When you think of what's required to crank out a strong set of push-ups, you'll probably first think of the muscles involved — most notably the triceps, pectorals, deltoids and abs. And while you need upper-body endurance and core stability, you also need strong wrists.
Not only do they help support your body weight, but your hand (and therefore wrist) placement can impact which muscle groups are working the hardest. A September 2014 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine reported that the standard push-up increases activation of the chest and shoulders. Another study from February 2016 in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, found that when the hands are halfway in from their regular position, there's greater activity in the chest and triceps.
But if your wrists hurt during push-ups, your body could be trying to tell you something. "Our wrists are taking a hit with technology from how we place our hands on a keyboard to how we scroll on our phones all day," says Jen Brodman, Tier 3 Trainer at Equinox. "If wrist discomfort is present before exercise or in the middle of a push-up, you're definitely not alone."
Here, experts weigh in on what your body might be trying to tell you if you experience wrist pain during push-ups.
Before your push-ups, Brodman recommends starting with some wrist mobility exercises, like tracing figure eights and stretching the palms forward and backward with gentle pressure. Then, do a few push-ups on an incline before bringing the exercise to the ground.
1. Your Hand Positioning Is Off
Whether you're brand new to push-ups or a seasoned athlete, it's easy to misplace your hands in the movement from time to time. Placing your hands too wide or out in front places the wrist in a compromised position leading to pain and possible injury.
Brodman uses this trick with her clients: “I often advise them to find the nook of the armpit with their thumbs while standing up, then press their arms straight out in front of them. Then, look at the angles from shoulder to elbow to wrist and visualize what this should look like pressing away from the floor.”
2. Your Hips Are in the Wrong Place
The push-up originates as a plank, which means maintaining a straight body line is extremely important. And that also means that in a proper high plank, your hips will be parallel to the ground, in line with your shoulders.
If you pike them too high or sink down toward the ground, that can create an uneven distribution of body weight which can increase the pressure on shoulders and wrists, Brodman says.
“I encourage clients to first hold a plank for a couple of seconds, squeeze everything and think about a tight string going through your body head to toe,” Brodman says. “When you go to perform a push-up, keep that string tight.”
Want to take this to the next level? Brodman recommends strengthening your core for a stronger push-up form with exercises like a single-arm farmers carry, which reinforces a tall, straight body.
Single-Arm Farmers Carry
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart with arms at your sides, kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand. Choose a weight that's heavy enough to challenge you yet light enough that you can keep your posture upright.
- Engage your core muscles, pull your shoulder blades down and back and make sure your spine is tall.
- Begin walking. For maximum cardiovascular benefits, walk as quickly as you can while maintaining proper form.
- Continue this movement for a specified time, distance or number of steps.
3. Your Elbows Are Bending in the Wrong Direction
Brathwaite says that he often sees beginners flaring their elbows out to the side too much, which can place unnecessary strain on wrists and shoulders.
Aim for a 45-degree angle between your upper arm and your torso during your push-ups, keeping your elbows tucked in closer to the body. This may require filming yourself or asking a trainer to critique your form until you get the hand of it.
4. You’re Not Engaging Your Core
Without proper core engagement, your shoulders and wrists can be taking on excess strain.
"Sometimes with a push-up, we simply haven't built the strength to or don't know how to create tension to execute one with proper form yet. Which is where our bodies can sag, shift, etc., to a point where are wrists take the brunt of it," Brodman says.
"Find an elevated surface — like a wall, counter top, or chair — and practice there," Brodman says. "Starting high allows us to feel out even weight distribution without the pressure, as well as build confidence by visually seeing the height we lean against get lower and lower until we get to the floor."
Think of the push-up as a plank in motion. Keep your core tight and ensure your body moves up and down without any snake-like motion to protect your wrists. Need to work on developing more core strength? Good news: You don't need much more than your body weight and a yoga mat.
- Lie flat on your back with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling.
- Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Slowly and with control, extend one arm and the opposite leg away from each other. Keep your limbs long and low to the floor, forming a diagonal line.
- Exhale as you return your arm and leg to starting position with the same slow, controlled movement.
- Repeat with the other arm and leg, then return to center again.
5. You Have an Underlying Wrist Condition
While the above mistakes could be the reason why you experience wrist pain, it's important to note that there could be another reason you're experiencing discomfort when doing the popular exercise.
If you've previously had an acute wrist injury (a strain or sprain, perhaps) or pain not due to push-ups (carpal tunnel syndrome is a common cause), the stress of standard push-ups may be too much on a weakened joint.
Even if your wrists have been healthy, the push-up position puts a lot of stress on the ligaments of the wrists, says Nicholas Maroldi, DPT, director of the Hand Therapy Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Combine that stress with any mobility dysfunction (or too much mobility) and that can cause pain in the wrist joints and surrounding soft tissue.
"Over time, this can lead to cyst formation, instability and joint damage," he adds, saying that this is where the above modifications come into play. If you experience wrist pain during push-ups, Maroldi also recommends taking a break from weight-bearing activities until you can do them without pain.
If you see any redness, experience any warmth or notice any other changes associated with the pain including any growths or clicking with wrist movement, check in with a physician.