The Real Reason Your Wrists Hurt

If your wrists hurt when you work out, it's not because they're weak. Patrik Giardino / Getty Images

“I have weak wrists.” I’ve heard this excuse given countless times when someone can’t perform an upper-body exercise. I understand why pain in the wrist during a push-up or pull-up might lead you to believe your wrists are the problem, but it’s often more complicated than that.

The two common culprits I’ve found for weak wrists: mobility and stability. Lacking either or both of these can put undue pressure on your wrists and inhibit your ability to perform upper-body exercises. Here’s how to know if either, or both, are an issue for you.

Are your wrists immobile?

Mobility means your ability to get full range of motion. Here's an easy way to test yours.

  • Put your hands together in a “prayer” position so that both hands are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • Are both able to reach 90 degrees?
  • Do you still have joint play, meaning when you push your wrist back it easily moves?

If you answered no to any of those questions, then you lack mobility and need to take steps to get things moving again. These three releases will help loosen things up.

Wrist Flexor Release

  • Press two fingers or your thumb on the muscle mass located on the inside part of your elbow. To help you find it, flex your wrist inward and feel for the muscles contracting.
  • Motion 1: While maintaining a comfortable pressure, rotate your forearm in and out in a twisting motion. Repeat as necessary along the length of the forearm muscle until it feels adequately released. Spend time on more tender spots.
  • Motion 2: While maintaining a comfortable pressure, actively extend and flex your wrist up and down through its full range of motion. Repeat as necessary along the length of the forearm muscle until it feels adequately released. Spend time on more tender spots.

Wrist Extensor Release

  • Place two fingers on the back of your forearm, above the elbow. Flex your wrist backward and feel for the muscles contracting.
  • Motion 1: Flex and extend wrist while maintaining a comfortable pressure, rotate your forearm in and out in a twisting motion. Repeat as necessary along the length of the muscle until it feels adequately released. Spend time on more tender spots.
  • Motion 2: While maintaining a comfortable pressure, actively extend and flex your wrist up and down through full range of motion. Repeat as necessary along the length of the muscle until it feels adequately released. Spend time on more tender spots.

Wrist Mobilization

  • Hold one arm out and keep your elbow straight. With your opposite hand, grasp just below your wrist bones (where you'd wear a watch) and while keeping your arm straight out, pull back toward your elbow. Your arm shouldn't move, but this will decompress your wrist.
  • Continue grasping and rotate your hand clockwise and counterclockwise 1 minute or until discomfort decreases. Repeat on the other hand.

If you answered yes to the questions, you passed the mobility test and are one step closer to discovering the source of your wrist issues. Most likely, you have trouble stabilizing. And for most, the stabilization issues lie in your shoulder blades.

Do you lack stability?

There are 17 different muscles that attach to your scapula, and each plays a role in stabilizing. While this may seem like more than enough muscle to do the trick, they cannot do their job if the scapula isn’t in the correct position.

Unfortunately, the scapula tends to get stuck in a combination of all or a few of the following: upward rotation, abduction, elevation, and protraction. This could mean your shoulder blades look like they're winged out or tipped forward. (Especially noticeable when you do a movement like a push-up.)

When the scapula is out of position, it can put the lats and traps in an extreme lengthened position — picture a rubber band that has been stretched out too far and has lost its elasticity — taking away their ability to stabilize, too.

All of this means you end up overusing your extremities (like your arms) to compensate, and the force from movements that should be absorbed by your entire body is now placed on your forearms and wrists.

To take pressure off the wrists, you need to get your scapula and the surrounding muscles in proper position. Here are the exercises to get there.

Downward Dog to Plank Transition

  • In a push-up position, lift hips toward the ceiling forming an upside down V-shape. Be sure the back and both legs are straight, heels as close to the floor as possible.
  • Both hands should be splayed and facing outward. With straight arms, push palms into the ground.
  • Move back into a push-up position, wrists under shoulders, back flat.
  • Repeat this sequence for 3 sets of 15 reps.

Scapular Mobilization

  • Anchor a loop band at shoulder height, then facing away from it, loop the band around the front of your shoulder (like where a backpack strap would lay). 
  • Start with your arm straight out in front of you at shoulder height, thumb up toward the ceiling. Pull your shoulder down and back, holding it in place during this move.
  • Bring your arm backward in a reverse fly motion while attempting to squeeze your shoulder blade back and down. Bring arm back to starting position.
  • Repeat this sequence for 3 sets of 15 reps