Overcoming Handstand Wrist Inflexibility (and Pain!)

Handstand Wrist Pain

With several thousand handstand challengers now, I get a lot of people who come to me with the same questions: “My wrists are too inflexible for handstands!  How can I fix this?” or “I have wrist pain or hand numbness when performing handstands, what can I do to overcome this?”.  And for the longest time, I needed to tell those people to seek out a good wrist mobility program, or to see a qualified healthcare pro.  Then I remembered I knew Jarlo Ilano from Gold Medal Bodies, a qualified and practicing physical therapist (MPT) since 1998 and board certified orthopedic clinical specialist (OCS)!!  I reached out to him for advice to give to handstand challengers and enthusiasts, and he wrote this terrific post to help you guys out.  Take it away Jarlo!

Wrist and hand pain is a common complaint for many people as they begin handstand work, especially for those that haven’t been involved in consistent weight-bearing activities on their hands. Which is to say, the majority of people!

It’s completely natural to have discomfort as you begin handbalancing training. You are simply not used to supporting your bodyweight through your hands.

It’s often a simple matter of spending the proper amount of time and activity in conditioning and strengthening the wrists and hands.

BEGIN WITH THE FUNDAMENTALS

Your best bet for avoiding wrist problems is prevention because injuries to this area are often long lasting and can make you more vulnerable to re-injury. Wrist pain can derail your training and stop your progress in its tracks.

The key is to find the proper amount of time and activity. Too little won’t prepare you and too much can lead to injury.

A quick internet search reveals a wide variety of wrist exercises, some better than others, and only a few specifically useful for handstand preparation. But before you follow the recommendation of any famous handstand guru, you’d be best served to start at the beginning.

Work on the primary wrist motions of flexion and extension in weight bearing…THEN build strength and flexibility with flexion and extension alone, before moving on to “preparation” activities that may be inappropriate for you. Those advanced “preparation” exercises often require personalization and modification to fit your needs.

wrist flexion extension

If you are trying to perform a handstand, but can’t extend  your wrist (bend it backwards) to at least 90 degrees without a lot of force, then you are already setting yourself up for problems.  You are basically attempting to place your entire bodyweight through an inflexible structure.

The same goes for wrist flexion (bending it forward). Though it is not the same position as in a handstand, it is part of having the adequate range of motion for proper positioning and hand and forearm muscle control. Decreased motion in this position can indicate that your wrist joints are inadequately prepared for the rigors of consistent, daily handstand training.

FOUNDATIONAL WRIST MOVEMENTS FOR FLEXIBILITY

These videos show the most fundamental wrist movements and stretches.  They are outtakes from the Gold Medal Bodies Focused Flexibility Program and serve as both stretches and as wrist conditioning, depending on how you modify the repetition and force of pressure through your hands.

For improvement of wrist flexibility by itself, follow the directions as stated in the videos. But for wrist strengthening and conditioning exercise you will need to adjust the exercises to fit your needs.

WRIST EXTENSION

Start with 10 pulses, followed by a 30-second hold, for a total of 3 sets each. Rest for one minute between sets.

WRIST FLEXION

Start with 10 pulses, followed by a 30-second hold, for a total of 3 sets. Rest for one minute between sets.

BUILDING STRENGTH IN THE WRISTS

Handstand in a Suit

There is quite a bit of strength-endurance needed for holding a handstand safely, especially in the beginning stages of training when you use a wall for assistance and hold for long periods of time.

To train with proper handstand form, you need to focus on repetition and increasing the time you are loading weight onto your hands. This will condition your body in the appropriate manner. Unfortunately, the wrists and hands are often the weak links in the chain, so they may give out before the rest of your body receives the proper training effect.

To modify the above stretches and turn them into a strengthening exercise, you need to adjust the amount of pressure you place through your fingers and hands and perform the movements as repetitions rather than holding for a stretch…just like you would train biceps curls or bench presses or any other feat of strength.

To do this, shift your weight forward onto your hands and apply enough pressure so that you experience fatigue and difficulty continuing after 10 to 15 repetitions. I hesitate to say the word “failure”, but you should feel as if the last repetitions in the set are difficult, and to continue on would require taking pressure off your hands.

  • Wrist flexion strengthening: 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions, with a minute of rest in between sets.
  • Wrist extension strengthening: 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions, with a minute of rest in between sets.

RECOVERING FROM AN INJURY

Lego Stretcher

If you’re suffering from nagging pain or numbness, then you need to first, seek a health care professional.  These are signs of an injury, and you need to get checked out and cleared to start any handstand exercises or wrist strengthening. If you think you may have an injury at all, go and get checked by a doctor or physical therapist!  This article is no substitute for appropriate medical care!

Following an injury, there is an acute period of significant pain and it’s best to perform range of motion exercises in as much pain free repetition as possible. It could be as simple as active wrist flexion and extension, and wrist circles. If you have been prescribed exercises by your physician or physical therapist, then that is what you need to do.

As you improve and are ready to begin exercise again, you can modify the above exercises to fit a recovery protocol to improve circulation and slowly prepare your wrist and hand joint and soft tissues for increased work.

Begin in the same position and apply pressure to your hands by shifting your weight forward as before, closely following the caveat of “no pain(!)”, and apply enough pressure to experience moderate fatigue when reaching at least 30 repetitions. This high repetition count encourages circulation of both blood and synovial joint fluid to assist in healing, as well as preparation for harder work.

