As a sports medicine physician, wrist pain is one of the most common upper body symptoms I see in both athletes and patients alike. The wrist plays an important role in one’s biomechanics when front squatting, and if you don’t lift with the proper technique, it can lead to wrist pain and injury.
The top reasons you get wrist pain from front squatting are:
Having low wrist flexibility/mobility
Using a weight that’s too heavy
Not having your elbows in the “up” position before unracking
Sitting too far back
Not keeping your heels flat on the floor
Not having the bar racked on your shoulders
Gripping onto the bar with your whole hand
In this article, I’ll breakdown exactly why you get wrist pain while front squatting and the strategies I’ve used with my patients to fix it.
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Basic Wrist Movement & How It Functions During Front Squats
The wrist serves as the link between the forearm and hand, and is therefore involved in many complex everyday movements as well as exercises.
The different types of wrist motions are flexion, extension, ulnar deviation, radial deviation, and circumduction.
Flexion is when your wrist, with your knuckles facing the sky, is bent towards the ground.
Extension is when your wrist, with your knuckles facing the sky, is bent backward towards your elbow.
Ulnar deviation is when the wrist is bent towards the pinky side of the hand.
Radial deviation is when the wrist is bent towards the thumb side of the hand.
Circumduction is the action that produces a circular movement of the wrist.
During the front squat, the wrist is in extension, with slight radial deviation. Therefore, it requires a certain level of mobility in order to handle these positions, which we’ll discuss in more detail later.
But first, let’s learn about how to properly grip the barbell because if you don’t know how to set your hand position on the barbell, then no amount of wrist mobility will help you.
Front Squat Technique & The Wrist
Note: We’ll be discussing the conventional front squat and not the Californian front squat which involves the lifter’s arms being crossed in front, with the right hand on the left shoulder and vice versa. This form involves less upper body flexibility than does the standard hand position.
The front squat uses a different movement than the back squat and some people tend to prefer doing them due to it placing less stress on the lower back for those with pre-existing low back pain since the barbell is supported in front of the neck.
However, some individuals feel that supporting the bar on the front of the shoulders is uncomfortable or even painful. So it’s important to master the front squat technique before loading up the movement.
The front squat can be broken into the following phases:
Let’s break each of these phases down in more detail.
1. Start Position:
The bar is set at the level of the mid-sternum
The grip is such that it allows your elbows to come up high enough to support the weight on your shoulders while keeping your back vertical during the entire movement of the exercise
The wrists are extended comfortably and the bar is gripped with a few fingers (not the whole hand)
The heels are kept shoulder-width apart with the toes out approximately thirty degrees
With the chest up, tight shoulders, the bar is unracked and placed over the deltoid muscles (top of the shoulder)
While maintaining the vertical positioning of the back and maintaining wrist extension comfortably, descend into the squat by bending your knees
Maintain a strong, braced core, and keep your feet flat on the floor
Once the hips drop below parallel the bottom of the squat has been achieved
Without pausing at the bottom, the ascent phase begins with the upwards drive of the chest (not the elbows); reversal of the descent phase
4. End Position:
This is essentially the same as the start position so you’re able to do multiple repetitions of the exercise
7 Reasons Why Your Wrist Hurts During Front Squats
Note: We’re discussing the reasons people get wrist pain while front squatting. One thing I didn’t cover was if you already have an undiagnosed wrist injury you should consult a medical provider before attempting to front squat. The last thing you’d want to do is make things worse than they are.
REASON # 1: HAVING LOW WRIST FLEXIBILITY/MOBILITY:
If you have inflexible wrists then you are more likely to feel a strain in your wrists/forearms when front squatting – especially if it’s your first time performing the movement.
Unlike the back squat where the wrists can be positioned fairly neutral, during the front squat, you’re required to have a greater degree of wrist extension.
In general, the less flexibility you have, the wider the grip you’ll need to use for your front squat. In particular, you’ll need to adjust your grip width as needed so that you can raise your elbows high enough to support the bar during a front squat.
Once you’ve selected a grip that feels comfortable given your current level of flexibility, you’ll want to stretch both your triceps and forearms.
