone. I personally run bars on the more narrow side for today’s standards at 750mm wide with my grips adding about 5mm to each side, for an overall length of 760mm. To me, this feels like the best balance of control, nimbleness, and comfort. I can ride anything and anywhere without thinking about if my bars will be an issue. Also changing your grips to add comfort is a huge, yet affordable upgrade to make. Check out our few videos on our top grips to upgrade on your bike. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike


We have mentioned saddles before, which are a huge part of being comfortable on your bike. With the wrong saddle, riding can be a pain, literally. Finding the right saddle however, can be quite the task with about five to six major saddle brands for mountain bikes. Then within those brands are anywhere from three to ten models each, and suddenly you have a list of five dozen choices. Luckily, we have a few saddle videos to help you narrow down the list, like top 8 mtb saddles explained, WTB Saddle Fitment. Personally, I found my favorite saddle a few years ago and have never strayed. When I ride demo bikes or test bikes that do not have my preferred saddle,  I can never quite get comfortable. So saddles can be looked at as an upgrade, or a necessity. Either way, it’s indubitably a good investment to find the right saddle for you. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Brakes & Larger Rotors

Upgrading your brakes or getting larger rotors can also make a huge difference in performance. Without brakes you can trust, it’s hard to ride downhill with confidence. It’s very common now to “over brake” your bike, meaning putting trail brakes onto a smaller travel XC bike or putting downhill brakes onto your trail or enduro bike. For instance, I have SRAM G2’s on my Revel Ranger, that is a 115/120mm xc type bike, but I have trail level brakes on there. Also my Revel Rail has SRAM Code RSC brakes that are technically SRAM’s DH brake, both bikes have more brake than what typically bike be spec’d, there isn't much weight gain but you get loads of braking power so you can ride fast and stupid!

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Hubs/Hub Engagement

This is where we get into the more high dollar upgrades, things that might not be a huge game changer, and not something we would say takes priority over fixing annoyances or making comfort changes. Upgrading your hubs certainly falls into this category, even though it can make for a pretty great improvement. When you upgrade your hubs, a few things happen: you typically improve rolling resistance, sometimes you shed weight, and for me, on a trail or enduro bike, the most important thing is to improve your hub’s engagement. Most stock hubs don’t have the best engagement, meaning when you go to pedal forward, there is a “dead zone”. It takes the hub a few degrees to have the pawls engage internally and start to move the wheel forward. When you improve your engagement, you decrease the degrees needed to start moving your hub forward, which can be helpful in technical climbing sections or when trying to throw a quick pedal in on a downhill stage. Most of the time, an upgrade like this will require a new hub, however, if you have a ratchet driven DT Swiss hub or wheel, you might be in luck. DT Swiss sells a star ratchet upgrade for either 36t or 54t upgrade over the normal stock 18t. Lots of stock DT Swiss wheels come with this ratchet style engagement, making it super easy to upgrade. What happens when you go from an 18t star ratchet to a 54t star ratchet? Well, at 18t you are at about 20 degrees engagement (360/18=20), and when you upgrade to the 54t you drop that down to 6.6 degrees (360/54=6.66). This is a pretty noticeable improvement for only $100 or so. If you are not able to do a DT Swiss upgrade like that, I would recommend going with some Industry 9 Hydra hubs, or even their entry level hub on the 1/1. The Hydra has some of the highest engagement on the market at 690 points of engagement, and the 1/1 has 90 points. Both are amazing hubs to upgrade on your bike. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Wheels, Lighter or Stronger

Going along with hubs, upgrading your entire wheelset can prove to have some significant improvements. While they are further down the list as they are more expensive and you can make quite a few other upgrades before wheels, I think having the correct wheel for your riding discipline is huge. There are a few things to consider when choosing a new set of wheels. Do you want wheels that are lighter weight, stronger, stiffer, or wider? You can typically get two of those but rarely all of those different options. If you are on an XC or light trail bike, I would look into getting a lighter and wider wheel. Wheel and tire weight are really the only weights I look at since it’s what you feel the most. There’s not much else that feels better than getting up to speed out of a corner with some light and fast wheels and tires. But if you are looking for some stronger, stiffer wheels, then weight might not be on your list. Some of our favorite wheels to upgrade to are Industry 9 Enduro 305 wheels, Industry 9 Enduro 1/1 wheels, or the Revel RW30 wheels with either I9 Hydra or 1/1 hubs. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Drivetrain, More Range, Lighter or Fancy Colors

