We all love training handstands and anybody somewhat serious about handstands has felt pain in their wrists before. This can be during, right after or quite a while after training. Either way, pain is unnecessary and should not be a part of your training. Nobody should have to live with discomfort, especially not when it comes to handstands. So far in my personal journey as a professional hand balancer, acrobat and coach I have not found 1 person that could not get rid of their wrist pain!
In order to train pain free and for you to learn how to help yourself in case of injuries we first need to learn why your wrists might actually hurt.
The most common causes of wrist pain are:
- Poor Handstand Form
- Too much volume without the right training
- Lack of Warm Up
- Insufficient Recovery time
- mobile/stiff Wrists
- weak wrists
- Sore shoulder and forearm muscles
- Pre Existing conditions
When it comes to learning or training anything new self learning and self analysis is key. In order to pinpoint what exactly it is that you need in order to help your wrists we need to define what kind of wrists you have. Pretty much everyone that I have ever met fits into 1 of the 2 categories.
Do you have stiff wrists?
I have ultra stiff wrists. Stiff to the point that when I auditioned for circus school they originally didn’t want to take me because the administration did not believe I would be able to handstand. Fast forward 20 years we can definitely say that I was able to make it work for myself. Stiff wrists are not necessarily more likely to get injured but your first couple handstands of the day will always be a bit harder. You will have to stretch your wrist every day before you get upside down. Yet at the same time it will be less likely for you to fall over towards the back as your wrists simply don’t allow it. Whilst taking full advantage of this detail will require years of training I can guarantee you that it made an enormous change in my career!
Do you have mobile wrists?
If you have flexible wrists you have a huge advantage as you don’t have to stretch your wrists every day before getting upside down. At the same time this can be quite dangerous. Ii you don’t have to warm up your wrists in order to bend them to the required 90 degrees to do a handstand on the flat floor you might just skip the warm up entirely and run a higher risk of injuries. Flexible wrists are also often weaker and you will be less stable in your handstands meaning that you will be more likely to fall out of the axis or get small injuries from “pushing through” the wrist.
Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
If you train handstands and your wrists hurt you have to change your approach. It is that simple! You can not ignore the problem, continue the same way you always did and simply hope the problem will go away. This won’t work! Instead consider the following suggestions.
Built time under tension slowly
Whilst this seems super logical to me it is not as clear to everyone. Your hands and wrists are not made to stand on. A lifetime of walking on your feet did not prepare your wrists for this kind of pressure. How come you expect your wrists to simply take all the heat on day 1?
Just like with everything you have to start slowly. Keep sessions short and only train 2-3 times per week. Over time your ligaments will get more resisting and your muscle surrounding the wrist stronger. After 4-6 weeks start increasing your time under tension and train about 3 times a week for 30min. The slower and the more consistent your training volume improves the better!
Give your wrists adequate time to recover
Training is bitter and your wrists need time to relax, recover and catch up. Allow your wrists adequate time to do so. With regular conditioning we use the rule of thumb not to train the same muscle group 2 days in a row. Wrists might sometimes require even more time as you are not just recovering from muscle soreness but from actual light joint swelling.
Keep your workout volume and frequency consistent to be able to monitor how much time you need for recovery and to understand when you can train more or should plan an extra rest day.
Improve your Handstand Technique
Now this is a big one. Probably the most common reason for wrist pain is a lack of technique. Your shoulder push literally decides over your wrists health. If you sink into your shoulder and your scapula is losing elevation your shoulders slide towards the front. This will sharpen the angle in your wrists and with this place more pressure on them. Pressure leads to inflammation. Inflammation makes the wrist swell up. Swelling means more pressure and pain. Pain is distracting, your form will get even worse, Your shoulders lean forward, the angle sharpens more and the circle of evil closes.
Break out of it! Focus on elevating the scapula. When you realize that you sink in, come down, rest, reset and continue. Especially at the beginning of your handstand journey it is important to build healthy habits and to keep quality high to reduce risk of injuries to a minimum.
Change your training habits
Or better. Change your approach to getting into handstands. Imagine your wrists were made out of gentle, precious glass. You do not want to break this glass so you have to be very gentle with your wrists.
Do not jump on them when getting up into a handstand. Place them on the floor and slowly increase pressure before even kicking off the floor.
