Hand Taping for Kettlebells – The Dark Art of Callus Management

I remember sitting at the dinner table and looking with disbelief and awe at my father’s hands. Rough, callused, scarred, and with fingers that looked to me like a pound of butcher’s choice sausages. I remember glancing down at my own hands; soft, delicate, girlish even, like they’d been made from porcelain and petals, and wondering how we could possibly be related.

I was 23 years old at that point. And while my parentage has still never really been satisfactorily confirmed, my hands have finally ended up as gnarly as my old man’s.

You see I was well and truly ensconced in the world of academia. The closest thing to a callus came from holding my pen and the patch of dry skin on my forehead from constant frustrated head slapping.

It wasn’t until I had the realisation that I knew a lot of stuff yet couldn’t actually do anything, that I began to actually use my hands for things other than thumbing textbooks. I started learning traditional crafts with old tools and rough materials, and it was there I found my unusual ability. I callus really quickly.

A callus is formed when the skin is exposed to a continuous stimulus, usually some form of friction. The increased pressure, heat and blood flow to that area causes the body to make an adaptive change in order to prevent damage to the skin. Keratin forms a hardened layer at this point, and lo! a callus is born. If the friction occurs at too rapid a pace then the skin can’t form a callus quick enough and a blister forms instead.

My calluses were like some badge of manliness to me. I liked to see the grimace or wince on a persons face when they shook my hand. I was beginning to look a little troll-like.

So when I finally started lifting barbells and kettlebells I felt that my rhino/troll hands would act like some sort of super power. I was wrong!

You see, whilst a callus is good for preventing a blister in normal life, when combined with the constant movement of a kettlebell handle, it can actually be a hindrance. A very painful hinderance.

What’s worse than a blister in a workout? A torn callus. When a callus gets too big it actually can create the very problem it is trying to prevent. As you work out with high volume kettlebell movements the callus can increase the friction to the hand, creating a fluid building up beneath it (a blister). The heat and sweat can soften the callus and then, BOOM, it rips open exposing the sore, sensitive, raw skin beneath.

At this point you need to deal with it like it is an open wound, because it is. If you continue to work out with it in this state, you risk getting it infected.

Disclaimer: What follows is not medical advice and should not be taken as so. This is just the technique that I use. What do I know? Ask a trained medical professional for actual medical advice.

Disclaimer 2: What I am about to say is also pretty disgusting too, and I relish going into minute, graphic detail. Be warned!

So what follows is how I deal with this scenario. I need to add that I am not a medical professional or a trained callus remover, I am but a troll with a penchant for ripping my hands up.

The first thing to do is to clean the wound properly with soap and water or a medicated wipe. You then have to decide what to do with the flap of skin that is left.

You have 3 choices: Leave it alone, cut it off, or tear it off.

  1. Leave it alone – This is unlikely to work. The callus skin is actually dead so it will not re-attach, it will only go hard and get in the way.

2. Cut it off – This way never works for me. The cut surface forms a hard ridge that interferes with subsequent workouts and will tear further, leaving you back to this point.

3. Tear it off – This is horrible to do but it is my go-to procedure. By grabbing the callus and carefully tearing it off you are left with no raised ridges. This seems to make them heal quicker without continually catching again every time you swing a kettlebell.

Now the obvious and sensible approach to dealing with it is to leave it alone, stop training, and let nature take it’s time healing it. But if you train enough to get calluses in the first place, let alone rip them, the chances are you’re a hard charging meathead that balks at the notion of taking days off. But the choice is yours.

Once we have sorted that out, it’s good to re-clean and use some kind of a medicated barrier cream.

When you are ready to train again I would suggest taping your hands up. There are many ways to do it but the following is my preferred way.

You’ll need some athletic tape about 2 inches wide and a pair of scissors.

Cut a strip about 12-16 inches long and fold in half, sticky side to sticky side. This should be long enough for most people unless you have massive shovels for hands. Adjust size as needed.

Next cut a small cross just below the folded edge. Be careful not to cut to the edges. Stick the finger that is above the torn callus through the cross shaped hole.

Lay the strip across the palm, covering the affected area, all the way down to the wrist. Secure this in place at the wrist with another strip of tape. Don’t wrap it too tight.

You can buy a thing that looks just like this made from leather with a velcro strap. Now these things are great for pull up work on a bar or gymnastic rings but not ideal for kettlebell stuff. They tend to be a little too slack in the palm and the buckle on the back of the wrist is in exactly the wrong place for cleans or holding in the rack position.

I did notice some ready cut tape that does a similar job, however, it is stretchy kinesiology that sticks to the palm. Removing this tape from a raw, former callus would be awful.

The other way I see people wrapping the palms is far from ideal; wrapping around the whole hand. Again, this means you are sticking tape directly onto the open sore area, and by the nature of the kettlebell’s movement, it just bunches up creating more problems and exposing the very area you are trying to protect.

The second picture is just after doing 30 swings. So don’t waste the tape on this technique. The method I prefer will last me a full session of constant, high volume kettlebell work.

So there you have it, the best way I know to keep on swinging after a torn callus.

As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so keep the old troll hands in check. I trim/shave my calluses down with a special corn knife fairly regularly, much to the disgust and gag reflexes of my children. I then file them smooth with an emery board. I have also come to understand that my hands need to be tough and leathery, rather than hard and crusty, so now I moisturise. My product of choice is The Body Shop’s hemp and lanolin hand cream. There are now a whole host of hand creams designed for weightlifters and crossfitters, so find the one you like and get moisturising.

Good luck, and keep swinging.

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