Stretching the triceps is useful as tight muscles can prevent the elbows from raising high enough to support the bar. I recommend performing the following tricep stretch prior to front squatting:
For wrist stretches, the ones I like to prescribe to patients are:
Going through isometric stretches in wrist flexion/extension/side-to-side (holding each stretch for 30-60-seconds)
Resisted wrist flexion/extension using weights or everyday objects such as a can of soup or hammer (performing 3 sets of 10 reps)
Grip strengthening by squeezing a rubber ball (squeezing for 3 sets of 10 reps)
Some people who lack wrist mobility can also wear wrist straps, but this should only be a temporary fix while you work on your overall flexibility.
One more tip:
If you lack wrist flexibility, you could try performing the goblet squat, which is a front squat variation using a dumbbell. This would allow you to perform the front squat exercise while working on your wrist flexibility/mobility so that you can move to the barbell variation once you’ve improved your range of motion.
Here’s a quick how-to video on how to Goblet Squat:
While wrist flexibility will vary between people, it can be acquired through stretching and specific mobility exercises.
REASON #2: USING A WEIGHT THAT’S TOO HEAVY
If the weight is too heavy, the muscles in your hand and forearm might not be strong enough to stabilize the wrist position, which can lead to pain.
In general, you can’t front squat as much as you can back squat since all of the weight sits in front of you.
Rather than sitting back and having a slight forward lean like you would in a back squat, you’re almost squatting straight down which is why you emphasize your quadriceps (thigh muscles) and upper back muscles a lot more in a front squat movement.
Front squats are missed when the weight is too heavy to squat or too heavy for the back to stay upright enough for the lifter to hold the bar in place.
When learning the front squat, I would use a weight where you’re comfortable leaving 2-3 reps left in the tank by the time you finish the set. Don’t push the front squat to failure in the early days, and only use a weight that feels comfortable on your wrists.
Over time, your hand and forearm muscles will get stronger, which will support the wrist joint, but this takes several weeks and months of front squat training to develop.
Related Article: How To Hook Grip
REASON #3: NOT HAVING THE BAR RACKED ON YOUR SHOULDERS
If you keep your elbows in the “up” position and have the weight racked on your shoulders it’ll take the weight off of the wrist and hands.
What this looks like in practice is having the back of your upper arm parallel to the floor while squatting. As soon as your elbows start pointing down toward the floor, this is when your wrist will be more at risk.
I would use a cue of “elbows up” as you stand out of the bottom of the squat in order to reinforce the proper positioning.
If you can’t hold this position throughout the movement, then you might have to assess your grip on the barbell or your overall wrist flexibility.
Related: What Chest Workouts Can You Do With Bad Shoulders?
REASON #4: GRIPPING ON THE BARBELL WITH THE WHOLE HAND
You should only have the fingertips of your first 2-4 fingers on the bar. You shouldn’t be holding onto the bar with your whole hand.
The idea is not to ‘grip the bar’. As long as you’re keeping your elbows in the ‘up position’, then the barbell will rest perfectly on the front deltoid (muscle on the top of the shoulder).
When your elbows drop down, there is a tendency to grab the barbell with your entire hand or else the bar will slip off your shoulders. As soon as you grab the bar, your wrist becomes rigid and lacks the natural mobility required to keep your elbows up and your wrists extended.
If your elbows are in the “up” position you’ll be able to have the weight racked on the shoulders, which should trap the bar between the fingers and neck.
REASON #5: NOT HAVING YOUR ELBOWS IN THE UP POSITION BEFORE UNRACKING
I already mentioned not having your elbows up while performing the front squat, but this reason specifically refers to your elbow position not being up prior to lifting the barbell off the rack.
If you don’t already have your elbows in the up position before the weight is unracked, you won’t be able to adjust your positioning effectively with weight loaded on to your upper body. You want to put yourself in a position to be successful with the front squat before unracking the weight.
I like to instruct athletes to walk right into the bar and get the barbell as high on the front deltoid (muscle on the top of the shoulder) as possible.
Then, I’m looking for the back of the upper arm to be parallel to the floor prior to unracking the barbell. If the back of the arm is not parallel and the elbows aren’t up, I would look to adjusting the grip width on the barbell or placing the barbell more on the fingertips vs. the palm of the hand.
