Upper body exercises without using wrists
May 21, 2006 12:41 PM   Subscribe

What are some upper body exercises I can do without putting any load on my wrists?

I have an wrist repetitive strain injury but I am trying to keep my upper body in good shape regardless. The only problem is most machines and exercises for building upper arms, shoulders, and chest involve holding a weight, handle, or my body with my hands and therefore putting some strain on my wrists, which I would like to avoid. Have any suggestions, for both in the gym and out?
posted by grouse to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd consult a personal trainer - my gut feeling is that RSI is actually helped by doing motions dissimilar to the ones causing the stress. You can work with medicine balls or resistance bands, or perhaps swim, but it's tough to just not use your wrists since your hands are both the most mobile and the most extreme points of your upper body so they're used a lot. I don't think the answer is to necessarily avoid doing anything with them at all. A trainer with physiology training is who you should be talking to.
posted by kcm at 12:44 PM on May 21, 2006

I was in physical therapy for a shoulder injury, but because I was having wrist problems as well, they recommended using wrist cuff weights--they strengthen the arm without aggravating a stress-related wrist injury in most cases.

I got mine at a local sporting goods store--I found some with adjustable weights, so you can make them heavier as the arm gets stronger.

You should maybe talk to a physical therapist, if at all possible; they can show you the correct exercises (I would try and explain the ones I do, but I can't get it to make any sense!).
posted by leesh at 12:50 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: I should clarify that I have talked to a physiotherapist and a trainer, and their recommendation was to do exercises that involved pushing rather than pushing. And to start off with the slowest weight setting and work up to 16 reps before moving up a weight setting. And to do only one of these exercises a day to avoid overload. Which is a bit slow, so that's why I would like to find something else before my upper body totally atrophies.

What I would really like is more exercises like the fly that don't involve any load on the wrist (despite the gripping in that picture, the load is applied to the forearm). I suppose I could do a modified push-up with my knees on the ground, but I don't know how advisable that is.

my gut feeling is that RSI is actually helped by doing motions dissimilar to the ones causing the stress

It depends on the kind of RSI, but according to my PT building up related muscles will perhaps allow the injured tissue to work less. That's one of the reasons I want to strengthen other muscles.
posted by grouse at 12:58 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Also, I'm seeing my PT this week possibly for the last time, so if you have any creative nutty suggestions let me know and I'll run them by her.
posted by grouse at 1:03 PM on May 21, 2006

In my experience any excercise that involves a bent wrist, like pushups, is harmful to my carpalled tunnels.

Lifting straight up, as when using handweights, doesn't bother me, if I grip with the fingers and keep the wrist relaxed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:04 PM on May 21, 2006

posted by randomstriker at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Swimming is great, although I find if I scoop too hard it does put a load on my wrist. Thanks for the suggestions so far, everyone!
posted by grouse at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2006

I hurt my wrist (not RSI though, it was very acute) a few months back, & wasn't able to work out for a few weeks. When I finally started up again, I just taped it up and did things that kept my wrist in line with my forearm. Bench press, dumbbell press, military press, hammer curls (regular curls or isolation curls are still a no-no).

After a few weeks of having it taped, I started to be able to just use a tight ACE bandage. I use the bandage on & off now, but its pretty much better. I may have slowed down the healing process, but it certainly didn't stop or reverse, so I think it wasn't a terribly bad thing to do.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:27 PM on May 21, 2006

What about weight lifting gloves with wrist wraparounds? The heavy duty leather ones immobilize your wrist and also take a lot of the stress normally applied to your wrist and apply it directly to your forearm. I don't have any experience with your kind of injury, but is seems that such gloves might help. Harbringer is a good brand.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:32 PM on May 21, 2006

Check out this book. It involves balletic exercises, so if you're the super-macho type who won't do anything remotely girly, this won't appeal to you.

However if you're open to new suggestions, the last two sections of this book may appeal to you. You can do the exercises in your bare feet or socks, and you need roughly the same amount of space as you would for say, an aerobics video.

These sections both focus on legwork, however because you'll be doing them without the aid of a ballet barre, you'll be forced to use a full range of motion in your arms in order to acheive proper balance and form. If you don't use your arms properly (or your legs, abdominals, or back), you'll find yourself tilting or swaying off balance.

