No doubt about it. We want and need upper body strength and we get stronger by training the muscles in the upper body. In fact, the greatest strength differential between men and women is with upper body strength. Studies show women possess about 52% of the strength of men in the upper body but 66% of a man’s strength in the lower body. However, men and women both can develop greater strength through strength training. So, even if you’re not as strong as a man in the upper body, there’s always the opportunity to improve your level of strength.
When you first start strength training the upper body, it doesn’t take a lot of stimulus on the muscles to become stronger. After all, training is a new stimulus and your muscles become stronger to handle that stress. But, over time you have to apply more stress to get your muscles to grow and become stronger and you do that through progressively overloading the muscles you’re trying to strengthen. Eventually, there will come a point where you’re limited in how much more you can lift when you do upper body exercises. One of the factors that limit how much women who train can lift is grip strength and wrist strength.
Most of us don’t routinely train to strengthen our wrists but maybe we should place more emphasis on this weak link in upper body training. Weak wrists can be particularly problematic if you do compound upper body exercises, like push-ups and pull-ups. Triceps dips also place substantial stress on your wrists. You may have even felt discomfort in your wrists when you’re actively doing these exercises. The reality is weak wrists can limit how much development you get in upper body muscles, like the triceps, biceps, chest, and shoulders, by restricting how much weight you can use.
If you’re small-boned, you likely have small wrists that can limit your ability to do lift beyond a certain amount of weight. If your wrists are small, it’s even more important that you strengthen them so they don’t limit your gains. It’s also important to have good wrist mobility as well. How can you strengthen your wrists? Fortunately, there are exercises that will, over time, help you build wrist strength.
Arguably the best exercise for building wrist strength is wrist curls. Sit down for this exercise and grab a relatively light dumbbell, between 3 to 5 pounds. Hold it tightly in one hand with your palm facing toward the ceiling. Rest your arm and elbow on your leg with your hand and wrist hanging off. Slowly curl the dumbbell up toward your arm without bending your elbow. Then, slowly lower it back down. Do 10 to 12 reps. Switch sides and repeat the exercise. Aim for three sets on each side.
Now, try reverse wrist curls to get a balanced wrist workout. In a seated position, rest your arm and elbow on your thigh as before with your hand and wrist hanging off while holding a dumbbell, only this time your palm should be facing the floor. Once in position, use your wrist strength to lift the weight up as high as you can before bringing it back to the starting position. Again, do three sets of 10 to 12 reps.
By doing both types of wrist curls, you’ll strengthen both your wrist flexors and extensors for a balanced wrist workout. Don’t forget, you’re also strengthening your wrists when you do exercises that place stress on them, like push-ups, pull-ups, biceps curls, and chest presses. So, upper body strength training, in general, can strengthen your wrists over time.
You can also work on wrist strengthening when you’re sitting at your desk at work. Why not invest in a palm exercise device? You’ve probably seen one of these metal contraptions that you place in your hand and squeeze the two levers together. They’re designed to improve wrist and hand strength and they work as long as you use them consistently. They’re portable and inexpensive and might be worth investing in if you have weak wrists.
Improve Your Wrist Flexibility
It’s important that your wrists be flexible as well as strong. At the end of your workouts, spend a few minutes stretching your tired wrists. Here’s a simple stretch you can do. Place your arm on a table and let your hand and wrist hang off the edge. Then, bend your hand up until your fingers point toward the ceiling as you feel the stretch and then back down towards the floor. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
Now, try some wrist side stretches. Place your arm back on the table with your hand and wrist hanging off. This time, bend your wrist to one side and then the other. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
What to Do if Your Wrists Hurt When You Do Push-Ups
Probably no exercise creates more wrist discomfort than push-ups. It’s not surprising! When you do this exercise, your wrists and your toes are forced to support your entire body weight and your wrists are in an unnatural bent position. To reduce the pressure on your wrists, place your hands on a pair of dumbbells when you do push-ups. This holds your wrists straighter and reduces the stress on them.
Another way to reduce pressure on your wrists when you do push-ups is to keep your wrists straight and not allow your wrists to rotate outward or inward when you push up or down. Many people don’t have their wrists in a neutral position when doing this exercise. Keep your wrists shoulder width apart when you do push-ups. Too close or too wide of a stance places added strain on your wrists. Letting your elbows flare or your hips sag when you descend into a push-up also places more strain on your wrists. Your body should move in a controlled manner and as a single unit to avoid placing stress on your wrists and your shoulders as well. Refine your push-up form and you’ll feel less wrist discomfort when you do them.
The Bottom Line
Make sure your wrists are as strong and flexible as they can be! Doing this will help you in all aspects of upper body weight training.
PeerJ. 2016; 4: e1627.Published online 2016 Feb 11. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1627
Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1993;66(3):254-62.
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