Last updated on January 8th, 2023 at 04:19 pm
There are few better bodyweight exercises for chest and core development than push ups.
However, an issue that many of us face when doing push ups is sore wrists.
In fact, the pain can feel insufferable, and almost as though your wrists are going to snap in half.
So, let’s look at why you get wrist pain and how to fix this.
The major reason that your wrists hurt when doing push ups is that you’re putting all your weight onto your wrists. However, if you activate your hands, fingers, and forearms properly, this takes a huge amount of stress off the wrists. Furthermore, this may point to a muscle imbalance in the wrists, especially if you perform lots of wrist extension exercises, e.g push ups, but hardly any wrist flexion exercises, e.g pull ups.
Use Your Hands & Fingers to Relieve Stress on Your Wrists
You’d think performing a push up is pretty straightforward.
I mean, you simply get down to the floor, into position, and then start pumping put reps.
But, as with all exercises there are certain form factors you should adhere to, and even an exercise as simple as push ups has these too.
I would say that the main issue with feeling your wrists during push ups comes down to not activating your hands, fingers, and even your forearms.
Sounds weird, right?
Let me explain.
Basically, most people will plant their hands onto the ground and then “support their weight” through the heel of the hand.
However, doing this immediately places a great deal of stress on the wrists, hence the reason for wrist pain.
Okay, to combat this, firstly you want to spread your fingers, which automatically activates them.
Personally, I even “screw” my hands into the ground, my aim is to have my index fingers pointing straight ahead, or even slightly out to the sides.
And the main pressure applied, where I push down, will be on the pads of the palm where your fingers meet your palm.
This immediately means that your body weight isn’t being completely supported by your wrists.
That said, you may notice that it feels uncomfortable for your fingers and your forearms.
But, this is simply because you’re not used to using this method, but don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it.
As for the heel of your hand, although it should be in contact with the ground, this should be very light.
In fact, it’s almost as though you’re trying to leave a gap of 1mm between the heel of your hand and the ground.
Performing push ups in this way takes the stress off your wrists and moves it forward slightly, as your hands, fingers, and forearms work with each other to take up the strain.
Your Wrist Pain Could Be Caused By a Muscle Imbalance
It’s no secret that pain felt during exercise can often be attributed to a muscle imbalance.
It’s actually no difference for your wrists.
The most common form of wrist muscular imbalance comes from overuse of wrist extension and not enough wrist flexion.
Just so you’re aware, push ups cause wrist extension.
Okay, so wrist extension occurs when you pull your fingers back.
So, try this now, hold your hand out in front of you, palm facing the floor, and with your other hand pull your fingers towards you.
The strain you feel there (apart from in your fingers obviously) is what wrist flexion is, and the position you typically hold throughout push ups..
Wrist flexion would involve your wrists bending down, although this is best felt when your palms are facing up and you curl your wrists in towards you.
Some of the best exercises that promote wrist flexion are pull ups (or even just hanging from a bar), farmer’s holds/walks, wrist curls, bicep curls, etc.
Essentially, if you’re always performing push ups, but rarely go near these other exercises, then this is what is causing the issue.
Let’s face facts, not very many people are capable of performing more pull ups than push ups.
So, in order to “even things out” it makes sense to perform some of these movements.
Even simply hanging from a bar on a daily basis will do wonders to improve wrist flexion and even out that muscular imbalance.
Push Up Modifications to Reduce Wrist Extension
Okay, I’m going to give you 5 push ups modifications, each of which either reduces wrist extension or are far more comfortable for the wrists.
However, these shouldn’t be viewed as permanent changes.
The point being, your wrists hurt from push ups due to either incorrect form or a muscle imbalance.
So, clearly these need to be fixed.
Therefore, you either need to start involving your hands, fingers, and forearms more when doing push ups, or work on wrist flexion resistance-based exercises.
That said, for now, while you’re learning to make these corrections, you can use the following modifications.
This simply involves placing a pair of weight plates on the floor.
You then place the heel of your hands on the weight plates, but have your fingers hanging over the front.
Admittedly, this position doesn’t actually reduce wrist extension, but it places far less stress on the wrist flexors.
If you’ve struggled with wrist pain from push ups in the past you’ll immediately notice the difference when your palms are on weight plates.
Fists/Knuckle Push Ups
Performing push ups on your fists will once more relieve a huge amount of tension from your wrists.
The main reason for this actually comes down to your hand and wrist position.
Basically, your wrists will be in a neutral position.
This is much the same as when you perform any exercise with a “hammer grip”, e.g. pull ups, hammer curls, trap-bar deadlifts, etc.
In truth, this is the safest position for the wrists, and the one that places the least amount of stress on the wrist flexors and extensors.
Granted, performing knuckle push ups can be uncomfortable, so feel free to make it easier by placing your fists on something soft, such as a towel.
And while I’m on the subject of towels, this is yet another way to relieve some of that wrist pressure.
I guess you could say that this is very similar to using weight plates, but obviously softer on the hands.
When your hands are on towels you’ll reduce the angle of wrist extension, which will provide relief.
Infact, the more you fold the towel, therefore the thicker the towel is, the more relief you will feel.
This is actually a fantastic way to progressively overload the wrist extensors over time.
So, as an example, you may start off by folding a towel numerous times, performing push ups for x number of days per week.
The following week you reduce the number of folds, thus meaning the towel is folded thinner, and your wrists are slightly more extended than the week before.
The aim is to eventually have trained your wrists enough that you can perform push ups towel-free.
Using dumbbells for modified push ups is without doubt my favourite way.
Firstly, dumbbells allow you to place your wrists in that all-important “neutral” position.
So, that immediately tells you that this will feel more comfortable than regular or knuckle push ups.
However, you have the added bonus of being able to place the dumbbells in different positions, so that you’re hitting your target muscles from a variety of angles.
I would always suggest using hex dumbbells over round ones, as they provide better stability.
And if you don’t have access to dumbbells you can use kettlebells or parallettes.
TRX or Rings
Your final option for modified push ups is definitely the most difficult, namely TRX or rings.
Once more, this allows you to place your wrists in a neutral position.
However, stability will definitely be an issue, any excess wobble could be a sign of weak stabilizing muscles, and of course, a weak core.
So, unfortunately this may not be an option for some.
That said, practising and getting used to using the TRX or rings for push ups will do great things for your both athleticism and muscularity.
- Don’t support your weight through the heels of your hands. This immediately puts a great deal of stress on the wrists.
- Activate your fingers, spread them wide, have your index fingers pointing straight ahead. “Push down” on the pads on your palms where your fingers meet your palm.
- Wrist pain can be caused by a muscle imbalance. You need to strengthen and improve your wrist flexion. Perform exercises like pull ups, dead-hangs, farmer’s carries, bicep curls, wrist curls, etc.
- Perform push up modifications, especially where your wrists are placed in a neutral position, e.g. knuckles, dumbbells, TRX, rings, etc.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.