Instagram is full of CrossFit diehards proudly displaying their blistered, torn, bloodied palms as badges of honor. But what these guys don't get is that, even if you're capable of pushing through the pain of deadlifts or pull-ups with a flesh wound, you could be setting yourself up for nasty infections, deeper tears, and considerable recovery time. "Working out with torn hands and open blisters exposes you to bacteria that can slow healing and cause infection," says C. Shante Cofield, doctor of physical therapy and movement specialist. "Additionally, the pain associated with these tears causes movement compensations that decrease performance and increase the likelihood of injury."
Don't let a blister hijack your form or training schedule. Whether you workout at a CrossFit box, or follow your own training program, use these tips to keep your hands healthy, or if they do tear, get them back into fighting shape.
Parched skin is more likely to crack and rip than skin that's well-hydrated. Take the time to moisturize every night and throughout the day. You can use a lotion that's marketed as a heavy-duty hand cream or go the natural route with drops of organic coconut oil. Some athletes swear by farmhand staples like Bag Balm and Udder Cream.
Fix Your Grip
The way you're gripping the bar during movements like pull-ups and toes-to-bar may be encouraging blisters and tearing. Israel Gonzalez, owner and head coach of CrossFit 718 in Brooklyn, New York advises athletes to place the bar directly in the crease of the hand where the palm meets the fingers. "Placing the bar in the center of the palm pushes excess skin into the crease, and that can lead to the development of calluses and blisters." Gonzalez also recommends that athletes wrap their thumbs around the bar, instead of using a suicide (thumb next to your index finger) or hook grip (thumb tucked under your index and middle fingers). This neutral grip better stabilizes the hand's movement and reduces friction.
Keep a Tight Shave
Calluses are common among those who spend their fair share of gym time lifting barbells, swinging kettlebells, or rowing on an erg. On their own, calluses aren't bad. It's when they build up and start to peel that they cause problems. There are a few specialty callus shavers on the market, but you can also use an old-fashioned pumice stone or nail file. Work on calluses after a shower when your skin is clean and soft.
Chalk, Tape, Gloves, and Grips
Purists may choose to ignore this tip, but gymnastic grips, gloves, tape, and chalk help protect your hands, especially when it comes to workouts with high-volume reps, like CrossFit's legendary "Murph" WOD. A note on chalk, though: Gonzalez warns that too much of it can work against you. "Excess chalk can dry out the skin on your hands and lead to tears." Avoid dipping your entire hand into the chalk bucket and apply sparingly to only the parts of the skin that will have direct contact with equipment.
Blisters: to Pop or Not to Pop?
"It depends," says Cofield. You need to consider the area of the blister, your current activity and the available resources. "Intact skin helps keep the area clean and prevents against infection," she says. So, if you can rest the affected area for a few days, there's no need to pop a blister. Same thing goes for when you're in the middle of a workout and can feel the beginnings of a blister; it's better to switch up your movement or try to cover the area with bandages or athletic tape.
Proactive popping is advised only under certain circumstances. "If you're about to go work out and the blister is in a location with high friction that will cause it to tear, it will likely be best to pop it before, cover and protect it accordingly," says Cofield. Be sure to disinfect the area and whatever instrument you use to puncture the skin.
Protect and Heal
If you do get tears and open wounds, keep them clean and covered. In addition to over-the-counter creams like bacitracin, you can look to Mother Nature for equally effective healing agents. "Salt water is amazing, and the ocean is absolutely your friend, though it may not feel like it at first," says Cofield. If you're landlocked, try using the gel from an aloe plant, or apply wet tea bags; some naturopaths claim the tannins in tea can speed recovery.
When it comes to taping for a workout, Cofield warns against applying adhesive directly to the wound. "I like to use a multi-layer application, with the first layer being a band-aid, RockTape with finger cut-outs for the middle layer, then Goat Tape or gymnastics grips for the outer layer," she says. The middle layer acts as a second skin and protects the hand against friction and chaffing from the outer layer of tape.
Know When to Rest
How do you know when to tape up and power through and when to take a timeout? Gonzalez has a simple rule of thumb: "If it's affecting your workout, you should rest or substitute a different movement." So, if you're experiencing pain a minute into a workout that's heavy on pull-ups, try substituting ring rows, which are not as dynamic and create less friction. Or skip the upper body workout all together and go for a run.