Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blister-Free Pull-Ups

Ripped palms after Murph on 05-07-2011.

When I first started CrossFit back in mid-January, my palms would tear every time I did pull-ups, or anything on the pull-up bar. I started off doing pull-ups with the thick band and worked my way to kipping pull-ups and strict pull-ups. However, regardless of where I was in the pull-up progression or the number of reps, my palms would ALWAYS get destroyed.

I spent a lot of time googling and asking around how to avoid tearing from pull-ups. There are all kinds of answers out there. I decided to try a bunch of the recommendations to see what works best for me. In this post I will talk about chalk, products I've tried when my palms have tears, the pull-up bar grip, what I do when my palms tear, and callus maintenance (and the best callus shaver ever).

06/22/2012:  I am in the process of updating this post with more products I tried.  I've updated my callus maintenance routine (though pics to come soon).. it's the best I swear!  I still stand strong behind the medi-rip self-adherent bandage though, even a year+ later.  I will add a section just for athletic tape... different ways to tape your hands depending on time and what you are doing.  To come soon I promise!

07/19/2012: Added taping for MU.
07/26/2012: Added review for Liquid Grip.
10/31/2012: Added quick tape for tears during WOD, or calluses/blisters ready to tear.  Sorry this took so long.  It's been awhile since I've torn or gotten a blister.  The example I give is for a blood blister I wanted to prevent from popping.  It's the closest I've come to a tear since probably the beginning of the year.

I realize this post is really long so here's the list:

Chalk: Chalk | Liquid Grip
Tape: Athletic Tape (CFLA tape-style, quick tape for immediate/"ready-to-tear" tears, taping for false-grip muscle ups) | Rock Tape | Medi-Rip Self-Adherent Bandage
Gloves & Grips: Generic Gloves | New Grip | Again Faster GripsGymnastic Grips | Rip Ease
Bandages: New (Liquid) Skin | Band-Aid Advanced Healing Blister 
Callus Maintenance: Tweezerman Soft Grip Foot File | Ript Skin Systems

SUMMARY - for the extra lazy.  No explanations, no pics.  Just my favorite products and techniques.  

  • Magnesium Carbonate Chalk (Gym Chalk) - A THIN layer of chalk works best for me, rip or no rip.  Chalk can be your best friend or worst enemy. Chalk is intended to keep the hands dry and reduce the friction between the skin and the bar. For a long time, everywhere I was in the gym, the chalk bucket was right next to me. I spent a lot of time before pull-ups, kettlebell swings, lifts, and dips (also in the order of most use) chalking. I probably added at least an additional minute to my WOD time just from chalking. I became so dependent on it I even began to think that chalk made me more confident to perform the movements. I was very addicted to chalk (and still trying to break this addiction!). I even had a block of chalk in my gym bag. When I used too much chalk (i.e. chalking after every or every other drop from the pull-up bar) it created too much friction and caused my palms to rip.  However, a thing layer of chalk, just enough to dry my sweaty palms, helped prevent my palms from ripping.  A thin layer of chalk is just one swipe with the chalk brick across the palm.  Also note, my favorite chalk brand is the magnesium carbonate brand (this stuff actually stays on!).

    2. The crime scene after Cindy. Way too much chalk. My palms were destroyed afterwards.

    3. A thin layer of chalk is just one swipe with the chalk brick per palm.

    • Liquid Grip - OK for short, low rep workouts.  I was given this for Christmas last year to help break my constant chalking during WODs habit.  This is basically liquid chalk with a scent.  A dime to nickle size drop of it is enough for both hands.  Rub it all over the palms of your hand and wait about 30 seconds for it to dry completely.  After it drys, your hands look completely white and they really do feel dry.  However, with my experience, the Liquid Grip only stays on for a short period of time (less than 5 minute WOD) and is even more likely to come off during medium to high rep (>7 reps) pull ups or barbell work.  I find myself re-chalking with the real gym chalk because eventually the liquid grip just comes off entirely.  Basically I only use this when the gym is out of chalk.  I mean it works for short WODs but at that point I rather just use the real chalk.  I also really don't like this for muscle ups, at least on wooden rings.  The residue gets everywhere and falls on your face, etc.  Washing your hands with soap and water will easily remove all of it.
    4. Dried Liquid Grip.