Whilst I absolutely love all handstand skills related to acrobatic moves I would always recommend to think twice before performing any kinds of high impact acrobatic skills. Do you really need to learn this skill? If so what could you do to limit the impact to your wrists? Can you take some heat by bending the elbows or by allowing yourself to skin into your shoulders? Please, always think twice and always proceed with extreme caution when working any kinds of acrobatic skills.
Keep surrounding muscles lose
Massage, stretch & ice. Do what ever works best for your recovery. Stiff shoulder muscles paired with dehydration made my early career as a circus performer difficult.
Sore muscles are tight muscles which pull on your joints. Sore and tight forearms mean less wrist mobility which usually causes extra pain. Same for your shoulders. If they are sore you can not elevate fully and your wrists will pay the price.
Additionally, sore muscles are often slightly inflamed. This is part of the natural response to training. We want this but we need to be aware of what it means to our body. Inflamed muscles push on our nerves and this can cause quite a bit of discomfort. Keep your muscles loose by massaging and stretching them to minimize wrist pain and wrist injuries.
Preparation is key is what they say. Warming up your wrists every single time before getting upside down or in general putting pressure on your body and hands is the way to avoid injuries and to prolong your health and even youth.
As wrists are very specific and individual everybody has to learn for themselves what exactly their wrists need. If you are flexible you’ll need to activate the muscles around your wrists. If you are stiff like me you will have to do some dynamic and static warm up stretches to loosen the muscle fiber and gently increase range of motion.
How to Strengthen Your Wrists for Handstands?
Everyone always talks about wrist strengthening and wrist conditioning. What we need to understand is that there are not that there aren’t really any muscles in the wrists. Instead there are plenty of muscles in the forearms and it is exactly those that we have to strengthen.
My favorite exercise to date is overhead wrist curls against the elastic. Lock your arm overhead with an elastic going from the palm of your head over your fingertips behind you towards the floor. This should stretch your hand open. Not close your hands and curl it down. These are precisely the muscles that you are using when balancing your handstand.
Make sure not to strengthen your wrists too much before your workout. Instead of helping your handstands you will be fatiguing your forearms and making them sore. This will increase pressure on the wrists and lead to a higher risk of injuries. In general I do not recommend to overdo it with the wrist conditioning. Allow your wrists to get stronger with your handstands whilst slowly and gradually increasing volume.
How to Stretch Your Wrists for Handstands?
Before you stretch your wrists you want to check if there is actually anything to stretch. There are 2 types of limiting points when it comes to wrist mobility. You can either be stopped because surrounding muscles such as the forearms, triceps and deltoids are too tight or you can be limited because the wrist bones are actually stopping you from moving further. If the latter is your case I would not recommend trying to improve mobility a lot and instead make adjustments to your training style. I for example use declined blocks or a declined board when my wrists feel extra restricted.
When you are stretching your wrists I would recommend to focus on on stretched that lengthen the forearm muscles as those are the ones usually holding you back. Make sure to keep your wrist and elbow aligned and the elbow locked to get an even and healthy stretch across the entire forearm.
How to Actually Prepare Your Wrists for Handstand Training?
Now that you know all the things that you thought would help and unfortunately kind of don’t, the real question still remains. What do we actually do to warm up the wrists?
Well first of all we need to understand that warming up your wrists for pain free handstand training is a full day job. It is key that your hands, wrists and especially forearms and shoulders stay warm all day long. Don’t fly your hand out the window or sit in front of a fan. The wind can make training handstands later in the day dramatic!
When you get to the gym and realize it is cold or windy, wear long sleeve shirts. Don’t try to be cool and show the bare handstand shoulders in the middle of winter. Leave this to people with an attention problem like me. Instead stay responsible, cover up and stay healthy! When it comes to the actual warm up and training process do as followed:
- General low impact full body warm up such as rope skipping. Break a light sweat
- Shoulder prehab to lubricate the shoulders to start circulating blood to your wrists
- Shoulder stretches. Skippable if you have hyper mobile shoulders
- Forearm rolling and massaging if sore
- Wrist stretches. Skippable if you have hyper mobile wrists
- Wrist muscle activation drills. Focus on Wrist flexion
- Train with emphasis on form and scapula elevation. Keep sets short and clean
- Stretch post workout
Warming up and preparing for training is obviously essential but every training needs to finish with a proper cool down. From experience I know that the cool down is what we like to skip the most. We have put in the hours. We have worked hard. We sweat. We are hungry and let’s be honest: it is really time to go home. Just like this, decisions are taken quickly and the warm up is skipped.
