Sore Wrists During Push ups? Let’s Fix That.

Think back to the last time you saw someone bust out a set of push ups: what did they do when they were finished?

There’s a good chance it was something like this:

It’s such a common reaction that many yoga and Pilates classes now regularly include the cue to “shake out the wrists” after push ups, chaturanga, or arm balances, as though pain in the wrist joint was a perfectly normal part of these exercises.

It isn’t.

And when, perhaps, you complained to a trainer or therapist about your wrist pain, maybe they told you it was a weakness issue. Just strengthen those wrists (whatever that means) and the pain will subside! Well, did it?

I think not

My incredulous face just isn’t as effective as his.

That, or they offered you a modification so that you didn’t have to worry about it, like bearing weight on your fists instead, or propped up on dumbbells. This will work in the moment, but it’s still predicated on the idea that the only thing you can do with aching wrists is try to ignore them.

Well, like the vast majority of joint aches you’ll ever experience, wrist pain during weight bearing is a simple, mechanical issue that’s actually pretty easy to fix.

The Problem

Here’s your wrist in palmar flexion:

Photo 30-10-13 12 41 50 pm This is palmar extension, or dorsiflexion . . .
Photo 30-10-13 12 41 55 pm . . . which is, obviously, the position of your wrist while you’re doing a push up. What you might not know is that, what looks like a pretty straightforward hinge has a significant component of rotation. In particular, dorsiflexion of the wrist requires (or causes, depending on which direction the force is traveling) internal rotation, or pronation, of the forearm.

Many thanks to the very patient but understandably confused waitress who agreed to take this picture.

Many thanks to the very patient but understandably confused waitress who agreed to take this picture.

So, if your forearm isn’t rotating enough, your wrist isn’t dorsiflexing enough. And if your wrist isn’t dorsiflexing enough, bearing weight on it feels awful.

The Solution

The Breakdown

This is a human hand:

Photo 1-11-13 3 21 09 pm

And these are the radius and scaphoid bones:

Photo 1-11-13 3 25 59 pm

This is the same human hand from a viewing angle rotated roughly 90 degrees to the right:

Photo 1-11-13 3 27 18 pm

Now, do you see that pointy bit at the end of the radius that looks kind of like an arrowhead pointing toward the fingers? Well, like any sharp, pokey thing, sticking it in the wrong place hurts.

And that’s why the scaphoid has a track built right into its contours that is perfectly tailored for the radius. Maybe you can see it there in the grooves etched into the bone. No?

Photo 5-11-13 10 25 30 am

How about now?

What you also might notice is that the point of the radius isn’t, at the moment, directly pointing at the notch where it is so clearly intended to fit. Well, what would happen if you rotated that radius to the left a few degrees, you know, like in that video you just watched?

aha_momentWith that rotation comes the freedom to dorsiflex the wrist as far as you please. Without it, the radius—with its hooked, sharpened end—is left to grind the surrounding soft tissues into pulp, which is roughly as pleasant as it sounds.

What’s more, dorsiflexion of the wrist is mechanically similar to dorsiflexion of the ankle, in that it provides the initial leverage which drives upper-body strength. In addition to ridding yourself of that unpleasant stabbing sensation, you’ll be tapping into a whole new source of badass.

You may remember these from last time. This one's a little harder to decipher, but it's the palm of your hand with all the fingers removed demonstrating the leverage of the capitate bone over the rotation of the radius

You may remember these from last time. This one’s a little harder to decipher, but it’s the palm of your hand (with all the fingers removed) illustrating the leverage of the capitate and scaphoid bones over the rotation of the radius.

And we haven’t even talked about tendons or muscles yet! You can be sure, though, that their shape, position and function are all based on this structural relationship.

Be aware that, as you’re experimenting with this, a lot of new, interesting things will happen in the elbow and shoulder. Keep the focus on the wrist for a bit and just try to make things comfortable. Remember: one thing at a time! Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

Need More Help?

