Of all the questions I get, probably one of the most common has to do with wrist pain or injuries regarding hand balance practice.
Common answers(not from me) might be "deal with it", "circus is pain", "welcome to hand balancing" or "get good, rookie".
Due to this being a complex subject, I will attempt to give some thoughts, advice, and perspectives to aid people in their training. Hopefully this article can help people prevent or better recover from their wrist ailments.
With that said, there is still a lot to be said bout the subject that is not covered here. It is a few thoughts based on my experience.
Remember that hand balancing is a low-impact practice, so the goal is to find a technique such that the physical stress is minimal.
Also I have to use the common disclaimer that if you think you have a serious injury it may be worth seeing a medical professional.
KNOW YOUR INJURY
This is something you should keep track of, the more details you know about it the better. Ask yourself these questions
-Is the injury acute or chronic?
-Did the pain begin without warning or only after a particular attempt/session?
-Did the joint receive an impact or did you catch yourself from a fall?
-Any noticeable swelling/inflammation?
-Does it hurt throughout the day or only when you train?
-Does the pain lessen or go away after you warm up?
-Are there any specific movements or positions that cause you more pain/discomfort?
-Is it a sharp or dull pain?
This is very general but the idea is to give yourself a better understanding of your injury so you can have a more thorough protocol of what to do about it, both for the present and possible future occurrences.
Next, we have some common causes of injury that are not obvious and often overlooked.
CHECK YOUR TECHNIQUE
I cannot stress how important this is in creating a more sustainable practice over the long term. Honestly, this is the number one thing you can do to save yourself many grievances later on.
Many people when learning to handstand find it easier to planche their shoulders slightly in front of their hands. Sometimes this is really obvious but other times it can be more subtle and difficult to catch without a sharp eye.
In a well-aligned handstand the arms should be completely vertical to the floor. When the shoulders lean forward, it places added stress on the wrists.
Watch what happens to the wrists in the video when my shoulders go forward. Someone people use that as their base handstand position.
While this may seem trivial to some, it can catch up with you in the long term after thousands of sets over months or years.
Here is another massively important concept that is not often discussed. Hand balancing places stress on the body it may not have otherwise experienced, and the majority of that is focused on the wrists.
As an adult learning this, it may take some time for the body to fully acclimate to the new stress. If you push too hard or too fast before you are ready, it can result in injury.
This applies to beginners first learning to handstand, but also is important to remember during training for more advanced ability levels that call for higher workload.
This is especially important when handstand practitioners begin to train for their one arm handstand, which requires massive amounts of repetition to make progress. I have heard the same story too many times: HS training volume is massively increased to work OAH and it results in some nagging overuse injuries.
Take your time to acclimate, and make sure your technique is good before you do.
Practical application of this concept:
-See above point. Check your technique, and exaggerate the concepts for OAH training or any time you add additional complexity to your practice. Even if you think you fixed your bad habits, there is a good chance you will see them again once you start working harder skills.
-Take the time to warm up properly. This allows you to develop a better connection through your hands and the floor, which will result in better balance. Plus a thorough warm-up can place controlled stress on the hands in positions you may not want to visit during your actual handstand practice. This helps speed up the acclimation process.
Check HERE for my wrist sequence I teach for hand balance.
-Know when to back off. Your body will give you signals, and it is beneficial to learn how to listen to them. Keep in mind, backing off does not necessarily mean no training, it's more about knowing how to modify the training to avoid certain stressors.
-Endurance work at the right time will help to increase blood flow to the upper body. This can actually be quite helpful for prevention and recovery. Be careful as a beginner though, as doing too much endurance can start to encourage bad habits. Learn good technique first before trying to do too much.
-Over a long term, it's generally better to be overly conservative with training efforts. Leave a little bit of fuel in the tank so you can do it again the next day.
Don't take this the wrong way though, there will still be plenty of moments where you will have to push hard to overcome a plateau.
BACK OFF OR MODIFY THE TRAINING
If you know that you are injured or have tweaked your wrist, simply continuing to train like you were before is not the best option.
One option is to back off training while focusing on rehab and letting your body heal. Yes this sucks if you were used to training a certain amount, and you'll probably lose some progress during this time. However, handstand "gains" are usually measured in years so taking a few weeks off is pretty trivial when you consider the long term.
If you are too addicted to inversions to simply stop, there are a few other options to consider.
-Parallettes or incline blocks reduce the pressure on the wrist compared to floor or flat blocks/canes. Even rings handstand is an option here, though that's a completely different skillset.
-You can train balances that don't require putting weight in the hands, such as headstands or forearm stands. Just be careful. Exercise control and make sure to protect the injured hand if you have to bail.
-Work on attributes that will help your handstands. This can include for example the hip and shoulder flexibility work that you've been meaning to do more of. Especially if you are on the way towards more intermediate and advanced skills, this is a good time to prioritize your flexibility training to help you when you get back to training.
