Most of us have been there when doing lifting weights. You might be doing barbell shrugs or Romanian deadlifts and your fingers start to slip and our grip loosens.
It’s not that the target muscle (traps or hamstrings in these two cases) have been over-fatigued, it’s just that our grip is slipping due to moisture on your hands!
Weight lifting chalk is the savour to remove the moisture from sweaty palms and help create a grip of steel.
Let’s take a look at exactly what lifting chalk is, what it’s made of and when chalk should be used in the gym.
What is lifting chalk?
Lifting chalk can go by various different names, such as gym chalk, weightlifting chalk or liquid chalk. All these terms are one and the same thing.
Lifting chalk is used in the gym by weight lifters to improve grip strength by removing moisture on the palms of your hands and fingers. Less moisture results in a more secure grip and the ability to lift more weight or perform more reps.
Lifting chalk that people use in the gym is the same stuff that is used by climbers and gymnasts to get the same effect.
There are two main forms of gym chalk:
- A block of solid dry chalk
- Liquid chalk
For my weight training, I prefer liquid chalk.
Liquid chalk is much easier to spread out evenly across your hands, causes less mess, seems to last longer and will dry your whole hands out in around 10 seconds.
If you’ve ever seen people blowing on their hands in the gym or wafting them around, they’ll probably be drying out their liquid chalk. And yes, you can still get that little puff of dust when you rub your hands together when the talk is dry to give you that proper weightlifting feel!
What is weightlifting chalk made of? How does it work?
Liquid chalk is a mixture of ingredients, primarily magnesium carbonate and a form of alcohol, such as isopropyl (the same type of alcohol used in antibacterial hand gels).
Lifting chalk works to improve your grip by removing the moisture from your hands. Once the liquid chalk is applied to and spread across your hands, the alcohol firstly helps disrupt the water molecule bonds before both can evaporate off due to the warmth of your hands.
When the alcohol and moisture has evaporated, white chalk is left behind. Unlike teacher’s chalk, pure magnesium carbonate is insoluble in water meaning it won’t disappear or become mushy at the slightest sign of moisture, making it ideal for a better grip.
However, the very clever formula of liquid chalks mean that it will completely wash out at the end of your workout when you wash your hands.
What does lifting chalk do? Does chalk help grip?
Absolutely, lifting chalk helps your grip. The main function of gym chalk is to help you maximise your lifts by giving you more friction when gripping a weight.
This could be a muscular failure where the primary griping muscles of the hands and forearms (extensor digitorum, extensor pollicis longus and brevis, flexor digitorum superficialis and profundus) can’t grip any further or because of slippage due to sweat.
With muscular failure, lifting chalk isn’t going to help. This is all about the biochemical happenings and energy pathways within your muscles.
But in the more common case where you’ve got sweaty hands, this is where lifting chalk works its magic.
A study by Bacon et al in 2018 found that 100% magnesium carbonate helped improve weight-assisted pull up performance in 9 individuals by about 16% compared to no chalk.
What is lifting chalk used for?
At the gym, lifting chalk is used when you are weight training, strength training or Olympic weightlifting.
It’s primarily used when lifting heavy weights (relative to your own strength limits of course) when grip strength can become a limiting factor or when your hands are too sweaty to maintain a firm grip of the weight. If you weight train in the morning, chalk can often come in handy if your grip is not quite up to speed due to neuromuscular activity.
As weightlifting chalk is synonymous with grip, and grip strength is equally linked to pulling exercises, gym chalk is more often than not utilised with big pull exercises, such as:
- Barbell row
- Pull ups or chin ups
- Lat pulldown
- Seated row
With these exercises, you don’t want a loss of grip to be the cause of failure as you won’t be training the target muscles to their maximum capacity. This is the reason why weight lifters aid their grip strength through the use of lifting chalk.
For some exercises though, you may be targeting your grip specifically to make improvements. Exercises such as farmer’s walks and dead hangs are used to actively train grip strength. In this instance, you or may not want to use gym chalk.
The reason for both answers is that chalk will make the exercise easier on your grip, which you are wanting to train. The natural route with no chalk will test your true grip strength. However, exceptions are common when you want to push your limits with a little help first to get your muscles and the neural pathways used to a certain weight or time under tension.
This is exactly the same type of sentiment as getting a spotter to help you with an extra rep or two when your muscles are close to failure or leaning back when you’re trying to get that last barbell curl up Arnold style. These ‘techniques’ and strategies should of course be used sparingly in order to be maximally effective.
Lifting chalk is also used by lifters performing Olympic weightlifting moves. During the complex movements of the snatch and clean and jerk, any sort of loose grip can cause a rep failure at best or potential for an injury at worst. Chalk, mostly solid dry chalk by weightlifters on stage, aids in the same way during the pulling part of the lift when getting the barbell up off the ground and above the hips.
When gym chalk isn’t necessary in the gym
Lifting chalk isn’t necessary for push movements like bench press, military press, incline dumbbells and such because your grip isn’t a limiting factor. It also goes without saying that you don’t need to use chalk for exercises such as the back squat, leg extensions, calf raises and abs!
I’d like to add an exemption though when I use lifting chalk which would probably be frowned upon!
I sometimes use lifting chalk on exercises where grip strength isn’t being tested. However, I only do this when my palms are sweaty or have moisture on them. Even on exercises like a dumbbell bench press, sweaty palms are not wanted as they cause unnecessary grip and stability issues, especially when you’ve got two fairly heavy weights above your head!
If this is the case and I’ve got sweaty palms, I put a dot of liquid chalk on my palms, rub in, let it dry and I’m good to go. This gym chalk helps to soak up this moisture to give you a much firmer grip and prevent the barbell, dumbbell or whatever weight you are lifting, from shifting in your hand.