Do this once or twice a month and most likely nothing will happen. Start skipping your cool down repeatedly and chances are high you will end up overly sore and even injured.
Make sure to finish each handstand training session with some gentle wrist and shoulder stretches. This does not have to take more than 5-10min but will drastically improve the way you will feel later at home and the day after!
Here are 5 of the best post handstand workout stretches for your shoulders and wrists:
- Reverse Wrist Stretch
- Standing Overhead Triceps Stretch
- Static Chest Stretch at Wall
- Laying Anterior Deltoid Stretch
- Standing Biceps Stretch at Wall
In order to avoid wrist pain when training handstands the surface that you train on can honestly make quite the difference. Many aren’t aware of that first as we simply don’t think about it which makes it extra essential to speak about it here!
Do not train on Gym Mats!
This is possibly the worst that you can do for your wrists. I get it. The gym floor is nice and soft. Instead of being scared to fall over it might even become fun to fall and roll on it but trust me. It is not going to make things better for your wrists.
The softer the floor the deeper you will sink and the sharper the angle in your wrist becomes. Sharp angle means lots of pressure. Lots of pressure means lots of inflammation which means lots of pain. The solution is simple. Train on a hard floor. The softness of the floor will additionally delay all the correction initiated by your hands in your handstand making it significantly harder to stay in control.
If you are scared of training on the hard floor because you don’t want to get hurt, place your hands close to the mats with your back towards the mats or try to surround yourself with soft surfaces. Maybe you can even cut a hole in the middle of the mat for your hands?!
You don’t need a fancy handstand board in case you only have carpet at home. Get creative. Head over to your closet and pop out one of the shelves. They are usually fully flat and make the perfect budget handstand board. If not a kitchen tray can work as well. Generally the thicker the carpet the heavier the board should be.
Live is long and full of events and obstacles. Scars make us interesting and tell stories. Yet they also force us to adjust our life accordingly and possibly to come up with creative ways of training. Pilates as a prime example was invented by a German circus performer in a WW1 prison camp in the UK.
You might have wrist pain before even starting to train handstands or calisthenics. Yet you love being upside down and do not want a little injury from 10 years ago stop you. Acceptance is the first step here. You will probably never rock up at the gym and jump on your hands. Neither will I. For as long as I remember I was the one to warm up the longest. You and I can find a corner together!
Work with your limitations. It is ok to only train on declined blocks or parallettes. It is ok to only do 5 or 10 handstands per session and it is ok to do 20 min prehab before and 20min of rehab after your training.
The goal is not to look as cool as possible when training. The goal is to make training healthy and for it to be fueled by something that you love!
If you are serious about training handstand at all it will definitely happen. Your wrists will hurt. It is that simple. Understanding how to react and what to do is key.
Analyze if you have a wrist injury
No matter what this should always be the first thing when you feel pain in your body. Figure out if you are injured. Can you see any visual signs of obvious injuries such as acute swelling, bruising etc? If so it is time to go get professional help. If not take it easy and rest for 3 days. If the pain is not improving or getting worst you are definitely injured. If you have the luxury of being able to see a doc go right away. Better safe than sorry!
Reduce Pressure by Reducing Volume
Training brings you pain. Training makes things worse. Train less. Give your body a chance to heal and for inflammation to go down. If you keep on the wrist things will only get worse. I am not saying not to do anything at all but cut your handstand volume down to 20%. Use the 80% of free time you just gained to work on hamstring flexibility, cardio, leg engagement drills, etc. Believe me: the list is beyond long. Message me if you need some inspiration!
My secret wrist relieve trick
This one! Wow. No joke. So last time when I was working in NYC I did 10 shows a week with Cirque Du Soleil, at night I was performing at a late night venue called The Box and on the side I was filming for the first version of our exercise library. My body was completely overloaded and my wrists were more jammed then ever. This little trick right here taught to me by a friend in NYC honestly saved my career as a hand balancer!
