Unless you’re an avid golfer or a diehard bodybuilder, you probably don’t spend too much time cranking out wrist curls when you hit the gym. The good news is, that’s okay. While wrist strength — specifically, the combination of grip and forearm strength — is surprisingly important to overall health (it’s actually a good predictor of nutritional status, general muscle strength, and even all-cause mortality), it doesn’t require excessive isolation work to achieve a noticeable improvement.
Floor-Based Bodyweight Exercises
Your first inclination may be to head straight to the dumbbell rack, but if wrist strength is an issue for you, floor work is your first line of defense against your weaknesses. “If mobility in the wrist is normal, then the best place to start developing wrist strength is on the ground performing ‘primal movements,’” says John Calarco, a personal trainer, former collegiate athlete, and the owner of Power Health and Performance. That's because these exercises place your wrists in a fully extended position, requiring adequate range of motion and strength to support your body throughout static and active movements.
Each of the exercises suggested by Calarco — bird dogs, crawling, and push-up-based core exercises — can be performed in a progression since they don’t require you to fully support your body weight on both wrists at once. If you already have a good base of wrist strength, add these to your warm-up before jumping into more intense exercises.
Upper-Body Balance Training
Just as balance training can improve ankle stability, it can also improve wrist stability by preventing fatigue through the small muscles of your forearms and hands while enhancing flexibility and range of motion at the joint. The concept is simple: Perform exercises like push-ups, planks, and dips while balancing your hands on top of a balance trainer, like the StrongBoard Balance, or anything else that forces your wrists to make corrections when the board shifts directions under your weight.
Mike Curry, the inventor of the StrongBoard Balance, suggests trying PT planks with tempo teeters to maximize wrist strength. Start in a high plank with your hands on a balance trainer. While keeping your core tight and your arms steady, shift the trainer side to side 10 to 20 times, forward and backward 10 to 20 times, then in a circular motion 10 to 20 times in each direction.
Strength Training With Heavy Weight
Any exercise that forces you to tightly grip and control heavy weights will do wonders for your hand and forearm strength. One important thing to remember, though, is to keep your wrists as straight as possible when supporting heavy dumbbells. Don’t allow them to flex or extend, especially during exercises like the bench press.
The farmer’s carry is one of the simplest exercises to enhance forearm strength. Just pick up the heaviest dumbbells or kettlebells you can safely manage and walk with good posture roughly 50 feet, keeping your shoulders back, head up, and core tight as you walk. Set your weights down, rest and repeat.
Other exercises that Calarco points to as prime grip- and forearm-strengthening moves include deadlifts and the kettlebell bottoms-up carry, which he calls the best wrist-builder of all. This move requires you to maintain control of an upside-down kettlebell while keeping your wrist completely straight, your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, and your triceps parallel to the ground, all while walking. It’s not an easy move to master. “You’re going to want to start with a light weight,” Calarco says, “and ‘crush’ the kettlebell handle as you stabilize for maximum benefit.”