    Athletic Tape by itself needs its own section since there is so much you can do with it.  
    • CFLA Style - Great, but too much overhead.  I watched CrossFit LA's "Taping your hands for pull-ups" video and decided to try it out. Their method consisted of making "bands" out of athletic tape that ran vertical on the palms (not across) and securing the bands by taping the wrist. This method worked but it took me too long to make the bands. To make one band, I had to measure the length of my hand, fold the tape over nicely so there wouldn't be any lumps (I was really bad at this), make a loop with the band for my finger (when the loop was too big/small it was annoying), and then repeat these steps until the torn areas (usually my entire palm) was covered (ended up being 3 bands/hand). Then I had to wrap athletic tape around my wrist to secure them. Somehow the entire process took me about 20 minutes just to tape up my palms.  Also, if I use this method to tape my hands, once I am done taping my wrist, I like to wrap the tape across my palm right below the start of my fingers so the bands remains in place.  I learned a few key concepts from the video:
      1. Do not tape over a tear. The sticky-side of the tape should not be in direct contact with the tear.
      2. There's a reason why they used a 1.5" width tape in the video. It is much easier to hotdog-style fold a tape than to tape over a tape.
      3. Use athletic tape (not all that other first-aid tape out there like waterproof tape) since the tape will fall off during a workout.
    • Quick Tape for Immediate Tears (or to prevent a tear when you have a callus/blister ready to tear).  Say the workout has some large number of pull-ups or pull-up bar work involved.  The technique I will describe will work in the case you: tear mid-way through the workout but stubbornly still want finish it, have a blood blister or a super built up callus that you predict will tear if you do the workout, or if you rolled into class late and have no time to do a fancier tape job.  In a nut shell, you take athletic tape and wrap it around your hand horizontally, keeping it LOOSE at the top of the hand so you can scrunch it.
      5. Scrunch loose tape at the top of hand to allow hand to move (i.e. kip).
      1. If you tear during a WOD, else skip this step: bandaid over the tear (you'll clean it post WOD).  If the bandaids are too far, wrap the tape, sticky side up (sticky side not in contact with the palm) around your hand once.  Note: do not tape over a tear. The sticky-side of the tape should not be in direct contact with the tear.
      2. Start the tape at the top of your hand.  Wrap tape around hand horizontally (perpendicular to fingers), keeping it loose at the top of the hand such that you can scrunch the extra tape together.  This means, the tape is tight and directly on the palm, but slightly loose at the center of the top of the hand.
      3. Repeat step 2, two to three times (layers).
      4. Post WOD: If you tore, clean tear, put some Neosporin on it and bandaid it.
      The problem with taping tightly around the hand is that there's no room for your hand to move, so the tape scrunches up faster, making the tape job useless and harder to do pull-ups.  Note this tape job will not hold up for long.  It won't last for >~70 pull-ups.  This tape job is NOT ideal, but it is a quick solution.
    6. Blood blister example.  I wanted to prevent the blister from popping while doing a SHORT met-con involving a barbell complex and small number of pull-ups.  From left to right: blood blister before the workout (I taped pre-WOD), tape job post WOD, tape removed.
    • Taping for False Grip Muscle Ups - my favorite method.  While I was learning muscle ups via transition drills (by the way, my favorite is the band/swing one) and holding the false grip, I would always tear right at the wrist bone.  I also tear there when I do high volume false grip muscle ups.  Developing calluses there seem to be a little harder for me and once I have a tear there, I usually won't work on muscle ups until the rips on my wrist almost completely heal.  I see this happen at the gym ALL THE TIME.  People come in stoked to work on muscle ups and once they get a little tear on their wrist, they're done not just for the day but for a long time. So I discovered a way to tape my wrist to prevent these tears while staying on (even during workouts) and not scrunching up like crazy.  All you need is a bandage (ideally fabric/elastic) and ~1.5-2 wrist length of athletic tape.  My favorite tape for tears, Medi-Rip Self-Adherent Bandage, also works in place of the athletic tape.
      • Put the bandage on the wrist bone, the padded part on actually covering the wrist bone.
      • Cut the athletic tape to 1.5-2 wrist length and start taping slightly before the wrist bone.  Wrap around.  There should be at least 2 layers of athletic tape at the wrist bone.
      • Repeat for the other hand.
    • Quick Tape for Immediate Tears (during WOD and still want to keep going) - To come soon.

