Even if you’ve been to only one yoga class in your life, you know most classes spend a great deal of time weight bearing on the wrists in poses like downward facing dog, table top, chaturanga, etc. For most of us, we spend the majority of our time using our hands to type on a keyboard and move our thumbs around a tiny mobile screen. The combination of these two things can lead to wrist strain/pain if there isn’t care taken to strengthen and mobilize the wrists from all the typing to make them able to bear body weight.
Long story short, our wrists are made up of eight bones; the two rows of six small bones called carpals, and the two forearm (anatomically arm) bones radius and ulna. I like to remember radius is the forearm bone on the thumb side by sticking my thumb in the air for “rad.” I know, totally nerdy, but it helps. The wrist is a synovial joint that moves in a way to make our wrist appear to have 360° movement. This movement is actually made by the forearm bones rotating over each other to move the wrist around.
Try this: Make a fist with one hand and roll the hand around and around. Now, hold the forearm with the opposite hand without letting the forearm bones rotate as you move the fist around and around. It doesn’t go 360° anymore!
The muscles that move the wrist are in the forearm. That’s right, not in the hand. Even much of movement of the fingers is done from muscles in the forearms.
Try this: Hold one hand out with the palm facing up and the fingers relaxed. Grasp the largest part of the forearm near the elbow with the thumb on the side with the pit pf the elbow and thins on the side of the elbow. Press your thumb firmly into your forearm and notice how the palm moves slightly closer to the body and the fingers gently curl. I know, weird.
This all means the forearms are one of the biggest keys to wrist health.
Strength and Weakness
Most people have tight muscles on their upper forearm and weak muscles on the under part of the forearm. This comes from doing activities that flex the wrist back (anatomically it is wrist extension for the nerdy types) so the back of the hand moves toward the forearm and is held in that position like using a computer mouse, typing, texting, driving, downward dog, etc. (Anatomically, flexing the wrist means the palm of the hand moves toward the lower part of the forearm.)
The small carpal bones take most of the weight when we are weight bearing on the wrists. They are six tiny little bones not meant to bear the body’s weight. This means strengthening the muscles on both sides of the forearm and stretching the muscles on the top of the forearm will do a great deal to support the wrists.
What You Can Do
- Adjust your yoga poses for your wrists.
Allow your hands to turn out slightly in downward dog, plank, etc so the first finger is pointing front instead of the middle finger.
Place the hands forward of the shoulders in poses like table top, side plank, gate pose.
Use a wedge or rolled up towel under the hands in any weight bearing position including poses like wheel.
- Release tension in the arms.
Whenever you can, let the top of the forearms release a little tension. You can do this in yoga poses where the arms are extended like in warrior 2, triangle, etc by allowing the hands and fingers to be soft. No “Jazz Hands” in your class! It is possible to keep the arms engaged without adding extra tension.
- Strengthen the muscles on the under part of the forearm.
The under part of the forearm is strengthen from pushing activities. When bearing weight on the wrists, use your muscles as if you were literally trying to push the floor away. ( I know you’ve heard a yoga teacher somewhere say that to you. This is why.)
- Use your fingers!
When in poses where there is weight on the wrists like plank and downward dog, press the fingertips into the mat to engage the muscles in the forearm. It may even help to literally claw the mat so the third knuckle (the one closest to your fingertip) of each finger lifts slightly away from the mat.
- Keep the weight toward the thumb part of the hand.
The radius is the larger and stronger of the two forearm bones. When you keep the weight on the part of the hand with the thumb and forearm finger, it transfers much of the effort into the upper arm none for additional support. The weight is even further distributed to the core through the upper arm and shoulder, so abdominal and back strengthening exercises will also do wonders for your wrists. If the weight shifts toward the pinky, the weight is mostly in the ulna and access to the upper arm for support is lost dumping the weight into the little carpals.
Stretches and Strengtheners
- Extend one arm out with the fingers down and the palm facing away from the body. Use the opposite hand to draw the fingertips back toward the body trying to include the thumb as well. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides. You can do this one finger at a time while keeping the others fingers reaching toward the floor holding each finger for about 10 seconds.
- Reach one arm forward with the palm of the hand facing down. With the opposite hand, press into the back of the hand and draw the palm down and toward the body keeping the fingers straight and without bending the elbow. Press the extended arm forward into the opposite palm to stretch the top of the forearm. Hold for 30 seconds and do the opposite side.
- Extend the arms away from the body with the palms facing up. Without moving the wrist, draw the thumbs to the palms, wrap the first fingers around followed by the other fingers trying to individuate the movement until you have fists. Without bending the elbows, slowly curl the the fists toward the body without letting the arms rotate in. Slowly reverse the movement. Repeat 3-5 times.
- With the thumbs tucked under the fingers in fists, reach the arms forward with the thumb part of the hand facing up. Keep the arms straight and curl the thumbs away from the body and down and the pinkies move closer. Hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times.