Everyone experiences sore wrists or wrist pain in their lives, especially in the world of strength training. In the great environment of our modern lifestyle, wrists seldom experience load. That’s why for many loading their wrists is an uncomfortable, often painful, or even injurious process.
They aren’t used to it – do an unknown activity too long and too frequently – and problems soon will lurk around the corner.
For me as a calisthenics enthusiast and handbalance rookie, sore wrists and wrist pain are commonplace. Nonetheless, I made progress and swapped wrist pain after doing a few pushups against sore wrists after 2 hours of standing on them and have never been severely injured in the process.
That’s why I wanna help you with what I acquired on my journey from weak-***-wrists to really-load-tolerant-wrists. This post shall address this issue and through knowledge guide you to happy wrists!
While sore wrists and wrist pain can always occur and likely will be if you are doing any kind of upper body focused sport, it can help you handle these properly. First off, let’s talk anatomy!
Wrist Anatomy is complex.1 Your forearms and hands are very complex stuff and while I know my fair share of what they’re supposed to look like from anatomy books and loads of MRIs, CT’s and X-Ray Images2, I am no Ph.D. in Anatomy. Nonetheless, if you wanna dive deeper into this topic, have a look at the footnotes, where I will link lots of interesting sources!
Keeping this in mind, I think it is important to know the most basic parts about a given thing, before trying to address it.
Bones of your wrist
First, let’s look at the bones!
They’re the rough scaffolding around which everything else is built. What I really like about the English language is that medical terms are often the same as in Latin and medical language. In German, most use horrible German words to describe them. All the bones that make up your wrist and hand are these:
2 forearm bones – the Ulna and Radius
The 8 metacarpal bones which are ordered in two rows, consisting of 2×4 bones. They’re divided into a proximal3 and distal4 row of carpal bones also called the carpus.
The Digits which consist of 3 bones each. That make 15 digit bones.
All of these bones are connected to each other in many ways through lots of different kinds of joints. Plus they’re stabilized by at least one, more often two ligaments. That’s lots of complex joints and ligament names to remember for the medicine student!
Muscles of your wrist
Next, let’s look at the muscles! This is where stuff gets a bit more complex. Most of your muscles that make up movement and produce force sit on your forearms. The tendon than runs through your wrist and attaches to the hand.
The hand has muscles too5, but these are much weaker and have other functions than those two big groups sitting on your forearms. They’re roughly grouped into:
The Flexors These muscles sit on the front of your forearm and their job is to flex the wrist. Plus, they really get taxed when in a handstand.
The Extensors These muscles sit on the back of your forearm and their job is to extend the wrist. These are the ones hardly taxed when pulling stuff.
Remember that these muscles also participate in side-bending your wrist – also called ulnar and radialdeviation, depending on the side your wrist gets moved to.
On top of that would be much more to name, like ligaments, joints, and nerves, but that knowledge would lead this wrist health post far astray from its original job. Look at the footnotes to get nerdy!
Now that we got a lot of anatomy-ground covered let’s look at the single most important point when it comes to healthy wrists!
The one thing, I found most helpful in addressing sore wrists and pain before it even is there, is a proper warmup.
Warmup your wrist every time you plan to put weight onto them!
Wrists are your most precious joints and when starting out load is for them, like Sumerian Cuneiform would be for you. And I bet you wouldn’t enjoy looking at this fascinating, though awkward, writing for a few hours a week, without attempting to understand it – which would be the warmup in this analogy.
I wanna share with you my personal wrist sequence:
This Sequence helped me a lot to warmup my wrists, prepare them for load, and scan how they feel that given day. Some days I exaggerate it by doing a second round, while on others I quickly go into my warmup sets. I would suggest the same method for you. Use it as a warmup, preparation, and radar exercise.6
It should take 5-10 minutes and addresses many positions your wrist can get into.
Perform 10-20r in each direction.
The classic of every wrist warmup! Circle your wrists slowly and take them through their full range.
This exercise can be done with your fist opened or closed. Another variation to spice it up would be to clasp your hands together and rotate them then.
