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Chalking Up in the Gym
The Pros and Cons of Weightlifting Chalk

Chalking up can be messy...
Chalking up can be messy...

Have you ever seen someone "chalk up" their hands in a gym before a heavy lift? When I first started working out, many gyms had bags full of powdered chalk beside the heavy weights. You would rub the chalk on your hands. Then when you grabbed a bar, you could hold on tighter; with less chance of the weight slipping out of your sweaty palms.

Let's clarify what exactly this "chalk" is. It's not the stuff teachers used to write on the blackboard at the front of the class. It's a type of water free salt called magnesium carbonate (MgCO3).

When applied to your hands, it allows you to hold things more securely. It's the enhanced grip that enables you to move more weight. But in the process, it creates a bunch of problems.

The most obvious problem is the mess it leaves behind. When people chalk up, the powder tends to go everywhere. It gets on clothing, workout equipment, weights and all over the floor. Because the particles are so small, it can be a real pain to clean up. It makes a gym look dirty and people are less likely to keep working out in a messy facility. 

There's also the issue of lingering particles floating in the air. For asthma sufferers, it can cause an attack if they breathe it in. It's also an irritant if it floats into your eyes.

Germs are a problem with communal chalk sticks or buckets. With dozens of people rubbing it over their skin, you have no idea who or what last touched that chalk. You can't wipe it down like a machine, bench or bar before using it.

Then there's what I call the "real world" problem. If you need to lift or move something heavy outside a gym, you're generally not going to be able to chalk up before you start. Using chalk in the gym can give you a false sense of your capabilities outside the gym.

That doesn't mean using chalk is always a bad idea. For people who are competing in powerlifting contests, gymnastics or climbing a mountain, it's an extremely valuable tool to improve performance. If you're an elite-level athlete, the small improvements chalk provides can mean the difference between winning and losing.

There are four commonly used forms of chalk today. Block, bulk/loose, ball and liquid.

Block chalk or compressed magnesium carbonate is the least expensive option. You grab a stick and rub it on your fingers and across your palm. It typically takes 15 to 30 seconds to put on properly.

Bulk/Loose chalk is common in places where you need to reapply frequently. It's quick to put on because it's already broken down into a powder and you simply rub a little between your hands. Some brands include a drying agent to absorb moisture and further improve grip.

Chalk balls are sacks full of loose chalk with holes the chalk can escape from. Balls limit the amount of dust that gets in the air and they help prevent too much from spilling on the floor.

Liquid chalk is magnesium carbonate mixed with alcohol and thickener. Squirt a little on your palms, rub it in and it's virtually mess-free. This is the cleanest and most sanitary option. Just make sure the primary ingredient is magnesium carbonate and not aluminum chlorohydrate, which doesn't provide as much grip.

Workout GlovesThere is another option. Instead of using chalk, grab a pair of weightlifting gloves or pads. They give you additional grip strength without the mess or continuous expense of chalk. They also help prevent calluses from building up on your hands.

Gloves aren't perfect. They need to be cleaned regularly and they can add thickness to the bar you're holding. For people with small hands, they can make gripping things more difficult, because you can't close your hands as tightly.

Pads are an option when you just need something for a couple of exercises. They're cheaper than gloves, they're not messy and they're quick to grab and use.

If you're looking to improve your grip, you now have several options to consider. Chalk, gloves or pads, based on your specific needs, activity levels and ultimate goals.

Things weightlifting "chalk" are NOT made of:

  • Blackboard chalk is calcium sulfate or calcium carbonite. Great for a teacher writing lecture notes in front of a class, terrible for helping sweaty palms.
  • Talc is a clay mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate. It's often used as a dry lubricant, exactly the opposite of what you would want to improve your grip.
  • Baby powder is talc mixed with corn starch. Since talc is a dry lubricant, it would make your grip worse than nothing at all. 

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