Pain in the wrists can feel very limiting when it comes to doing any sort of upper body strength training. Doing a basic bodyweight push up can be a no-go, for instance… so what in the world are you supposed to do?
With a flood of research highlighting the benefits of strength training, especially for over 50’s… the inability to participate due to pain or weakness in the wrists can feel frustrating to say the least.
But there are some workarounds and exercises that still build muscle, without putting as much pressure on the wrist joints.
Below, we’ve got 6 strength-based exercises that are worth considering if you’re looking for a wrist-friendly workout.
Custom exercise recommendations
The best exercises for you may depend on why you’re looking for a wrist-friendly workout, for example, whether you have arthritis or perhaps recovering from an injury. As a result, we’d recommend seeking a consultation with a Physical Therapist to get to the root cause of your pain or discomfort before starting any new workout plan.
Wrist-Friendly Workout Exercise List
- Forearm Plank/Side Plank – Strengthens abs and obliques
- Modified Push Up – Strengthens chest, triceps and shoulders
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Chest Press – Strengthens chest, triceps and shoulders
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Tricep Extension – Strengthens triceps
- Air Punches – Strengthens biceps, shoulders, back and core
- Banded Lat Pulldowns – Strengthens back and biceps
Wrist Friendly Workout for Upper Body Strength
|Forearm Plank||Hold for as long as possible x 3 sets|
|Modified Push Up||8-15 reps x 3 sets|
|Neutral Grip Dumbbell Chest Press||8-15 reps x 3 sets|
|Neutral Grip Dumbbell Tricep Extension||8-15 reps x 3 sets|
|Air Punches||30 seconds x 4 rounds (30 sec rest between rounds)|
|Banded Lat Pulldowns||8-15 reps x 3 sets|
Forearm (Low) Plank Variations
A high plank, which involves resting on your hands, can put unwanted pressure on the wrists. A simple modification is to opt for a low plank where you rest on your forearms.
This doesn’t require your wrists to support any of your bodyweight.
From this low plank position, you can also include other movements to add progression, such as lifting alternating legs as a way to engage your lower body too.
A side plank is another great plank variation that will further engage the obliques and develop better hip stability. You could also do side planks with the opposite arm extended in the air too, further engaging your shoulders and arms.
Modified Push Up
The traditional bodyweight push up can be tough on wrists, especially if you’re doing high repetitions.
Performing push ups on a bar allows you to keep your wrists straight, which may reduce the discomfort.
You could also consider doing kneeling push up on a bar as another way to regress the movement.
We also like doing incline push ups as way to ease into full push ups too… as your body is supporting less weight.
If you find using a bar is more comfortable, you can also use this to perform other push up variations such as a pike push up, to engage the shoulders and upper chest more.
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Chest Press
If modified push ups are still a go-no, a neutral grip chest press (using some form of resistance, such as a dumbbell), will help strengthen the chest without requiring you to support your bodyweight.
In a supine (lying on your back) position, you can opt for lighter weights and use slow, eccentric repetitions to leverage time under tension training principles to build muscle.
This might be a good option for those struggling to support their bodyweight during a push up or kneeling push up, as you can select light weights and slowly work your way up.
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Tricep Extension
A tricep extension, using a dumbbell, is another useful way to challenge your muscles without putting pressure on your wrists.
You can either do them seated, standing or lying on your back, so you don’t need to support your bodyweight during the movement.
You can also experiment with different grips to find the most comfortable option.
Air punches are surprisingly effective at getting the heart racing and blood pumping to the arms, shoulders and back.
Even without hitting a punch bag, the very motion of holding your arms up and continuously punching at a high tempo will mean you feel the burn.
You could also incorporate squats or lunges too, to turn the movement in a full-body workout itself.
If your wrists allow for it, you could try holding some light dumbbells too.
Banded Lat Pulldowns
Banded lat pulldowns allow you to build muscle and strength in the back.
You can also modify your grip so you disengage your wrists by hooking your fingers around the handle, as opposed to gripping it by using your thumb too. By using a hook grip, your wrists and forearms will take less of the load and your lats will take more… which is ideal for those wanting to build muscle in the upper body without putting pressure on the wrists.
Banded lat pulldowns also allow you to leverage eccentric repetitions too.
Tips for Maximizing Strength and Limiting Impact on Wrists
Creating an effective low impact workout isn’t just about the exercises you choose to do… the tempo that you perform the movements, for example, can also be adapted to better suit those wanting to reduce impact on joints.
Below, we discuss a few things to consider.
Leverage Eccentric Training
Eccentric training is a simple, but incredibly effective, approach to strength training. It basically involves a slower “lowering” phase of a movement. This is proven to be where a lot of the muscle breakdown (and consequent growth) happens.
This is great news for those wanting a low impact strength workout, as it means you don’t need to worry about lifting heavy weights to progress… but instead, you can incorporate slow repetitions to keep the muscles working hard and growing, without needing to put extra pressure on your joints by selecting weights that are heavy.
Stretching and Recovery
Rest and recovery are key components of any strength training routine.
Ideally, you want to schedule in rest days between your workouts, so your body has time to recover.
In these rest days, try and do plenty of stretching and mobility movements to ensure your body is ready for the next strength workout.
You’ll also find it beneficial to include lots of wrist and forearm stretches before you do your workout to help warm-up the muscles and joints.
“Low impact” means different things to different people… for some, they can’t put any sort of pressure on their wrists due to something like arthritis, so workouts need to be adapted much more compared to someone who is perhaps recovering from an injury and in the final stages of their rehabilitation program.
Ultimately, your workout needs to reflect your goals and your ability.
This is why working with a Physical Therapist is always a good idea.
It can be useful to experiment with different movements and see for yourself which ones feel better for your wrists.
Subtle changes, such doing a hammer curl, compared to a bicep curl (which look very similar), might change how your wrist feels during the workout.
Similarly, you may find trying to disengage your wrists via different grips helps, especially in “pulling” movements. To do this, hook your fingers around the weight you are pulling, for example, during a dumbbell row, and don’t grip it with your thumb. This lessens the involvement of the wrists and forearms during the movement.
If you have access to a gym, you may also find some equipment doesn’t require you to engage your wrists compared to using free weights too.
Work on Forearm/Wrist Strength
If you’re returning from injury, once you feel comfortable with wrist-friendly workouts, you may benefit (with the guidance from a Physical Therapist), from forearm/wrist strengthening exercises.
There are also specialist tools and forearm exercise equipment that might help too.
Building upper body strength is beneficial, whatever your age or gender. It is associated with improved longevity and reducing the risk of all sorts of cardiovascular diseases.
The exercises listed in this article are some modifications that might help reduce the pressure and load put on your wrists during workouts.
Despite these exercises being carefully thought out, we would recommend seeking the advice of a Physical Therapist if you have any doubts or concerns before starting any sort of strength-based workout routine.