Having ripped, calloused, blistered, or bloodied hands is a rite of passage in the community of CrossFit, so we need to do hand care.
Even if you’ve never torn them, it’s more than likely you’ve experienced dried skin, or a callous here and there.
This post will give you helpful insight into why our hands are on the receiving end, and what to do about it. Plus, how to prevent it.
Why do my hands crack or blister in CrossFit?
Quite simply, this is down to the stress under which our hands are put during workouts. Couple this with the repetitive use of chalk and ‘grip-biased’ movements, this creates a frictional wearing effect on our hands. This friction creates blisters which invariably crack or tear. Calluses are also formed by the bunching and thickening of the skin from repeating this process.
Causation for tears
Callouses and tears can be blamed on a number of different things. Here are the 10 main reasons from doing CrossFit that can cause tears:
- Chalk drying out our skin
- The overuse of chalk
- Applying a tight grip to knurled equipment
- Using rough-coated (and non-coated) rigs
- Applying loose or incorrect grips
- Not using hand protection (hand grips, wraps, tape etc)
- Improper use of hand tape
- Allowing excessive callous build-up
- Training whilst hands are already torn or split
- Not carrying out preventive maintenance
A rite of passage
I remember when first starting CrossFit over 12 years ago my coach said “Don’t worry, your hands will toughen up over time and rips become more infrequent“…as I nursed the 4 mega blood blisters that Mary just inflicted upon me.
I wasn’t so sure. This also was before the mass of grips on the market. We were using the classic real leather gymnastic grips (used by gymnasts, not CrossFitters), soaked overnight in soapy water to soften them up. (Non-soaked grips introduced their own hand problems such as inside finer rubbing!)
However, 12 years on, my hands rarely tear and I don’t need to maintain them much at all anymore, either.
So what is the secret?
Well, it’s not a secret. Follow the 11 below tips and your hands will become much better over time, as my coach told me 12 years ago.
If you’re new to all this, check out this article about whether CrossFit really is as hard as the keyboard warriors on Reddit say it is.
1. Don’t overdo the chalk
So many people do not do this. In other words.. they overdo the chalk.
We all know that guy who practically takes a bath in it, normally prior to Box Jumps and Burpees where chalk is completely unnecessary. The chalk plume follows him around the room.
The truth is, yes, chalk is very useful. It creates desirable traction between the hands and the bar or equipment. However, if used too much – especially all the time – it can create a sandpaper effect.
Your hands become so dry and hard. Consequently, tears manifest more easily.
So use the chalk bucket less liberally and more sparingly.
A good alternative to the chalk bucket is liquid chalk. One application should last you the WOD. It lessens sweat profusion and the chalk sticks nice and evenly across the palm.
Here is a tried and tested bottle you can keep in your bag:
These are usually associated with climbing, bouldering or pole fitness. However, you might see them in your CrossFit gyms now. Especially since Covid, as people often bring their own.
If you don’t like dusty chalk, are not a fan of the liquid or communal bucket, grab one of these and a bouldering bag to go with it. And stick with your gym bag.
These chalk balls help regulate the amount applied to your hands. It stops you full-on chalk bathing.
2. Trim your calluses
A callus is a thickened, raised or hardened piece of skin which normally forms by repeated trauma such as lots of Pull Ups, Muscle Ups, Toes to Bar, or even Barbell work.
These skin collections can often become sore over time, breaking away and causing tears or rips.
What to do, then, to mitigate this? You have 2 options:
- Do nothing at all
- Trim them back and maintain
Do nothing at all
Having been doing CrossFit for over 12 years, I fall into that category. My coach back then was right. My hands became harder and now withstand quite a lot.
I don’t bother trimming back the calluses. Nor do I use grips all that often.
Generally, my hands fare well. If I was to do ‘Murph‘ or similar, then I would reach for my grips, however.
You might find that you’re now in that camp. If fact, possibly that by trimming your calluses it creates weak spots on your hands.
So they’re better left alone.