Ice Therapy – My Career Saver
Daily or even twice a day. Fill a bucket full of ice water and ice cubes and toss your hands in for 8-12 minutes right after training followed by a second time right before bed. Whilst there are conflicting believes when it comes to Ice therapy I, my clients and my fellow performers swear by it and we have all seen great results. Just make sure you DO NOT EVER ice before training. Make sure you have at least 4h or better 8h of “recovery” after your ice session and before your next training.
If you are like me simply not that tuff anymore and do not want to ice your wrists for 12 min straight you can also take 2 buckets. Fill 1 with ice water and the other with hot water. 30sec/30sec contrast baths will do wonders!
See a medical professional
Please. You only have the one body. Do not mess around with it!
Do Wrist Wraps Help with Wrist Pain?
Yes and no. There is 1 single medical condition that you can have where wrist wraps will actually help you train handstands. Chances are high you are not having it.
Yet, many people swear by wrist wraps and believe they really help. Personally, I think this believe is really what helps. If you think that something is helping chances are high it will actually help. Putting on the wrist wraps can be part of your training routine that gets you into the right mindset and therefore change the way you are engaging your muscles.
Moral of the story?! Try wrist wraps. If you believe they help: use them. If you find them uncomfortable like I do: leave them in your bag. I hear many athlete worry that the extra support added to the wrists by training with wraps will hinder they muscle growth. Do not worry about this. No wrist wrap offers that much support! You are overthinking!
Being realistic you might get to the point where your wrists simply can not take it. They are hurt, they are beat yet you want to keep training. You might feel like putting your head in the sand and giving up but as strange at it might seem you are in luck. I have been there many times. I have always been able to make it work and so will you!
Use Parallettes in case of Wrist Pain
Do it like the gymnasts do. Parallettes usually reduce the stress put on the wrists drastically. Your wrists do not get pushed into hyper extension and your hands don’t open. This solution works for almost all handstand related wrist injuries and I would even recommend to train all conditioning drills such as Handstand Push Ups, Presses, Planches & Stalders with parallettes to minimize pressure and risk of injuries.
Do keep in mind that the external rotation of your hands will place different stressors on your shoulder than you might be used to. Balance will be extremely different and your shoulders and arms will have to get used to the new forces. Reduce your training volume accordingly. No you are not starting from 0 but you also can not continue like nothing happened.
Use a declines surface
You can continue to do your normal training if you are only struggling with mild wrist pain and inflammation. Use a board or some handstand blocks and elevate 1 side slightly to create a tiny decline. The more decline you create the more uncomfortable your handstand will become yet the less sharp your wrist angle will be and the less risk for inflammation there is.
Training on a decline surface is super valid. It can help you to continue doing what you love whilst recovering or simply allows you to place less pressure on your wrists when you are planning on training significantly more than usually.
I would not recommend making this a constant habit for ever though. One opinion might be that if you always train on a decline your wrist will never get injured. I would argue thought that if you always train on a decline you have nowhere else to go in case of injuries!
Use declined surfaces as a tool only in your tricks for training and recovery.
Chose a different type of training temporarily
This is what I was recommended when I faked an injury in Gymnastics at age 12. I hated every day of my childhood gymnastics education. I am beyond grateful now for the horribly stubborn coaches but at the time I was rather grumpy. When I faked a back injury trying to get out I was told to stop tumbling and do prehab work, handstand training and conditioning instead. Exactly what the little boy wanted to hear.
Since the little boy was 12 no one really asked for his opining so core drills it was. Whilst everyone else pushed their stunts to the max I was forced working on basics which allowed me in the long run to out perform many.
Moral of the story. An injury can be an opportunity. Take a step away from handstands and focus on core conditioning, flexibility and your lines. When your wrist is fully recovered and you are back into training you will realize that everything will be significantly easier than where you left off!
If you are serious about handstands chances are high you are about to get to know your wrists VERY well. You will go through ups and down, you will deal with all sorts of issues and you will experience surprising periods of health. Most of all you will get to know your wrists and entire body better than almost anybody else. Understanding your body and learning to manipulate your bodies reactions is key for consistent training, gains and for doing what you love.