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Is wrist pain cramping your workout style? Then you’ll want to read this.
The wrist is one of those areas that we don’t fully appreciate until something goes wrong.
Then poof! You’re sidelined with a wrist injury.
This small but complex area takes a lot of force during your workouts (and everyday life).
Walk away from today with easy exercise modifications for wrist pain so you can keep active and show your wrists some love.
Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes and is not medical advice. Read the full disclaimer.
To the naked eye, the wrist seems like a simple joint. But when you get under the hood, it’s complicated.
The wrist joint, aka radiocarpal joint, formed between the radius bone and the closest three carpal bones (there are eight to be exact).
A cartilage structure pads the distance between the end of the ulna and the carpals to cushion and support. The ulna doesn’t directly connect with the carpals.
How do I tell them apart? Thumbs-up, the radius is rad!
How the wrist moves
The wrist joint can flex, extend, abduct, and adduct. In other words, the hand can move up, down, in, and out.
But wait a minute! What about turning?
That’s called supination and pronation, the motions that allow you to rotate your palms up, down, turn a key, turn a doorknob, etc. The movement actually comes from the elbow and forearm, not so much the wrist.
Just remember, you supinate to hold the soup.
The forearm muscles control wrist movement. Compared to a joint like the knee, there isn’t much muscular stability. The wrist joint relies largely on ligaments to keep it together.
The carpal tunnel
Now let’s talk about a hot wrist topic (if that’s such a thing)—the carpal tunnel.
The carpal tunnel is on the palmar side of the wrist and provides a passageway for nine tendons and the median nerve to reach the hand. A thick band of ligaments covers and protects the carpal tunnel.
You often hear about the carpal tunnel inflammation with excessive typing. Constant pressure on the area or other repetitive movements can also aggravate the carpal tunnel.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can range from tingly to painful to full-blown numbness and significant loss of hand strength. (Yikes!)
The base of the thumb
A next-door neighbor to the carpal tunnel is the base joint of the thumb, AKA, the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint.
This joint is involved in every movement you make with your thumb, and it takes a lot of abuse with weight-bearing or gripping/heavy weight lifting activities.
Even if your only experience with thumb injuries is a paper cut, I think we can all agree thumb injuries are a massive pain in the butt.
Common wrist injuries
Here is the short list of wrist issues that will affect grip strength, wrist mobility, and your ability to weight bear through your arms comfortably.
- Ligament sprain
- Ganglion cyst
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Joint/connective tissue disorders
Exercises that can aggravate the wrist
Activities that most commonly aggravate wrist pain are either closed chain (when your hand is fixed), and you’re moving around that point, such as with a push-up, or with gripping/lifting activities.
These are some of the most aggravating activities:
- Heavy weight lifting, pushing or pulling
- Yoga poses that weight bear through the arms, for example, downward dog, planks, and arm balances.
Keep reading for modification and substitution ideas!
Exercise modifications for wrist pain
Here are some easy ways to modify your current routine.
Change the anlge of your wrists
Subtle changes in angles can make a position instantly more comfortable.
Limited wrist extension makes it difficult to get into the proper position for exercises such as planks or push-ups.
Try different hand placements or various attachments on a universal machine to adjust your wrist position for better comfort and alignment.
Don’t break at the wrist
Not literally “break,” but allowing the wrist to collapse into flexion or extension instead of maintaining a neutral wrist can cause issues.
It may also make you feel like you’re not as strong since muscles perform best in mid-range.
Here I’ll show you.
Hold out your hands and make a fist. Now flex your wrists first and then try to make a fist. Which position felt like you had more strength?
Decrease the difficulty
You may be super strong, but your wrists may disagree.
Try taking the difficulty level down one notch, or substitute with the same goal, for your wrists sake.
Add some padding
For some exercises, such as push-ups and dips, you can use an elevated surface like a weight bench to provide some additional padding.
Alternatively, you can fold up a towel or use a mat to add cushioning to your workout.
Decrease the weight
Are your wrists having difficulty with heavy weights?
You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Cause enough injury, and you won’t be able to hold any weights.
Avoid over squeezing weights – mind your grip.
You can consider using gloves, wrist wraps, or straps for heavy lifting.
Now I’m not an expert on heavy lifting, so here are two resources to get your search going on these questions:
Don’t work through pain
Obligatory statement but always needs to be said.
Get in tune with pain vs. sensation. You’re not doing yourself any favors by pushing through pain.
If you have difficulty with this, read Body Awareness for Injury Prevention.
Get physical therapy
If you’re dealing wist a wrist injury, don’t assume you need to suffer from chronic pain or limitations forever.
See a physical therapist or hand therapist for an evaluation and see what treatments might benefit you.
Modification & substitution options for wrist pain
If your wrists need a break, there are plenty of other ways to get your strengthening in.
Here are some examples of exercise modifications and substitutions with a similar goal.
Push-up variations for wrist pain
- Try adjusting the positioning of your hands
- Elevated push-up
- Push-up on dumbbells
- Knee push-up
- Bench press
- Chest press
- Pec deck machine
- Chest flies with dumbbells
Triceps dips variations for wrist pain
- Change the angle by pointing the fingers slightly out
- Change the surface (e.g., box vs. padded bench)
- Triceps extension pulldown
- Triceps kickbacks with dumbbells
- Overhead triceps extension
Plank variations for wrist pain
- Forearm plank
- Elevated plank
- Plank on knees
- Bear plank
Pull-up variations for wrist pain
- Bodyweight assisted pull-up
- Lat pulldowns
- Rows/barbell rows to work the back
Want more exercise modifications to swap in a pinch?
Wrist pain & yoga
Wrist pain is a common complaint in yoga during upper-body weight-bearing poses such as plank pose, downward facing dog, and arm-balance poses.
The good news is that there are many ways to enjoy a yoga practice and still protect your wrists.
Read this article for 11 ways to decrease wrist pain during your yoga practice.
You can also check out my wrist-friendly practice on YouTube (below) that has no downward dogs.
How yoga blocks can help prevent wrist pain
Yoga blocks are an easy and inexpensive way to add infinite variety and modification options to your practice. Using a block can change the angle of your wrist, so it takes less strain.
Have you ever tried downward-facing dog with blocks under your hands?
First of all, you need to make sure your mat is sticky enough that the blocks don’t shift, or you can place the blocks against the wall for security.
Alternatively, you can come down to dolphin pose on elbows or always remain in a tabletop position.
In any upper body weight-bearing position, remember to spread weight evenly through the hand and fingers, not just at the base of the wrist and thumb.
Related read: How to Use Yoga Blocks to Prevent Injury.
Wrist pain can prevent you from enjoying what you love. Try these easy exercise modifications for wrist pain the next time you’re in a pinch.
Injuries are easier to treat the earlier they’re addressed. Remember to get evaluated by your doctor or physical therapist for specifics to your pain.
Take advantage of these awesome freebies for more unique tips on fitness and injury prevention:
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