The Equipment of CrossFit: Chalk
by Geoff Rand
If you close your eyes and picture a CrossFit athlete, I’d bet many of us would come up with an image of a ripped guy or girl, dripping in sweat, maybe with various body parts taped up; with hands and shorts dusted in chalk like a powdered donut. Whether it be strongman competitions, rock climbing, CrossFit, or gymnastics, it seems wherever feats of strength or athletic prowess are being demonstrated, chalk is involved.
So what is in this magical powder that makes it so special, how does it work, when should I be using it, and how do I apply it? Boy, you’ve got a lot of questions.
Gym chalk is made of magnesium carbonate. The chalk that your kids use on the sidewalk is made of calcium sulphate. Now, my chemistry background is limited to knowledge of how to make bombs out of MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) heaters in college, but what I can tell you is the magnesium carbonate forms into a fine powder much more easily than sidewalk chalk. I did once see a drop-in athlete pick up and use one of Sloane’s sidewalk chalk sticks, thinking it was for the WOD. I never asked him how the pink chalk worked versus the white the rest of us were using. But, maybe you could use sidewalk chalk in a pinch.
Chalk works by absorbing sweat, which in turn helps you keep a better grip on whatever you are trying to hold onto. If you are finding you are sliding off the pull up bar, or the barbell is slipping out of your fingers, chalk might help.
There is such a thing as too much chalk, and it can be bad. A light coating is all you need. Chalk up too much, and you go from drying your grip to leaving skin on the pull up bar due to creating too much friction. If you walk away from the chalk bucket looking like one of the War Boys from Mad Max, you over did it.
The chalk buckets at CrossFit Frederick have shirts stretched over them for a reason. They act to confine the chalk dust as much as possible to the chalk bucket while you apply it and limit the amount that the coaches have to clean up all over the Box. My technique for applying chalk from the bucket is to first wipe my hands off on my shorts to remove excess sweat. I then place one hand in the chalk bucket and press it into the chalk. I then bring my other non-chalked hand to the chalked hand (still inside the bucket) and rub them together. I then take both hands out and go do my lift or pull. If I later feel the need to re-apply chalk, I first glance at my hands to make sure I haven’t torn them and to see how much, if any, chalk is remaining on them.
You don’t need to re-chalk after every rep. That will only lead to chalk build up and ripping. Depending on the particular WOD you are doing, once a round should be sufficient.
Wipe down your pull up bar or use a brush on your barbell after the WOD. Chalk left on metal traps in moisture and can lead to rust forming.
You can also buy chalk in bricks or balls. I personally prefer chalk balls as they really let you get the chalk right where you want it. You’ll need to keep your personal chalk in a Tupperware container or Ziploc bag to keep it from getting all over, and definitely keep it away from where a weight might get dropped on it. You can also use products like Liquid Grip, however I find this a bit too tacky and have ripped my hands using it.
I’ve definitely noticed a difference when using chalk versus not using it when doing heavy lifts or high rep pull-ups. Having a strong grip on the bar allows me to do more work without dropping or slipping off the bar. You should not become overly dependent on chalk, however. It is not a substitute for strengthening your grip. I would suggest only using it when attempting lifts at 50% or more of your 1 rep max, or when you’re sweating so bad you can’t maintain a safe grip on the pull-up bar. To put this another way, if your grip is compromised to the point you can’t safely or properly do the movement, it might be time to try chalk.
Here are a couple of Don’ts when it comes to using chalk.
If you tore your hands and are bleeding, do not put your hands in the chalk bucket. Totally gross. Stop and go fix yourself before continuing anything.
Don’t use chalk when doing rope climbs. Chalk can actually damage our ropes. I find a little perspiration on my hands helps me keep a better grip on the rope anyway.
Don’t turn the chalk bucket into a rest station! We know what you’re doing when you are bending over the bucket after every couple of reps.
Don’t clap or rub your hands together above or outside the bucket. Don’t leave a chalk trail from the bucket to your bar.
Just like everything else in CrossFit, chalk is a tool, and it has its time and place to use it. Just keep it confined to your hands and the chalk bucket and don’t become a chalk monster. And, whatever you do, try to hold off on picking that wedgie until after you've cleaned up your hands.