The bench press is one of the best strengthening exercises you can do.
In fact, in my career as a sports medicine doctor and being around professional hockey and soccer players, the bench press was the go-to exercise for many athletes and strength coaches.
With that said, I would occasionally have athletes come into my office and say they were experiencing wrist pain while bench pressing.
So while the bench press can be highly effective when performed correctly, it can also be detrimental if the proper technique is not followed.
In this post, we’ll discuss the reasons you get wrist pain while bench pressing and how to fix it.
The 5 most common reasons you get wrist pain while bench pressing are:
Resting the bar at the base of your fingers instead of lower down on the palm
Gripping onto the bar with only a few of your fingers or using a thumbless grip
Having your wrists bent back too far when you grip onto the barbell
Having your grip too wide on the barbell
Using a weight that’s simply too heavy based on your wrist strength
For each of these reasons, I’ll provide solutions so that you’re well on your way to having painless wrists when bench pressing.
Let’s first discuss the basic movements of the wrist and how it functions while bench pressing.
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Basic Wrist Movement & How It Functions While Bench Pressing
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 bench press, the wrist is in a neutral position (not flexed or extended) while being lined up with the forearms to help transmit the force from the weight of the bar appropriately.
Any excessive flexion, extension, or deviation under load can lead to wrist pain over time (more on this later).
Let’s discuss how the wrist operates during the course of a bench press.
Bench Press Technique & The Wrist
First, let’s make sure you have a spotter to keep the unracking and racking of the bar safe for you.
If you are benching heavy by yourself, always bench inside a power rack. If you don’t have a power rack, don’t bench heavy weights on your own.
According to a 2003 study completed by the American College of Sports Medicine, at least 50% of free weight related deaths were linked to bench pressing. Don’t be one of them!
Now that you’re ready to bench press, let’s break down the exercise into the following phases:
Here are the phases in more detail:
Lie down on the bench with your eyes looking straight up and your feet flat on the ground
The bar should rest on the heel of your palm (not up near the fingers), and directly over your forearm (aligned with it), so that power being transmitted up the arms and to the bar goes directly to the bar without being focused through the wrists.
Wrap all your fingers around the bar after you have set it correctly on the heels of your hands.
Grasp the bar with the wrists directly under the bar approximately shoulder width (or slightly wider than shoulder width) apart – we’ll talk about grip width later on
Touch your shoulder blades together in the back
Unrack the bar
With elbows and wrists locked, move the bar out to get the bar over your chest
Lower the bar to your chest
The bar will contact your sternum (the bone in the middle of your chest, between your pecs) a few inches below your collarbone
Touch the chest with the bar, and then drive the bar right back to exactly the same position with your elbows and wrists locked
Rack the bar (with the help of a spotter if you have one) back to the start position
5 Reasons You Get Wrist Pain Bench Pressing
1. Resting the bar at your fingers instead of lower down on the palm
Your hand should be a platform for the bar as you lower it down to your chest and then back up.
In order for you to use your hand as a platform, you can’t grasp it from the top of your hand since this back you cock back your wrist (extend it), thereby not allowing it to be in a neutral position that is aligned with your forearms.
As a result, the force from the bar is not completely transferred to the chest (what you’re actually working out in a bench press), as some of the force is going into your wrists – this is what causes pain.
2. Gripping onto the bar with a few of your fingers or using a thumbless grip
In the starting position, you should be wrapping all your fingers around the bar after you have set it correctly on the heels of your hands.
Except for the squat, there is no thumbless grip in strength training when using free weights. The grip is thumbless in the squat because you are the one moving (not the bar).
During a bench press, the whole hand (including the thumb) helps to secure the bar, not only for safety, so the bar doesn’t fall on your chin/neck, but for lifting efficiency as well.
By not grasping the bar with your whole hand, you can’t lock your wrist completely, which doesn’t allow you to transmit your lifting force to your chest (the whole reason you’re doing a bench press) and upper extremities (which help you move efficiently).
Related Article: How To Hook Grip
3. Your wrists are bent back too far when you grip onto the bar
If your wrists aren’t in a neutral position, some of the force from the bar will be unevenly distributed through the wrist which can cause pain.
4. Your grip is too wide on the bar
Grip width, to a certain extent, is a matter of individual preference, however, the best range of motion is achieved when your forearms are in a vertical position (shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart) when the bar is on the chest.
With a wider grip, the bar doesn’t move as far and locks out before the triceps have done much work, so the pecs (chest muscles) and deltoids (muscle on the top of your shoulder) end up doing most of the work.
5. You’re 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.
Over time, your hand and forearm muscles will get stronger, which will support the wrist joint, but this takes several weeks and months of bench press training to develop.
Wrist Diagnosis & Bench Press
Now that we’ve discussed reasons for why you get wrist pain while bench pressing, let’s focus on the potential wrist diagnoses that could cause issues.
Remember to consult a medical provider for a diagnosis for your wrist pain and not base your opinion of an article on the internet.
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Here are the most common diagnoses for wrist pain when related to bench pressing:
1. Thumb-Sided (Radial) Wrist Pain
There can be thumb-sided pain on either the palm side or knuckle side, and can potentially be caused by:
Carpometacarpal osteoarthritis: Also known as CMC arthritis. It’s basically arthritis at the base of the thumb and can get worse (more painful) with gripping onto the bar.