-Do some research. This is also a good time to learn more about the theory of what you are doing. Watch videos, read books, observe trainings, etc.
This is a way to still "train" without any physical stress.
-Actually rest, as much as I hate to say it. This one can be the most difficult to do. However, the chances of aggravating the injury and making the recovery time longer can be quite high if you are still using the injured hand.
I remember I suffered a pretty bad wrist sprain in Spring of 2010. A couple weeks following the injury I attended a tricking event with the intention to take it easy, not use the hand, and only do leg related movements.
At one point I landed off balance and out of habit went straight to do a windmill to stand back up, placing both hands on the ground to push off of. At this point, my wrist was still in the early recovery stages and was not ready for such pressure. So through an accidental reflex I set my injury recovery back another couple weeks. Lesson learned.
Getting back on topic, if you are accustomed to a regular training schedule, a forced rest can actually be quite beneficial. Just make sure you find something to do with your extra time and energy.
EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES and OTHER THOUGHTS
What you do outside of your practice, or even years before it can also be significant.
If you are a climber for example, chances are you have very tight forearms from the grip-heavy demands of the activity. This means that you would probably have to spend more time on warmup/prehab in context of opening the wrists to get a more effective handstand session in.
In contrast to that, a musician might approach the training differently. This is a discipline that can also place a lot of stress on the hands, but the nature of the work will be very precise and delicate. A musician would have to focus their warmup/prehab on building more resilience through their hands to handle the loads(usually the flexibility here is already well developed due to the nature of the work).
To follow that thought, anyone who relies on their hands to make a living would also need to make some modifications. Whether it's a musician, surgeon, craftsman, etc, being overly fatigued in the wrists can interfere with their work. An injury can put them out of work.
This means the training approach needs to be a bit more conservative in order to progress in handstands while still maintaining the quality of their profession.
Past injuries is another thing to consider. Maybe when you were 12 you fell and broke your wrist, and maybe it was no bother at all to you until you started training handstands and noticed it would fatigue quicker than the right. This is just one example but I have seen many similar cases.
These are all details to keep in mind. Even if they seem trivial, they usually play a role in the big picture.
Be aware of the risks you put yourself in and if they are worth the goals you have set.
Perhaps you only train handstands for the physical benefit rather than the pursuit of the higher skills. This approach will most likely result in less risk of injury but the practice itself is also not as deep or rewarding.
PREVENTION AND RECOVERY PROTOCOLS
First off, learn to identify warning signs. The wrists have a lot of sensory receptors so it shouldn't be too difficult to develop a connection to feel when you have to back off or add more prehab exercises
Most of the techniques I will list can be used for prehab, warmup or recovery. None is necessarily superior to others, it's about having options to work with. Remember if skill acquisition is the goal, try not to get caught in the trap of over-preparation. However, if the skill you are working on requires certain physical attributes, make sure they are taken care of.
With that said, here are some ideas on how to take care of the wrists:
-Keep the wrists warm. I have had really good results with simple terry-cloth wristbands(neoprene work also, but you will sweat more through it). You can wear them during training as a minimum, but if you want the full recovery benefit, just wear them all the time. Many times in the past when I had tweaked my wrist, I simply wore the wristbands continuously for a few days straight(even slept with them). Those of you with a 9-5 job and more social obligations than I have might not be able to pull this off, but I'm throwing the option out there.
I also try to avoid anything that offers extra wrist support, as it can actually make the joint weaker over time as your body grows accustomed to relying on the additional support.
Nothing fancy here, the thought process is that a warm joint gets more blood flow, which provides nutrients and flushes waste. Since the wrist is an extremity, it won't receive as much blood and keeping it warm will help with the recovery process.
I love the sequence below, but this can even be something as simple as opening and closing your hands for 100 reps several times throughout the day.
Like the above, this is going to keep the wrist warm and increase the blood flow to the joint. Honestly, you should probably be doing this even if you have no interest in handstands.
This one is not necessarily handstand-specific but there is still some carry-over in training some old fashioned grip strength. This can be anything from trying to crush foam balls, grippers, fat grip pullups, trying to crush walnuts in your pinch grip, etc.
I would also count various leverage related training tools in this category, such as clubs, hammers, mace, or cast-iron frying pan.
-Banded Finger Extension
This is a fantastic complement to any grip work to create a balance in strength. I keep a couple rubber wristbands in my car and use them for resistance as I work on opening my fingers.
An equipment free alternative would be to pretend like you are going to flick something, but instead of letting said finger go, focus on resisting against the thumb to create a powerful isometric contraction.
This looks like a toy(it is in some sense), but it is actually a very nice grip workout. A couple minutes with this, and the wrists, forearms, and fingers feel pretty good.
I also found this very useful when performing as an aerialist. Usually backstage at gigs they don't have anything to hang from, and this is a great portable way to prime the grip before performing.
