I first started using kettlebells in 2007. I had done several instructors certifications that year so I thought I knew a thing or two about how to use them. One thing I didn’t know, unfortunately, was how important looking after your hands really is! If you get pain from your calluses while training, you’d be wise not to simply ignore it.
When I was in the military, I used to use to take a kettlebell with me on vehicle-mounted patrols. For such a versatile tool, a kettlebell really doesn’t take up much room! My favourite exercise was the kettlebell snatch — it works the entire body in a short time. I really felt like I had worked hard after a session of snatches. The downside was how sore my hands used to get — I forever had little annoying blisters and rips on my fingers and palms.
At the time, my training partner and I found a kettlebell snatch challenge called the secret service snatch test. It comprised of 200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell. We thought we’d train up for it and give it a go.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
On my first attempt, I ripped nearly the whole surface area of my palms off. Due to the blood on the bell, it became so slippery that I couldn’t even hold onto it. This was only 130 snatches in — needless to say, things went south much sooner than I’d expected!
While you may not find your own training so extreme, anyone who spends a fair amount of time using both kettlebells and barbells eventually comes into problematic hand soreness and or the tearing of calluses.
Personally, I was unable to do any serious lifting for two weeks after that incident while my hands healed.
Why We Get Calluses
I certainly wasn’t going to allow a repeat of that incident, so I did some research and found that my technique could be improved. More importantly, I could no longer ignore caring for my hands. No more ripped calluses for me!
When you think about it, it really does make sense. Just about every important exercise you do involves your hands in some way, and nothing hammers this home like being unable to use them. We take the time to stretch and massage our muscles, but what do we do for our hands?
Davis’ law is is a physiological principle stating that soft tissue heals according to the manner it’s mechanically stressed.
Basically the more stress you place on your hands by lifting, pushing and pulling heaving loads, the more your hands will adapt by growing ‘padding’ to protect them. This excess padding unfortunately has a nasty habit of pinching between the bottom of your fingers and the barbell or kettlebell.
Calluses Are Natural, So What’s The Problem?
When your skin is pinched, it hurts. This isn’t the type of pain you get from having worked a muscle, either. It’s an alarm signal to get your attention.
When experiencing pain, your body will always try and move you away from it. Whether you like it or not, your movement patterns are going to change to try and minimise the amount of pain you feel.
When you move your body away from pain for prolonged periods of time, you start to compensate. Compensate for long enough, and it’s not compensation anymore. It’s normal. The moment that compensatory patterns become normal is the moment that you start setting yourself up for injury in the longer term.
How To Deal With Calluses
If your pain is quite bad initially, you’re going to want to soak your hands in water for 5 minutes or so. This will help soften them up. Once you’ve done that, dry off and use some 120 grit sand paper to sand back troublesome areas.
Sounds crazy, but I usually roll the sandpaper up so I can more accurately target the built up areas. When sanding like this the skin should come off in rolls. Remember using an eraser back in school? It’s going to look like that.
The motion needs to be quite hard and fast and builds up friction so don’t be scared to really hook in.
Once things have settled down a bit, using a pumice bar on the affected areas in the shower each night is enough to keep your calluses at bay.
Sanding your hands will leave them quite dry, so use a quality moisturiser at night before bed and first thing in the morning (yes, moisturiser!). Obviously, you don’t want to rock up to the gym with slippery lotion on your hands, so don’t do it right before you train!
Snatch Test Victory
After resting my hands and starting my own weekly hand care ritual, I have barely had a problem with my hands since. I went back and passed that snatch test on my very next attempt, and I attribute most of my success that the effort I put into taking care of my hands. Calluses are a natural part of your body adapting to the stresses we put on our hands when we train, but that doesn’t mean you can take them for granted!