Preventative Hand Care for Gymnasts

Worst Rip Ever?

The worst rip I ever saw was at a Y Nationals meet years ago. I was coaching another gymnast during high bar warm-ups when one male gymnast doing a front giant literally went from a handstand to a front drop on the mat. Definitely a hard crash on not that difficult a skill. After a short time of just laying there, he got up, looked at this right hand and pulled his right grip off his fingers and we quickly saw why he had peeled off the bar.

A Hand and a Flap of Hand and Finger Skin

When he did so, a huge flap of skin fell down that literally was almost his entire palm and ripped all the way down to the first knuckle on his four fingers. The flap of skin from his palm was still hanging on from four flaps of skin torn down his four fingers. The whole rip was hanging down five or six inches off his hand.

Yes, He Did Still Compete

Well, we assumed that was the last we would see of him on high bar and maybe every other event as well. Less than 20 minutes, he had taped each finger and the palm of his hand so that entire flap of skin was taped back in place and he competed his high bar routine and every other event as well. I didn’t see how he did on the other events but he medaled on high bar – a second place silver medal.

Rips Can Happen at the Worst Possible Time

That had to be incredibly painful and is perhaps the worst possible rip anyone could ever get. It simply points up that the timing of bad rips can be highly inconvenient coming at the worst possible times, like during warm-ups at Nationals. I am sure all gymnasts will want to avoid a rip like that.

Hand Care is Serious Business

For every serious gymnast, the topic of rips and hand care is an important one as it can directly affect the results of important competitions. It is also an important consideration that gymnasts might want to avoid unnecessary pain and any possible loss of bar training time.

Rip Theories and Practices

There are any number of treatments for rips and some number of rip prevention theories that gymnasts and coaches have come up with over the years. Some of those work and others – not so much. We will attempt to separate the best from the worst and give you an overview of what can and is being done.

Rip Preventative Strategies, Practices and Products

Let’s start with what gymnasts can do to actually prevent rips. I have heard some people say that it is not possible to go through a gymnastics career without ripping. I do personally know and Elite gymnast who never ripped her hands during her entire gymnastics career. She did, though, regularly get rips on her wrists from her heavy duty grips. I am sure, though, some gymnast, somewhere, never got rips during their whole career. Let’s see what we can do to, if not eliminate, minimize rips for you.

He Ripped Them a New One (Or More)

I once saw a coach, who did not ordinarily work with this particular group of junior team members, who practiced two hours a day, three days a week, and had never worked more than 30 minutes on bars for an hour and a half non-stop on bars. Every one of the gymnasts ripped at least once, some for the first time in their careers. Some gymnasts had three to five rips as they were not allowed to stop working bars even after they had ripped multiple times and they did bar conditioning at the end of that practice. I then heard that coach bragging how hard had worked that group.

Another Law of Progression -Toughen Your Hands Gradually

Among other things, that is a violation of the first strategic rule of avoiding rips, which is to gradually and progressively build up your bar workouts to toughen your hands and build up calluses. Gradually building up your bar workouts in time and intensity should happen in the beginning of your team training career and every time you miss a significant amount of bar practice time.  You might consider both wearing grips and tape underneath when you are working to toughen up your skin at first or coming back after a time of not doing bars.  That would give you and extra layer of protection and then you could go back to just grips when you have toughened up.

Toughen Your Hands

Plain Tincture of Benzoin is used by gymnasts for its reputation of toughening skin exposed to the tincture.

Don’t Stop or Even Slow Down Working On Bars

This strategy does not really mean that gymnasts will be working any less time or even less intensely on bars. It means choosing which skills you are working on carefully (cast handstands and pirouettes do not circle the bar and thus are not likely to cause rips) during the build up period and using strap bars more in the beginning also can help prevent rips.

Get a Grip

Grips are another method of protecting the hands and helping to avoid rips. Rips and blisters occur from the heat and friction of circling the bar. The larger the gymnast, the more friction on the hands. This is why you see almost all mature, older gymnasts wearing grips. Most gymnasts who do not wear grips are younger, smaller and lower level gymnasts. Gymnasts who spend significant time training bars, especially if they are not very young and/or very small should be getting grips.

