A physical therapist explains how to deal with workout-induced wrist pain, and avoid it in the first place.
Have you ever had to come out of a high plank not because your core was on fire—but because your wrists were? Certain strength moves put a lot of pressure on your forearms. There's good news for the sore-wristed though: Simple adjustments and smarter stretching can help you avoid that annoying ache.
"Wrist pain and discomfort during [a workout] is likely due to improper wrist positioning, overloading weak structures, or overuse," explains Paul Mostoff, the chief of physical therapy at All Sports Physical Therapy in New York City. "The tendons of the wrist can become hot, painful, inflamed, swollen, and degenerated over time—and trying to work out through the pain can turn a simple acute condition, like tendonitis, into something more serious and chronic."
Take a basic exercise like a push-up: "It keeps the wrist in an extended position while loading your bodyweight through that structure, which will increase the pressure through the carpal tunnel and the wrist joint," Mostoff says. "Do this for several sets, several times per week, and you open yourself up for some wrist discomfort and irritation, especially if your wrists aren't accustomed to that type of exercise."
Other moves that can lead to sore wrists include bench presses, squats while cradling a barbell or free weights, and bicep curls with poor form.
It's also possible that wrist pain is linked to a strength or mobility issue somewhere else, like the shoulders. "The wrists and forearms might be taking more abuse during a workout because the shoulder joint lacks mobility, so the forearm muscles compensate," says Mostoff.
If you suffer from exercise-induced soreness, read on for Mostoff's tips on easing the pain; plus his advice on strengthening your wrists so they can power through your entire resistance routine.
How to treat wrist pain
The first step (of course) is to stop doing any exercise that irritates the wrist. "You've got to cut off the inflammation and [keep] any further damage from occurring," says Mostoff.
To help your wrists heal, Mostoff recommends applying ice to the area daily, and gently massaging the muscles in the forearm to reduce tension. You might also consider wearing wrist splints to take pressure off the joints, he adds.
While the pain persists, avoid doing any stretches that put the wrist in a bent position (like Downward Dog). But once the inflammation has calmed down, stretching the forearms is another way to help release tension: "Bend the wrist up while keeping the arm and elbow straight and hold for 30 to 60 seconds," Mostoff says. "Reverse the motion and bend the wrist down and hold for another 30 to 60 seconds." To deepen the stretch, use the opposite hand to pull gently on your fingers.
Once you're ready to get back to your strength training routine, you can protect your wrists by wrapping them with athletic tape or wearing a wrist strap. (We like the wrist wraps by Stoic.) Also make sure you always maintain a neutral wrist position. "For example, if you're doing bicep curls, make sure your wrist is completely straight as you curl the weight towards your body," Mostoff says. (Can't keep your wrist aligned? You may be using too much weight.) "If you're doing push-ups, use parallel bars or do the push-up on your knuckles so your wrists are straight while you perform the exercise," he adds.
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How to strengthen your wrists
"The muscles that control the wrist are actually in the forearm," says Mostoff. You can target those muscles with what's called resisted wrist flexion and extension, and pronation and supination. Here's how to do it:
While seated on a bench, grab a dumbbell with an underhand grip (palms facing up), and rest your forearm on your thigh with your wrist hanging off your knee. Allow the dumbbell to lower as far as possible while you relax the wrist. While keeping the forearm still, raise the dumbbell back up as high as possible. Lower slowly and repeat.
"You can also perform this exercise with your palms facing down to reverse the motion and strengthen the opposing muscle groups," Mostoff says.
Another great wrist-strengthening exercise is farmer's walks: Stand tall while holding a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells on either side of your body; palms facing in. Then walk 50 to 100 feet. "Carrying the weight will help improve your overall grip strength and muscular endurance," Mostoff explains.
Finally, you can strengthen the muscles in your hands, which also support your wrists, by playing with silly putty (such as the CanDo TheraPutty set). Roll, squeeze, and spread the putty with your fingers for several minutes a day.
When to see a doctor
Call your MD or see a physical therapist if your wrist swells up, or the pain is sharp or severe, says Mostoff. Another sign it's time to seek help: The pain lasts more than one to two weeks, and doesn't improve with ice, rest, and OTC pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.