  • Wrist flexion recovery: 3 sets of 30 repetitions with 30 seconds of rest in between sets.
  • Wrist extension recovery: 3 sets of 30 repetitions with 30 seconds of rest in between sets.

Follow these movements up with the flexibility protocol after these exercises, again closely paying heed to having no pain in the performance.

STEP-BY-STEP WRIST CONDITIONING PLAN

Hands Down

The following is a step by step plan integrating the above wrist exercises into your handstand training practice.

  1. Perform the wrist flexion and extension weight bearing movements, with high repetition and light pressure. Perform 2 to 3 sets of 20-30 repetitions, again using light pressure. This is simply a warmup.
  2. Perform plank holds with an emphasis on leaning your shoulders over and past your hands to condition the wrists and hands. Perform 2 to 3 sets of 10-20 second holds. This move is demonstrated in this video.
  3. Move on to your handstand training with your appropriate progression and plan.
  4. Perform the strength-endurance protocol for your wrists as described above.
  5. Finish the session with the wrist flexibility protocol as described above.

Following this plan with an emphasis on wrist and hand preparation, conditioning, and flexibility will assist in preventing injury and properly preparing you for hand balance training.

Adding the few extra minutes it takes to perform the exercises can save you from weeks of frustration and poor progress because of wrist problems. Take the time now to prepare yourself the right way and reap the benefits of consistent steady training.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Thumbs Up

Do you feel you are ready to tackle your wrist inflexibility?

Did this information work for you?

Do you have any questions for Jarlo?

Let us know!

Note: Jarlo and the rest of the guys at Gold Medal Bodies recently released an amazing, totally comprehensive stretching program to help you conquer wrist flexibility and other flexibility goals, like the splits.  If you happen to buy their flexibility program, I do receive a commission.  I don’t do this often, so when I do, it’s only because its a product or service that I would use myself, have used myself or would recommend to my close friends!

photo credit: wrist positions thumbs up suit stretcher hands down

10 Responses to “Overcoming Handstand Wrist Inflexibility (and Pain!)”

  1. Krystyn January 17, 2014 at 1:01 am #

    Great article! What about highly flexible wrists? Especially in extension? I’ve had problems with dislocating the lunate from over-extension in my right wrist, due to my Classical Type Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I worked with a coach for the past three and a half months. I’m looking into purchasing slanted hand-balancing blocks to help alleviate some of the pain and over-extension I have when doing hand-balancing. I would love to learn more conditioning and strengthening for the wrists and fingers.

    • Chris Salvato January 17, 2014 at 9:48 am #

      Hi Krystyn,

      I’m not really qualified to talk about that, since I’m not a doctor or PT or anything like that…and I never had a client/student who suffered from that problem. It’s usually the reverse!

      It sounds like your coach has you on the right track though.

      One thing I would ask, though…have you ever tried your handstands on something like parallettes or rings? Hand balancing maneuvers on these surfaces keeps the wrists elevated, so flexibility isn’t as much of an issue, and it provides a lot of good proprioception training. Its all-around a good skill to have if you’re serious about hand balancing.

      Let me know what you think, and thanks for taking part in the conversation. 🙂

      Chris

  2. Tommy May 29, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    HI i will include your wrist work out in my workouts from now on as i noticed my right wrist gives out to pain as it isnt very flexible no more probly due to being right handed and braking bones and my tendon injurys dont help 🙂 but you restored my faith that i can bring back its flexablity if i train it to .im shore gymnast have to keep there limbs supple so theres hope

    • Chris Salvato May 29, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      You can do it! If you continue to suffer from pain, see a PT though. They may have stretches that will help your particular situation. 🙂

  3. Francesco June 14, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Hey Chris,

    My pain is between the ulna and wrist bone. Puttin pressure in this are of the joint (on the lateral portion) and is a sharp pain. If I try to do extension it along the top part of my outer hand over the pinky portion (not the finger though).

    Trying to extend it to the outside (unla side) hurts with a sharp pain in the join as well.

    I’m wondering if this is going to help as I noticed it starting to get worse from handstands/flares/1990s and one day it decided to just give and still hurts a week later (albeit less than before).

    • Chris Salvato June 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

      Your issue is definitely wayyyy out of the scope of anything any online article or guy behind a computer screen can help you with. You’re at the stage where you need to see a doc or physio. 🙂

  4. Vanessa September 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks for the tips. I have pain on both wrists. One worse than the other. I found this site looking for stretches and self therapy for my wrists. But had totally been ignoring the ‘no pain’ caveat… I cant do the above video exercises… only have 45° motion on my wrists. I concluded I sprained them during my workouts, but never paid much attention to the longterm damage it could generate.
    This article opened my eyes into getting serious into therapy. Thanks

  5. Tevone January 3, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    During the wrist flexion stretch, what is the purpose of rotating the elbow out while keeping the hand in a fixed position? And is this stretching mechanism safe?

  6. Vicki April 24, 2015 at 9:58 pm #

    13-year Powerlifting and Figure competitor … now at age 52 moving into Fitness Competition. Crazy? maybe. But your website makes me think it’s possible. I can’t wait to start these programs. I will begin May 20th 2015 and hit my first Fitness competition in 2017. Thanks!

  7. bill mashek May 31, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

    My problem is not wrist inflexibility, I have developed arthritis at the joint of my thumb and wrist and puts me in a lot of pain, especially on a straddle press. I am at the point where I can’t do the stunt. It seems more psychological because of the pain, I couldn’t have lost the strength or could I?? I am 64 years old and have been doing hand stands and presses since I was 11 years old (gymnast from age11until knee injury at age 19).

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