CrossFit

Hand Health for CrossFitters

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We’ve all seen the nightmarish photo’s on social media of CrossFit people’s hands ripped to shreds.  They think it’s cool but in reality, it’s flat out stupid and promotes a poor image of what we’re trying to accomplish in the gym.  If that’s you, stop posting those pictures because it give us all a bad name as CrossFit enthusiasts and it sets a terrible example for aspiring CrossFitters.

Why am I so passionate about this topic?  I’ll pose it in a “would you rather” question.  Would you rather rip your hand so bad that it took 2 weeks to fully heal (which is about average), or sprain your lower back bad enough that it took 2 weeks to fully heal?  Most people would quickly say they’d rather rip their hand, but you should look at those two as equal in severity.

When you tear your hand, it limits your ability to effectively grab a bar with maximum strength.  You should change your mind frame surrounding a severe hand tear.  It is an INJURY!  You now have to modify your workouts.  No kipping pull ups, toe to bar, muscle ups, cleans, snatches, or deadlifts.  Congratulations, you are no longer doing CrossFit.

Just like when you sprain a hamstring, you have to modify workouts and decrease volume/intensity, which halts your progress.  If you read my article about how to get back in shape after a long layoff, you’ll know that consistency is king.  A hand tear de-rails your consistency and you are no longer progressing.

So how DO you prevent hand tears?

PREPARE YOUR HANDS – Once you’ve been hanging from bars and lifting weights for a while, you’ll start to notice the callouses that build up on the upper part of your palm, right below your fingers.  These are good and can be your best friend.  They toughen up your hands and make it easier to grip bars.

At some point, those callouses turn from friend to foe when they get too big, becoming a huge mountain of dead skin.  Now, they get trapped between the bar you are gripping and the meaty part of your palm.  With enough force and friction while gripping, the mountain callous gets ripped right off of your hand.  OUCH!

Prevent this happening before it starts by shaving the callouses down so they are never big enough to get trapped and ripped off.  My favorite way to do this is with a callous shaver.  It looks scary, but in reality, it is easy to use.  I shave my callouses once a week immediately after getting out of the shower when they are nice and fluffy (easier to shave that way).  Here’s a less than 1 minute video on how easy it is to use.

Here’s a before and after picture after a nasty toe to bar workout…

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If my callouses are feeling particularly rough but aren’t big enough to warrant a full shaving, I’ll use a pumice stone just to smoothen them out a little.  To top it all off, I make sure to lotion my hands to make sure they are properly moisturized and don’t dry out too much.  I’ll do this once or twice a week right before bed.

On a related note, remember to keep your fingernails trimmed short.  I know from experience that longer nails and CrossFit don’t mesh well.  I’ve broken mine just banding them on the floor during burpees, getting them caught during rope climbs, and they make hook gripping barbells much more painful.  Keep the nails trimmed!

MID-WORKOUT ADJUSTMENTS – Imagine this, you’re in the middle of a big set of pull ups.  You feel your hand start to get tender and know that any second you’re going to rip.  What do you do?

Imagine another scenario where you’re in the middle of a big set of heavy deadlifts.  You feel your back start to round and know that if you keep pulling you’re going to throw your back out.  What do you?

STOP!  Make the proper adjustment and keep going.  In the deadlift example, you should think about taking a break or lighten the weight so you can regroup and continue with proper form.  In the pull up example, you should think about dropping off of the bar to take a look at your hands.  If you see a blister or some softening of the skin (pre-blister), you should make some adjustments before you end up another CrossFit fail statistic.

My favorite adjustment is simply hanging from the bar with just your finger tips.  Is this harder and less efficient?  Yes!  But it will most likely prevent you from tearing.  You might finish the workout slower, but your hands will live to see another day (aka, more frequent training).  Plus, if you stop just short of your hand tearing, what you’ve done is created an opportunity for your skin to repair itself and come back stronger and thicker, which will help prevent tears in the future.  Be smart and adjust before it’s too late!

Another option is to change the exercise all together.  Modify the kipping pull up to a strict pull up or ring row, exchange the toe to bar for lying v-ups, etc.  There will always be a movement that you can substitute to prevent you from getting INJURED!  If you don’t know what to change it to, then ask your coach.  If they tell you they don’t have anything for you and to just keep going, cancel your membership immediately.

The only time I would advocate pushing through a hand tear is when you are competing for something that means a lot to you.  The CrossFit Games, CrossFit Regionals, and even the CrossFit Open (assuming you have a realistic chance at making it to Regionals) are clear examples of when to press through a hand tear.  For those of us who consider ourselves amateur CrossFit athletes, local competitions where you have invested time preparing for would be another good example of when to push through.

Finally, for those who are advanced athletes and are testing themselves in a benchmark workout.  If you have been working long, hard, and SMART to improve a certain benchmark, then by all means press through that hand tear!  This is reserved for those who are consciously making the decision that a tear is worth a personal record on a workout.  Not just trying to prove a point that they can do 1,000 pull ups in a workout.

AFTERMATH – So you PR’d your Fran time and tore your hand up, now what?  Post rip care can be very important to a speedy and full hand recovery.  I have heard some bad advice out there and I want to clear some of that up.

  1. Clean the hell out of the wound and continue to do so until fully healed.  Using soap and water should be just fine.
  2. Keep the wound intact as best you can.  If it’s a blister only, keep it a blister for as long as you can.  The fluid trapped inside is there for a reason and helps formulate new skin quickly.  If there is a skin flap still attached, I recommend keeping it on there as a natural barrier from the elements.  Once the wound is healed, you can cut the skin flap off.  I know, gross.
  3. Keep the raw skin as moist as possible.  The last thing you want to do is dry it out because the wound will crack and take much longer to fully heal.  It will also keep re-opening and that freaking hurts!  I like to use Neosporin to keep the injured skin moist.
  4. Keep the tear covered.  I like to use a bandaid 24/7 for the first 3 days or so.  I don’t recommend letting the wound “breath” at night because that is just another opportunity for it to dry out.

So there you have it my fellow CrossFitters, let me know if you need any other advice when it comes to hand care!  Enjoy!

1 thought on “Hand Health for CrossFitters”

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