Around the Worlds
Stay for ~30s in every position and load your wrist gradually
First we’ll start quadruped kneeling on your knees, as well as on your palms. We go through these 4 positions, like a clock:
Fingers facing forward
Fingers facing outward away from each other
Fingers facing backward
Fingers facing inward to each other
Stay for 30-60s in each of these positions and load your wrist gradually. Move around – sideways, forward and backward, do some rotations, or simply stay there and observe how your wrists feel on that given day. There is much room to get creative and step out of your routine!
Next you will turn your wrists around, that you stay on the back of your hands. You will go through each of the above mentioned positions and do the same. One thing to keep in mind is to be a little more cautious in this pretty unknown positions and to load carefully.
Gymnastic Big 3’s
Perform 10-15r per exercise
Knuckle Pushups are done quadruped on the floor. To do so push your fingers into the floor and elevate your wrist joint, while your knuckles remain flat on the floor.
You should feel your forearm flexors work. To make this exercise harder simply put more weight into your wrist by moving gradually from a quadruped into a plank position.
These are done quadruped, too. You roll your wrist outwards, until you are on the back of your wrists with your fingers facing inwards, towards each other. From there use your flexors to roll your wrist back up until you rest on your fists.
Try to do this movement with control and not with momentum. It can be an awkward motion at first – be sure to start slow. You can further challenge yourself by straightening out your body gradually into a plank position.
Surprisingly, these are also done quadruped!
You start resting on your fists likewise the previous exercise. From there you push your wrist forwards and kneel down on it backward. The wrist joint should move sideways through its possible motions.
Be sure to keep the load onto your wrist and as always perform each rep with intent.
Originally I encountered these 3 exercises in the forum of GymnasticBodies and read about them afterward by Kit Laughlin and others. Tom Merrick made a video in which he shows all of these 3 exercises – I highly recommend watching it, because these are hard to solely wrap into words.
Start slow on them and gradually build up from there. I would aim for 12-15r. You can make each exercise harder by moving from a quadruped stance into a plank. This way you simply put more weight onto your wrists – but remember that this is a warmup!7
Shake ‘em out and feel ready for what’s to come!
The feel good part of this warmup! Loosen your wrist up and shake them out – without a given goal of sets and reps in mind.
At this point you should’ve sensed how your wrist feel that given day and if they’re ready to bear load. If not, go through the sequence another round or start slow within your training. Or think of doing less, or avoiding stressful positions for your wrist. There are a lot of ways to show your wrist some love, if they’re not on their pinnacle of performance.
Wrist Care Methods
Let’s get on with this show your wrists some love thought! One thing I started doing each evening, when I started handstands seriously, is 5-10 minutes of Wrist Care.
This work can mean different methods and I cling with the one I feel is right that given evening. It is simply supposed to help the wrists to recover and cope better with the unknown high stress of load. Injuring your wrists is no fun!
What are these? You simply restrict the blood flow to your arm for a short period of time, while performing high-rep, low-intensity work. This way you create a deficiency in oxygen and metabolites your body quickly wants to rebalance – but can’t because the blood flow to your arm isn’t the best at this given time.
After removing the blood restriction band* after 1-2 minutes blood rushes into that arm. That’s where the name flush comes from. It is an awesome way to cope with sore wrists and wrist pain, especially when used immediately post-workout.
I encountered these Novel Movements within this video by the physiotherapist of forwardmotion. Tom Merrick also shows them in his video. This sequence consists of 2×4 exercises done with straight arms and bent arms for 10-20r each. It is very simple and solely about opening and closing your hand in a variety of different positions. It looks like the following:
Bent Arm + Straight Arm:
Extended Pulses with Palm facing you
Flexed Pulses with Back facing you
Extended Pulses with Back facing you
Flexed Pules with Palm facing you
I found this sequence especially useful to do throughout the day, while at work, at the desk or driving, for the sake of getting blood to your wrists and simply mobilize them. More blood = many benefits!
