Unless you’re in a highly sanitised globo-gym, chances are you’ve seen someone using chalk. From barbell clubs to CrossFit boxes, powerlifting gyms, and everything in between, chalk is one of the most useful pieces of gear that should be in your gym bag.
But how does chalk help and when should you use it? These are questions that are often asked but not often understood. Let’s take a look at what chalk is, what it does for your grip and the pros and cons of adding it to your routine.
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How Does Chalk Help When Weightlifting?
Imagine you’re at the end of a gain cycle, and you’re preparing to test your 1RM on all of your lifts. You’re well fuelled, have had plenty of rest, and are sure you’re going to crush your numbers. You add another plate to your bar, set your stance and begin to pull. But before you can lock out at the top of your deadlift, your grip fails, and the bar crashes dramatically onto the floor.
This has happened to everyone at some point, and the frustration of a slippery grip is an all too common complaint. The easiest and simplest way to correct this issue is to start using chalk.
Hand Anatomy and the importance of Grip Strength
Having a strong grip is one of the most decisive factors in failing or making your rep. In addition to training your grip to improve, it’s important that you also consider your fingers, thumb, and the intrinsic muscles. This might sound a little overboard, but think of training your hands in the same way you train your ankles and feet. They’re small muscle groups, to be sure, but they’re powerful when properly addressed and can help you achieve bigger lifts.
Grip can be categorised as either power grips or precision grips. Power grips are just as they sound – you use the power of your muscles to hold onto something. During a power grip, your fingers flex together to hold an object. How well you’re able to hold onto the object is determined by the force generated by the muscles in your hands.
Power grips can be either dynamic or static, and both have their place in training.
Dynamic grips involve opening the hand so that the fingers assume a suitable shape for holding onto something. Static grips involve fine-tuning your grip to match the shape of the object.
The muscles that control your fingers and thumb originate in the forearm and hand, which is why farmer carries often tax your grip. Because of the overlaying nature of the small muscles in the hands, it’s impossible to isolate finger muscles for training. However, you can easily incorporate flexion exercises into your grip strength training programme to achieve the best results possible.
These might sound silly, but many hardcore lifters will agree that it’s in the nuance of small movement that real success is born.
Finger and thumb flexion and extension exercises:
- Isometric press-ups of all fingers on hard surfaces
- Rubber band flexion exercises
- Using a fingertip grip for dumbbell upright rows
- Weight plate pinching between the thumb and each finger
Pros and Cons of Using Chalk
There are four benefits to using chalk, though there are no scientific studies that provide concrete evidence that these benefits are universal across the board.
Most notably, chalk can increase performance based on the type of grip you’re using to pick up an object. Some research indicates that a pinch grip benefits the most from using chalk, which is great news for anyone trying to change out bumper plates quickly.
- Dries sweat – This is the most obvious benefit of using chalk. Dry palms mean you have a smoother grip, which helps you pull and push with greater intensity.
- Helps you pull more – Chalk acts as a second layer of grip, which in turn can lead to pulling more weight. This is also true of squats, which is why many powerlifters will chalk the back of their singlet – it helps keep the bar in place and adds another layer of friction.
- Prevents injury – The protective layer of chalk on your hands helps prevent tearing and ripping. Anyone who hasn’t tended their callouses in a while can attest that the quickest way to end a training session is with a giant tear. Chalk can help prevent that from happening, though you should always take care to keep your callouses tended.
- Maintains form – Since grip is so vital to the proper execution of a lift, chalking up your hands can help you maintain your form. Losing your grip even just a bit means the rest of your body has to compensate. Most often, this means that your joints take the brunt of the movement instead of your muscles. Chalk helps keep your grip strong and your muscles properly activated.
While it might seem like chalk is the best thing to grace a gym since electrolyte replacement drinks, the truth is that it can be a hinderance in some instances.