Most bikes now come with some pretty solid drivetrain options. We are at the point where you can get either SRAM or Shimano entry level 1x drivetrains and have them work really well. SRAM NX or Shimano Deore is significantly better than some of the higher end drivetrains available just 10 years ago. But if you want to upgrade to a nicer version for either weight, precision, or just looks, the options are out there. Our favorite is going to be SRAM X01 or XX1 with colored chains and cassettes. It's hard to beat some of the new colors like the Copper or Rainbow finish of the SRAM Eagle cassettes and chains. If you need help knowing what level drivetrain to choose from, we have a video on both SRAM drivetrains as well as Shimano drivetrains, and they both include everything you need to know.

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Suspension Upgrades or Tuning

Last is suspension, and while it might be the last on the list here, where it lands on your list is totally dependent on your bike. Again, MTB suspension has come such a far way in the past few years that anything within the last three years will be better than the highest end from eight years ago. But if you want to upgrade your fork or rear shock, there are lots of options. Fox and RockShox kill the suspension game, with new enduro forks like the Fox 38 and the RockShox ZEB raising the bar up a notch from anyone else. But something else you can do to improve your suspension without buying an entire new product is learning how to tune it. Most air suspension systems allow you to tune the amount of volume in there by adding volume spacers. You can make the volume chamber smaller, thus making it more progressive to bottom out. It only changes the last 40% of your travel, but man can it make a night and day difference. I put volume spacers in all of my bikes, especially my rear shocks, sometimes making them as progressive as possible. If you have any questions on volume spacers let us know and we can let you know if there is an option for your suspension. Lastly to help with tuning is the use of this cool little tool called the ShockWiz. The ShockWiz can connect to any air shock and give you data and recommendations based on your setup. It connects to an app and gives you all sorts of information to help you tune in your suspension better. We happen to also have a video on using the ShockWiz as well, so check it out. 

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

5. Older Bike Caution

The final thing to note is how old your bike might be and to be cautious on how much you spend on MTB upgrades. If your bike happens to be about five to seven years old or older, then this might apply to you. It’s not to say your bike isn't good or not worth it, but we are saying be cautious because buying a fork or wheels might only work on your bike and nothing newer. Hub spacing and fork type have all changed a lot since then and might make your new parts incompatible with anything modern. With how much money you might spend on say a drivetrain and wheels, you could possibly buy a new bike that has modern parts and specs and might be even better than your bike with the new upgrades you plan to put on it. 

Final Thoughts:

So, there are a lot of small bits to check out when making some upgrades to your mountain bike, and hopefully you learned what steps to take and which components to look at improving first. As we mentioned, fixing or changing parts that are annoying you on the bike should be first, and then some of the components that you will notice the most like any contact points of grips, handlebars, stems, saddles, pedals, and tires. With just changing these, you can make a bike feel totally different and improve your comfort on the bike. Then take a look at MTB components that you might want like suspension, wheels, and drivetrains. As with anything we sell and you might be confused on, please contact our amazing customer service team with any questions. We have experts and bike nerds on staff who are happy to help make sure your parts fit your bike the first time and allow you to have more time riding. That is why we upgrade our bikes, right?

How To Upgrade Your Mountain Bike

Liam Woods - Employee Spotlight

This article was written / authored by Liam Woods. Liam has been in the bicycle industry for over 10 years as a racer, professional mechanic, service manager and as of late, media and content creator. Liam has ridden thousands of different bikes, ridden countless components, tested endless MTB apparel of all kinds and written reviews on it all. He's a key piece to the Worldwide Cyclery "All Things MTB" content creation puzzle. He also makes consistent appearances on the Worldwide Cyclery YouTube channel and Instagram.

December 08, 2020

Bike Knowledge › How To › video ›

Top Products For You...