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Maintaining Hand Health When Engaging in Intense Weightlifting

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Recently, just hours before meeting up with a new Tinder match, I dominated a particularly adhesive CrossFit workout that essentially involved spinning around a pull-up bar like an aspiring gymnast. (Think: an AMRAP of bar muscle-ups, toes-to-bar, and burpee pull-ups).

The aftermath? My hands were completely shredded, and my calluses were as tough as stones. Adorable #lewk for a first date? Hmm, probably not.

Far from just a CrossFit issue, any exercise routine that necessitates grasping weights or hanging by your hands — Olympic and powerlifting, kettlebell maneuvers, rock climbing, and even rowing — can result in some hand damage (and first date humiliation!).

Is there anything you can actually do about it, though, or are you forced to choose between “nice” hands and lifelong fitness? Here’s how to eliminate calluses on hands, and why you might not want to in the first place.

Why do you acquire calluses on your hands?

Before delving into how to eliminate calluses on hands, it’s important to comprehend what’s happening with your skin. To a certain extent, hand devastation follows a domino effect. Initially, calluses. “Some individuals may find them unattractive, but calluses are a normal and natural response to weightlifting or performing pull-ups,” explains Nancy E. Rolnik, M.D., sports medicine physician at Remedy Sports and Regenerative Medicine. The trouble is, if left untreated, a callus can tear or rip off, resulting in an open wound on your hand and leading to other issues, such as blisters.

But why do calluses occur? “The skin’s physiologic response to repetitive friction, pressure, or trauma is for the top layer of skin (the epidermis) to thicken,” explains John “Jay” Wofford, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Dallas.

Calluses serve a protective purpose, says Dr. Wofford. Essentially, calluses are designed to prevent the skin from breaking, cracking, or tearing in the event of future “trauma.” That’s why you don’t want to completely eradicate hand calluses.

So, are calluses a positive or negative thing?

If you came here to figure out how to eliminate calluses on your hands, it’s time for a reality check

You might be enticed to shed off all that coarse material — but do not. Callus attention adheres to the Goldilocks principle: You do not desire that epidermis to be excessively dense, or excessively delicate, but precisely suitable.

If a thick callus becomes excessively thick, it can become entangled with a pull-up bar or weight during a high-friction movement (such as a kipping pull-up, kettlebell swing, or clean) and result in the complete detachment of the callus, creating a gash or raw area in the center of your hand. Um, no thanks. Additionally, thick calluses can cause discomfort due to an increase in pain receptors within the thickened skin, as stated by Dr. Wofford.

On the contrary, if a callus is too thin, it can become delicate and tear, which goes against the body’s intention of forming a callus in the first place, according to Daniel Aires, M.D., head of dermatology at The University of Kansas Health System.

The solution? Smooth and shape the callus enough to prevent it from getting caught, without completely filing it away, as recommended by Dr. Aires. Here’s how:

Effective Methods for Removing Hard Calluses on Hands

  1. To begin, immerse your hands in warm water for a duration of five to 15 minutes.
  2. Afterwards, utilize a pumice stone to safely reduce its thickness, leaving a thin layer of callus, and sculpt it into a smooth form to prevent any irregular edges that may lead to tearing.
  3. Optional step: Apply moisturizer to your hands. Experts have different opinions on the effectiveness of lotion in this case, since it “softens the skin and thins out the callus,” as explained by Dr. Aires. Some professionals have concerns that it may excessively soften the skin. “My recommendation would be to use it with caution and moderation,” states Dr. Wofford. “Moreover, an excess of moisture prior to your workout may result in a slippery grip and impede your ability to hold on.”

If you believe your calluses have become extremely problematic, Dr. Wofford suggests a more intense approach: “I advise reducing the callus by employing a surgical or scalpel blade, which will leave behind a smoother callus.” However, he notes that it is advisable to have this performed by a physician or other medical professional, or to exercise extreme caution if attempting it yourself.

What steps should you take when a callus tears?

One of the most excruciating hand injuries is a torn callus, often occurring when a rough callus gets snagged on a pull-up bar. Sometimes accompanied by bleeding, usually causing pain, and always interrupting your workout (ugh), tears are as enjoyable as being ignored. How you treat a tear depends on whether it’s partial (meaning some skin is still attached) or complete.

If it’s a partial tear, avoid removing or peeling off any remaining flap of skin. Instead, gently cleanse the wound with soap and water — and if you can tolerate it, rubbing alcohol, as recommended by Dr. Wofford. Then, ensure your hand is thoroughly dried and reposition the remaining flap of skin over the raw area, securing it in place with a bandage. “This flap of skin can act as an additional protective layer for the underlying wound, and it can actually release specific signaling molecules that aid in the healing process,” explains Dr. Wofford. Additionally, the skin flap provides protection against dirt, debris, and bacteria. After a few days, the skin beneath will have hardened enough to allow for the removal of the overlaying torn skin.