Having a small amount of sweat on your palms has been shown to be beneficial in maintaining your grip strength. If your hands aren’t prone to sweat, or you’re lifting in a gym that isn’t’ very warm, overly chalking your hands might decrease your grip strength and act as a lubricant instead.
Of course, this is variable based on a variety of factors, so the important thing to keep in mind is that each person is going to need to find her own amount of chalk that’s beneficial.
Should You Use Chalk All the Time?
This is a difficult question to answer. Some lifters like the feel of chalk on their hands and will invariably use it before every lift. Others suggest that you should wait to use chalk until you need it. Similar to waiting until you need a belt or knee sleeves, the idea here is that if you only use chalk before your grip feels like it might fail, then you’re not only working to improve your overall performance, but you’re also using chalk as a tool and not as a crutch.
Whether or not you choose to use chalk before every lift depends on your personal preference. Hot days, long training sessions, or humid gyms are all good times to use chalk.
But if training includes something like box jumps, GHD work, or a long rowing session, you probably don’t need to cake your palms.
Powder Chalk vs. Liquid Chalk – What’s the Difference?
There are two types of chalk – power and liquid. Using either of them comes down to messiness, function, and personal preference, along with gym rules.
Power chalk is relatively inexpensive and super messy. It leaves a cloud of white powder on just about everything when you use it. Powdered chalk can come in a compressed form, or it can be used loose. Breathing in chalk excessively has been shown to cause respiratory issues, which is the last thing you want to think about if you’re attempting a PR.
Powdered chalk or compressed chalk can be extremely useful in maximizing your grip, so your pull is strong and solid.
Powdered chalk often comes in the shape of a brick or a ball. Balls of chalk are usually coated with a thin layer of mesh to allow you to chalk your hands without getting chalk everywhere. Bricks should be used in the shape they’re manufactured, not broken into pieces.
Loose powdered chalk is often sold by the bucket.
Liquid chalk is a liquid form of chalk that does the same thing as the compressed, powdered version. You have to rub your hands together to activate the liquid, and in turn, it provides the same grip surface that comes with using powder.
There’s not much mess with liquid chalk, and it’s very easy to use – especially in gyms that have strict chalk rules. But for anyone who’s working on heavy training or sweats a lot, liquid chalk has a serious drawback –you have to reapply it more frequently than with powdered chalk. That’s definitely something to consider if your hands are prone to sweatiness or if your grip isn’t as strong as it could be.
How to Use Lifting Chalk
When using powdered chalk, take a small amount and rub it in between your palms with your hands over the chalk bucket.
If you’re using a compressed brick of chalk, rub it over your palms until both hands are sufficiently covered.
Liquid chalk requires to you rub your hands together for about thirty seconds to make it activate. Remember that liquid chalk takes some time to dry, so put it on with enough time to set before you attempt your lift.
No matter what type you use, it’s important to keep the following in mind:
- Don’t use too much. You might be tempted to chalk your hands excessively, but that’s not going to do anything except waste chalk.
- Reapply with measure. Some lifters need to reapply before each set; some might not. The number of times you need to re-chalk is going to depend on the intensity of your workout, along with the weather, humidity, and air flow in your gym.
- Clean your bar. It literally takes less than ten seconds to use a brush and scrub off your chalk. There’s no good reason ever to leave chalk on your bar, so don’t be that lifter.
What to Look for When Buying Chalk?
When buying liquid chalk, a good judge of the quality of the brand is by how much you need. If you need a portion bigger than a 20p, then the brand isn’t good, and you’re going to be wasting your money.
If your chalk feels like it’s disappearing near the end of your last few reps, then you might consider purchasing a different brand. No matter powder or liquid, it should remain on your hands pretty well (unless you happen to be lifting in a very hot desert gym or somewhere with excessive temperatures.) If you have to reapply after each set, the thickness of the chalk is subpar.