If my palms are okay, I will only use chalk for movements involving the pull-up bar. When my palm are torn, I like to use a combination of New Skin and Medi-Rip to tape my hands, as described below. Here is a list of products I've tried to protect my tears and avoid future tears, and the outcome.

  • New Skin (Liquid Bandages, Fake Skin) - AWESOME, in conjunction with tape. Coach Dana recommended this to me. This stuff is awesome! I bought multiple travel-size bottles of this so I can keep it in my purse, gym bag, car, and near my laptop. I use this on tears 1-day-old up until they look and feel decent. Before coming to class, I apply two coats over the infected area and let them dry. If the tear is really bad or quite fresh, I will put a Band-Aid on top of it too, but only before a WOD involving the pull-up bar, barbell, or kettlebell. After the WOD, the fake skin usually peels or falls off. I also noticed that if I apply it within 24 hours of a fresh tear (yes, this will sting like a bitch), the tear heals slightly faster.

  • ROCKTape - decent job, great for long WODs with high reps, LARGE overhead, EXPENSIVE.  This is the tape job I had for the Team Chipper WOD at the NorCal Regionals 2012.  Probably not the best idea to try a new taping method during competition time, but I was curious and I heard good things about it.  This taping method is similar to the athletic tape above: one piece per finger to "loop around," except instead of looping around, you cut holes in the tape to fit your finger through.  The ROCKTape sticks directly onto your palms.  Then with another piece of Rock Tape, wrap it around your wrist.  This is the tape job they gave me at regionals.  They also told me to use lots of chalk on it.  After doing a few pullups during warmup, I knew there was no way it was going to last through the 150 pullups in the chipper.  So I wrapped my hands with athletic tape horizontally, scrunching it near the knuckles for movement.  This worked out well and stayed on the entire time.  However, for day-to-day purposes, I wouldn't recommend this because 1, it takes too long (hey, cutting little finger holes); 2, RockTape is EXPENSIVE (~$20/roll); and 3, requires too much extra products (athletic tape + chalk).
  • Medi-Rip Self-Adherent Bandage - AWESOME, minimal overhead, my preferred choice. I like it because it is easy to tear (easier than tearing athletic tape), adheres only to itself (not the skin), comes in a 1" width (convenient), is disposable, and it takes me less than a minute per hand to fully tape up. This stays on for hours.  I've done a lifting session, the WOD, and a skills session afterwards and I did not have to adjust it at any point.  I've done 100 pullups for time with rips and I can't even feel my rip with this tape job!  This also works for high reps and muscle ups!  To extend it to false grip muscle ups, just put a normal band aid over the wrist bone (similar to the athletic tape for muscle ups) and tape over the band aid.  These are the steps I follow:
    1. Apply two coats of New Skin onto the tears.  Or cover the tear with a bandage.  I like the fabric/elastic ones the best.  If you use the bandage alone, it tends to fall off.  However, if you put this tape over it, it stays on, at least for me.
    2. If the tears are really bad, I will put a bandage on top of the New Skin application for extra support.
    3. Wrap the palm. I start by placing the tape vertical on my palm and through my fingers. Then I wrap my palm by keeping the tape mostly vertical and going through my fingers for support. I finish by wrapping the tape around the wrist. Press the end firmly down to seal.
    6. Left: Initial placement of tape; Center: Start wrapping the palm, keeping tape mostly vertical and going through fingers; Right: To finish, wrap around the wrist and press firmly to seal.  Note: It's important you have the tape going vertical (around the fingers) AND horizontal.
    Caution: This tape looks very similar to the latex-free version of it, especially when you are in a drug store. The latex-free tape totally sucks though. It rolls up, sticks to itself, and either crunches up or falls off quickly during a WOD.

