Hand Care for Kettlebell Lifters
As we all know, kettlebell lifting can wreak havoc on your hands. I, for one, often feel self-conscious giving people a high five because of the blood blisters, callouses, or giant patches of dry skin on my hands. In some gym cultures, ripping your hand is a glorified battle wound that shows you gave your all in a workout. In the kettlebell world, ripping your hand totally sucks because it means your technique was off and/or you might not be able to train tomorrow. Even if you don't particularly care what your hands look like, there are several factors to keep in mind if you want to lift consistently without tearing up your hands.
How Do You Prevent a Hand Tear?
In short, you must grip the kettlebell correctly (not so hard!), have good technique, use chalk when needed, and maintain your hands by trimming down callouses.
How to Grip the Kettlebell & Execute Good Technique
Here is an article I wrote about gripping the kettlebell correctly. In summary, you should hold the kettlebell with hook grip in the backswing; loose enough so the wrist is straight and forearm is relaxed, but tight enough so the bell doesn't rotate in your palm. Fingers should also be relaxed in the overhead position.
Executing good technique is the hardest to master, of course. Generally when we are talking about blisters, we are talking about the kettlebell Snatch. This video on Snatch drop technique and this video on the 4 most common mistakes on the Snatch drop will be most relevant to hand tears. For additional technique videos, check out my Intro to the Swing and Intro to Long Cycle videos.
Using Chalk to Prevent Rips and Tears
I've had many lifters ask me if chalk is really necessary for kettlebell lifting. The answer is two-fold: for lighter kettlebells and Long Cycle & Jerk lifts, it depends. For heavier kettlebells (20kg and above) and for Snatch, YES you need chalk.
When snatching a light kettlebell, you can get away with using a lot more grip strength in a set. If you're strong and conditioned, you can easily muscle your way to 10 minutes with 12 or 16kg kettlebell. Long Cycle and Jerk do not require a huge amount of grip strength, especially when compared to the Snatch. You may not need chalk in these situations and might actually find that applying chalk hurts your hands MORE because the chalk can make the handle feel rougher.
For the Snatch, however, every little nuance in your technique is about saving your grip. Tiny changes in how you hold the kettlebell overhead or when to accelerate the bell into the overhead position make a HUGE difference over ten minutes. If you don't chalk your kettlebell, at some point during your set the handle will start to slip in your hand, which will cause you to grip the handle harder and fatigue your forearm very quickly. Chalking the kettlebell ensures the bell will stay in the proper place in your hand; when snatching a heavy kettlebell, a slick handle should be the least of your worries.
Similarly, I would advise using chalk for Long Cycle and Jerk above 20kg, since you don't want the kettlebells to shift out of place during your set, which can cause undue fatigue.
Hand Maintenance for Kettlebell Lifters
Letting your callouses grow and become giant bumps on your palm is a great way to ensure a blister or a tear! Instead, try these hand maintenance tips to prevent blisters from occurring so you can lift pain-free.
- Shave callouses down so they lie flat with the rest of your hand. If you let callouses build up, the bell handle will begin to pull on them and eventually rip them off. It's safer to trim the callouses down yourself beforehand, so you don't get raw skin or blood blisters underneath when you tear your hand lifting.
- The easiest way to shave the callouses down is to do so after you shower, when the skin is soft. You can use a pumice stone or a ped egg to scrub the top layers of callous away. Know that your hands may be a bit tender afterwards, so I would do it before a rest day so your hands have time to readjust.
- If you blister your hand, it's best not to rip the blister open, otherwise the skin will dry and crack, which can be painful and takes much longer to heal. If you do get a spot that's dry and cracking, put some sort of balm on.
- If you rip your hand, cover the skin up with tape or a band aid to keep it moist and facilitate faster healing. You can apply a salve or balm to keep the skin moist.
- Chalk dries out your hands! Use lotion or hand cream at night to moisturize. You can moisturize before your set, but only if you want to get an intense workout for your grip. ;)
But What if I Rip My Hand... and I Have to Train?
Good news: If you rip your hand, you can still train!
If the tear isn't very deep, simply trim the excess skin off and fill the blister in with chalk to dull the sensation.
If the tear is deep and/or very sensitive, you can successfully tape your palm to prevent additional damage. Here is a great video by my coach Denis Vasilev that shows exactly how to tape your palm so you can continue training.
After training, be sure to follow the hand maintenance tips as outlined above to facilitate faster healing. While it's great to be able to continue training despite a tear, it's always the best idea to keep your hands from ripping in the first place!
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