Maybe you’re recovering from a sprain or a strain. Or you have to stop and shake your wrists out whenever you do push-ups. Or your wrists are just screaming from the hours you spend at your computer.
Whatever the cause, wrist pain can be a serious problem.
First of all, because you need your wrists for many normal, necessary daily activities. And second, it’s hard to keep your upper body strong without pushing movements that load your arms and shoulders through your wrists—the very movements that can be excruciating with wrist pain!
Many people with wrist trouble think they only have two options: wait it out or see a professional (and you should see a professional if your problem doesn’t improve).
In this article, I’ll show you a third option: how to actively fix your wrists using a series of exercises that only take a few minutes every day.
I’ve successfully used these exercises with my physical therapy patients for years, and recently one client of ours, a sports orthopedic surgeon, let us know that he’s been using them with his patients, too:
First I’ll give you the 80/20 on how your wrists are supposed to work and we’ll quick look at what’s probably going wrong. Then we’ll get into our proven routine to help you get your wrists rocking again. Let’s get into it!
A Very Brief Overview of How the Wrist Works
Here’s a little refresher on wrist anatomy to help you understand what’s going wrong and how to fix it.
There are ten bones connected to the wrist joint. You’ve got the two coming in from your forearm (the radius on the thumb side and the ulna on the pinky side), and then eight coming in from the hand, which are called carpals.
The bones and ligaments are supportive structures of course. But just as in anything, if they are not acclimated to the forces of vigorous, repetitive training, they will lack the resilience to withstand injury. As such, ligament sprain and bone stress fractures are common problems.
Improving the capacity of our wrist bones and ligaments takes consistent, progressive, and patient work. And if you want to reduce your risk of injuries, the patience part is key.
The muscles of our forearms and wrists create the movements of flexion, extension, and radial/ulnar deviation. Hand rotations (supination and pronation) actually come from the elbow joints. So wrist “circle” exercises are a combination of elbow and wrist movements.
Our forearm and hand muscles actually have a great potential for strength improvement, as again most of us tend not to use them to their full capability.
Steady incremental strength training for the wrists can lead to significant results.
How Your Wrists are Holding You Back
There are quite a few wrist conditions (strains, sprains, tendonitis, bursitis, TFCC tears, stress fractures) that can be improved with proper wrist conditioning.
The beginning of wrist conditioning work is ensuring you have the adequate wrist flexibility to perform your training safely. You want to be able to flex and extend your wrists to at least 90 degree angles without a lot of force for most training that loads your wrists.
If your wrists can’t flex and extend properly, loading them with your bodyweight (or more) through training is like finding a stuck hinge and, instead of loosening it properly, just pushing harder and harder until something gives.
There is also quite a bit of wrist strength-endurance needed to perform bodyweight exercise, especially in exercises involving some level of hand balancing. While the common recommendation for building wrist conditioning is to spend as much time on your hands as possible, you have to work up to it, especially if your wrists already hurt.
Use These 8 Simple Exercises to Fix Your Wrist Pain
If your wrists are hurting you, you’re probably painfully aware of how much you depend on them. Sore wrists can make fun hand balancing moves look completely unreachable. Even a simple Push-Up might seem out reach. That’s why we’ve put together the following exercises.
Let’s take a look at these in detail:
1. Finger Pulses
- Place your hands on the ground in front of you, putting pressure through your fingers, with your first knuckles bent.
- Pulse through your fingers (don’t bounce).
- Do 10-30 repetitions, depending on how you’re feeling and what work you’ve got ahead of you.
2. Palm Pulses
- Put your hands flat on the ground, splaying your fingers as wide as you can.
- Pull your palms off the ground, keeping the top part of your hand and your fingers pressed into the ground.
- Pulse in and out of this 10-30 times.
3. Side-to-Side Palm Rotations
- Lift the bottom part of your palm off the ground, pressing into your fingers and top of the palm (like in the last exercise).
- This time, roll along the knuckles, placing pressure on one knuckle at a time.
- Do 10-30 of these rotations.
- Remember that you can adjust the pressure at any time by just putting less of your weight through the hands.
4. Front Facing Elbow Rotations
- From a tabletop position, place your palms flat on the ground with your fingers splayed wide.
- Now, rotate your elbow pits toward the front. This might feel a bit awkward if you’ve never practiced this before, but just think about moving from the elbow in isolation.
- This elbow position is an important part of how we teach push-ups too.
- Do 10-30 rotations.
5. Side-to-Side Wrist Stretch
- For this stretch, you’ll place your palms flat on the ground, but with your fingers pointing to the sides (away from each other).
- Shift your body from side-to-side, but as you go to the right, really press into the right side, letting the left hand relax (and vice versa).
- Try to put as much pressure through the palm as you can tolerate, but remember that this will take time to get used to.
- Do 10-30 repetitions.
6. Rear Facing Wrist Stretch (Palms Down)
- Now, instead of having your fingers facing the front or sides, you’ll rotate your wrists around so that your fingers are facing your knees.
- Start with your fingers closer to your knees (this is easier than further away).
- Keeping your palms flat on the ground, shift your body back toward your heels, then forward toward your hands.
- Repeat 10-30 times.
- If you’re having a hard time rotating your wrists all the way around, you might try doing one hand at a time, or just working at whatever level you’re at, moving gently and carefully.
7. Rear Facing Wrist Stretch (Palms Up)
- For this variation, you’ll still have your fingers facing your knees, but this time you’ll flip your hands over so that your palms are facing up.
- Shift your weight back toward your heels and forward toward your hands.
- This can be a very uncomfortable position in the beginning, so please work slowly, and only go as far as you comfortably can. You should not be moving into pain.
- Do 10-30 repetitions.
8. Rear Facing Elbow Rotations
- This last exercise uses the same position you just worked on in the last exercise, with your fingers pointing toward your knees, palms facing up.
- From that position, you’re now going to work on the elbow rotations you did earlier, focusing on rotating the elbow pits forward without moving the wrists or shoulders.
- Do 10-30 repetitions.
“What if these exercises are too uncomfortable for me?”
If your wrists are so restricted that you can’t perform the exercises as shown in the videos, don’t worry about it. You just have to adjust to your own level.
A good option is to do the exercises on a table or other elevated surface to take some of the pressure off.
And if even that is too uncomfortable, feel free to do them on a wall.
The important thing is to move within the range you can, and not to move into pain. Stop just short of where you feel pain and spend time working on the range you’ve got.
Over time, that range will increase and you’ll be doing more and feeling better.
Get Past Restrictions and Get Back to Doing the Things You LoveFeeling restricted from activities you want to do is a terrible feeling. You want to feel in control of your body, and to be confident that it can handle whatever you need it to do for you.
When your body is unencumbered by restrictions, you can feel truly free to pursue any activities you want.
Maybe you’ve wanted to take up climbing, or you’ve been hesitant to try something like grappling because you know it will put strain on your wrists. Once you free up that restriction with diligent practice, you’ll be free to take up any sport or activity. And that freedom is a beautiful thing.