Crossfit Hands: Badge of Honor or Mark of Neglect

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I could almost hear the collective groan as the third workout of the 2012 Crossfit Open workout was posted onto the Facebook page. Eighteen minutes of box jumps, push presses…and the dreaded toes-to-bar. All three have their own challenges, but for me personally it’s that final movement that is bad for a particular reason: ripping the skin from my hands.

If the pictures above seem familiar, then you can relate to this post. Those are my hands after a particularly grueling workout. In addition to the pain (a “wearing-gloves-in-the-shower” type pain), it doesn’t look particularly appealing either. Moreover, if your job or social life outside of Crossfit requires the occasional handshake then it may be awkward to explain why you would “rather not” shake hands without launching into a justification of why suffering is more bearable than quitting.

Some in the Crossfit world contend that blisters make you seem hardcore, and certainly credit must be given for working through the pain. But let’s face it: torn hands are an unnecessary inconvenience – and they may even keep you out of the gym if they’re bad enough.

Prevention

First and foremost if you’re new to the Crossfit scene and don’t yet have battle-hardened hands then you can start building callouses by – you guessed it – handling bars. Below Mark Rippetoe, whose statement that “strong people are harder to kill” may soon be our battle cry, explains how to properly grip a bar:

Once you have achieved that smooth, calloused surface that we all crave you have to be diligent about hand care. Make sure that your callouses are filed down so there aren’t any rough surfaces. The best time to do this filing (for which you can use any number of tools including a nail file, sandpaper, or even a razor) is right after a shower when the skin on your hands is nice and swollen. To borrow directly from an article in the Crossfit Journal:

Ideally, your entire palm surface should be one thick callus with no bumps or ridges in any one particular area. In order to do this, groom your hands always after a hot shower or bath (this allows the calluses to swell up). While the calluses are still “swollen,” I take a double-edged razor and very carefully shave the dead callus bumps down a little at a time until the bumps are about even with the thickness of the rest of the hand. With my younger students, I simply ask them to get a callus stone (you can buy one at any drug store), and gently sand the callus down even with the rest of the skin. Remember, whenever you groom or shave your calluses, don’t overdo it, since you don’t want to go too deep into your skin. Always leave enough thick skin so to facilitate your workout the following day. The goal is to maintain an even and consistent thickness of hard skin throughout the entire palm.

Moreover, make sure to keep your hands moisturized as chalking them leads to dryness. As a call to action to those adept at building stuff, if you want your own handy callous-filer (Crossfit style) you can buy a PVC pipe about 300 mm in length and roughly 33 mm in circumference, roll a piece of sand paper along the outside of the pipe and give your hands a vigorous scrub post-shower.

For pullups and toes-to-bar specifically, some may benefit from changing your grip during the training process to prevent tears. Personally, I tend to hold the bar across the base of my fingers (see: “metacarpals” in the picture below). However, some folks have mentioned that aligning your “metacarpals” with the first bones in your fingers (see: “proximal phalanges” below) reduces the likelihood of blistering. On the downside it requires a lot more forearm and finger activation as the bar is now nestled in your fingers rather than your palm. Thus this subtle change may lead to a decrease in workout time and/or reps – but at least you won’t be leaking blood all over Joey’s new-old floors.

I should mention that keeping your core tight during kipping exercises will also help reduce the friction on the bar that causes blistering. Try to keep your movements as efficient as possible, and direct the upward thrust of your hips toward the bar. In short (no pun intended): big kips = big blisters.

If the above seems like a headache to you, I can sense the inevitable question coming on: “what about gloves?” There are arguments on both hands (pun intended this time). Gloves are an easy preventative solution to torn hands – that is a fact. However, some people on the other side of the aisle argue that gloves can detract from strength and diminish your ability to “feel” through the exercises you’re doing. In other words, your ability to know where your body is relative to the barbell or pullup bar is affected.

If you don’t feel like dropping some crowns on gloves you can always use athletic tape to make a handy grip (see diagram below) – or simply split a strip down the middle, nestle your finger between the two split sides and tape it that way. NOTE: Crossfit Committed does not provide tape; there is a store about 100 m down Soukenicka that has a nice selection (take a left down Soukenicka once exiting the gym and it will be on your right). To all you tape-moochers out there (you know who you are) – be ashamed.

(If you don’t want to hear my ranting about the “purpose” of a Crossfit gym you can skip this section). The purpose of a Crossfit gym is to help clients achieve maximum health in-line with their personal goals. A person competing for the Crossfit Games will have different expectations, and thus a different attitude towards training, then someone who is using Crossfit as a convenient and effective way to get fit. Priority number one at Crossfit Committed is to ensure that our clients aren’t injured during training as this is detrimental for everyone. If you’re concerned about blisters on your hands please don’t hesitate to take any action you feel necessary to put your mind at ease (i.e. wearing gloves, requesting workout modification, etc). Unfortunately Crossfit trainers aren’t mind readers, so if something doesn’t feel right please tell us.

Treatment

“Thanks, but no thanks for your tips – my hands area already ripped.”

So you’ve already got a nasty rip and all this talk of “prevention” has done nothing to repair it. There are a number of treatment options, but I can only speak on one from personal experience. Regardless of how you decide to treat a rip it’s very important to clean the wound (which hurts & sucks) to prevent infection – also some form of antibacterial ointment is beneficial (caveat: I’m not a doctor, and nor do I play one on TV, and thus I am not qualified to prescribe anything to anyone).

After my first hand-ripping incident (please see photos at the beginning of the post) I cut the skin flaps off with scissors as flush as I could get it to the skin that was still attached. I then covered it with antibacterial ointment and left it exposed to the air with no covering. After a few days I went back to the gym with some old cycling gloves. I stood tall against the insults and stuck with the gloves for the next week or so to ensure my wounds had fully healed. The good news is that my hands came back nice and calloused and I haven’t had tears that serious since.

Rather than cut the flaps you can leave them in place to act as a natural “band-aid” or the more rugged among us may simply choose to tear them off with their hands. I obviously preferred a more “clinical” approach in snipping off the flaps – but to each their own. Also, I’ve heard that in lieu of antibacterial ointment people have used things like heavy-duty glue and “skin-sealant.” My Olympic lifting coach used to prescribe filling a bowl with really hot water, dissolving some Epsom salt in it, and submerging your hands until they are basically “pickled.” Should you have to deal with this situation at some point, you are free to pick your poison.

If any of you have suggestions for preventing or treating “Crossfit hands” please leave them in the comments section.

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