UnderGrips

G.A. Deitch makes two versions of a lanolin protective glove that are worn under grips for extra rip protection and which has lanolin in them for hand care. The gymnasts I know who tried these never used them long enough to get used to their feeling that the lanolin made the undergrips feel greasy and slippery.

Tape Your Hands

Taping your hands can provide a layer of hand protection that can help prevent rips. Some gymnasts, usually younger and lower level gymnasts, use tape “grips” as their sole means of protecting their hands. It is possible to both tape your hands and wear grips, but few gymnasts do both (unless they already have a rip).

Callus Up

Calluses are areas of thickened, toughened skin caused by repeated friction and pressure from repetitive activities. Calluses form to protect the skin and the muscle structure of the hand from injury or damage. Essentially, calluses are a thicker, stronger and tougher layer of skin the body develops to deal with friction and heat. Calluses are proof of hard work in addition to being a layer of protection. Toughening your hands by building up calluses is all part of the rip prevention process.

Carefully Care for Your Calluses

Once you build calluses, however, you need to maintain and care for them. Most calluses form on the palm of the hand, especially, just below the fingers. Very thick calluses can lead to very thick rips. Calluses that have edges that stick up can catch on the bar and rip. So calluses must be filed, shaved or cut down and have the edges smoothed to help protect from rips, but they should not be filed down too far as this will irritate the skin and not leave enough protection against rips. There are a number of tools that can be used to do that and each gymnast and coach have preferences for which ones they like to use.

Don’t Be Picky

Lots of gymnasts “pick” their calluses down – not maybe the best way, since it is easy to pick off too much since you don’t have much control using your fingernails, but a very common practice. When calluses are left completely untreated, the calluses can become very thick and raised. Continued heat and friction can cause the thickened callus to tear or rip away from the skin.  Gibson has a DAT Callus Stick DAT Callus Stick that helps toughen calluses.  Care of your calluses is one of the most important steps in preventing rips.

“Mom, I can’t do the dishes”

Soft hands rip easier than tough hands so anything that softens your hands is more likely to cause you rips. “Mom, I can’t do the dishes because that will soften my hands and I will rip.” There are any number of products and procedures that advertise they will soften your hands. Gymnasts want to steer clear of those.

Moist, Not Soft

While you don’t want soft hands, you will also not want hands to get so dry that they start to crack as this is then already the start of a bigger potential rip. Gymnasts have a variety of hand textures and dryness and must find the right balance of products to use in their particular situation to protect against rips. Find the right lotion that will keep your hands moist but will not soften them.

Don’t Get a Grip (That’s Too Tight)

How you grip the bars and how tight you grip the bars are a definite factor in rips. You certainly need to hold the bars tight enough not to fly off, but as you become more experienced, you will find just how tightly you have to hold on and when you can ease your grip significantly (like when you go over the top of the bar).

Chalk Up

Using chalk can also help you maintain a better grip on the bars, and so if you can grip more easily, you don’t have to hold the bar as tightly which over time may reduce overall friction on your hands. Chalk improves our grip on the bars and can keep your hands dry on the bar and when your hands are dry, not wet and slippery from sweat, you don’t have to hold the bar so tightly to safely stay on. There are, also, other products that can help keep your palms dry if your hands sweat a lot.

Cool Hot Hands

Friction causes heat and heat is a factor in causing rips. Most gymnasts are familiar with the feeling of their hands being hot which is often a feeling they get just before they rip. Reducing the heat of hot hands can help prevent rips. When gymnasts feel they are close to ripping, they will often run cold water on their hands. Even more effective is to hold their hands on ice packs and really cool down their hands. Note: Gymnasts should never use ice packs to cool their hands that may be needed in case of a serious injury. If gymnasts want to use ice packs for cooling their hands, they should buy and bring their own to the gym. It can also be a good practice to ice down hot hands when you get home from practice if it at all feels like you are beginning to get a rip.

Tea Tree Oil Heals

There is at least one product that can actually act as a rip preventer (and also a rip healer). A variety of tea tree oil products can help prevent rips before they happen. Gymnasts can put tea tree oil products on their hands, either the night before bar practices or every night for gymnasts who work bars every day. Tea tree oil can penetrate the skin and heal any damage or pre-rip injuries under the skin that might contribute to ripping.

