woman holding her wrist demonstrating wrist pain with yoga
Injury Prevention

Easy Exercise Modifications for Wrist Pain

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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. 

This small but complex area takes a lot of force during your workouts (and every day life). 

Walk away from today with easy exercise modifications for wrist pain so you can keep active and show your wrists some love. 

Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free people! Read the full disclaimer.

Wrist Anatomy

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!

Anatomical illustration of the wrist and hand anatomy.
image source: urfingus / bigstockphoto.com

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 comes from the elbow and forearm. 

Just remember, you supinate to hold the soup.

The muscles that control wrist movement aren’t in the wrist itself, but further up in the forearm. Compared to a joint like the knee, there isn’t much muscular stability. The wrist relies largely on ligaments to keep it together. 

Anatomy of the forearm muscles
image source: shitii / depositphotos.com

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!)

cross section of the carpal tunnel
image source: Sakurra / depositphotos.com

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 strength, ROM, and your ability to weight bear through your arms comfortably. 

  • Tendonitis
  • Ligament sprain
  • Ganglion cyst
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Arthritis
  • Fractures
  • Joint/connective tissue disorders

Exercises that can aggravate the wrist

Activities that most commonly aggravate wrist pain are either closed chain when you 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:

  • Push-ups
  • Dips
  • Planks
  • Pull-ups
  • Burpees
  • 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 angle of your wrists

Subtle changes in angles can make a position instantly more comfortable. 

Try different hand placement or various attachments on a universal machine.

Don’t break at the wrist; maintain neutral alignment when lifting weights

Not literally “break,” but allowing the wrist to collapse into flexion or extension instead of maintaining a neutral alignment 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:

The Benefits of Wearing Weight Lifting Gloves

Wrist Straps vs. Wrist Wraps: Differences, Pros, Cons

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. 

man doing push ups on his knees demonstrating exercise modifications for wrist pain.
image source: VaDrobotBO / depositphotos.com

Modification & Substitution Options for Wrist Pain

If your wrists need a break, there’s plenty of other ways to get your strengthening in. 

Here are some examples of exercise modifications and substitutions with a similar goal. 

Push-ups

  • 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

  • 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

Planks

  • Forearm plank
  • Elevated plank
  • Plank on knees
  • Bear plank

Pull-ups

  • Bodyweight assisted pull-up
  • Lat pulldowns 
  • Rows/barbell rows to work the back

Want more exercise modifications to swap in a pinch? 

Grab the free exercise modifications guide!

Wrist pain & yoga

Wrist pain is a common complaint in yoga. 

The good news is that there are many ways to enjoy yoga and still protect your wrists. 

Make sure you start with a good quality mat that provides padding, traction, and stability to support your joints throughout your practice. 

Quality mats may appear pricey upfront, but excellent cushioning and traction will change your practice to a point where you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Plus, they last for years.

Here are some cult favorite mats that have passed the tried and true test:

Use yoga blocks

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.

You can check out Yoga Outlet’s selection of blocks here.

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, not just at the base of the wrist and thumb. 

Related read:  How to Use Yoga Blocks to Prevent Injury. 

Wrapping Up

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:

Free 5-Day Fitness Injury Prevention Challenge

Free Exercise Modifications Guide

 Featured image source: fizkes / depositphotos.com

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2 Comments

  • Denise Gardiner

    Great post! I am also going to pin this as I have osteoporosis and my doctor said I need to modify some of the exercises I do. I hurt one of my wrists years ago when using the clippers doing yard work. It can be very painful if I do too much at once. I definitely don’t want to break a bone. Thank you for sharing!

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