Preventing Callous Tears in Weightlifting and Crossfit

 Callous Tear

Callous tears are the bane of both weightlifters and crossfitters, especially for new lifters. A torn callous can be extremely distracting and painful to lift with, turning training into something of an ordeal. While callous tears are something of an occupational hazard for those who do the Olympic lifts and can occur even when you’ve taken all sorts of preventative measures, the best way to reduce the frequency of torn callouses is by adapting a good hand care regime after training. We can’t guarantee that you’ll avoid tears and rips entirely – nearly every lifter experiences at least a couple a year – but you’ll certainly experience them less than someone who doesn’t take good care of their hands.

All The Heavy Lifting’s 6-Step Guide to Preventing Callous Tears

  1. Check your grip
  2. Are straps an option?
  3. Now wash your hands
  4. File down rough skin
  5. Use a balm or salve overnight
  6. Moisturise during the day

Check your grip

Hook grip

Most callous tears are caused by one or more of several things: holding the bar in an incorrect position in your hands, gripping the bar too tightly or having a rough or protruding area of skin get caught by a spinning bar. We’re going to discuss how to avoid the latter in the sections below but for now, let’s address the first two.

Firstly, make sure you are holding the bar correctly. Many new lifters position the bar in the centre of their hands and then wrap their fingers around it. This can cause the bar to slip in your hands mid-lift, pinching the skin and causing it to tear when dealing with weights that cause grip stress. Instead, grip with the bar across the back of the knuckles at the top of your hands to minimise the amount of skin that can be pinched. When doing the Olympic lifts you will be mainly using the hook grip and so this is less of an issue but it’s still good to know.

Secondly, when using the hook grip, it’s important to make sure that your grip on the bar isn’t too tight. Novice lifters will tend to grip the bar as tightly as possible but this may cause a couple of issues. The spinning motion of the bar may take any protruding bits of rough skin with it, causing tears. For lifters who violently jerk the bar off the floor rather than smoothly breaking it, this initial force on the bar may cause it to shift in the hands again resulting in a tear. Only grip the bar as tightly as you need to to hold on to the weight; it sounds obvious but some hang on to it with every ounce of grip strength they have, even at light weights.

Are straps an option?

When training, you should consider whether its appropriate to use lifting straps for the exercises you do. Personally, I don’t like using straps if I can avoid it – I find them fiddly, they get in the way and my grip never feels as secure on lifts that aren’t pulls (i.e. snatches) – but appreciate that using them from time to time is a good idea. This is especially true if you train every day or multiple times a day. I use straps for all heavy pulls (Clean and Snatch) and sometimes for high repetition hang snatch or complex work as I find these exercises takes by far the highest toll on my hands. That said, I will try to do hang and rep work without straps but make my hands tougher and grip stronger whenever I can.

Now wash your hands

They key to preventing callous tears is implementing a good hand care regime after you lift. Immediately after training, throughly wash your hands with warm water and soap to get any remaining chalk off them. Leaving chalk on your hands will cause them to dry out or cause irritation if you have sensitive skin. If you train Olympic movements first and then move on to squats and accessory exercises, it can be a good idea to take a bathroom break and wash your hands and you’ve completed all exercises you are likely to need chalk for.

File down rough skin

After training – it doesn’t have to be immediately but sooner is better – file down and rough areas of skin, minor tears etc. If there are any loose bits of skin you can trim or cut them off if you like – don’t tear the skin by hand  though as you’re likely to pull off more than you need to . I prefer to file down my hands right after a bath or shower when the skin is more supple as I find that I can remove more dead skin and get my callouses smoother. This isn’t strictly necessary though. The key is to make sure that there are no protruding bits of skin for the bar to catch on the next time you train. Don’t be too abrasive with the file – you don’t want to damage healthy skin or rub your hands raw, especially if training the next day.

I have tried a few different filing implements and my preferred option is a simple rough emery board – not the most manly of choices but it does the job. You can pick up a couple of these for about a quid and each board lasts about two weeks assuming 4-5 uses a week. I’ve tried a metal nail file but the grain wasn’t coarse enough for my liking. A natural pumice stone is another good choice but they seem to be harder and harder to find, at least in the pharmacies near me. My experience of artificial pumice stones has not been encouraging. One option that might be worth exploring is a proper metal file from a hardware store but I’m yet to really investigate what’s suitable that won’t be too abrasive on the hands.

Use a balm or salve overnight

If it's good enough for a cow's udders, it's good enough for your hands.

If it’s good enough for a cow’s udders, it’s good enough for your hands.

By now we’ve got your hands cleaned and trimmed and filed away anything likely to get caught by a spinning bar and tear a callous. The next step is to soften them up and protect them by applying a balm or salve overnight. I’ve tried a couple of products that I’ve found work really well. One is Bag Balm, which both Donny Shankle and Glenn Pendlay recommend. Bag Balm is an agricultural product made for treating chapped and irritated cow’s udders but, not unlike general purpose oil WD40, has found a whole host of other uses. It is an excellent salve for sore and beaten up hands after lifting and is pretty cheap. A 10 oz  tin can be bought for not much more than a tenner online in the UK and it lasts ages. Unfortunately, it is after all an agricultural product and therefore has something of a chemical smell from the lanolin base – but if you can put up with that it’s a great salve and really helps.

There are various other salves available that I’m told do a good job – various friends swear by Burt’s Bees and Climb On! – but I haven’t tried them personally. I recently received a tub of Pure Athlete Sports Balm as a gift and have used it on my hands after lifting. I’ve been really impressed with it – it soothes sore and dry hands and seems to help them heal up more quickly. It also smells great, mainly of lavender, and is quickly absorbed into the skin rather than leaving you with greasy or oily hands.

Moisturise during the day

Finally, if your hands are susceptible to drying out during the day before you even get a bar in your hands, try and keep them moisturized. Some fairly simple paraffin-based cream like E45 will do the job just fine but may leave them feeling a bit greasy. Neutrogena’s Deep Mositure Comfort Balm is water-based and so lacks the greasiness of paraffin-based products. It’s absorbed  by the skin more quickly and, in my opinion, smells better but is a bit more expensive. For extreme cases of dry skin or chaffed skin, something like Eucerin cream or Flexitol Hand Balm will help to soothe irritation.

At some point in the near future, we’ll publish an article about how to treat and train on a torn callous. In the mean time, please share your own handcare regimes and your favourite products for looking after your hands after lifting in the comments below.