Scaphoid fracture: this is usually very common following an injury (like falling onto the ground with your hand outstretched to brace yourself) and can be misdiagnosed as a wrist sprain because a lot of individuals will have a normal x-ray earlier on with it. I bring this up even in the setting of the bench press as the literature has reported a case where an individual developed a scaphoid fracture after his wrist was forced into flexion and radial deviation after the bar slipped from his hand. This diagnosis is usually confirmed with x-rays a few weeks later or via an MRI
2. Pinky-Sided (Ulnar) Wrist Pain
There can be pinky-sided wrist pain on either the palm side or knuckle side, and potentially be caused by:
Triangular fibrocartilage complex injury (TFCC): this structure stabilizes the wrist to allow for adequate motion and to transmit forces through the pinky side. Injuries usually occur from an acute injury similar to the scaphoid fracture, however it can also occur through chronic (long-term) tears from overusing the wrist which is commonly seen in individuals that work with their hands (plumbers, carpenters) or even weightlifters.
3. Wrist Pain in the Palm
There can be a pain in the palm of your hand caused by:
Carpal tunnel syndrome: When you experience pain and/or numbness/tingling because of compression of the median nerve as it travels through the carpal tunnel (a canal in the arm that has a lot of tendons, blood vessels, and the median nerve). Usually if you have this your symptoms are worse at night.
Ulnar neuropathy: When the small branches of the ulnar nerve are damaged from compression in certain wrist positions such as being bent back too far (extension) or bend forward too far (flexion). This causes weakness and sometimes other symptoms like numbness or tingling.
4. Pain in the Back of the Wrist
Pain in the back of your wrist can potentially be caused by:
Kienböck’s disease of the lunate: occurs over a long period of time with the progressive breakdown of one of the bones in the wrist called the lunate. No one really knows why this occurs, but it could potentially be due to disruption to the blood supply to the bone from repetitive damage or overuse. The pain usually starts as mild swelling and eventually worsens to persistent pain associated with weakness in the wrist as well. It can cause diminished grip strength over time. Though it is rare to occur, it has been reported to occur in weightlifters.
Ganglion cyst: Usually a bump that feels like a “squishy ball” on the knuckle side of your wrists (also known as ganglion cysts). These are really common and don’t usually cause any pain unless they get in the way of other structures in your wrists like tendons.
What Should You Do When Your Wrists Hurts While Bench Pressing?
There are a lot of different things you can do to help your acute, non-traumatic, wrist pain after bench pressing.
What does acute mean exactly? Acute pain is usually recent within the last 2 weeks.
Also, non-traumatic means that the pain is not from a direct trauma injury; ex. had the barbell fall onto your hand.
Identify Whether You Have Any Loss of Sensation
Once you start feeling pain in the wrist, make sure you: haven’t lost any sensation (loss of physical feeling) in your wrist or hand, don’t have any new weakness in the wrist (especially grip strength), and go directly to be evaluated in person if your wrist pain doesn’t follow the rule of twos (I’ll explain below).
Assess Using The Rule of Twos
The rule of two is when you rate your pain on a scale from zero to ten (zero being no pain and ten being the worst pain possible) and then keep track of the pain level in your wrist while exercising or continuing to bench press. If your wrist pain from bench pressing, for example, increases by two levels (on a scale from one to ten on the pain scale) for more than two hours, you’re doing “too” much and need to either back down or be evaluated by a medical professional in person.
If you’ve taken any first aid course you’ll be familiar with RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compress and elevate. With PRICE, we’re just adding protection to the acronym.
Protection of the wrist can be a compression wrap or brace to control swelling and add support. Sometimes you’ll use protection before going to be evaluated by a medical professional to make sure the wrist doesn’t get injured again (by accident) to make things worse.
Ice is one of the best, cheapest (usually free), and oldest, non-prescription anti-inflammatories that you can get your hands on. The general rule with ice is five minutes on, and ten minutes off to avoid injuring the skin.
If ice isn’t cutting it you can bring down the inflammation through medications by mouth or even a topical anti-inflammatory with the help of your medical provider.
Inflammation should be controlled during an acute injury before pushing through with any exercises or rehab as you don’t want to start irritating a painful part of the body. This will only cause more inflammation (the reason you get the pain) and makes things worse.
Use Training Modifications
If your wrist pain hurts while bench pressing, avoid bench pressing while the pain is being treated. In general, it’s always a good idea to avoid activities that could flare up your wrist pain to prevent things from getting worse. A good rule of thumb is using the rule of twos that we mentioned before when performing activities with your wrist pain.
Frequently Asked Questions Wrist Pain While Benching
Should I use the Bulldog grip bench press?
First off, the Bulldog grip is a style that positions the bar lower in your palm with a slight radial deviation of the wrist (with your fingertips pinching the bar) allowing you to maintain a near-neutral position to transmit the force of the weight optimally to your chest and upper body.
Technically, this grip can be used to help stabilize the wrist during a bench press similar to the grip mentioned earlier in the article. Use the style that you’re most comfortable with, but most importantly doesn’t aggravate your wrists.
Should I do a dumbbell bench press instead?
Another training modification to consider is skipping the bench press using the bar and using dumbbells (depending on the amount of weight you’re wanting to use). By grasping the dumbbells, you’ll stabilize your wrists in a neutral position almost automatically.
Should I use wrist straps when I bench press?
If you’re having issues with wrist pain while bench pressing due to having weak muscles or limited flexibility, you can consider using wrist wraps. Wrist wraps can help stabilize the muscles that extend or flex the wrist and keep it in a neutral position, and less likely to move with increased forces from the weight of the bar.
The only issue with this is that you can become dependent on wrist wraps and not allow the muscles that extend and flex your wrist to become stronger. You’ll also lose flexibility in these muscles and, eventually, strength in the bench press.
You can avoid or limit the reasons you get wrist pain while bench pressing 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.