I have no clue where it comes from, but I first read about the Rice Bucketby Yuri Marmerstein. It is another way of getting more blood into the tissues of your wrists by being active and moving them. I like to use it in the evening or directly post-workout:
To do so simply fill lots of rice into a standard 10l bucket. I would buy a 10kg sack at the Chinese store of your choice to keep costs at a minimum.
The rice applies some resistance but doesn’t hinder movement.
Simply open and close your hand, move them freely around, or try drawing all the letters of the alphabet – and enjoy the pump!
A Gyro Ball* is a fun device to play with. You literally try to speed a ball inside some round object you grip by moving your wrist around circularly. It’s the same principle as above – move and get more blood into the tissues. I use the ball often as a warmup or to play around with when reading or watching NetFlix.
Learning to get the ball rolling can take some tries though.
You should get your wrist into it without having to grip it. The goal is to passively hang down from it without any contraction at the wrist joint. That’s why bars or gymnastic rings* won’t work.
Start REALLY slow. First do it while still standing on your feet, then try to stand on one leg putting more weight into the band. If that feels safe you can try to put your whole weight into it and passively hang down as a whole.
Soft Tissue Release
Soft tissue release is nothing more than the fancy sport-scientific term for massages. What you try here is to get more blood into the tissues, too. Not to loosen up some hypothetical knots.
There are a variety of ways to do so but for the wrists and forearms I found useful:
Massages by hand with a fine massage oil are the most convenient.
Massages with wooden devices are also very useful, especially to hit your flexor muscles.
Beyond that putting pressure onto your extensors with your own knee is an option, too! #whosaysmobilityisuseless
Troubleshoot your Wrists
Assessing your sore wrists and wrist pain
What can be the causes of pain?
Pain is complex. Fucking complex:
Pain can be solely your brain talking to you. It’s the brain’s native language to get your attention to a certain location.
It can be an unknown, new stimulus. Or a repetitive stimulus, like deskwork.
In rare cases, it can be a byproduct of a serious systematic illness.
Pain depends strongly on environmental and psychological factors, too.
You even have a pain memory. And body parts can hurt, because they hurt previously, although they’re fine ATM.
Or it can be real damage at some location.
That’s why most of the time pain is highly multifactorial and hard to tangle to a specific cause. Nonetheless, we suffer sore wrists and wrist pain most of the time as athletes, because we use them. That’s why I wanna cover this particular pain!
How does my pain look like?
Before you can treat something you need to know how it’s supposed to look like. To get a better picture of your particular ache, ask yourself the following questions:
What does it look like? Is it symmetrical, on both sides of a joint, or asymmetrical, at a particular point?
When does it hurt? Does it hurt all the time, even when doing something different? Or does it hurt solely in specific positions, like on the floor when in a flexed position?
How strongly does it hurt if you would rate your pain from 1-10?
How does the pain feel like? Pinching, tearing, burning, …?
Is the area red, warm, swollen,…?
Evaluate your pain and come to a solution!
With these answers at hand you can evaluate your pain and start to think of a solution:
Mostly symmetrical pain or pain at certain muscles goes away quickly. It is solely the muscle that entirely got its beating and needs some time to heal.
Asymmetrical pain, especially at the sides of joints can be a more timely thing to wrestle with and indicates damage at the passive structures. These aren’t that well perfused and need more time to heal.
If you experience pain solely in a given position, step back from it and work around it. If your wrists hurt on the floor, take your training to the parallettes* and start loading your wrist gradually, taking baby steps on the floor, as soon as the worst pain is over.
Pain treatment is complex
Most will say if you experience pain step away from it completely. While this is not wrong, it is not optimal either. It is simply the safe and legally right thing to say to anyone at any time.
Loading to aggressively causes more harm than good. It is a very effective, self-caring, long-term, and introverted approach to come back to one’s old potential stronger.