Heal Rips Before They Happen

We have a local company, which makes a whole range of excellent tea tree oil products, which can help prevent rips with regular use and can completely heal rips very quickly (tow to three days) if you get one. One small problem – the smell of the products is not particularly sweet. Still to avoid painful rips, especially right before meets, tea tree oil is definitely a strategy to consider, either all the time or before important competitions.

Taper Right Before Meets to Avoid Ripping

There is a well-researched sports competition strategy called tapering. Basically, scientific research has shown that athletes do better in competition when they do not practice right up until the day before the competition. Tapering is a somewhat complex process, with less tapering time for smaller, less important competitions and more tapering time for the biggest competitions of the year. Tapering has both physical and mental benefits for competition.

Rest, Recover and Heal Your Hands, Body and Mind

For gymnasts and in relation to avoiding rips, it is wise to take off practice the day before every meet. Taking a day off allows your body and hands to rest and heal and, of course, you avoid any chance that your hands will rip the night before the meet. The accepted (by scientists) strategy for tapering before the biggest meet of the year involves taking off two to three days before the meet. This will allow your body, mind and hands to heal, rest and be in peak physical and mental shape to compete.

Last Minute Practice Does Not Really Help

The scientific evidence for tapering is ignored by many gymnasts and coaches, including the National team coaching staff. In the gymnastics world, you see coaches doing insanely intense strength and conditioning workouts the night before important meets, when anyone who knows anything about strength training knows that will have no strengthening effect before that meet and can serve only to produce a tired and sore gymnast at the competition. It take at least a week or two for any strength gains to occur from strength training. You need or want gymnasts stronger, plan ahead better. You can’t cram for meets.

Enter Meets in Peak Physical and Mental Condition

Anyone who knows how the mind works, especially the subconscious mind, which controls all physical actions including gymnastics skills and routines, can see the psychological advantages to allowing mental practice to occur. Anyway, taking a day or so off before a meet can allow hands to heal, avoid the possibility of a rip right before the meet and provide all of the physical and mental advantages of tapering.

Other Methods of Preventing Rips?

Some gymnasts and coaches advocate putting tea bags in hot water and then putting them on your hands to, in some way, help prevent rips. The tannic acid in the tea is supposed to help to toughen the skin so some people use this method the night before a hard workout. Other gymnasts and coaches advocate putting the oil from vitamin E capsules on your hands to help prevent rips.  Some recommend soaking your hands in salt water on a regular basis to help prevent rips.  I have never had gymnasts do any of those and don’t have any idea if that might help, but I do know some gymnasts and coaches recommend and do it.

Do Daily Diligent Preventative Hand Care

Preventative hand care is a daily process for serious gymnasts who wish to avoid or minimize ripping. Once you rip, it will have some negative effect on your practices and competitions, so doing daily preventative hand care is only common sense.

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2 Responses to “Preventative Hand Care for Gymnasts”

  1. Cari June 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    We use Tea Bags and Vitamen E oil after a rip occurs to help them heal faster and stay free of infection. I have noticed that the better my daughter cares for her hands the less rips. Manicures help with this because they help keep the calluses smooth. My daughter get really frustrated with grips, because they make skills so much different. She has to use them a little everyday until she can do some skills with them. She still will not compete in them but can practice in the grips some. If you have any advice on how to help her feel more comfortable in grips, I would love it!

    • Gymnastics Zone June 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      Adapting to grips is simply a function of time using them. You didn’t say what level gymnast your daughter is or what age, not that it matters at this point, but the sooner gymnasts get into grips the better, because then they have fewer skills to relearn. Summer is the best time to adapt to grips, during the off-season, and when there is more time to practice. It is very difficult, and confusing, to try to adapt to grips in the middle of a competition season. Softer grips break in faster (but usually wear out faster). Initially gymnasts can wear their grips during warm-ups and all of the basic gymnastics skills and drills and then work on more advanced skills without grips, on the skills she has not yet adapted to using grips. She can adapt faster to grips if she increases her bar grips workout time using grips, by extra bar practices or using grips in open gyms. like most everything else in gymnastics, she just needs to keep working on getting used to grips and soon, she will be unwilling to workout without them.

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