Hi, I’m Jim Wittstrom. I’m a physiotherapist that works with all types of high-level athletes, including National level powerlifters.
In this article, I’m going to share with you everything I know about dealing with wrist pain while squatting, from why it occurs in the first place to how you can go about solving it, both in the short term and long term.
Wrist pain in the squat can be a common experience, especially for powerlifters who use a low bar squat position.
Although wrist pain in the squat can be common, it’s a sign that something is wrong, either because you’re gripping the barbell incorrectly, your mobility is lacking, or you lack sufficient wrist stability.
Assuming you want to keep squatting pain-free, here’s what we’ll discuss in order for you to find some solutions:
- A Brief Overview Of Wrist Anatomy
- Solution #1: Check Your Wrist Mobility
- Solution #2: Experiment With Bar Height
- Solution #3: Check Your Grip Width
- Solution #4: Wrapping Your Wrists
- Solution #5: Try Using Different Barbells
- Solution#6: Try Different Types Of Squats
Check out our complete guide on How To Avoid A Powerlifting Injury.
A Brief Overview Of Wrist Anatomy
Hands and wrists are pretty fascinating in that there’s a lot going on (in terms of joints and various tissues) in such a small area.
As a result, it can be rather overwhelming to try and learn the specifics of all of the bones, ligaments, and tendons within the general wrist area.
But, having a very rudimentary understanding of wrists and common sources of wrist pain can go a long way when trying to keep things as healthy as possible, so let’s go over some basics real quick before diving into various strategies you can try.
The major bones to be aware of in the wrist are the:
Together, these bones and their various joints give us the various normal ranges of motion we can produce with the wrist when moving it in different directions.
Each of these individual joints is held together by one or more ligaments (which connect one bone to another).
The muscles on the front and backside of your forearm that cross your wrist (which allow you to move your wrist) are also critical structures that contribute to healthy movement.
Generally speaking, the muscles that pull the wrists in different directions are longer structures that run along the forearm and turn into tendons when they cross the wrist.
Sometimes the various joints of the wrist can become stiff and immobile. Other times the tendons that cross over the wrist can become sore and painful.
When either of these two conditions occurs, pain in the wrist can develop, especially when moving the wrist or trying to hold it in a specific position.
If this happens to be the case, check your wrist mobility (shown in the next section) and then consider implementing any of the following strategies mentioned afterwards so that you can keep squatting pain-free while getting things under control.
Solution #1: Check Your Wrist Mobility
The easiest place to start when self-assessing your wrist is to check the available range of motion that it can produce. If the range is limited, feels stuck, or is painful, it may indicate that you need to work on its mobility, which may help relieve your pain.
Check both the active range of motion (the motion that occurs when you use your muscles to produce the movement). Afterwards, check the passive range of motion (using your other hand to move your wrist without using its muscles).
- If you feel more pain with active movement (i.e. using the muscles that move your wrist), it may indicate that your wrist pain is more from muscles and tendons than from joints.
- If you experience pain with passive movement (i.e. using your other hand to produce the wrist movement), it may indicate that the culprit is more likely to be your joints.
Also, if you’re only having pain in one wrist, check its range of motion compared to the non-painful wrist.
If the painful wrist has less range of motion with one or more movements than the non-painful wrist, it may be additional evidence to show that you need to find a way to restore its range of motion.
The following photos demonstrate what normal range of motion should look like.
Wrist extension: Normal range of motion for wrist extension is approximately 70 degrees.
Wrist flexion: Normal range of motion for wrist flexion is approximately 80 degrees.1
Ulnar deviation: Normal range of motion for ulnar deviation is approximately 30 degrees.1
Radial deviation: Normal range of motion for radial deviation is approximately 20 degrees.1
If any of the above movements were painful with active and/or passive movements, or you found the range to be quite limiting, taking some time to work on wrist mobility over the following weeks may be a good idea.
This can include various stretches, soft tissue massages and mobility exercises.
