Wrists look kind of flimsy right? Well mine do at least! I look at them in admiration and wonder how they can continue to sustain the demands of climbing.
I injured my left wrist years and years ago (before my climbing days) playing tennis. Fortunately, climbing doesn’t often aggravate that past injury, but I am prone to wrist pain when I climb repeatedly on slopers.
I know I’m not alone so here I hope to give you a deeper understanding of the structure of your wrists, potential culprits of pain, signs of instability, the importance of flexibility and stability, and what you can do about.
Quick Wrist Anatomy Lesson
The structure of your wrist is quite complex and intricate. There’s a lot of stuff going on in there to provide adequate support and stability, which is great since we push our wrists to their limits, but this also means that there’s a greater opportunity for something to go wrong. Couple that with intense climbing forces, unnatural and repetitive wrist movements, and the fact that climbers can sometimes be stubborn (uh, I mean passionate…) and continue to climb through dull aches and pains (guilty!), can put the wrist in a pretty vulnerable position.
If you can believe it, there are actually 10 bones that make up the wrist and create the wrist joint. Two of these bones come in from your forearm, the radius (thumb side) and ulna (pinky side), and the remaining eight are your carpal bones, which are small bones located in your hand. These bones are covered in a web of ligaments that together create the supportive structure of the wrist that is capable of withstanding the intense compression from a mantle and the extreme tension from a dynamic swing.
Then come the muscles from the hand and forearm, which allow for a wide range of movement and are capable of developing an impressive amount of strength. We as climbers are especially familiar with this and we’re likely among the few that have actually developed and experienced the incredible strength potential of these muscles.
A particularly important component of the wrist that climbers should be aware of is the triangular fibrocartilage complex, or more simply the TFCC. The TFCC is a major stabilizer of the wrist, and unfortunately, also a common injury site for climbers. You know that achy wrist pain that comes up when you’re hanging off those slopers? Or that other achy wrist pain when you’re pressing hard into that mantle to top out? Yup, that’s likely your TFCC politely and quietly asking ‘please stop’, which is why it’s so easy to ignore. Well, at least until Mr. TFCC gets tired of being polite and comes back louder and more angry, then it’s not so easy to ignore anymore.
Basically, the TFCC is a strong ligament and cartilage structure on the pinky side of the wrist that spans between the ulna, part of the radius and the carpal bones. In addition to being a major stabilizer of the wrist joint, it also provides a nice cushion between the carpal bones and the ulna.
So the wrist is made up a complex and intricate array of structures that serve to provide this mobile joint some great stability. But as good as our body is designed, it is not injury proof, and as climbers we seem to like to test that, a lot.
We like to push our limits and achieve greater success on the wall, which means our body is constantly being pushed to its physical limit and enduring intense forces that it may not be ready to withstand. In other words, if your wrists (well, any part of your body really) aren’t properly conditioned, the stresses of climbing may eventually win.
But the forces don’t even have to be that intense for there to be negative impacts on the wrist. Being a yoga instructor and student, I am familiar with the wrist pain that can result from lower intensity repetitive movements, and like yoga, climbing can also be quite repetitive, especially if you’re stubborn like me and keep going at the same climb over and over and over again, until it just doesn’t feel good anymore.
In yoga, the most common wrist pain comes from the pressure that’s put on the joint during wrist extension (think plank pose). In climbing, this similar type of compression is experienced during mantels. If the muscles surrounding the wrist are not strong enough to support you and hold your wrists in the right position while withstanding a compressive force, then executing a move like a mantel can result in impingement. That’s bone on bone compression that is not just painful, but also aggravating to the surrounding tendons and ligaments.
Compression is not the only culprit though. Tension and twisting have their side effects as well. Climbing is all about carrying a lot of our weight from our fingertips. I bet you’ve even felt so much tension in your wrist that it felt like it was being pulled apart. This feeling seems to be most predominant when hanging on slopers because the hand is completely open making it more difficult engage the muscles around the wrist compared to when you have your hand clasped around a hold like a jug.
Then there’s twisting. Climbers can get quite creative and will contort their bodies in any way possible to stick the next move. The mobility of this joint is both a blessing and a curse. It makes many moves very accessible, but in exchange you risk putting the joint in a potentially vulnerable place.
And, let’s not forget falling or any other kind of impact. Breaking a fall to the ground or into the wall with your hands can create big forces in the wrist. Although it may not seem like much, especially if you’re a boulderer were falls onto a crash pad are frequent, a frequent incidence like this can begin to degenerate the TFCC.
The point to understand is that the movements in climbing can be very repetitive, and this is exacerbated even more so when working a project. Whether it’s compression, tension, twisting, or impact, if the movement is done repetitively and without proper support from the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments, well that sounds like an overuse injury just waiting to happen.
Remember, your hands aren’t your most valued piece of equipment just in climbing, they are your primary tools in life! Let’s keep them healthy.