Check out these follow up articles, also on how to make the wrists more comfortable and more powerful!

What You Don’t Know About Upper-body Strength

Wrists Still Bothering You? Try This.

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41 thoughts on “Sore Wrists During Push ups? Let’s Fix That.

  1. You are an absolute genius! After taking mammalian physiology, vertebrate biology, and many human anatomy course I have no idea how I did not make the connection. THANKS!

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  3. Thanks very much for this!!

    Can you tell my why I would now have shoulder discomfort after making the correction you describe in this article?
    I’ve never had shoulder discomfort with push-ups, so it’s a mystery for me.

    • The short answer, Allan, is that you are inadvertently internally rotating your shoulder while attempting to internally rotate your wrists. It’s an easy mistake to make!

      Try this: while using the “knuckle spiral” technique discussed in the video, try shifting your center of gravity forward—essentially moving your plank forward over the hands. While you do this, your wrists should flex/compress and your upper arm bones should automatically roll out. This will make you feel like your chest is lower to the ground than usual; correct this by straightening the arms using power from the tricep.

      I know that seeems like a lot of instructions for something that should be pretty simple, but try it a couple times and see what happens. The end result should be significantly more flexed wrist and a lot of work coming form the obliques, mid back and triceps.

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  5. I dont understand why its not working. I tried what you said but I still have pain. I don’t think I’m doing it right. It’s hard to tell. I dont know what Im doing.

    • It can be difficult to change your movement patterns, Megan; it’s a perfect example of “simple but not easy.”

      Can you tell me where you’re having the pain, specifically? Maybe I can help troubleshoot some solutions!

      • Looking at the diagram above, I think its around the scaphoid. I tried doing pushups yesterday and it hurt and now its been hurting all day today and I havent done any pushups.

          • I figured out what I was dong wrong. One, I was doing it on a hard surface (don’t know if that matters) but I switched to a mat. And two, I would rotate my knuckles but when I would go down in the push up, I would switch my weight back towards the outside of my hand. This time, I made sure to keep them rotated through the whole pushup and now I’m pain free! Thank you!

  6. This is awesome. I have been trying to fix this problem forever. My pain usually comes in the outer part of the wrist thru the pinky and can last for days. Just tried your solution and it felt much better and like you said I felt stronger doing the pushups! I do notice like Megan above that its something you have to keep focused on as you go down in the pushup because it is easy to rotate back out if you don’t pay attention. I think I may have actually been exacerbating the problem by trying to put the force of the push up on the outside of my hands. Anyway, thanks so much. Going to keep poking around here and see what else I can learn!

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  8. Very interesting, I like your approach to this. I’ll try this method out next time I try pushups, which I gave up doing after a slip and fall on my dorsally flexed hand. I have sharp pain on the radial side of my wrist when bearing weight, the pain is in the scaphoid area and wondering how to get my range of motion back. Any ideas?

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  10. I’m trying it even just pushing on the chair I’m sitting on, and it still hurts my wrist a lot. It’s maybe a bit better than not trying, but I still wouldn’t want to put my body weight on my wrists like that. Is it possible I’m not “spiralling” properly?

  11. Wow! Thank you so much! A few months back I got surgery on my left hand and wrist to fix a cut tendon and now that I’m all healed up I’ve been trying to train to eventually join the Navy. I started to get scared that this wrist pain would keep me from ever being able to join. Thank you, again!

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  13. This is the solution to all my push-up problems! I thought I just had “weak wrists” and would have to muddle through. Now I feel comfortable in the push-up position and find that I’m engaging my muscles more effectively. Huzzah! Thanks a million.

  14. Interesting article, I’m not quite bright enough to absorb it though, perhaps you can give your thoughts on a problem?

    If a person has wrist pain during sex. (early 30′s, average libido, just below average fitness, good BMI) I’m wondering if the problem is that addressed by this article? I don’t understand exactly what this article says should be done, it sounds like simply rotating the forearm (and therefore hand/wrist) a little bit one way or another?