What if a piece of skin gets completely torn off?

“Don’t fret about placing a fully detached piece of skin over the wound,” states Dr. Wofford. “It’s optimal to simply cleanse the underlying injury, apply an antibacterial ointment, and a bandage.”

Either way, you might need to take a break from hand-intensive workouts for a while. Any exercise that requires gripping a bar is likely to further irritate the wound and slow down the healing process — so you’ll have to consider if this particular sweat session is worth hindering your workouts in the upcoming week. Fortunately, there are numerous hands-free workouts (running! Rollerblading! swimming!) you can try.

What should you do if you develop a blister?

Blisters, similar to calluses, form due to repetitive friction, explains Dr. Rolnik. They can be quite small or as large as a grape.

If a blister forms, drain the fluid with a sterilized needle, recommends Dr. Wofford. “You can sterilize a needle using a flame or rubbing alcohol, then puncture the blister with the sharp tip.” It’s better to do this yourself rather than allowing the blister to rupture naturally because if it pops on its own, there’s a higher chance of trauma to the blister’s “roof,” he says. “The skin covering the blister should not be peeled off because, once again, it acts as a bandage to protect the underlying skin,” he advises. Then, cover it with a bandage for added protection.

You can still engage in physical exercise, but workouts involving pull-up bars and barbells are more likely to peel off the top layer and ultimately delay the healing process. So if possible, opt for exercises that don’t pose that risk to the blister roof (like this brief leg workout or this ab finisher).

You may want to consider investing in a pair of weightlifting gloves to wear during these times. “Properly dressing the wound and then wearing lifting gloves can help provide additional layers of protection to the skin,” states Dr. Wofford.

Should I consider purchasing lifting gloves?

If lifting gloves can aid in protecting your healing skin, it’s understandable that you might ponder whether it’s more prudent to wear lifting gloves at all times rather than learning how to eliminate a callus on the skin of your hand. But that’s akin to asking, “should I download Tinder?” — the answer depends on who you are, what you’re seeking, and your requirements.

“Lifting gloves can be extremely beneficial in preventing the formation of calluses,” affirms Dr. Aires. So beneficial, in fact, that you’re actually impeding your body’s ability to develop that protective barrier between your hands and the barbell.

That’s why, if you’re fine with having slightly rougher hands, he suggests abstaining from wearing gloves.

Opting for riding without gloves will enable the epidermis on your palms to toughen, which (if upheld) can effectively hinder the occurrence of tearing in subsequent instances,” he elucidates.

But if having smooth and silky hands is a top priority for you, feel free to wear them! Just keep in mind: “If you opt for gloves, you’ll need to wear them every time you lift,” says Dr. Aires.

Oh, and make sure to cleanse them regularly. Because your hands tend to get sweaty and weights can be dirty, gloves can become a breeding ground for bacteria and dirt, he explains. Gross.

What about hand grips, lifting straps, or chalk?

Using hand grips, lifting straps, or chalk may save you from having to learn how to eliminate calluses on your hand skin.

Hand grips: Unlike gloves, which are typically worn for an entire workout, hand grips are usually only worn for movements on the pull-up bar. CrossFit athletes, gymnasts, and other individuals who spend a lot of time on the pull-up bar should consider trying them out because they can help reduce tension and friction on your hands, advises Dr. Wofford. However, similar to lifting gloves, excessive use of hand grips can prevent calluses from forming altogether.

Lifting straps: In addition to hand grips, if you participate in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting, you might want to experiment with lifting straps. “These can be extremely helpful in safeguarding the hands while performing certain types of heavy lifts because they distribute tension and weight away from your hands and grip strength and into your forearms and wrists,” says Dr. Wofford. When used correctly, they can significantly reduce friction and rubbing on the hands and help prevent injuries such as rips and tears, he explains.

You should consult your coach to determine if lifting straps are suitable for you, but individuals who engage in exercises like Romanian deadlifts and shoulder shrugs may benefit from the hand-protecting features of these straps, he suggests. Good to know.

Chalk: Since sweat increases friction, chalk is a good alternative to gloves as it absorbs some of the sweat, thereby reducing friction, states Dr. Aires. However, it’s worth noting that keeping your hands dry by wiping off the sweat with an absorbent towel may work just as effectively, mentions Dr. Rolnik.

The Bottom Line

Having some callus formation is beneficial and ultimately serves to protect your hands — which is why you shouldn’t place excessive emphasis on finding the optimal method to eliminate calluses on your hand skin.

That being said, “you should keep an eye on your hands for any signs of skin irritation or redness as this is typically the first indication of a potential injury,” says Dr. Rolnik. “Strength training is highly beneficial for your overall health, so you don’t want to cause so much damage to your hands that it hinders your ability to train.”

Oh, and just so you know, we didn’t go on a second date. But I like to believe that’s because we lacked chemistry, not because my hands resembled deli meat.