  • 7. Medi-Rip (good tape) on the left and the look-a-like piece of crap on the right.
  • Gloves - Terrible. After Murph, my palms remained very, very sore for a few days. I took the weekend off, hoping my palms would heal at the speed of light. Monday came and the WOD had 60 chest-to-bar pull-ups. Really?! It was the first time I considered using gloves. For the WOD, I bandaged my tears and put my gloves on. After 21 CTB pull-ups, my tears ripped even more. The gloves were creating more than enough friction. My palms rubbed against the gloves and wrinkled the bandage. It was also quite uncomfortable wearing them. I have not worn gloves since.  Also, grips and gloves are generally not allowed in competitions.

  • New Grip - Favorite type of "glove," dependency warning. This is probably the most common type of glove I saw at the gym, if there were any. They are made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber. I felt very secure on the pull-up bar with these on and did not tear. However, I would not want to become dependent on these. Also, grips and gloves are generally not allowed in competitions.
    6. New Grip gloves. Easy to put on.
  • Again Faster Grips - Great grip, dependency warning. I got these at the CrossFit Games last year (since I think it cost just as much to ship them if you buy them online) to try them out since I've heard a lot of good reviews about them.  I think they were also cheaper at the games since I don't remember paying $20 for them.  Anyway, I like them because they are very quick to put on (like if you wanted to put them on in the middle of a WOD) and they stay in place.  I could imagine myself putting them on during a high-rep pull-up workout after I completely ripped.  Again, I would not want to become dependent on these.  Gotta keep building that grip strength!  Also grips and gloves are generally not allowed in competitions.   

  • Gymnastic Grips/Gloves - OK, dependency warning. These felt a little weird to do pull-ups in. It prevented tears but it felt awkward the entire time on the pull-up bar. I prefer the New Grip or the Again Faster grips over these.  However, overall, I prefer not to use grips.  They are generally not allowed in competitions... but you can tape the crap out of your hands.

PULL-UP GRIPS: Finger-grip over death-grip.
I also noticed that the way I gripped the bar had large effect on the probability of tearing. In the beginning, I would do pull-ups by death-gripping the bar. Death-gripping the bar is really bad since it makes the sensitive part of the palms more vulnerable to rips. The middle of the palm is where the sweat starts. A tear in the middle of the palm can take over a month to heal since the skin is so, so sensitive. It also takes longer to build tough skin here. When I tore here, for the first couple of days, any slight opening or closing of the hand caused the tear to bleed. It was also very painful.

8. Death-gripping the bar. Try to avoid this.

Instead, one should grip the bar at the start of the fingers. This is a much stronger grip. At first it felt unstable and awkward. It was also much harder for me to do a pull-up. It takes some time to get use to the grip but over time, the skin around that area toughens up and tears happen less frequently.

9. My preferred grip.

Some of the pull-up bars at the gym have athletic tape wrapped around it. People's thoughts of the athletic-taped pull-up bars are mixed though. Some people really like it and will only do pull-ups on a bar that has tape on it and others avoid it. I teared both with the tape and without the tape pretty evenly, so I took the best of both worlds. I like to hold on to the bar (finger grip) with half my palm on the bare bar and the other half on the taped part. This seems to work best for me.