    The pain is at the wrist, and it happens only when applying weight onto the hands in either “palmar extension”, or on fists (knuckles). Does this sound like the problem described in the article? And/or are there other likely explanations?

    • If I understand you correctly, yes, the pain you are experiencing—and it’s solution—would be the same as what’s described in the article/video.

      The main point is to try to get the “inside” of the hand (where the thumb and index finger meet) to stick to the ground. Note that this will be more challenging on a soft, cushy surface. Try the technique on a hard surface and see if that makes it easier to absorb.

      Good luck!

  15. Hello, thanks for the video, it helped a lot. I’m doing the 100 push-ups program so I’m ready for the army, but I noticed when I turn my knuckles in, my elbows flare out. Am I doing it wrong?

  16. Wow i was amazed by how this actually worked, ive always wanted to drop down and do 20 but i couldnt get past 5 on a normal day just cause my wrist hurt and id rather just go bench press i just tried this and although it did feel weird, i didnt feel pain, and i really felt my muscles working , thanks alot!

  17. Note: I usually do them on my fists. I’ve discovered that I can do them on my hands if I sort of claw my fingers so my palm doesn’t quite touch the ground, but it’s hard to maintain that grip for long. Not sure if that’s relevant to whatever’s going on with my wrists.

    • I’d need to chat with you to get a better understanding of what may be going in here before offering any further advice. If you’d like to have a Skype meeting you can add me at kevin.smarterstrength

  18. Good stuff! It’s amazing how simple the solution for such a pervasive problem is. I’ve had wrist pain for so long and I’ve done this for 2 days in a women’s push-up on my knees because my wrists are too weak for normal push-ups, and it’s been really helpful. So thanks for this post.

    I wanted to ask a few more details.

    1. You’ve hinted at the things that will happen to elbow and shoulder, and I am wondering whether the wrist pain from a very externally rotated wrist (in push-ups only my pinky finger touches the floor) could cause the elbow to rotate/abduct into a valgus elbow position and/or an internally rotated, forward shoulder? I know there are many reasons for those two issues and the causation could be the other way round, but I’m just asking about it in theory. I will keep using this exercise and see what happens.

    2. Would it make sense to “explore the corners” in this wrist drill as is often recommended for hip mobility exercises? like internally rotate the wrist and instead of stretching straight forward like you did in the video, stretch diagonally?

    • “[would] wrist pain from a very externally rotated wrist . . . cause the elbow to rotate/abduct into a valgus elbow position and/or an internally rotated, forward shoulder?”

      Yes! Good instincts. The trick is to try to position the spine (and by extension, the center of gravity) further forward in space, relative to the position of the hands. Trying to apply a moment forward through the spine will naturally externally rotate the humerus, countering the valgus position.

  19. Doing this actually makes the pain in my hand worse. With that information do you have any other advice on hand/wrist pain while bearing weight on your hands.

    • Most frequently, when the technique isn’t working as planned, it’s the following:

      At the top of the pushup—the basic plank position—it’s easier to get the wrist and hand into the arrangement described in the video. However, as you descend in your push up, the ability to maintain the “knuckle spiral” gets more challenging. What’s more, the general effort of the pushup takes focus away from good hand positioning.

      Next time you try it, ensure that the hand and wrist remain flat and spiralled for the duration of the descent. In fact, make connection of the first finger to the ground the limiting factor in your pushup. Going lower than your wrist can stabilize isn’t functionally useful.

      I hope that helps! If you need more tips/coaching, feel free to find me at kevin.smarterstrength on Skype and we can talk it through in real time.

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  21. I tried this and I certainly do feel better, but I can still easily injure meself from doing everyday actions where I don’t bend my wrist, like holding a heavy (well it was just a large textbook) object parallel to the ground. Am I holding my wrist wrong in this situation or do I just have really weak wrists?

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