Calluses in the usual hotspots, but not too raised. Mine are now very low maintenance.
Trim them back
You can do this with either wet hands or dry hands.
For me, I preferred dry hands as the clippers can trim back exactly to where you want it. By doing this wet, I found you may trim the skin back too much.
It can also become slippery. You don’t want a slippery hand that is holding the clippers.
Dry and Wet Trimming
First off, get decent nail clippers. Other people will say to use scissors or scalpels. I’ve tried both and quite frankly that’s a stupid idea.
The scissors do not afford a good enough angle or leverage. A scalpel risks a visit to A&E.
You also need a pummel stone and moisturiser. We will get to that shortly.
Nail clippers provide exactitude and ease. They clip away the excess skin so easily. They’re meant for nails after all.
The below come in a 2 pack which is useful for various sized calluses. Or you can keep one pair in your gym bag and one at home.
Buy yourself some decent trimmers
Method Wet Trimming
Here is a simple step-by-step process for wet trimming:
- Soak hands in warm water for at least 5 minutes (to soften the skin)
- Or you can take a long bath, pat dry both hands, then wet the hand being trimmed
- Ensure that the hand holding the clippers is dry to prevent slipping
- Carefully work your way around each callus outside inwards, with the clippers
- Slowly work towards the centre
- Clip it all away from the hand and dispose of the dead skin
Method Dry Trimming
Here is a simple step-by-step process for dry trimming:
- With dry hands, carefully work your way around each callus outside inwards with the clippers
- Slowly work towards the centre
- Clip it all away from the hand and dispose of the dead skin
- Do not over-clip!
Remember: do not overegg it! Better to do less and double back to do more, than to overdo and risk taking too much off.
3. Moisturiser and repair creams
This step comes after trimming back those calluses – wet or dry. It helps protect your hands, but it also soothes and protects them.
But I’ve found the best one to be the one actually developed by CrossFitters for CrossFitters – WODWelder.
All the other ones seem either didn’t seem to work and/or left an unpleasant residue on the hands.
This, therefore, meant doing anything with your hands for 30+ minutes after was impeded by sticky hands.
Pummel stone and moisturiser
So, after both wet and dry trimming, it is time to now smoothen back and moisturise.
Luckily, there are some CrossFit-loving callus carers out there who’ve made it their business to make products for this as noted above, actually made by CrossFitters.
You can buy the WODWelder kit here, which contains what you need. Below is a picture of what to expect in the kit.
Hand care kit for CrossFitters
What to do
Step-by-step using WODWelder:
- Use pummel stone to smoothen out the areas trimmed
- Rub evenly across the palms and with a fair amount of pressure
- Do all calluses until smooth
- Apply hand cream supplied in the kit
- Use the stick between pummelling and trimming
The stick is really handy for keeping in your work bag, at your desk, bedside drawer etc.
If you find you have a split on your hand(s), use either the stick or cream to re-introduce some moisture to the area.
It will also remove irritation and heal the split quicker.
4. Use proprietary hand protection
This can be controversial. In my experience, it’s to be used in moderation.
Use grips too much and your hands will stay soft forever and a day. You need to condition your hands; expose them to some grit. As noted above, doing this in a protracted way can have positive benefits.
This also removes an unhealthy reliance to go to your hand protection.
Main types of hand protection
Most commonly seen worn by others and elite CrossFit athletes. The market awash with them.
They are included in a rundown of kit worth having in your gym bag here.
Or to cut to it, you can check the Best Gym Hacks CrossFit grips here directly:
Best Gym Hacks – CrossFit Grips Choice
Conventional gymnastics wraps are a bit ‘old hat’ now. Given the number of propriety grips on the market, there is no need to improvise with these. CrossFit has grown hugely since I started in 2010. Back then it was makeshift and improv.
Nowadays, it is market saturation and excess…
The only time these really should be worn is in a WOD with a high number of Rope Climbs.
Back when first starting, we experimented with biking gloves and work gloves. All that Pull Ups did was made holes in £40 biking gloves, then the synthetic material bunched up and caused my hands to tear. How very counter-productive.
