How to Take Care of Your Hands If You Lift Heavy Weights
Kettlebell, barbells, and pull-ups causing you more pain than gains? Here's how to get rid of calluses on your hands—and why you might not want to.
Recently, just hours before meeting up with a new Tinder match, I beasted a particularly grippy CrossFit workout that basically entailed twirling around a pull-up bar like a wanna-be-gymnast. (Think: an AMRAP of bar muscle-ups, toes-to-bar, and burpee pull-ups).
The aftermath? My hands were totally torn up, and my calluses were hard as rocks. Cute #lewk a first date? Eh, probably not.
Far from just a CrossFit problem, any exercise regime that requires gripping weights or hanging by your hands—Olympic and powerlifting, kettlebell moves, rock climbing, and even rowing—can result in a little hand wreckage (and first date embarrassment!).
Is there anything you can actually do about it, though, or are you forced to choose between "nice" hands and fitness for life? Here, your guide to both preventing and treating beat up hands, whatever your workout of choice may be.
Why do you get calluses on your hands?
To an extent, hand carnage follows a chain reaction. First, calluses. "Some folks may find them unsightly, but calluses are a normal and natural response to lifting weights or doing pull-ups," explains sports medicine physician Nancy E. Rolnik, M.D. at Remedy Sports and Regenerative Medicine. Trouble is, untreated, a callus can rip or tear off, causing an open wound on your hand. Yikes. (While other problems, like blisters, are awful on their own, for the most part, it all starts with the callus).
But why do calluses happen? "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 have a protective function, says Dr. Wofford. Basically, calluses are meant to prevent the skin from breaking, cracking, or tearing in the event of future "trauma." For that reason, you don't want to completely get rid of hand calluses.
So, are calluses a good or bad thing?
If you came here to figure out how to get rid of calluses on your hands, it's time for a reality check. You may be tempted to slough off all that rough stuff—but don't. Callus care follows the Goldilocks principle: You don't want that skin to be too thick, or too thin, but just right.
If a callus gets too thick, it can "catch" on a pull-up bar or weight during a high-friction movement (like a kipping pull-up, kettlebell swing, or cleans) and cause the whole thing to rip off, leaving a gash/raw spot in the middle of your hand. Um, pass. Um, pass. Further, thick calluses can become painful, thanks to an increase in pain receptors in the thickened skin, according to Dr. Wofford.
On the flip-side, "if the callus is too thin, it can become fragile and tear, which defeats the body's purpose of forming the callus in the first place," explains Daniel Aires, M.D., head of dermatology with The University of Kansas Health System.
The solution? Smoothing and shaping the callus enough to keep it from catching, without filing it down completely, says Dr. Aires. Here's how:
How to Get Rid of Hand Calluses the Right Way
- First, soak your hands in warm water for 5 to 15 minutes.
- Then, use a pumice stone (Buy It, $7, amazon.com) to safely file it down, leaving a thin layer of callous behind, and sculpt it into something smooth, so no rogue edges can catch and tear.
- Optional step: Moisturize your hands. Experts are divided as to whether or not lotion is helpful because "it softens the skin and thin out the callous," explains Dr. Aires. Some pros worry it softens the skin too much. "My recommendation would be to use it judiciously and conservatively," says Dr. Wofford. "Plus, too much moisture too close to your workout will cause a slippery grip and interfere with grip ability." (Related: How to Strengthen Your Grip Strength for a Better Workout).
If you think your calluses have gotten REALLY out of (ahem) hand, Dr. Wofford suggests something a little more hardcore: "I recommend paring down the callus by using a surgical or scalpel blade, which will leave a smoother callous behind." That said, he notes that this is probably best done by a physician or other medical professional, or should be done with great (!!) care.
What do you do when a callus rips?
One of the more painful hand injuries is the ripped callus—which usually occurs when a jagged callus catches on a pull-up bar. Sometimes bloody, usually painful, and always a workout interrupter (ugh), rips are about as fun as being ghosted. How you care for a rip depends on whether or not they're partial (meaning, there's still some skin dangling) or full.
If they're partial, don't remove or peel off any flap of skin that remains attached. Instead, gently clean the wound with soap and water—and, if you can handle the burn, rubbing alcohol, says Dr. Wofford. Then thoroughly dry your hand and lay the remaining flap of skin back down over the raw area and apply a Band-Aid to hold it in place. "This flap of skin can function as an additional bandage to the underlying wound, and it's actually capable of releasing certain signaling molecules that can aid in wound healing," he says. Plus, the skin flap also protects the wound from dirt, debris, and bacteria. After a few days, the skin underneath will be firm enough that the overlaying rip can be trimmed off.