Many of the exercises do look easy, but once you realize how you have to keep your shoulders down, back straight, elbows lifted, abdominals and rear end tucked in for each movement - you may find it more challenging than you think.

But if you keep at it, then pretty soon doing all of that will become second nature to you, and your body will learn to "assume the position" automatically, because doing otherwise won't feel right.

Ballet is not about bulking up muscle groups, so you will not acheive the same effect as you would from lifting weights. However, your sense of balance and posture will definitely improve. And you'll gain a greater understanding of how the muscles in your back help keep your elbows lifted, how you can only lift your leg if you use your abdominals, and so on.

Last but not least, you won't have to worry about putting additional strain on your wrist. Of course, you should probably first show the book to your physiotherapist and/or trainer to see what they think.
posted by invisible ink at 2:05 PM on May 21, 2006

Butterflys on a machine will work your pecs nicely. But nothing beats the king of all exercises... squats. It won't target your upper body specifically, but will increase your core strength like you can't imagine. I can't tell you how many times I see guys trying to isolate their upper body muscles that neglect this fundamental exercise.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:08 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: But nothing beats the king of all exercises... squats.

Why on earth would I want to do squats when there are other ways of doing those exercises that involve zero wrist use? I don't understand this answer.
posted by grouse at 2:55 PM on May 21, 2006

1. Because most of the stress points with squats are on your shoulders and knees, not your wrists.

2. I'd really like to hear what "other exercises" you think can take the place of squats.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:16 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Civil_Disobedient: since you are apparently a squat expert, can you tell me if there any muscle group that is developed by squats that is not capable of being developed by any other exercise?
posted by grouse at 3:46 PM on May 21, 2006

If you are doing squats correctly, you shouldn't really be working your core all that much. I mean, you will be doing a bit of stabilizing to keep good posture while squatting, but it won't build the muscles like targeted exercise will.

Squats can be replaced by the various forms of leg press machines, which will all work quads/hamstrings, gluts, and calves.

I also recommend finding a partner (if you can) to do partner assisted exercises. Your partner provides resistance, and can hold your arm in such a way that you will not have put much weight on your wrist. You won't really have a good metric for measuring your gains, but trust me, you will be stronger.
posted by Loto at 4:23 PM on May 21, 2006

I'm confused... do you not want to use your hands at all, even for pure stabilization? Back barbell squats involve zero wrist use. Not that they have anything much to do with the upper body or this particular question...
Probably every muscle group hit by squats can be hit by other exercises. They're just so efficient at hitting all those muscle groups at once, as well as the core stabilizers, which makes them such an essential exercise.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:29 PM on May 21, 2006

If you're fairly coordinated, forearm stands ("Pincha Mayurasana" in yoga, for googling purposes) will give you opportunity to work your shoulders and back without flexing your wrists. They'll still bear some body weight, but not all of it.

Any pushing exercises you ordinarily do can be made easier on the wrists by putting your hands on paralettes, pushup stands, or the bars of dumbells, but I don't know if that's still too much stress for your wrists.

I think you could modify many of your usual upper body exercises to be done with exercise tubing or a theraband wrapped around your forearm. you might want to put a towel around your arm first so the tightness of the band doesn't threaten to cut off circulation.

You say you were told to do exercises that involve "pushing rather than pushing." Let us know which it is you're allowed to do and I bet we can come up with lots of exercises.
posted by nevers at 5:07 PM on May 21, 2006

Upon re-read, I realize that regardless of whether it's pushing or pulling, you are supposed to be very gentle for a while and you are looking for stuff you can do that's more intense, where you don't have to baby your wrists. So never mind my last paragraph.
posted by nevers at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2006

Regarding pushups, I developed a problem with one of my wrists after getting into the habit of doing several dozen every other day, but that has been aleviated by adjusting my hand positioning. If I turn my hands so that my fingers point out as much as is comfortable, I avoid the problems.

I didn't follow through, but I considered getting some hexagonal barbells to use in the pushups, the idea being that I could grip the handles in a position that kept my wrists nearly straight compared to placing them on the floor. This is also supposed to improve pushups by letting you go down further and adding a stretch to that portion of the motion.
posted by NortonDC at 7:24 PM on May 21, 2006

Pushups hurt my wrist far, far more than bench press or dumbbell press. They even hurt my wrist more than hammer curls. I'd be very careful starting into those.