Pain Treatment – My Wrist injury as an example
In Feb 2020 I injured my wrist lightly. Handstand addiction showed its first side effects. Too much work on the floor, with the wrist in a flexed position with crappy technique – because every beginner sucks – wrecked my right wrist. Luckily, it wasn’t a bad injury:
Asymmetrical pain, on the back of my right hand
it came mostly from the tendon sheats of my second and thrid digit, which were swollen and red
The pain shot up as soon as I loaded it at first. No severe pain, but an overall 4 lasting for a long time after load and even while resting.
It was a classical inflammatory overuse injury, because of too much, too frequent, too crappy training.
I decided to treat this injury solely on my own and soaked up all science I was able to find. First, I entirely stepped back from floor work and worked solely on Parallettes and Rings the last 4 months, while doing lots of wrist rehab work. Plus, my training was entirely focussed on strength work – no handstand specific work. After about 2 weeks the worst was over and I started loading it again – carefully:
As always the goal is to come back stronger than before the injury.
In retrospect, I must admit that the approach I first learned about by Jarlo from GMB Fitness worked out very well! My load capacities slowly improved, while my pain stayed the same and eventually vanished. But it took lots of controlling myself and to not risk everything on a stupid impulse.
Now when writing this in July 2020 I slowly get back to handstands without pain and stronger wrists than ever. Not to say that my rehab process was perfect or exemplary for anything to come, but yet one successful approach.
Nonetheless, if your wrists are trashed, that sucks. Depending on the injury you can work around it or have to step back completely for some time period. Without your wrist, you can solely do leg work or leg mobility. Pullups, pushups, levers, handstands all fly out of the window at that period, when you seriously injure them and no workaround seems a wise option.
That’s the reason I always call your wrist, your most precious joint. Of course, trashed shoulders might be even worse, but unlike wrists most of the time they are used to experience some roughness. They’re surrounded by strong and big structures, unlike the tiny structures, which make up your wrist joint.
One book I can wholeheartedly advise, not only because of its wrist part, but also the many awesome explanations and routines is the Little Handbalancing Book* by Niccolo Kehrwald.
That said – better look after them before issues first occur. You might be able to dodge an injury entirely or minimize its negative effect. Who knows?
TL;DR – What to do to save me from sore wrists and wrist pain?
What can help save you from overly sore wrists and wrist pain are:
Warmup your wrists properly every timeyou place load onto them. Even do a few circles before posing in a handstand for a panorama shot. That would suck injuring yourself in that manner, doesn’t it?
Develop some kind of wrist care routine
Try not to do every session on the floor – use blocks, parallettes, gymnastic rings, and other tools available to get off the repetitive-stress-train.
Prehab is better than Rehab. Do some prehab work, not all the time, but recurringly throughout your year’s training cycles.
Be an observer: If your wrists feel trashed a given day – warm them up longer, work out on parallettes instead of the floor, or schedule an easier progression.
Happy and strong wrists are no miracle!
Alright and with this summary, I wanna wrap up and end today’s enormous long-*** post. If you’ve stayed with me until here – thanks for doing so. Really! You are the blazing counterexample standing against the accusations of our generation as the TL,DR-generation with the attention span of a fish. 😀
If you just read the summary – that’s what it’s there for. 😀
I hope my few thoughts on sore wrists and wrist pain could give you some positive and helpful input. Check out the sources and reads linked down below – especially GMB, Kit Laughlin and Yuri Marmerstein did exceptional work at pointing out this topic, too!
Anyways, stay healthy and injury-free to being able to do what you love,
Sources and further reading:
GMB’ wrist post and awesome podcast on the topic of wrist pain: They get very in-depth about the same topic as in this post, but show some slightly different exercises and talk a lot more on the rehab process within their podcast. Listen to it!
Yuri’s Post about wrist injuries: He is a very thoughtful person, as this post reflects. He approaches wrist pain from his handbalance point of view and explains all the methods he uses in very detail.
Great Posts on Wrist Anatomy Check out these two great posts on wrist anatomy by sport-health and sportsinjuryclinic. They both cover slightly different ground in varying depths but should be more than sufficient to give you a look at the wrist joint.