The gyro ball can be a bit frustrating to learn how to start. Be patient and eventually you will be able to start it by hand easily.
Amazing tool for training the hands. Essentially the rice acts as a viscous fluid, so it resists any movement you make. I stick my hands in the rice and try to keep moving them for a couple minutes, after which I have a massive forearm pump. There are a few specific patterns I use, and also leave some room for creativity in the movement.
This is a great way to increase blood flow an strengthen the hands from every angle and has been one of my top injury recovery tools.
Apologies for the sound quality, but this is an explanation of both the gyro ball and rice bucket.
This is another quick way to get more blood flow to the wrist. The idea is to wrap tight enough to restrict blood flow, but not completely cut it off(not a tourniquet). Once the band is wrapped, take some time to stretch and move the hand in various ways, 1-2 minutes should be enough. If you feel numbness or tingling that is a good sign to remove the band.
After removal, the blood rushes into the joint and it feels quite good.
As a bonus, this can also fall under the category of soft tissue release.
-Soft tissue release
This is a topic I will only go into briefly as to go into it with any detail will warrant an article of its own.
Regular soft tissue release of the forearms, and even the upper arm can make a big difference when it comes to relieving pressure on the wrists. It's normal for this musculature to accumulate tension just from regular training, but even more so after an injury as the muscles will tense up to protect the joints.
To release the forearm flexors, my favorite implement is my knee. The extensors are a bit more complex, but I generally use my fingers, a thai massage stick, or the countertops of my kitchen to get the job done. I find guasha/graston type techniques helpful for both flexors and extensors of the forearm as well.
It can take a bit of time and practice to learn what to feel and how to work on yourself, but this is a valuable skill for the long term.
It is also very helpful to have a friend release your forearms, especially the extensors. This can feel very invasive and uncomfortable but many people tend to shy away from using enough pressure on themselves to produce real change.
-Hanging from a hand loop
This is something I only got exposed to after my introduction into the world of circus as you don't see the concept much outside of it.
I love hanging in general, but I think there is a distinct value when it comes to hanging from a loop versus hanging from a bar/rings.
By nature handstands are an exercise that compress the wrist joint, so the benefit of hanging from a loop lies in the joint distraction that it provides. Here we are literally pulling the joint apart to create space in it. There are alternate ways to do this, but none quite as effective as it is difficult to get the proper force and leverage.
Hanging from a loop feels fantastic on the wrist after a handstand session, and there are some shoulder flexibility benefits than can also be attained here.
The idea is that the loop wraps around your wrist so you can hang from joint the wrist without engaging the musculature of the hand. On an aerial apparatus, this increases safety since the artist flying can effectively lock themselves in as opposed to hanging on. This greatly reducing the chance of a fall(accidents can still happen) and makes it possible to perform longer sets and harder skills since grip is no longer the deciding factor.
With that said, you don't have to be an aerial straps artist to take advantage of this concept. You can use the straps from your rings, TRX straps at your local gym, karate belts, or even the ratchet straps from your car. With that being said, make sure you are being safe and take it slow.
The benefits of wrist distraction can be attained without your feet even leaving the floor.
Final thoughts: yes this is similar to the rubber band sequence I use, but there is specific benefit for the wrist in hanging from a structure that has no give or elasticity.
Chances are that in your hand balance practice you have encountered some wrist pain or injuries. The best way to think about this is from a perspective of prevention and maintenance. Ask yourself: "what can I do to avoid injury?" Ultimately it will be a combination of technical assessment, good warmups and recovery work, and knowing how to modify the training when you feel something is off.
If you end up being injured, make sure to learn what you can about it to come back stronger and avoid any future grievances. Follow a recovery protocol and take your time to ease back into training.
The above are a few ideas on helping you to deal with your injury, but they are based on my own experiences and are not universal. Even personally I am still experimenting with new methods and techniques all the time.
As always, if you are unsure of anything please see a medical professional.
Since this article is free and I have bills to pay I am going to end with the necessary evil of self-promotion. This way I can continue to put quality information out there without being overly pretentious or putting out clickbait articles that use a lot of words to either say nothing or state the obvious(don't forget about regurgitating information that has been written and rewritten hundreds of times).
Notice how this article is not titled any of the following:
"The Ultimate Guide to Wrist Injuries" "Heal your wrist injury with these 10 tips from a professional acrobat" "Must-Read if you have ever suffered from a wrist injury" "Top tips to build bullet-proof hands and wrists" "This is what happens to your body after 30 days of wrist protocols" "got wrist pain? you won't after reading this article" etc.
It's your support that helps me to put out quality information while keeping things real.
Interested in learning handstands as an adult? My ebook "Balancing the Equation" breaks down the process to help you develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of the skill. Handstand progress not guaranteed.
Also, I travel around the world teaching my approach to developing handstands, acrobatics, and other movement or physical arts based skills and attributes. If you are interested in learning from me in person, check out my upcoming events here: