Wednesday, 3 December 2014

CrossFit Hand Care

CrossFitters often revel in the fact that our workouts have bloodied our hands. "We're such badasses! We're SO hardcore!" But let’s call a spade a spade: IT IS NOT “COOL” TO HAVE CHUNKS OF OUR SKIN RIPPED FROM OUR HANDS.

Flayed skin is not a badge of bad-assery. It does not mean that you are tougher or better at working out. And it most definitely does not mean that CrossFit, lifting and/or gymnastics should be avoided because of the possibility that the skin on your hands might get torn.

All it means is that:

You’re a soft-handed newbie who hasn’t yet had the chance to build up thicker skin on your fingers and palms to protect them from tearing, or

You’re not giving your hands the T.L.C. they need to keep from getting shredded.

Torn skin is painful and annoying, and may put you out of commission for a spell. And THAT is unequivocally un-hardcore.

My first encounter with shredded hands occurred shortly after starting CrossFit, back when the roughest activity my hands saw was an occasional difficult-to-open jar of spaghetti sauce. After neglecting proper hand care for weeks. Over the past year, I’ve experienced minor tears and major ones. In this post, I’m going to discuss what I could (and should) have done to prevent bloody hand, and what treatment options are available to those of us unfortunate enough to gash open our hands doing high-rep pull-ups, kettlebell snatches and the like.

Hand Grooming 

Those who are new to gymnastics, weightlifting or CrossFit in general often start with soft, callus-free hands. Ideally, to reduce the likelihood of hand tears, beginners should try to gradually build up calluses (through -- what else? -- handling bars) to the point where the skin on their palms and fingers are tough and thick -- but smooth. Once some skin-thickening is achieved, the goal is to keep any calluses filed down. The goal is have a consistent, smooth palm surface, without noticeable ridges or fluctuating thicknesses of skin. A raised, rough callus will eventually blister and tear away from the surrounding skin, ripping open your hands and making a bloody mess. A general rule of thumb: If you can pinch a raised edge of the callus, it needs to be filed down. Constant vigilance and regular hand care is key to preventing tears.

You can use a number of different tools to keep your calluses in check, including:
  • A nail file; 
  • A callus/corn shaver;
  • Cuticle scissors; 
  • A pumice stone; 
  • A dull razor blade; 
  • Sandpaper; 
  • A butter knife; or
  • A Dremel tool!
Obviously, don’t be an idiot. Use these tools with care.

As one CrossFit Journal article put it:

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.

Also: Lube up your hands. Chalk and frequent washing will suck the moisture right out your skin, and dry, cracked hands do not feel awesome. So listen to the Silence of the Lambs guy: Lotion is important for skin care. (And remember to put the lotion in the basket.) Use Balm or whatever suits your fancy.

This, by the way, is what a well-groomed pair of CrossFitting hands is supposed to look like:

My hands don't look like this. Being the idiot that I am, I’ve never been very consistent about filing down my calluses, and lately, I developed a few big ones with rough edges. I didn’t do anything about ‘em, and as a result, I tore ‘em wide open yesterday. Not fun.

Grip & Technique A lot of CrossFitters rip open their hands doing high-rep bar movements: kipping pull-ups, clean-and-jerks, snatches. But there are ways to tweak your technique to reduce the chances of a nasty tear.

First, use the right grip.When working with a barbell, some folks are inclined to grip the bar across the middle of their palms. This, unfortunately, squishes the fleshy pad below the base of your fingers against the bar, causing discomfort, added friction, blisters, and worse. A better way to go is to grip the barbell across the base of your fingers -- where the metacarpals meet the proximal phalanges. Check out Mark Rippetoe’s explanation of how to grip a bar properly:

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