Whether you consider them a badge of pride or a nuisance, calluses can be an inevitable part of working out. They are your skin's way of protecting you from pain and tears in the skin, adapting to the friction and pressure during weightlifting.
However, if left unaddressed, they can get caught during some movements, leading to painful tears and preventing you from getting your workouts done. Although some level of calluses is necessary during heavier lifting and should be accepted as a protective measure for your skin, there are ways to treat them and prevent them from impeding your workouts. We spoke to dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D, for her best tips.
Meet the Expert
Caren Campbell, M.D, is a San Francisco-based dermatologist.
What Are Calluses?
Calluses are areas of skin that are harder and thicker than surrounding skin. They form in response to friction or pressure on the skin, such as that from a barbell. Calluses protect the tender skin underneath from cuts and tears.
Make Sure It's a Callus
The first thing you need to do is make sure the bumps on your skin are actually calluses. "You'd want to ensure the callous is not a wart which is caused by a virus that gets into a cut or abrasion in the skin and causes the skin to thicken much like a callus," says Campbell.
According to Campbell, if it is a wart, you'll need to treat it with cryotherapy from a dermatologist or OTC salicylic acid treatments.
Create a Barrier
"You need a barrier to prevent the chronic friction or rubbing that causes the skin to try to protect itself, which is to thicken, which is what a callus is—thickened skin," recommends Campbell.
While the most common thought is to rely on lifting gloves, they aren't recommended by trainers. Avoiding gloves is wise because they create a barrier between the weight and your hands, leading to issues with form and the weight slipping, causing dangerous accidents or injuries.
As well, some callus formation is essential for protecting your skin from further damage. It’s a protective mechanism that comes with the effort of lifting weights.
Instead, Campbell suggests using barriers such as hydrocolloid-like dressings that adhere to the skin. You can also find sprays and liquids that do much the same thing.
Use Proper Grip
You can limit the size and damage of a callus by making sure you grip the bar properly. For example, gripping the bar in your palms, which is common among lifters, can pinch the skin, increasing the friction that leads to calluses.
Instead, grip the bar along the knuckle line in between your palm and fingers. This switch will reduce the amount of skin pinched and rubbed, helping to prevent large calluses.
Choose Proper Equipment
Although it might seem contrary, choosing a barbell with a rough grip, also called knurling, is essential for preventing slipping, leading to pinching and increased friction. With the proper grip and a knurled bar, you can avoid much of the friction that causes calluses.
When it comes to other pieces of equipment, choose dumbbells with knurling or with rubber grips. When you use an attachment on a cable machine, avoid ropes or pulleys that are frayed or damaged and check for cracks that could scratch or cut your skin.
Strengthen Your Grip
If the proper form and knurling don’t help you because the bar slips, you should strengthen your grip. When your grip isn't what it should be, the bar can slide, leading to pinching that causes calluses.
Try practicing with a lighter weight, working on nailing the proper form before adding weight to the bar. You should also work on gripping the bar more tightly instead of only focusing on your working muscles. A tighter grip with more tension in your wrist and hands can prevent slipping and chafing.
Another tip is to switch from a double overhand grip to an alternating grip. This grip, used for deadlifts, as you place one hand over hand on the bar and your other hand in an underhand grip—this can prevent some of the slippages that occur with heavy lifting.
Exfoliate Rough Skin
"Most treatments are aimed at debriding or removing excess skin. A gentle way to do this is with a hydrating AHA/BHA like lactic acid—amlactin lotion can be applied nightly to exfoliate the excess skin chemically," says Campbell.
For more aggressive treatment, Campbell suggests using a wart remover like Mediplast. You can cut them to size to place on the callus. "You can then mechanically exfoliate with a pumice stone or emery board nail file after getting out of the shower when the skin is moist," recommends Campbell.
Weightlifting chalk is another way you can prevent slipping and chafing while you must address the other areas of concern regarding slipping first, namely your grip and your choice of a bar; chalk can help, especially when your palms become sweaty.
Just be aware that chalk can increase dryness which also leads to rough skin. Make sure to wash the chalk off and moisturize your hands after use.
Don't Get Rid of Them Completely
Well, it might be tempting to file calluses away entirely in the name of smooth skin; if you plan on continuing your weight lifting journey, you should get comfortable with some level of callus. These rougher, more prominent areas of skin prevent tears and cuts that could be painful and prevent you from getting your workouts done. If you have a painful callus or tear, consider backing off from the lifts that aggravate them until they are healed.
As long as you don't have any open wounds, you should perform as usual. Just take care to file down your calluses if they are substantial or are catching on material or equipment, as this can lead to tears. Moisturize regularly and stay hydrated so that your skin doesn't dry out in crack. Try to think of your calluses as a badge of honor, proof that you've committed to a healthy lifestyle.