Take some time to find out which techniques will be most appropriate for you, and then devote some time over the following days or weeks to work on making positive changes.
While it can take some time to improve your range of motion, there are plenty of steps you can take to immediately make changes to how your wrists feel when squatting.
Here are some of my favorite wrist mobility routines (although the exact routine you implement will be dependant on your specific mobility issues):
Solution #2: Experiment With Bar Height Across Your Back
While many lifters determine their ideal bar height across their back based purely off of a performance standpoint, don’t be afraid to modify placement based on a pain-prevention standpoint, at least for the time being.
While there are numerous pros and cons to a low-bar or high-bar position when maximizing performance when squatting (which you can read about here), these pros and cons are primarily based on factors unique to each individual and their body.
The same is often true for determining ideal positioning for reducing pain or discomfort of the upper extremities, including shoulders and wrists.
As a general rule, a low-bar position tends to place the wrists in a bit more of an extended position when compared to the relatively more neutral wrist position that occurs with a high-bar squat position.
When not considering performance-based parameters that are most ideal for you, simply try to find which bar position feels best across your back.
Most lifters I’ve worked with when dealing with wrist pain tend to find the high-bar position more pain-relieving for their wrist(s).
If you know what works best for you from a performance standpoint but are finding that your wrist pain can be alleviated with a different (but less than ideal) bar position, perhaps consider sticking with the pain-relieving position for at least a particular portion of your training.
Save the pain-provoking (but performance-enhancing) bar position for lifts where your performance truly matters, and you’re willing to put up with the pain (provided it’s only mild pain or discomfort).
Sometimes you have to change things up temporarily until you’ve resolved the underlying issue. Smart lifters know that it’s better to train around an issue as you work to fix it than to simply train through it.
You can still get stronger while squatting with a bar position that may not be your ideal placement, and, as a worst-case scenario, you’ll only have to do so for as long as it takes to get your wrist pain under control.
At this point, you can go back to your ideal bar placement on a full-time training basis.
Solution #3: Experiment With Grip Width
In addition to bar height, the width of your grip (how far your hands are apart) will influence the position in which your wrists must sit while undergoing your squat.
Read more about different squat hand positions in our other article.
As a general rule, the wider apart your grip is across the bar, the greater the amount of radial deviation your wrists will undergo. Radial deviation refers to the sideways, inwards cocking of the wrist joint.
Extreme amounts of radial deviation can sometimes be irritating for the joints and tissues that allow this movement to occur.
While there can be numerous reasons as to why an individuals’ wrists become irritated with radial deviation (beyond the scope of this article), the take-home point is that finding a pain-relieving position for the wrist, such as a more neutral wrist position when squatting, is a smart move to make.
Take some time to narrow your grip and see if it produces any favorable changes.
Likewise, if your grip is traditionally a bit more on the narrow side to begin with, try a slightly wider width.
If either of these new positions are pain-relieving in any way, consider making this change for the time being until you get the issue sorted out through other means.
Solution #4: Try Wrapping Your Wrists With Wrist Wraps
While the general public and lesser experienced lifters may not realize it, wrapping your wrists with dedicated wraps can be a smart move to make not just for benching but also when squatting as well.
We reviewed the Best Wrist Wraps For Powerlifting, so if you’re in the market for wraps then check out our article.
When squatting, wrist wraps can serve a few different purposes:
- Their primary purpose is to stabilize the wrist while undergoing the squat (which helps enhance overall performance).
- However, a great secondary benefit to stabilizing the wrist can be the reduction of wrist pain through preventing unwanted movements or extreme ranges of motion, either of which can increase pain on an already irritated or unhealthy wrist.
The reduction of wrist pain can actually be the product of a few different mechanisms.
From a mechanical standpoint, the added compression around the wrist creates stability, meaning the wrist is now braced in a way that prevents unwanted or unintentional movement from occurring around the carpal bones, which interface with the radius and ulna.
When the wrist is stabilized, unwanted movement is less likely to occur, which can reduce pain if the pain you’re experiencing occurs whenever the wrist moves.
