If you are a serious lifter then chances are you have experienced sore ‘burning’ hands, cracked or ripped calluses at some point in your training. This condition makes a kettlebell handle, a pullup bar or a barbell feel like a source of pain and suffering, rather than of infinite joy and delight.
We can’t have that!
One of my students used to call this the Burning Hands Syndrome, starting balefully at her hands after every set. This condition is exceedingly common. And it’s common for the same reasons as why people would train like crazy while having poor nutrition and sleep habits – it’s all about proper recovery.
When it comes to avoiding the Burning Hand Syndrome and living to swing another day, it’s as easy as 1-2-3.
1. Practice CONSISTENT technique.
World champion Kettlebell Sport athlete and coach Denis Vasiliev said it right: top athletes hardly ever damage their hands because their technique isn’t just good, it’s consistently good.
What does it mean, being consistent? It means that your last rep should look and feel like your first rep. That when fatigue sets in and you feel like your technique is deteriorating, do not continue to move. Stop. Exercise some integrity. Otherwise your brain will register that you are a wishy-washy sort of person when it comes to technique and it will ingrain that wishy-washy habit. Train your mind that you don’t let a bit of fatigue make you lose your head. Strengthen your character. Most tears and intense looking calluses happen due to fatigue-induced inconsistency, not due to overall bad technique.
2. Get rid of protruding calluses.
If protruding calluses form, keep them in check by filing them down regularly. Your hand must be smooth, to discourage any catching of skin. Once you have smoothed down those mountain ranges from the top of your palms, go back to rule 1 – practice consistently good technique.
3. Practice appropriate (for your situation and goals) recovery habits.
The Burning Hand happens due to skin being rubbed against the handle (of barbell, kettlebell or pullup bar), especially when chalk is used (it dries out the skin) and then the skin NOT BEING ALLOWED TO REPAIR before jumping back into gripping moving things.
The body is smart. When it’s damaged, it puts up a ‘sign’ in the form of pain, saying ‘repairs in progress, do not use’. To enable the repair process, the skin must be moisturized and prevented from drying out. Dry skin regenerates slower and is more vulnerable to further injury and cracking. Your body knows this, so it’ll continue to ‘flash’ the sign of burning hands until the repair process is complete.
So, rub (not just apply) some coconut oil or other moisture protective and repairing substance into your hands at night after showering, while the skin is softened and wet (there is no point applying things to dry cracked skin, you might as well be applying cream to your shoes and clothes). Locking the moisture in will help skin regenerate itself.
If you want an even faster and more effective repair, for example if you want to train again tomorrow, then covering the area with a sock glove really helps (see photo) by preventing the cream/oil from rubbing off onto the sheets, pillows and significant others before it has the chance to do its noble work on your hands.
This is not a rule set in stone. Before I hear you say ‘but this is ridiculous, I don’t want to soak then moisturize my hands every night, then put gloves on etc etc’.
I get it. Life is busy. You could be doing all sorts of fun things instead of spending those 3 extra minutes tending to your hands.
But hand care, just like anything in life is a trade off and best of all, a sliding scale.
There are degrees of intensity with hand care, and you choose your level according to your current priorities.
In my line of work I’m gripping kettlebells and pull up bars every day, if not for my own training then for demonstrating exercises to students. Because of that I can’t afford to have Burning Hand Syndrome, rips or painful calluses. At all. So I take great care of my hands. If you don’t have such demands, you can let it take longer to recover by applying cream/oil and wearing sock gloves only sometimes. Or only after an intense training session. Or before a competition. Or not at all.
You know yourself best. The more demand you’re placing on your hands, or the more important it is to you that you’re able to grip things, the more attention you might want to pay to your recovery.
If you would like to read a more detailed article on hand care, check out this fantastic post from a Strong First colleague Matt Kingstone
Nobody is perfect and we’ll all have a day of sore hands once in awhile, which is the agonizing glory of being human. I therefore simply hope that this information will help you train more joyfully and with less pesky and preventable interruptions.