Lifting Chalk Guide: Application, Benefits, Liquid Chalk, & More
What Does Lifting Chalk Do?
Any of you who tried to deadlift in a hot, humid environment know that maintaining your grip on the bar becomes increasingly difficult as you sweat more and more. Gym chalk can help.
Lifting chalk is magnesium carbonate (MgCO3). This substance helps absorb moisture, and in the context of barbell lifts, absorbing sweat improves the connection between your hands and the barbell, preventing blisters and effectively strengthening your grip. For similar reasons, rock climbers use this to help their grip for climbing.
Magnesium carbonate actually has some properties of a dry lubricant, not unlike talc, but force intensities of gripping in barbell training negate the powder’s sliding particles between your fingers. Also, the barbell’s knurl helps negate the potential lubricity of chalk powder. A smooth and flat surface would provide more contact area between your hand and the small dusty chalk particles, but the knurling reduces that surface contact area, negating at least some of its lubricating properties. (See Cadoret and Smith, “Friction, Not Texture, Dictates Grip Forces Used During Object Manipulation,” Journal of Neurophysiology, Vol. 75 No. 5 (1996).) So, unlike talc or baby powder, it won’t cause the bar to slip in your hands.
How To Apply Chalk
You can buy blocks of chalk, and we recommend keeping your chalk in its original block as opposed to crushing it into powder (and definitely don’t do this to someone else’s chalk–major gym faux pas).
To apply it to your hands, pain the portions of your hands with which the bar likely will come into contact. This means the palms of your hands and fingers, but also the webbing between your thumb and forefinger.
Quickly rub your hands (think “wash your hands”) to ensure it’s evenly coated, and Matt also likes to do a small clap over the bowl to get any excess chalk off his hands.
Chalk will build up on in the knurling of your bars, so have a brush and ensure you brush the chalk out of the knurling of your barbell.
To store your chalk, companies offer convenient containers that hold the chalk roughly at waist height. Alternatives are a home improvement bucket or plastic food storage container.
Lifting Chalk for Pulling & Pressing Movements
The first movement you’ll need chalk for is the deadlift. After awhile, grip will become the limiting factor with the deadlift, and chalk effectively strengthens your grip, allowing you to lift more weight.
If grip limits the weight on the bar for the deadlift, we aren’t training the muscles of the posterior chain–hamstrings, glutes, adductors–like we’d like to. Rather, the smaller muscles in the forearm that contribute to grip are getting stressed.
Chalk allows you to grip the bar better and lift more weight. Along with a hook grip or reverse grip and using a double overhand grip on your warm ups sets, you still strengthen your grip while effectively training your posterior chain muscles.
This really applies to all heavy pulling movements–rows and Olympic lifts–as your arms are in tension and gravity is causing the bar to want to slip out of your grip. It also helps with exercises like chin-ups and pull-ups.
For pressing movements, your arms are in compression not tension, so grip is not the limiting factor, but your hands are grasping the bar. Chalk allows a more secure grip and helps prevents calluses from training.
Squatting & Chalking
For squats and any other lifts you might do with the bar on your back (good mornings, lunges), we want to ensure the bar sits securely in the proper rack position (for low bar squat beneath the spine of the scapula on your rear deltoids).
You have two options to apply chalk for a squat. One is to have a buddy (or you can awkwardly attempt this yourself) chalk your t-shirt where the bar goes during your squat sets. Two is to apply extra chalk to your hands and then chalk the bar where it will come in contact with your upper back.
This helps more in hot and humid environments, where you’ll sweat through your shirt.
Gyms, Travel, & Liquid Chalk
Good gyms will not only allow chalk but will provide chalk, but we know that you cannot always lift in good gyms. You might have to go to a gym that prohibits chalk (though if you have the option, go with the gym that at least allows chalk).
Liquid chalk still has magnesium carbonate but in liquid form. It contains alcohol, which dries quickly. You apply the liquid to your hand and it dries and leaves MgCO3 your hands to help with grip.
Another option is to pack a block of chalk in a small plastic food container. You can discretely paint the chalk on your hands in your lifting bag and wipe your hands together).