By now, you should appreciate the relationship between the elbow position, wrist position, and any potential pain.
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REASON #6: SITTING TOO FAR BACK
If you sit too far back in the front squat, your wrists will be required to have greater extension, and therefore, greater flexibility.
As we mentioned earlier, rather than sitting back and having a slight forward lean as you would in a back squat, you’re almost squatting straight down in a front squat, which is why you emphasize your quadriceps (thigh muscles) and upper back muscles a lot more in a front squat movement.
This relates to having sore wrists due to the wrist being placed into a hyper-extended (cocked back too far) position when sitting back.
There are numerous issues can arise in the wrist with repeated motions at the limits of its range of motion that we’ll discuss later.
If you find yourself sitting too far back in the front squat, try to bend your knees more while initiating the movement, i.e. flex into your knees vs your hips.
REASON #7: NOT KEEPING YOUR HEELS FLAT ON THE FLOOR
If your heels aren’t flat on the floor, you’ll have a more forward lean. As a result, you’ll try to compensate by leaning back causing your wrists hyper-extend, as mentioned earlier with sitting too far back.
You want to find the sweet spot where you’re almost squatting straight down to allow your wrist to grip onto the weight comfortably.
One reason why your heels might not stay flat on the ground is that you lack mobility in your ankles. You’ll want to ensure you properly warm-up by doing some foam rolling on your calf muscle as well as some dynamic calf stretching.
Here is my favorite dynamic calf stretching warm-up:
So while you might be experiencing wrist pain while front squatting, it might be because your ankles need more attention if you find your feet aren’t staying flat on the ground.
Wrist Diagnosis & Front Squats
Now that we’ve covered the specifics regarding the conventional front squat techniques and its relation to wrist mechanics and wrist pain, let’s focus on wrist diagnoses and their relation to front squatting as well.
Remember, always consult a medical provider for a diagnosis for your wrist pain, don’t resort to self-diagnosing yourself based on this article.
Here are the most 4 most common diagnoses for wrist pain:
1. RADIAL-SIDED WRIST PAIN
This is when asked to point to where your wrist hurts when front squatting, and you point to your wrist on the same side as the thumb (either the palm side or knuckle side).
This can potentially be caused by:
Carpometacarpal osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis (what folks normally call “arthritis”) is a common cause of pain at the base of the thumb. Even though osteoarthritis is a chronic condition, short-term increases in symptoms can lead patients to present to the sports medicine office complaining of “acute” wrist pain. Symptoms often include pain that is worsened by continuous grasping (like holding onto a weighted bar in a front squat).
De Quervain’s tenosynovitis: Tendionopathy is a very generalized term for inflammation. Tendinitis is acute inflammation (seen at the level of the tissue fibers) whereas tendinosis is chronic inflammation. Tendinopathy can refer to both. Tenosynovitis, on the other hand, is inflammation of the fluid-filled sheath (called the synovium) that surrounds a tendon. De Quervain’s tenosynovitis refers to tenosynovitis of two tendons in the wrist that especially cause pain during pinch grasping or thumb and wrist movement.
2. ULNAR-SIDED WRIST PAIN
This is when asked to point to where your wrist hurts when front squatting, and you point to your wrist on the same side as the pinky finger (either the palm side or knuckle side).
This can potentially be caused by:
Ulnar styloid impaction syndrome: This is caused in certain positions (such as wrist extension in a front squat) due to compression of the TFCC between the ulnar styloid (pointy end of the ulna bone) and the triquetrum bone of the wrist. Maneuvers that recreate these positions and symptoms can be used to help diagnose the condition.
3. PALMAR-SIDED WRIST PAIN
This is when asked to point to where your wrist hurts when front squatting, and you point to your wrist on the palm side only.
This can potentially be caused by:
Carpal tunnel syndrome: Refers to a condition that causes wrist pain and numbness/tingling brought on by compression of the median nerve as it travels through the carpal tunnel (a canal that contains a lot of tendons, blood vessels, and the median nerve). Symptoms are typically worse at night.
Ulnar neuropathy: When some of the branches of the ulnar nerve are injured as a result of continuous compression in certain positions (such as extreme wrist extension or flexion). This can result in hand weakness, loss of dexterity, and sometimes numbness/tingling as well.