10. A pull-up bar with athletic tape wrapped around it.

Everybody is susceptible to ripping. When my palms tear during the WOD, this is what I do immediately after the WOD is over:

  1. Clean it with soap and water. Suck up it up and clean it thoroughly. The last thing you want is a staph infection.
  2. Remove any hanging skin with a razor blade, pair of scissors, nail clipper, or by pulling it off (extra lazy). If you got a water blister, do not pop it!
  3. Apply Neosporin and cover up if necessary. Sometimes I use the Band-Aid Advanced Healing Blister when my rip is really bad to protect it during general day-to-day activity. Unlike a normal bandage, this actually remains stuck to the palm, even under water.


Callus care is very important for preventing future tears. The probability of ripping increases when the hands are either too soft with no callus build-up or too much callus build-up. The trick is to find the midpoint between the two.  The best time to shave your calluses is right after a pull up workout or the night before... or when your calluses are extra thick and sticking out.  Not right before you workout (though if that's the only time you have, better than nothing).  When you run your hand over your calluses, they should be smooth.  This is my routine:

11. THE BEST CALLUS SHAVER EVER: Tweezerman Soft Grip Foot File.
  1. Cut off any loose skin with a pair of scissors or a nail clipper. Sometimes I find myself pulling off the loose skin during conversations and such. This is the least you can do if you are really busy. You do not want the loose skin to get caught and cause a larger rip.
  2. My FAVORITE CALLUS SHAVER of all time is the TWEEZERMAN SOFT GRIP FOOT FILE.   It is perfect since it is convex.. so you can shave down those hard-to-reach edges.  Wet your hands.  Use the coarse to shave off any extra hanging skin, or extra hard skin. Use the nail-file side to buff and even it out.  You can get this callus shaver at CVS or something that looks like it the nearest Asian store.  
  3. 12. Super built-up calluses, especially the one below my middle finger.
I've tried the pumice stone, the callus rasp, the callus shaver, sand paper, and other Tweezerman products, and those work, but just not as effectively as the the foot file above.  Time is money and every additional minute I spend trying to shave down a stubborn callus doesn't make me happy.  The Tweezerman soft grip foot file just works, regardless of how lazy you are.  It's easy to use, lasts a long time, and is cheap.

13. Well-maintained calluses. Note the one in the middle of my palm. That one is the one from Murph. Rips in the center of the palm are more vulnerable to future rips and take a long time to fully heal.

My calluses in the picture above are well-maintained. My hands are smooth. If I were to run my hand on top of my palm, I can barely feel the bumps from the calluses near the start of my fingers. The thickness of my skin is consistent across my palm.

SUMMARY: Optimizing on time and reality.
  • Everyday Callus Care: Tweezerman Soft Grip Foot File
  • At the gym, day-to-day: Chalk (especially the Magnesium Carbonate brand)
  • When I get a rip, but still want to WOD: Use fabric/elastic bandage to cover tear.  Wrap athletic tape around hand, horizontally, leaving some tape to spare in the back for moveability.  Scrunch tape in the back of the palm.  Do not tape over open wound.
  • When I get a rip, post WOD: Wash the tear.  Neosporin.  Fabric/elastic Bandage.  Later in the day, apply New Skin.  This will expedite the healing process.
  • Working out with a rip, done before class (takes max 1 minute/hand): Apply New Skin or fabric/elastic bandage (availability dependent) on tear.  Wrap entire hand with Medi-Rip Self-Adherent Bandage.
  • Taping for false grip muscle ups (added to this section, by request): Fabric/elastic bandage at the wrist bone, regardless of rip.  Athletic tape/Medi-Rip Self Adherent Bandage around the entire wrist (at least 2 layers at wrist bone).

As you can see, I'm a big consumer of magnesium carbonate chalk, Medi-Rip self adherent bandages, fabric/elastic bandages, and athletic tape, haha.  Hope this helps and happy pull-ups!