Yeah…not the most fun or “sexy” topic today, but one that must be discussed, nevertheless.
Handle a barbell long enough you’re bound to start scuffing your hands up. Even if you’re a calisthenics bro, there’s a good chance your upper palm will quickly resemble the surface of Mars.
That’s cool, though. In many cases calluses are good for you!
(plus, chicks dig “tough” hands)
Today, we’re going to discuss why you get calluses, what to do when you get them, and how to prevent them from getting really bad.
One thing: just promise me you won’t wear gloves…please.
Table of Contents
Lifting Calluses: What they are and Why You get them
Calluses are hard and thick patches of skin that can develop on your body – usually hands and feet – due to repetitive friction and pressure. They’re a common result of many activities, such as sports, playing instruments, or handling tools.
(you can always tell the hard-working men solely by checking out their heavily-callused hands…always)
Your skin forms calluses as a protective layer that serves to prevent further pressure and irritation. Think of them as natural “padding” that develops on your hands over time to…prevent the need for even more calluses!
Calluses are especially common among the gym-going populations. Gripping and handling equipment such as barbells and dumbbells puts repetitive pressure on your palms and fingers, which can cause your skin to harden and form calluses.
NOTE: If you…shudder…insist on training in “lifting gloves” you will largely bypass the process of ever developing lifting calluses. You can safely close this page now.
Although calluses from lifting can provide a certain degree of protection to your skin, they can also become a problem. If you don’t treat them properly, lifting calluses can become painful or will eventually tear. This can be not only uncomfortable, but can also (negatively) affect your performance.
For the CrossFitters reading this article, think about how your ability to perform kipping pull-up plummets after suffering a had tear or ripped callus. Even if it takes a little bit for the effect to kick in (you will usually be able to finish your set or even training for the day), training for the next…month(?) can get a little dicey!
(…and by “dicey” I mean “ohhh, gosh…this is so painful…so uncomfortable…how will I ever grip a bar or barbell again..please make it stop…hand hurts…must post pic to Instagram!”)
How to Treat Lifting Calluses
I’ll be straight with you: if you’re lifting (without gloves) for any period of time, you’re gonna get a few lifting calluses. Best you learn to treat them sooner rather than later!
Don’t Let ‘em Tear in the First Place
I know you treat every workout as if they are the final “test” (heh) in the CrossFit Games. You don’t want to take your foot off the gas for one second, no matter the cost.
You feel your hand tearing on your second to last set of toes-to-bar and can feel some serious irritation while cycling the barbell during that snatch complex.
…and you just. keep. going.
In many ways, this is certainly commendable. However, in my experience, the cost greatly outweighs the benefit.
Sure, you might gut out an extra rep or two, but if your hand tears and your training is limited in some way or another for a week or two…well…was that extra rep or two really worth it?
If you know your callus is getting ready to tear (I know you know when this is going to happen), abort the set and live to fight another day.
NOTE: If you’re actually competing in the final “test” (heh) of the CrossFit Games when this is taking place, please ignore everything I’ve mentioned in this section.
Get ‘em Checked
Got some weird-looking stuff on your hand? You should check if what you have are actually calluses or other forms of skin lesions, such as warts or some kind of blister that wasn’t caused by a sports activity. If you are not sure, you can consult a dermatologist.
Yes…this was awkward to write.
Protect ‘em from Further Irritation
If you’re going to continue lifting, you need to take steps to ensure that the calluses don’t get worse and/or don’t multiply. Depending on the phase your lifting calluses are in, you might need to put some medical tape over it, especially if it is torn or near torn.
(while not ideal, I have certainly used weightlifting tape on my finger tears and calluses. If this is all you have…well…you can definitely do worse!)
If your calluses from lifting tear during a workout, be sure to disinfect them to avoid infection. If you insist on muscling through your workout, it makes sense to wear grips for further pull-up bar and ring movements.
Shave down your calluses
A layer of thickened skin on your palms is unavoidable (and useful) if you’re a lifter of any variety. However, trimming them down from time to time can prevent them from overgrowing and eventually tearing.
You can reduce your calluses with a callus razor. However, keep in mind that you should use these razors very carefully and follow the instructions so you avoid injuries.
First of all, soak your skin in warm water to make it soft. Place the blade as flat as possible. Remove the callus in thin individual layers without putting too much pressure. Don’t try to remove the whole callus at once, just shave it down with light strokes.
You can also use a pumice stone to trim down the lifting callus instead of a callus razor.
How to Keep Lifting Calluses Under Control
Although your skin will inevitably get thicker and harder, there are a few tricks you can use to keep calluses under control:
One thing you can do to prevent calluses from building up is to chalk up your hands before lifting. This will keep your hands dry (and prevent slipping) and will serve as a protective layer.
If your callus is already damaged, you can use a hydrocolloid dressing to protect the wound from further irritation. This is a plaster made from materials like gelatine, pectin, and carboxymethylcellulose and has two layers. The hydrocolloid adhesive layer creates a moist environment, promotes healing, and protects new tissue. The outer layer seals the wound, protecting it from bacterial contamination and helps prevent shearing.
Not to be confused with gloves, grips i.e. CrossFit grips are excellent at providing significant palm protection when performing movements on the pull-up bar and rings. Generally, only the portions of the hands that are most likely to develop sensitive calluses are covered ensuring that there is more of a “natural” feel when grasping the bar or rings.
It is important to be mindful when using grips as they do not cover all areas where lifting calluses can develop. You might want to experiment with a few different varieties (i.e. no-finger vs. 3-finger grips, whole-palm vs. partial-palm grips) to see which are likely to provide you with the best protection. Also, if you compete, be sure to check rules regarding the use of grips. In many cases, they cannot be used when performing certain exercises.
Use Barbells with Rough Knurling
Using barbells with rough knurling might seem like a harsh option for your palms. But rough knurling prevents slippage, which decreases the occurrence of friction that causes calluses.
You should also choose knurled dumbbells or ones with a rubber grip. Also, avoid damaged equipment that could harm your skin.
On the flip side, using a heavily-knurled barbell, especially for those new to lifting, can increase the chances of developing some gnarly lifting calluses. Good rule of thumb: if you’re a new lifter and the barbell knurling feels like a chainsaw…opt for something else!
Congratulations for making it through this article on lifting calluses. After slogging through such topics as torn hands, callus razors…and…skin lesions, you deserve a medal.
As it is, we hope that you have a better understanding of the importance of calluses as well as the vest course of action in dealing with lifting calluses when they arrive (and they will).
Further questions? I leave you to the esteemed Andrew Hiller and his tips of the trade in his “Hand Care for CrossFit” video.
Hopefully that fills in any and all gaps in your understanding in all things “calluses from lifting”!
Now that your hands are all prepped and ready to handle some heavy lifting, take a look at our article on deadlift standards i.e. how much you should be able to deadlift. No more “my hands are torn!” excuses for missing a heavy lift!