What if a piece of skin gets completely ripped off? "Don't worry about placing a completely removed piece of skin over the wound," says Dr. Wofford. "It's best to just clean the underlying wound, apply an antibacterial ointment, and a bandage."
Either way, you might need to lay off hand-heavy workouts for a bit. Any workout that requires you gripping a bar is likely going to further agitate the wound and delay healing—so you'll have to ask yourself if this particular sweat-sesh is worth dampening your workouts in the coming week. Luckily, there are plenty of workouts (running! rollerblading! swimming!) which are hands-free. (See More: Try This Indoor Workout Running Plan).
Okay, what if I get a blister?
Blisters, like calluses, form due to repetitive friction, explains Dr. Rolnik. They can be pretty small or as big as a grape.
If a blister forms, Dr. Wofford suggests draining the fluid with a sterilized needle. "You can sterilize a needle over a flame or with rubbing alcohol, then puncture the blister with the sharp point." He says it's better to do this yourself than to allow the blister to pop naturally because, if it pops on its own, there's more likely to be trauma to the blister's "roof." "The skin overlying the blister should not be peeled away because, again, it serves as a bandage to protect the underlying skin," he says. Then, top with a bandage for added protection.
You can still work out, but workouts involving pull-up bars and barbells are more likely to peel away the top layer and ultimately delay healing. So, if you can, opt for exercises that don't pose that risk to the blister roof (like this super short leg workout or this ab finisher).
You may consider investing in a pair of weight lifting gloves to wear for times like these. "Properly bandaging the wound and then wearing lifting gloves can help add a few layers of protection to the skin," says Dr. Wofford.
Should I invest in lifting gloves?
If lifting gloves can help protect your healing skin, it's understandable that you might wonder whether it's just best to wear lifting gloves all the time. But that's like asking, "should I download Tinder?"—the answer depends on who you are, what you're looking for, and your needs.
"Lifting gloves can be super helping in preventing the formation of calluses," says Dr. Aires. So helpful, in fact, that you're actually interfering with your body's ability to form that protective shield between your hands and the barbell.
That's why, if you're okay having slightly rougher hands, he suggests you don't wear gloves. Going bareback will allow the skin on your hands to thicken, which (when maintained) can actually prevent you from ripping in the future, he explains.
But if ~silky smooth~ hands are a priority of yours, go ahead and wear them! Just keep in mind: "If you go with gloves, you'll need to wear them every single time you lift," says Dr. Aires. (Related: Breathable Workout Gear to Keep You Cool and Dry)
Oh, and wash them regularly. Because your hands are sweaty and weights can be dirty, gloves can become a cesspool for bacteria and dirt, he says. Ick. If you own or are thinking about buying some lifting gloves, check out our guide to The Best Lifting Gloves (Plus, How to Properly Wash Them).
What about grips, lifting straps, or chalk?
Grips: Unlike gloves, which are usually worn for an entire workout, grips (like this pair from Bear KompleX, Buy It, $40, amazon.com) are typically only worn for movements on the pull-up bar. Dr. Wofford recommends that CrossFit athletes, gymnasts, and other exercisers who are on the pull-up bar a lot experiment with them because they can help reduce tension and friction on your hands. But, like lifting gloves, using them too much can prevent any callus from forming at all.
Lifting straps: In addition to grips, if you're a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, you might experiment lifting straps (like these IronMind Sew-Easy Lifting Straps, Buy It, $19, amazon.com). "These can be very helpful in protecting the hands while performing certain types of heavy lifts because they redistribute tension and weight away from your hands and grip strength and into your forearms and wrists," says Dr. Wofford. When used appropriately, they can significantly reduce friction and rubbing on the hands and help prevent rips and tears, he says.
You should ask your coach if lifting straps are right for you, but anyone working on moves like Romanian deadlifts and shoulder shrugs may benefit from the hand-protecting mechanisms of these straps, he says. Good to know. (Related: How to Properly Do a Romanian Deadlift with Dumbbells)
Chalk: Because sweat increases friction, Dr. Aires says chalk (try a re-fillable chalk ball, Buy It, $9, amazon.com) is a decent alternative to gloves because it'll absorb some of the sweat, thus decreasing friction. It's worth noting, though, that keeping your hands dry by wiping the sweat off on an absorbent towel may work just as well, says Dr. Rolnik.
The Bottom Line
Some callus formation is good and is ultimately intended to protect your hands—which is why you don't want to get rid of calluses on your hands.
That said, "you do want to monitor your hands for signs of skin irritation or redness since this is usually the first sign of pending injury," says Dr. Rolnik. "Strength training is really good for you, so you don't want to do so much damage to your hands that it interferes with your ability to train."
Oh, and ICYWW, we didn't go on a second date. But I like to think that's because we had no chemistry, not because my hands looked like deli meat.