It's All in the Wrists

by Grace Lin

How’s your rack?  Front rack, that is.  Get your mind outta the gutter!  So, do you have trouble with the front rack position?  What about holding weight overhead?  Or handstand holds?  Do your wrists get achy often?  I would guess that the majority of people answer ‘yes’ to at least one of those questions.  After all, we do perform a lot of wrist-intensive exercises in CrossFit.  They take a beating, and if they aren’t fully mobile, then that will cause a lot of discomfort and pain.

The wrist is comprised of the carpus (or carpal bones), ligaments, connective tissues, muscles, and nerves.  It can undergo many ranges of motion, including flexion, extension, adduction, and abduction.  That’s a lot of motion, so a lot could go wrong.  If we lack any sort of mobility in the wrists, our bodies will try to make up for it at the elbows or shoulders.  Conversely, if we lack shoulder mobility, our bodies will make up for it at the elbows or wrists.  All of it is connected, so if you have wrist issues, you probably also have shoulder mobility issues (and vice versa).  If your elbows are in pain, then you should pay more attention to your wrists and shoulders (and everything in between).  You will often find that the source of the problem is either upstream or downstream of the actual joint/area that is in pain.

The wrists are the transition area between your hands and your forearms.  That means grip strength can be affected by your wrist health.  The wrists are used in a myriad of movements we perform.  All overhead movements require wrist strength and mobility.  Anything that involves the front rack position, like cleans, front squats, and thrusters.  Many gymnastic movements, including handstands, push-ups, ring dips, muscle ups, and more.  As you can see, the wrists are extremely important in CrossFit.  So, it is imperative that we take care of them – meaning we keep them mobile and strong.

Mobility Drills

Banded Distraction – We have performed this several times in the gym.  Take a band and attach it to a pole at the very bottom.  Then place your hand through the band so it sits at your wrist joint, palm is on the floor.  Get some tension on the band with your fingertips pointed away from the pole.  From here, move your forearm back and forth, so you are opening and closing the angle between your forearm and the ground.

Forearm Smash – This can be done with a lacrosse ball or a barbell (the barbell is more aggressive).  Essentially, take your implement of choice and wedge your forearm between the floor and your implement.  If you are using the lacrosse ball, this can be done on a table or desk (hint hint: do this at work!).  Give your forearm a nice smashing to break up all that gunk.

Flexion and Extension – The most common drill we have done at the gym.  Get on all fours (hands and knees) and place your palms down with fingertips pointed toward your knees.  Then lean back as far as you can, aiming to get your shoulders behind your wrists, as long as you can keep your hands flat on the ground.  Similar to the banded distraction, you are trying to close the angle between your forearms and the ground.  Then flip your palms up and do the same.  With the palms facing up, you can also have your fingertips pointed toward each other and slowly move your hands apart, trying to get as far apart as possible while the back of the hands remain completely on the ground.

Wrist Rotations – This is very basic and can be done anywhere.  Wrap your fingers together and move your wrists around in every possible direction.  If any position feels tight or tender, then stay there for a few seconds before moving on.

For more drills, here is a fantastic wrist mobility warm-up from Catalyst Athletics:

In addition to working on mobility (which always comes first), you can also add in some exercises to build wrist strength.  These can include any sort of static holds (handstand, plank, ring support), front rack holds, wrist curls, and wrist push-ups.  Start small and build when doing these exercises.  If you need to start with a 15 second hold, that’s fine.  Start there and slowly build up to a 60 second hold.  

None of this stuff comes overnight.  It takes time, patience, and consistency to create change.  Once the change has taken place, then you also need to put in work to maintain it.  Keep at it every day!