If your wrists ache after doing a downward dog or deadlift, it’s time to get them stronger and more flexible. You can do both by adding an extra five minutes onto your workouts – or at your desk during boring Zoom calls. Here’s how:
Ever had to go onto your forearms or fists during a side plank because your wrists are in so much pain? How about needing to shake them off after a downward dog or deadlift? Wrists are tricky things; we need them to do so many exercises yet even after you’ve been lifting a long time, they can feel weak and achy. So, how can we strengthen such a bony part of the body and are they really as weak as we think?
THE 411 ON WRISTS
You may think that the wrists are just the joint that attaches hands to forearms but they’re actually really complex. They’re made up of multiple joints and bones, including five carpal bones and the parts of five metacarpal bones and, yes, they can feel really sore when you’re strength training or doing yoga because they’re often weak and undertrained. Emily Harding, 365hrs E-RYT and founder of the Yeh Yoga Co, says that most of us have an imbalance between the strength and flexibility of our forearms: “The tops tend to be a lot stronger and less flexible, as so many activities involve extending the hands back towards us, while the underside of our arms tends to be a lot weaker.” If we don’t do anything to correct those imbalances, that’s where the aches creep in.
Emily flags that wrists can become sore if we’re not spreading our weight properly through the hands in “very common (but not very beginner-friendly) poses like downward dog and chaturanga dandasana (low plank). I consider both of these fairly advanced poses, however, because the shapes seem simple enough, they are included widely within most classes.”
How to strengthen wrists
With more and more of us turning to bodyweight training during successive lockdowns, “it’s more important than ever to focus on wrist strengthening techniques,” PT and athlete Alex Crockford explains. To get your wrists firing properly, the simplest place to start is making sure that your wrists are directly under your elbows and shoulders during exercises like high planks and mountain climbers, which Alex says will ensure that the stress goes through your arm at an efficient angle. Next, have a go at this really simple one-minute move before your workouts begin: spread your fingers and think about pulling the floor into your hand by bending the fingers. Repeat a few times. This will create an even load through both your hands and your wrists.
While “wrist strength does improve over time from doing floor-based exercises,” Alex also recommends doing a few “good warm-up and mobility exercises to get the wrists ready before loading,” such as the ones prescribed by Emily and Alex below:
1. Fist curls
Palm down, close your hand into a ball and make slow circles around and down – stretching the top of the forearm and strengthening the underside.
2. Tabletop stretches
Then go onto this five-move wrist circuit that Emily was recommended by a former Dutch tennis champ. “For all of these, you should aim to have the forearms out at 90° from the elbow and either hold the elbow steady with the other hand (it doesn’t want to move), or you can sit at a table and rest your forearm on a yoga block or book so that the wrist can move freely while the rest of the arm stays totally still.”
- In a tabletop position, turn the palms face down and then twist the fingers outwards and towards you (as close to 180° as is comfortable – don’t overstretch to get them all the way round though if there is resistance there!). From there, make the arms straight and strong (if you experience hyper-mobility, take a very soft bend at the elbows to avoid them going in on themselves) and gently lean backwards towards your heels. Don’t let the heel of the palm come off the floor, and hold gently and carefully for a few breaths.
- Turn the fingers 270° inward towards each other, palms still down, and then lean gently from side to side to stretch and open. If it’s too heavy to do both at once, do one hand at a time (for all of these exercises).
- From the same position, turn your palms upside down and inwards, so now the fingers point towards each other, and gently lean outwards (so lean left, to stretch right wrist and vice versa).
- Keep the palms up to the sky and flip the fingers towards you. Make sure the arms stay really straight and strong here or else you won’t feel the stretch through the top of the wrist and forearm. Lean backwards towards the heels again and gently linger in the stretch, without over-pushing it.
- At the end of a round, stop and shake it all out, move the wrists in waves and loosen them up, then if needed, repeat again – carefully!
3. Grip squeeze
The next level up is to work on grip strength, a really important indicator of general wellbeing. Various studies have found that grip strength can predict your overall strength and health, as well as your risk of cardiovascular disease. As you age, the stronger your grip, the more likely you are to survive certain diseases – so strong hands and wrists go beyond being able to do the perfect hand clean! Get yourself a stress ball and squeeze it when you’re at your desk or before you start a workout. During your workouts, Sam recommends holding a dumbbell in a standard bicep curl position and coming up to halfway with your palms facing upwards – strengthening the biceps, forearms and wrists. Then turn your hands the other way so that your palms are facing the floor and do reverse curls to strengthen the forearms and wrists. “If you’re lucky enough to have a pull-up bar, it would be great to hang from the bar – gripping as hard as you can and holding for sets of many seconds, depending on your strength.”
And once you’re done with those moves, a less stressful strengthening exercise is to give your forearms and wrists a good old massage to release tension.
Wrist injuries are quite common in yoga, and during the pandemic, Emily and many other teachers she knows picked up wrist tenderness and injury from overdoing their asana practice while demonstrating full classes multiple times a day.
“I’d like to make it very clear to everyone, you absolutely can have too much of a good thing. Yoga asana is incredible but you can overdo it – so please don’t buy into the IG movement of #YogaEveryDamnDay as saying, oh yes, you must do a super strong and advanced practice every single day.” There are other aspects of yoga you can do everyday that aren’t really powerful and that won’t put you at risk of repetitive injuries. In fact, doing too much of the same weight-loading can put us at risk of further imbalances, so Emily recommends mixing up yoga practice with weight training and pulling motions that aren’t found at all in yoga.
If your wrists are aching, don’t be scared to skip certain parts of your workout that are making them worse or to modify exercises so you can do them on your knees (for example).
Emily says that the key for moves like downward dog is in distributing the weight across the “mounds” of the knuckle points, pressing down into the first finger knuckle and the fleshy pad between first finger and thumb (something called hasta bandha or “hand lock”). “If you feel that the weight has been dumped into the heel of the palm (and often this will go a little pink or red from the pressure) when you take a down-dog, you are sending the weight and pressure into the more fragile part of the wrist, where according to Yoga International, ‘even more is at stake than just muscular tension, because the underside of the wrist is the passageway for sensitive nerves and arteries of the hand. This area is exposed and unprotected, particularly when weight rests on the wrist, and the resulting inflammation causes nerve pain and damage as well as circulatory problems.’”
When it comes to strength training, that lack of strength and mobility can also cause problems. “Wrist mobility is important because this joint is quite delicate and complex and needs to have a comfortable range of motion if you’re looking to put stress on it through training,” says Alex. Your wrists can move in various ranges compared to other joints – they can flex, extend, adduct, abduct (the movements you do when you wave) and we use our wrists all day, even when we’re not working out. And, Alex suggests, what goes on in the wrists can impact the rest of the body: “Making sure they’re mobile (and strong) will prevent further injury elsewhere in the body.”
As with most fitness-related issues, there are things we can do in our everyday lives to improve the situation. Try taking breaks from typing at your laptop during the day so that you’re giving your wrists, arms, neck and shoulders a break. Make sure that you’re not letting your wrists drag on the desk as you type – potentially putting you at risk of RSI and if you do have to stay at your desk all day, try to keep some TheraPutty or a stress ball next to you to fiddle with during tedious Zooms.
It’s worth flagging that if you experience any pain during your workouts that isn’t healed by resting, you should consult a medical professional.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.