Wrist strength and flexibility – how important is it?

by Ryan Wagner

Providing any attention to my wrists is a relatively new thing for me.

For many, many years my warm-ups never consisted of any sort of wrist routine. I would spend time on just about every other part of my body, but I wasn’t at all concerned about my wrist strength and flexibility.

However, in the past couple of years I’ve started to really focus my training on calisthenics. Slowly but surely, I began to realize the importance of training my wrists to not only be strong, but to move in all the ways I wanted them to. In fact, so many of the movements I love training, require a fair amount of wrist flexibility just to get into the start position.

So, since I’ve been at it for a while now, I wanted to give you an update on my progress.

But first, let’s talk about wrist training in a broad perspective.

Why do you want greater wrist strength or flexibility?

It’s entirely possible that wrist flexibility and strength – above and beyond what you currently have – may not even be applicable to your goals. In fact, it may even be detrimental, depending on your personal health history.

For instance, if you’re looking to lose weight and you’re hunting around for an effective weight loss program, then chasing wrist flexibility isn’t going to do a thing for you. But better food choices and walking may.

Or, if you’re just starting a resistance training program, then you definitely need to focus your early efforts on mastering the push-up and the pull-up before you even consider pressing or pulling a barbell. Again, enhancing ROM on your wrists shouldn’t yet be a concern for you.

And let’s not forget that building wrists that can comfortably withstand half your bodyweight, if not all of your bodyweight, is a bit crazy, to be honest. But a good chunk of my reader base is the crazy fitness geek demographic – and I say that with pride :).

So, if you’re hunting down a handstand or (gasp!) full planche, then you’re definitely going to want to devote some attention to your wrists. If you don’t, the chances for a nasty injury are cranked up.

Some background

If you’ve bench pressed your bodyweight before, and most lifters have, then approximately 50% of your bodyweight is being transferred directly through each of your wrists.

The load path passes right through all those little bones and ligaments. So, our wrists are pretty darn strong already. But if you look closer, much of what you do in the weight room involves a straight wrist; therefore, you have a relatively straight load path.

But when we start to look at things like push-ups and handstands and all the varietals, our wrists are bent at least 90 degrees for stability.

We may hear “wrists straight!” all the time in the gym, but there are plenty of exercises where your wrist is anything but straight. After all, many of us can do push-ups with no problem, and gymnasts have been performing handstands and the venerable planche for years.

And speaking of the planche, that is the very exercise that piqued my interest a couple of years ago. As you may expect, I watched a slew of YouTube videos on the subject, felt inspired, and very quickly learned that my wrist ROM was prohibitively poor. Obviously, something had to be done.

So, I started to research some of the easier and more approachable derivatives.

Firstly, the bent arm lever. I first encountered it not in yoga, but via one of the many excellent blogs from Gold Medal Bodies. Ryan Hurst talked about the GMB progression to a bent arm lever and provided some nice coaching cues to get into a balanced position. As luck would have it, I was actually able to perform it! Albeit not for very long and I was extremely uncomfortable with my elbows pressing into my stomach, but nevertheless, I was hooked.

The second pose that caught my attention from the get-go, was the one-arm peacock (sometimes known as the one-arm elbow lever, or maybe you’ve heard it called something else). Regardless, when I first tried it I was blown away by how much load was going through one arm and one wrist.

That being said, I got started on building some bulletproof wrists.

My Progress

Speaking from my own experience, I can tell you that my wrist flexibility has indeed improved over the months. And just like a lot of other movements, I see greater flexibility over the duration of my workout as my muscles have had a chance to warm.

But that’s not to say that it has been a breeze to earn this flexibility. It’s taken me months to see greater range of motion and my right arm is always a little more tight than my left.

Lesson learned #1: Progress slowly

No matter the exercise – barbell, dumbbell, bodyweight, whatever – progressing slowly and safely is key to your long term success. If you’ve ever been injured, the you know just how bad it is to be stuck on the sidelines while you wait for a nagging injury to heal.

It’s worth reminding you that yes, your wrists are comprised of eight small bones and a lot of tendons, ligaments and nerves. And it’s very possible to injury your wrist attempting a handstand or peacock or any other sort of demanding exercise if your body isn’t up to the challenge. I don’t think that the fitness industry puts enough emphasis on this – that even a simple handstand applies a lot of stress on people’s wrists, and for your average deconditioned gym-goer, it can easily push them beyond their body’s ability.

So, always, always check with your general physician prior to starting a new exercise program and even something as seemingly innocuous as wrist exercises. Because everyone is different and if you’ve had problems in the past with your wrists or had some bad injuries in your medical history, then wrist strengthening and flexibility may not be for you.

As with all my training, I’ve taken to wrist training in a very conservative manner. There were days when my wrists were really tight to begin with. Or days when I’d wake up and they’d still be a little sore from the workout the day before – that’s how I knew it was time to take a day off and throttle back.

Sometimes, during my workout, I’d overextend myself. I would go a little too far and train a little too hard and end up falling on my face – that’s how you know it’s time to go home!

Take your time and realize that noticeable increases in your ROM will take some time and you need to be patient.

Lesson learned #2: See Lesson learned #1

Seriously, take your time with wrist training. It’ll come, you just need to be patient.


So, why am I not showing you any exercises to try?

Partly, because I want to cover that in a future blog post in the spring, and also because there are better experts out there on the subject than I. And one of the best is Gold Medal Bodies, you’ll see one of their links in the section below. I recommend you check them out and their article will walk you through some simple and some advanced exercises.

Wrap up

The takeaway for this article is that wrist training is slow going, but definitely doable for healthy individuals.

But the big question you need to ask yourself, is if it’s even worth your time. For the average resistance training gym-goer, I’d argue that no, it’s not such a big deal. So long as a lifter is keeping his/her wrist straight and performing their exercises correctly. However, for the handstand community and the larger calisthenics crowd, then yes, you need to at least do your due diligence and find out just what is an appropriate level of training for you.

By Ryan Wagner

Further Reading

Gold Medal Bodies: Wrist Flexibility and Strength Conditioning 

InnerBody: Hand and Wrist (some good anatomy info)

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