4. DORSAL-SIDED WRIST PAIN
This is when asked to point to where your wrist hurts when front squatting, and you point to your wrist on the knuckle side only.
This can potentially be caused by:
Wrist sprain: Most sprains occur when people lift something heavy overhead and the wrist gives way. The majority of these injuries resolve within two weeks with conservative therapy (we’ll discuss this further in a little bit).
Intersection syndrome: This condition usually involves repetitive resisted wrist extension, but can occur with any activity that involves a substantial increase in the use of the wrist extensors (such as front squatting). People typically present within a few weeks of symptoms and may describe hearing “noise” when they extend their wrist repeatedly. Intersection syndrome is often confused with De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
Ganglion cyst: Sometimes when I ask patients to point to where their wrist hurts, they’ll point to a “squishy ball” like structure on the knuckle side of their wrists. These are known as ganglion cysts (which are very common) and can rarely cause pain if they interfere with other structures such as tendons in the wrist.
What Should You Do When Your Wrist Hurts When Front Squatting?
a lot of different things you can do to help your wrist when it hurts.
It all depends on if the pain is acute (recent within the last 2 weeks), subacute (within the last 2 weeks to 12 weeks), or chronic (generally greater than 12 weeks), but for the sake of this article we’ll cover what to do with acute, non-traumatic (not a direct trauma injury; ex. had a dumbbell fall onto the wrist) wrist pain, especially after front squatting.
1. IDENTIFY WHETHER YOU HAVE ANY LOSS OF SENSATION
The first thing to do is to see if you’re having any loss of sensation (loss of physical feeling) in your wrist or hand, notice a markedly large decrease in your wrist strength, or notice that your pain doesn’t follow the rule of twos (I’ll explain below).
If you’re noticing any of those things you should be seen by a medical provider as soon as possible.
2. ASSESS USING THE RULES OF TWOS
For the rule of twos, you first rate your pain on a scale from zero to ten (zero being no pain and ten being the worst pain possible).
You then note if the pain level in your wrist (for example) increases by two levels (on a scale from one to ten on the pain scale) for more than two hours.
If the pain increases by two levels for more than two hours, you’re doing “too” much and need to either back down or be evaluated in person.
3. USE “PRICE”
Most of you might be familiar with RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compress and elevate.
PRICE just adds protection to the start of the acronym.
Protection can be a wrist compression wrap or brace to add some support and control swelling as well.
4. DECREASE INFLAMMATION
One of the best non-prescription anti-inflammatories that you can use has to be ice. Generally five minutes on, and ten minutes off.
If you’re looking for something more than ice, your medical provider can help you decrease inflammation through medication by mouth or even a topical anti-inflammatory.
I generally advise that inflammation should be controlled during an acute injury before attempting any form of rehab. You don’t want to start irritating a painful part of the body by working it out without bringing the inflammation (the reason you get the pain) down first.
5. USE OF TRAINING MODIFICATIONS
While the inflammation in the wrist is being controlled, it’s also a good idea to avoid activities that could flare it up again or make it worse.
This is done by avoiding activities that reproduce the pain which is easy and goes back to the old saying “if it hurts to do that, don’t do it.”
In terms of training modifications, I like using the rule of twos (as mentioned earlier) on top of the activity modifications to determine when to increase or decrease workout intensity and frequency.
You can avoid or limit the reasons you get wrist pain while front squatting by making small adjustments to your technique and ensuring that you treat acute wrist pain appropriately before getting back in the gym.
About The Author
Dr. Niraj Patel is a physician and assistant professor of family medicine and sports medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. He completed his family medicine residency training through Cleveland Clinic Akron General where he served as the Chief Resident and House Staff President. He completed his sports medicine fellowship through Ohio Health Riverside Methodist Hospital; team physicians of the Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL) and the Columbus Crew (MLS). In addition, he has completed a Certificate in The Principles of Aviation & Space Medicine through NASA / The University of Texas Medical Branch where his final project was on the topic of “Muscle Loss in Spaceflight.” Niraj has been published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine as well as Current Sports Medicine Reports, the official review journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. In his spare time, Niraj enjoys reading, working out, watching sports (especially hockey), and spending time with his family.