Do not wear gloves for Pull Ups, Toes2Bar, Muscles Ups etc.
This is not advisable. Like gloves, the tape can bunch and cause more friction, thus, more susceptibility to tearing.
Tape is useful to wrap thumbs if barbel cycling, or DB Snatch cycling. Simply tape around the articulation of the thumb joints – like a plaster / band-aid – to keep them from getting friction burn.
I’ve used many tapes over the years, most often electrician’s insulation tape…because I’m frugal. There are some proprietary tapes out there though, made for this. Do yourself a favour and get those. Insulation tape is hard and scratchy on the edges.
CrossFit hand tape
5. Don’t use said grips all the time
Simple point this one: don’t use your grips all the time.
As per point 2, your hands become accustomed over time. With this, you gain skin strength (if that’s even a thing) and maintenance on your hands becomes less necessary.
Not opting for grips every time speeds this up.
6. Learn to grip properly
This is movement/exercise dependent. The grips (not accessory, but application and shape of your hand) are as follows:
- False grip (Muscle Up)
- Over grip (Bar Muscle Up and Pull Up)
- Thumb-under grip (Pull Up, Toes To Bar)
- Loose grip (Butterfly, Kipping Pull Ups)
- Hook grip (Snatch)
By using the correct grip in the correct place, it significantly reduces hand tearing.
Be careful of loose grip. Whilst this overall helps maintain your ability to stay on the Pull Up cycling for longer, it can cause more friction and frequent tears.
You need to learn all the grip types inside out and be mindful when you’re working out what grip you should be deploying.
7. Use hand tapes
- WODwelder tape
- Medical/white tapes (thumbs DB Snatch)
- Sparky tapes
We touched on this earlier. Use appropriately and correctly.
Also, be mindful at some gyms where people have actually taped the bar. If you see this, it’s usually because the bars are slippery, so someone’s taken it upon themselves to tape them up.
Whilst it does work, they will help tear your hands. Wear your grips on the taped bars.
8. Maintain your blisters (in a controlled manner)
To pop or not to pop, that is the question.
I’ve experimented with this a lot. The best way to deal with them is this:
- Day 1 blood blister appears (after say 14 rounds of Mary)
- Leave for 4-5 days. Blood under skin dissipates
- Take sterile pin into the shower. Carefully pierce blister
- Remove skin in the shower and clean
- Cut back with nail clippers
- Apply pummel stone and moisturiser
Waiting a few days for the blood blister to heal under the surface means overall healing time is reduced, and it is much less painful.
Pop, drain and clean on day 1 means you’ll be stinging a lot for a longer time.
Ignore this advice at your peril!
Summary: Wait, shower, pin, drain, clean, dry, smoothen, moisturise repeatedly.
9. Moisten your battle scars
Remembering to keep the cuts and tears moist means your healing time will be expedited.
10. Skin trim – preventative maintenance
Per point 2, chances are you will still be training. You need to repeat step 2 as part of the maintenance sometimes daily, sometimes every other day, or once a week. Maybe not all the steps but at least keep it in check.
Doing this will get tears healed quicker and your palms generally more robust much quicker.
11. Rest your hands
No CrossFitter likes to be told to R, R, R, Ree, Rest. But we all need it.
Sometimes, your hands have taken such a battering that rest is the best thing for it.
This might mean taking a few sessions off and go do something else like a 5km run or hike.
Or you could still train, but sub out any grippy movements.
Chat to your coach about what to do in leiu of Pull Ups in Fran, if your hands are like the biblical River Nile. Not doing the move.
Whilst all of this may sound very complicated it really isn’t. It just becomes the norm. In fact, it’s a pretty satisfying process.
Hopefully, you can take something useful from the above. Even if not all 11 points, a blend of some of them. Your hands will no doubt perform how you’d like them to.
Into battle, you go!
If you’ve just started out or 5 years into your CrossFit journey, make sure to read our article for the top 20 tips for any CrossFitter here.