The barbell suggestion is a good one though. Might have to try it..
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:33 PM on May 21, 2006

I want to chime in here in CD's defense to say that no machine is a substitute for squats, and they can be done with practically zero wrist involvement. Machines can be dangerous because they involve one plane of motion only, to the neglect of the myriad stabilizer muscles which result in true functional strength.

My suggestions would be to get some straps, wrap them around your forearms, and do pull-ups that way. Youl could also adapt the technique for other types of pulling exercises.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:35 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: exercises that involve "pushing rather than pushing."

Eek! I meant rather than pulling! I'm not sure what these machines are called, but you grip some handles with your hands and push forward against the resistance supplied by a weight stack.
posted by grouse at 2:48 AM on May 22, 2006

What about elbowing a punching bag?

Resistance bands attached to your wrists and some part of the scenery (wall/floor) should let you do flies, reverse flies, row, shoulder-press, whatever.

If pushing is OK but pronated wrists bad, what about pushups on your fists?
posted by polyglot at 5:41 AM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: If pushing is OK but pronated wrists bad, what about pushups on your fists?

Pushing is not really okay, and especially having much of my body weight on my fists. So I think I will try to do pushups on my forearms instead. I really want to limit anything involving weight on my wrist whatsoever.
posted by grouse at 6:07 AM on May 22, 2006

Best answer: If you're putting stress on your wrists when you're swimming, swim with your fists closed. It's a pretty popular drill meant to reinforce that you should (a) be pulling with your lats and (b) using your entire forearm as a paddle. Also, when your hands are open, they should be flat, not curved, with the fingers slightly apart.
posted by dame at 8:24 AM on May 22, 2006

can you tell me if there any muscle group that is developed by squats that is not capable of being developed by any other exercise?

Any other single exercise? No. There is none. Next question?

If you are doing squats correctly, you shouldn't really be working your core all that much. I mean, you will be doing a bit of stabilizing to keep good posture while squatting, but it won't build the muscles like targeted exercise will.

Wrong. Squats, when done properly, will work out your entire leg muscle group as well as your back and trapezius muscles (shoulders). There is simplly no better exercise to build overall muscle mass. Squats will stress your entire skeletal structure, not just your legs. Trying to concentrate muscular development in a small, targetted area is as absurd as spot weight loss. Your body won't get the message to start building up unless it's targetted as a whole.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:17 PM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: C_D: I'm still having trouble seeing how an exercise that seems to primarily work out leg muscles and my "entire skeletal structure" and involving holding heavy weights with my hands is an answer to the question of how to work out my upper body without using my hands at all. But thanks for the tips, maybe someone else will find it useful. And I'll try to add in some squats without weights to my routine.

Trying to concentrate muscular development in a small, targetted area is as absurd as spot weight loss.

Hence why I need to start doing more upper body stuff again; I already do plenty of things for the core and lower body.
posted by grouse at 11:55 PM on May 22, 2006

Oh, ok... sorry grouse. I mistook the intention from the post as yet another misguided attempt to only build-up the upper body, which drives me up a wall. Since your wrists are pretty-much locked in place, and most of the weight is on your shoulders, there's little to no wrist flexing, but YMMV. FYI, I have tiny wrists that are also easy to strain and the only pushups I can do are on my fists, so I know where you're coming from.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:05 PM on May 23, 2006

Waaay late to this thread, but my yoga teacher recently taught us something about protecting the carpal nerves. Put your hands, palms together, in front of you, and push them together. If you look at the bottom where your hands meet your wrists, that part is probably pretty smooshed together.

Now keep your hands together but spread your fingers wide and focus on pushing the pads of your fingers and the fleshy part of your hands (right below the fingers) together. If you look at the bottom of your hands, you should notice that there's now an opening though the middle of your hands, where the wrists are pulling apart a little. This tunnel keeps the carpal nerves in the proper alignment and protected; they're not getting pushed forward and irritated.

I know you said you wanted to keep all weight off your wrists, but if you do want to try push-ups again, keeping your fingers pushing into the floor like that can help protect your wrists (I think if it as "gecko hands" latching onto the ground with sticky pads; my teacher referred to it as "cupping and drawing the middle of your hands up").
posted by occhiblu at 2:59 PM on May 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

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