Troubleshooting Ripped Hands: What are they really telling you?

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For many lifters, Crossfitters and athletes getting your first hand rip is rite of passage, a sign that you’ve joined the ranks of a ‘real athlete’. But what do your ripped hands ‘really’ mean? And if you regularly rip, what is going on?! After getting ‘another’ rip on my right palm…it got me troubleshooting, why do we get hand rips?

 

Turn out there are 7 things your hands are trying to tell you.

 

1. You’re not ready yet

The first, and most obvious reason you’re getting ripped hands is because you’re not ready yet. Either you still have baby soft hands and simply haven’t developed your first round of calluses but  the second reason is more interesting. Let’s just say you are sporting a nicely calloused hand (and palm), well you could be ripping because you’re not ready yet either. Especially with Crossfit the reps range hugely and you may be absolutely conditioned for 50 pullups in a workout, but 200 is a different story. Also consider the sequence of movements, performing heavy deadlifts before getting on the rig or smoking out your forearms on hang power cleans is going to make a big difference to how you’re holding the pullup bar.

How to fix this: Begin a simple conditioning programme. Gradually build up the loading on your palms and fingers allowing the skin to adapt as well as your strength!

 

2.  Hand care

THE most obvious reason most lifters will get hand rips is because they’re not doing a decent hand care routine. In most cases the callouses build up too thickly and either a blister forms ‘underneath’ the callous (we see this with rowers a lot!) or you load the palm in a way that causes the callous to literally rip/tear (which I see more often with lifters and Crossfitters).

Both options hurt….a lot! And are pretty simple to avoid

How to fix this: Start a basic hand care routine – shave, cut or trim your callouses down on a regular basis to avoid buildup. There are a number of hand care kits out on the market but simple nail scissors and a file will do the trick.

 

3. Anatomy

In addition to callouses forming on the palm at the base of the fingers and on finger pads – you’ll also find callouses can form right in the middle of the palm. This is something I’ve suffered with when I rowed, climbed and and now as a Crossfitter. Depending on your unique combination of bony landmarks and palm creases this can produce a set of additional callouses (and potential hand rips) special just to you!

How to fix this: Nothing is going to change your bone structure or palm creases, but recognising where ‘your’ hands are at risk of a tear means you can include this in your regular hand care routine. Don’t let these smaller callouses build up too much. It’s harder to trim callouses in the middle of the palm so experiment with some different tools so that you can safely maintain good palm health.

4. Finger Strength

Now this is a BIG one – and personally the one I feel most people forget to consider when they are a regular ripper.

Fundamentally most of us have relatively weak finger strength. It is well known in the climbing community that finger strength takes months to develop. In particular the fingertip strength, for crimping, is notoriously difficult to build. When the fingers fatigue we’ll resort to trying to recruit wrist and forearm strength instead. In most cases hand rips affected by finger strength issues can occur for two reasons:

  1. One area being overloaded repetitively due to strength imbalances
  2. A shift in load as one area fatigues (shifting from a finger based grip on the bar to a palm based grip)

How to fix this: Begin a VERY gentle finger strengthening programme. If you haven’t done any hand-specific training before then begin some grip work training such as plate pinches or shifting to towel/rope pullups. Fingers have a very intricate system of connective tissue pulleys which are easily overloaded or even sprained if you start too enthusiastically. The climbing community have some of the best finger strengthening advice that I’ve come across – such as the Top 5 Finger Strength Training exercises

 

5. Sweating – hyperhidrosis

If you have this problem then you certainly know about it! True sweaty palms (again, a problem that I have and know well!) will definitely have an impact on your ability to maintain consistent grip on a bar. In particular increasing your risk of slips and shifts, so tears & rips rather than blister formation.

How to fix this: Apart from getting botox in your palms (which is a genuine treatment for sweating btw!) then the long term strategy is to build up your finger strength. In the short term invest in some decent chalk and work on your hand position, maintaining a consistent hand position on the bar.

 

6. Technique

This is a pretty basic point but simply working on your technique when holding a bar/rig will make a huge difference. I used to hate it, as I also have fairly small hands, but ensuring you have fingers and thumb wrapped around the bar is going to reduce slipping and increase grip strength.

How to fix this: Hook grip for lifting or pullups can make a huge difference – but simply focussing on ensuring your fingers are gripping a pullup bar rather than the palm when you jump up will help.

 

7. Shoulder Mobility & Strength (or even hip extension strength)

This is the one I’m most interested in. The majority of the points above are simple to address and once the skin is conditioned and finger strength is improving then why are you still getting rips? Or even more interesting why are you ripping on one hand vs the other?

Shoulder mobility & Strength is going to play a huge role in how your hands are able to maintain a consistent position on a bar. Remember when I mentioned having another right palm rip and that’s what prompted this article? Well, guess which shoulder has less core strength and is more unstable? Yup, my right one. For Crossfitters, being able to get into a strong kip position is important – if you don’t have adequate shoulder flexion and rotation then you’ll need to find that movement elsewhere. Inadequate shoulder strength, particularly asymmetric will start to cause twisting and shifting of your grip – and increase your rip risk. And this is where even hip mobility and strength is going to make a difference too!

How to fix this: Ensure you are fully warmed up, addressing both shoulder mobility and strength. Check out our Are your shoulder barbell ready video for how to test your shoulder mobility. 

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Headstart Sports Injury and Performance Clinic is owned and run by experienced sports massage therapist Vicki Marsh. We are based in Cambridge, UK, and specialise in resolving complex injuries that are causing acute or chronic pain,affecting quality of life and sporting performance. Vicki has over 12 years experience delivering sports massage to rowers, runners, international athletes and Olympic medallists.

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