You can experiment with how tightly you wrap your wrists based on how much or little pain you’re experiencing.
The general rule here is that the tightness should be strong but tolerable when lifting at heavier loads. If the wrapping irritates your wrist in any way, try less tension, or forego the wrapping process altogether.
Also, we give you some other wrapping tips in our article on How To Use Wrist Wraps, so make sure to check that out too.
When wrapped, your wrist should feel like it’s rather difficult to move your wrist in all directions, but the compression is not painful or bothersome.
Solution #5: Try Using Different Barbells
While it may not be an option for every lifter (depending on the type of facility that you train at), training with different types of barbells may be a great option if possible.
This is an especially good option if you’re a competitive lifter and need to find a way to continue to train your squat while under heavy loads.
Many gyms that cater more towards powerlifters and performance-based athletes, in general, tend to have specialty barbells that can be used while performing back squats, so if you’re looking for access to more specialized barbells, these are the types of facilities you’ll likely have to seek out.
More common barbells that you’re likely to come across that may be worth experimenting with include the Safety Squat Bar and the Duffalo Bar.
Both of these specialty barbells will allow you to essentially perform back squats like you normally would, but with enough variation in your wrist position that it would likely be pain-relieving in the process.
This is especially true for the safety squat bar, as your arm and, subsequently, your wrist will be in quite a different position altogether.
While these barbells were created for reasons not related to helping you avoid wrist pain with your squats, the fact of the matter is that they can be rather gentle on wrists since they require the wrists to be held at different angles or different positions altogether when squatting.
As a bonus, you may find that the subtle nuances of these bars challenge you in ways that you’re not quite used to with a traditional barbell, making for a great added muscular stimulation in the process.
If you want to learn more about squat bars, check out our article on the 8 Different Types of Squat Bars.
Solution #6: Try Different Types of Squats & Leg Exercises
If you’re not a competitive lifter and can afford to forego the specificity of your traditional barbell squat while you get your wrist pain under control, experimenting with other leg exercises can be a wise move to make.
There are plenty of other great exercises and movements that can provide outstanding stimulation to your legs for both muscle size and strength.
What follows are some great squat alternatives:
Though not the most common piece of equipment, a belt squat machine can be a match made in heaven for those who are experiencing wrist pain, particularly since you won’t be using your wrists for anything at all.
Don’t have a belt squat machine? Check out our article on the Best Belt Squat Alternatives.
Bulgarian Split Squats
This is a classic exercise that may just be the king of hammering the legs for maximizing leg strength.
Should you need to hold onto extra weight (dumbbells or kettlebells) throughout the movement, your wrists will be kept in a neutral position, which will likely be a position that avoids any pain.
If there were only one single exercise that I could perform for my legs for the rest of my life (assuming I couldn’t squat), this would likely be the one since it hammers the quadriceps and glutes in an equal fashion.
Trap Bar Squats
If single-leg training isn’t your forte, but you still want to perform a squat-based movement pattern while keeping your wrists in a comfortable, neutral position, give trap bar squats a try.
This exercise is also referred to as a trap bar deadlift, but don’t get caught up in the exercise names between the two; it’s essentially a hybrid between squatting and deadlifting.
This exercise will take you through a squat-based movement pattern while allowing you to load as heavily as possible, all while keeping the wrists neutral. This makes it a perfect exercise to try if loaded barbell squats are currently a no-go for your wrists.
Want to learn more about the differences between the Trap Bar Deadlift vs Squat, then check out our article that compares these two movements.
Well, that’s everything you should try to reduce wrist pain while squatting.
However, if you still experience wrist pain after implementing some of these solutions, then you might have something more serious going on with your wrist joint.
If that’s the case, the obvious next step would be to seek medical assistance from a qualified professional.
About The Author
Jim is a physical therapist, strength & conditioning specialist and former competitive powerlifter. He loves treating lifters and other active individuals in the clinic and working with them in the gym in order to help them move better, feel better and maximize their training potential.