Thick chalk should feel like a think veil of coarseness on your palms. It shouldn’t feel thick because thickness will interfere with your ability to grip your bar. Keeping with that, chalk should help your grip feel more secure, even if you’re pushing a heavy volume programme like GVT. Liquid chalk should feel smooth and shouldn’t glob in places.
Some brands will offer varying grit thicknesses of their chalk. This is a great option if you’re unsure about how much accessory help you need with your grip. For athletes who routinely grip train, you might need chalk that’s more of a fine powder. If you’re just starting out, you might want chalk that’s very thick.
Look for chalk that has no excess ingredients. This means that the label shouldn’t include any fillers or artificial drying agents. Chalk doesn’t need to have pigment in it either, so steer clear of any brands that colour their chalk.
Liquid chalk is often a mixture of ingredients. It general includes a base of magnesium carbonate (which is the chemical name for chalk) along with ethanol or an alcohol that dissolves other ingredients and allows for evaporation. Because of these ingredients, liquid chalk can be irritating to some skin types. Sometimes a resin is added to liquid chalk to increase grip. Added scents are often include as well to undercut the smell of ethanol.
A Detailed Look at the Best Lifting Chalk
This chalk ball is covered in mesh, so it doesn’t make a mess on the gym floor or all of your gym gear. The mesh releases just enough chalk to cover your hands without being wasteful.
- Mess is contained fairly well, so it’s easy to use
- Mesh is a little flimsy and tears easily
- Doesn’t always dispense the right amount of chalk, so there’s a lot of reapplication
- Ball can fall apart easily after being tossed around inside a gym bag
- Feels thick on hands, so might not be the highest quality
It’s best to keep this chalk ball inside the plastic bag to avoid the mess. That can be problematic for some lifters with larger hands, so keep that in mind if you decide to purchase it.
It’s great that this Mueller chalk comes in a pack of eight and in brick form. That makes it simple to keep with you in your gym bag for whenever you might need it. The bricks hold their form and don’t crumble.
- Brick form makes it easy to use and fairly mess free
- Simple to store inside a gym bag
- Case of 8 means you won’t run out
- Lasts a long time
- Fine grain doesn’t fell thick on your hands
- Brick form makes it somewhat difficult to chalk thumb pad well
- A little overpriced for chalk
This is a great chalk if you know what you want and are accustomed to using chalk for your lifts. It comes in brick form that holds its shape even after being tossed about in a gym bag. This is a little more expensive than other options, but the fine grain makes it worth the price.
This Firstaid4sport chalk lasts a long time. It does exactly what you expect from chalk, and for the price point, it’s a great option for someone interested in exploring chalk who doesn’t want to spend too much money.
- Comes in multiple purchase options, so you can buy only what you need
- Doesn’t overly coat hands
- Doesn’t work as well as some other chalks
- Evaporates on the bar, so constant reapplication is necessary
This definitely isn’t a pro-form of chalk, since it evaporates between just about every set. You’re going to be using a lot more with this chalk than others on the market. But if you’re brand new to the world of chalk, this might be a good starting point to see if you like the feel.
This is by far one of the best chalk brands available because FrictionLabs offers varying grit strengths for all types of athletes. This chalk is completely unadulterated, so there’s no risk of overly drying your hands or damaging your skin.
- Resealable package means it’s easy to refill your chalk container
- Varying grit levels so you can find the one that works best for you
- Coverage is excellent and doesn’t require a ton of reapplication
- Doesn’t just sit on top of skin, really gets into each crevice for ultimate grip improvement
- Can be irritating to some skin types, especially if you have very dry skin or use in a cold climate
- Some athletes need a drying agent, so this brand doesn’t do what chalk should
- Finest grit isn’t always very smooth and comes with chunks of chalk in it
This is an excellent brand of chalk if you know what kind of grit you like, and you know you don’t need additional drying agents in your chalk. It’s great for overall grip improvement, but you need to be mindful to select the right grit. Because of the rice point, this isn’t the chalk for a brand-new fitness enthusiast since it’s more expensive than others on the market.
