“Friction is the force resisting the relative motion of solid surfaces, fluid layers, and material elements sliding against each other. There are several types of friction: Dry friction resists relative lateral motion of two solid surfaces in contact. When surfaces in contact move relative to each other, the friction between the two surfaces converts kinetic energy into thermal energy. This property can have dramatic consequences, as illustrated by the use of friction created by rubbing pieces of wood together to start a fire. Another important consequence of many types of friction can be wear, which may lead to performance degradation and/or damage to components.” —Dr. Wiki Pedia
While this may be the most boring and technical opening to an article about CrossFit ever, thinking about friction when related to hand care is useful for isolating and overcoming the fundamental problem faced by kippers everywhere. In short, the solid surface of your hand slides against the (much more) solid surface of the bar, leading to dramatic consequences and damage to components (ripped hands) and subsequent performance degradation (having to stop a workout or avoid workouts while your boo boo heals.)
While it may seem like an inevitable rite of passage to do a high volume kipping workout, tear your hands to shreds and then post pictures of it to social media, ripped hands are simply drags on optimal performance. Further, hands that are constantly rough, flaky, and/or bloody are, to put it mildly, gross. So, what’s fledgling CrossFitter/hand model to do? There are plenty of ways to take care of your hands, both intra and extra-WOD. The following routine is what has worked well for me, use at your own risk (of beautiful, baby soft mitts!).
During a Workout
During a workout, reducing friction is all about reducing lateral motion between your hand and the bar. Make sure you grip the bar right where your palm and fingers meet—any lower and you risk folding skin under the bar, adding to the surface causing friction. Then, grip the bar tightly, and motion during a kip should happen at your wrist, not through your hand rotating around the bar. You are trying to grip the bar with your skeleto-muscular structure, not the thin layer of epidermis covering it.
Don’t grip the bar so deeply in your palm that the skin near your fingers scrunches up—that’s creating a fleshy surface for the bar to rip. Here’s Mark Rippetoe, folksy as ever, taking a long time to say just that. (This is the shorter of two videos I could find from him.)
The biggest thing you can do during a workout to avoid rips is to pay attention to your hands and fear the last 5-10 reps of a workout. Every time I’ve ripped it’s been between reps 95 and 100 in a workout like Angie—that’s usually the part when you are tired, stomping on the gas and having to really throw everything behind every rep. The added force and shift of attention from your hands to the clock often leads to a rip, just as you finish the workout. If you feel your hands getting hot (thermal energy!) or skin starting to shift, drop from the bar and rest for a bit. In the words of Papa Osorio, “Be careful,” and be especially careful at the end of a workout.
Also, unless you are literally in danger of falling off the bar and cracking your head open, don’t overdo it with the chalk! (This shouldn’t even be an issue if you are gripping with your thumb around the bar, like a homo sapien.) While chalk can help promote a good relationship of your hand to the bar, especially if you are a little sweaty, over-chalking can cause your hand to stick when you don’t need/want it to, especially when trying to release the bar.
There are a number of ways to protect your hands from the bar. CrossFit’s commercialization has led to all sorts of gloves, wraps, and other bar-hand barriers being available. For the most part, the tradeoff between protection, grip, and “feel” is up to the user. Generally gloves offer lots of protection but poor grip and feel (also, do NOT buy Reebok’s CrossFit gloves, they are just marked-up batting gloves, which you can buy for 10 bucks elsewhere). Gymnastics grips are a pretty good compromise. Classically they are suede (fancy!) with a wrist wrap, like these from Rogue, or these from MuscleDriver. NaturalGrip makes a lower profile version that is a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) grip that you secure with athletic tape or a wrist wrap. The NaturalGrips are based off the tape jobs people have been using to protect themselves pre/post tear for a while, which are also a good option. Here is a pretty involved way to tape, very similar to the heartier NaturalGrip. Here’s a slightly quicker/dirtier way to do it, more appropriate mid-WOD. The main theme is that the tape needs to run both lengthwise and across your palm, otherwise it will roll up under and movement and either fall off your hand or be the world’s crappiest bracelet. Further, you don’t need tons of tape, your hand shouldn’t look like this when you are done.
Taking care of your hands does not start and stop when you walk in the gym. A little consistent attention at home will make sure your hands are both less aesthetically gross and less susceptible to tearing at the gym. Flaky, cracked hands with big, raised calluses are asking for trouble, because the rough callus represents one half of the two solid surfaces that create friction. Since we can’t do anything about the bar, making sure your calluses are smooth and low-profile will keep you from tearing.
There are plenty of tools for shaving down calluses, but in my opinion most of them suck. Pumice stones, Ped-Eggs, nail files, and other sorts of abrasives require daily use and are pretty slow. I think of them more as “finishing” tools for getting your hands smooth after the real work has been done. For this heavy-duty work I recommend the Tweezerman Safety Slide Callus Shaver with Rasp. The Tweezerman is basically a razor blade on a stick, akin to a cheese grater for your hand. You use it when your hands are dry and it shaves your callus down in big, satisfying flakes. It has a built in rasp for the fine cleanup work at the end, and only costs 10 bucks, making it the king of callus care in my book. While it takes a little bit of bravery the first few times, it pretty quickly becomes natural to use and works wonders. Get one, and again, don’t use it in the shower, it will bite into your softened skin and get stuck, as opposed to slicing off nice little flakes.
Lastly, make sure to keep your hands moisturized. Buy a decent lotion and use it whenever you can, especially after you cut your calluses down. Smooth, supple hands are less prone to cracking, and won’t stick to the bar like dry hands. Just take it easy with the scents, this isn’t middle school.
If you do rip, don’t freak out. First, assess where you are in the workout. If there are six pull-ups left, just finish the damn thing. If there are 60, it’s scaling time—no sense in ruining a week of training just to finish.
Make sure you wash the wound and spray some Bactine on it. Cold water is key here—hot water will sting like bajeezus. Then, let it dry. When you get home, cut off any excess skin. I use the Tweezeman for this, but you could use nail scissors, a katana, an angle grinder, or whatever you want.
A Final Thought
In the end, the biggest factor in not ripping is simply time. The longer you do this stuff the more time under tension you accumulate, and the more conditioned your hands become. Further, the easier pull-ups are for you, the less likely you are to tear. Most coaches and OGs brag that they haven’t ripped in “forever,” but like most people they probably ripped a bunch initially, and then slowly got strong, skilled, and epidermically-conditioned enough for it to not be a big issue.