Signs of Instability
So, what are some key signs of instability? Probably what you’d expect. Pain, weakness, and stiffness can all be signs of instability. You always want to move away from pain. It’’s easy to pay attention to pain that is sharp and intense, but unfortunately, it’s just as easy to ignore pain that is low grade and mild. Pain, regardless of how mild or intense, should never be ignored. It should spark a series of questions.
Why am I feeling this pain?
Where am I feeling pain?
What caused this pain?
The answers are likely more obvious in situations that involve higher degrees of pain resulting from acute injuries like those that can occur from a sudden fall. However, the answers are not so obvious in situations that involve ongoing, low-grade, persistent pain. The pain can be very mild, sometimes there or sometimes not, making it quite difficult to assess.
In my eyes, as long as you’re aware of the pain and addressing it (even without all the answers), then that’s a step in the right direction.
Importance of Wrist Flexibility, Strength and Stability
So what exactly are the benefits of wrist stability and flexibility? A strong, stable and mobile wrist means you can move it through its natural range of motion and load it with your bodyweight (and more), allowing you to accomplish both powerful and technical climbing movements with a much lower risk of enduring an injury. A wrist that is stiff could mean that you’re not capable of positioning it in a way that allows your body to generate strength and power in the most efficient way. Plus, putting forces on any joint that is stiff is like forcing a car door to open wider than it’s designed to. Eventually something’s going to give.
Also, notice I say ‘natural range of motion’. The goal is not to enhance your range of motion beyond what your body was naturally designed for, but to restore any range of motion that may have been lost from tightness or even a past injury. In general you want to be able to flex and extend your wrist 90 degrees in both directions without needing to apply a substantial amount of force. If that’s no problem for you then you’ve got the mobility to perform strengthening exercises safely and strengthening and stabilizing will be your main priority.
Like I mentioned before, the movements involved in climbing can be quite repetitive and the forces can be intense. If the supportive structures in the body are not accustomed to withstanding the demands of repetitive training then they likely also don’t have the resilience to withstand injury. This highlights the importance of understanding the current mobility and stability of your wrists and performing the right exercises to shore up any deficiencies.
Step one is ensuring sufficient flexibility so that strength exercises and climbing movements can be done safely. If you can flex and extend your wrist 90 degrees in both directions with minimal effort then you can move straight to the strengthening exercises. Just ensure that while you work on strengthening that you continue to maintain an appropriate level of mobility.
Here are some simple flexibility and stability exercises that will help you condition your wrists for climbing.
Remember: Don’t move to the point of pain. Be patient and gentle and eventually your range will expand.
Hold each stretch for about 25-30 seconds and perform 3 reps of each.
Grab the fingers and gently pull the fingers back until you feel tension begin to build. Or, go into a tabletop position, fingers pointing towards your knees and slowly begin to lean back.
Grab the fingers and gently pull the fingers towards the forearm until you feel a nice stretch on the top of the forearm.
Come into a tabletop position and position one hand palm side up and hold it in place with the other hand. Create the wrist rotations by twisting the elbow from side to side.
Complete 3 sets of 10 reps for all the following exercises with the exception of the ball squeezes, downward dog, plank and open hand climbing exercises.
Ball Squeeze with ABC’s
Squeeze a tennis ball (or similar) and trace out all the letters of the alphabet while maintaining a good squeeze on the ball. Perform 2 sets of this exercise.
Wrist Hammer Curls
Hold a weight in your hand and position your arm on a supportive surface with your thumb facing up. With control, slowly raise and lower the weight.
Hold a weight in your hand and position your arm on a supportive surface with your palm facing up. Open your hand and let the weight roll down your fingers, then curl the fingers in returning the weight back to the starting position.
Eccentric Wrist Extension
Hold a weight in your hand and position your arm on a supportive surface with your palm facing down. With control, slowly raise and lower the weight.
Starting in a tabletop position, slowly lift the palms up and back down.
Starting in a tabletop position, come onto the backs of the hands with your fingers pointing towards each other and lean back slightly so as not to load the wrists too much. Push the knuckles outwards as you press the backs of your hands off the ground and make a fist. Slowly return to the starting position.
Downward Dog + Variations
From a tabletop position, shift the knees back slightly, tuck the toes under and lift the hips up and back and you begin to straighten your legs. Find length in your spine by gently reach your sit bones up, keeping the knees bent if necessary. Press into the thumb and first finger side of the hand while rolling the inner biceps up and firming your shoulder blades down your back. Hold for 1 to 3 minutes.
A variation that puts more weight onto the wrists is to perform downward dog on the wall. Walk your feet up the wall until they in line with your hips and your hips are stacked over your wrists.
Plank + Variations
Come into a plank position making sure to reach out through your heels and the crown of your head, and firming the belly in to support the lower back. Hold here for 1 to 3 minutes.
A more challenging variation involves performing plank with the hands balancing on a balance board (or any board with something like a tennis ball underneath).
Open Hand Climbing
You can build up your tolerance on slopers by practicing your open-hand grip on other holds. So not only is this grip much safer for your tendons, it can also help to strengthen your wrists and reduce any discomfort you may be experiencing on slopers.