Fitness Mad is a great intermediate chalk for athletes who want to use liquid instead of powder. The added antibacterial ingredients might make you feel less worried about getting sick at a public gym.
- Only a small amount is needed to cover hands well
- Washes off fairly easily
- Doesn’t transfer to bar, so there are minimal applications needed
- Lasts a long time
- Added antibacterial ingredients mean this chalk might irritate some skin types
- Quality isn’t standard, so some bottles don’t perform as well
- Sometimes doesn’t absorb well and flakes off
- Bottle construction is flimsy
This liquid chalk comes in a large bottle, so it’s best to purchase if you know already that you like the feel and concept of using liquid instead of powder. Some of the additional ingredients might be irritating to your skin and unnecessary, so purchase with that in mind.
If you know that alcohol-based liquid chalk doesn’t irritate your skin, this is a great option. Zombie Grip comes with a handle carabiner clip that you can attach to your gym bag sop it’s always easy to find.
- Doesn’t take long to dry
- Doesn’t need a lot of reapplication
- Bottle construction is flimsy and might break inside a gym bag
- Alcohol based and the smell is very strong
- Hard to wash off
A little goes a long way with this liquid chalk. But the smell is pretty overpowering, so keep that in mind if you decide to purchase it. The carabiner that’s included with the purchase is a nice touch and since the bottle cap isn’t the strongest, it’s a good idea to use it.
This Myprotein liquid chalk comes in a large enough bottle that you can easily use it for multiple training sessions. A little goes a long way to coat your hands for your lift, making it a little easier to attempt your PRs and get through long training sessions.
- Doesn’t take very long to activate
- Lasts a decent amount of time before needing to be reapplied
- Cap gets crusty after repeated use, making it hard to expel chalk
- Strong alcohol smell
- Can be hard to wash off
- Leaves a residual smell on hands
- It’s pretty watery so it might not be effective
This Myprotein liquid chalk is okay if you’re new to liquid and want to explore the possibility of adding it to your training. It takes a while to dry and a while to wash off, so account for that when you plan your programming.
Added anti-bacterial ingredients make Boss Grip your go-to liquid chalk during cold weather months when germs are rampant. The quick dry of this liquid chalk means you’re not going to waste time waiting for it to be activated. It dries in seconds and gets you on with your lift.
- Cap can become clogged over time
- Large bottle size will last for months of workouts
- Anti-bacterial ingredients might be irritating to some skin types
- Bottle has to be shaken before each use
- Chalk can flake and make a mess
Boss Grip makes a decent liquid chalk that lasts for the duration of most training sessions and stays in place. It’s relatively easy to get off once you’re training is complete and doesn’t have a terrible alcohol smell.
upAgear has conveniently created multiple sized bottles of liquid chalk to best suit your needs. This makes it simple to select what’s appropriate for your workouts. It’s clear, so there’s no tell-tale white chalk colour all over your hands.
- Coats hands completely
- Quality isn’t the best
- Requires multiple applications during one training session
- Very drying and abrasive on hands – will need a moisturizer after using
- Cap doesn’t close all the way, leaving the chalk to dry out
That the makers of upAgear liquid chalk think athletes might need a user guide to use their chalk isn’t very comforting. Even more alarming is the fact that it’s suggested that multiple applications will be needed during training. So this isn’t the best value for the money, considering how much you’ll end up using during one workout.
Using chalk can be a little messy but its benefits are well worth the eventual clean up that will follow. Lifting chalk can help improve your grip, maintain form, and might help prevent injury. When you’re ready to take your lifting to the next level, consider adding in chalk. Both in liquid and brick form, its benefits far outweigh the cons.
Just remember that your grip is only going to be as strong as the muscles in your hands, wrist, and forearm. Programme appropriately and include training that helps strengthen these areas – battle ropes, grip strengtheners, and rowing can all help you develop the raw strength you need to pull heavy.