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What, When, Why: Chalk

If you’re a gym owner, you probably hate it. If you’re an athlete, you probably bathe in it (my coach’s bias is clear.) If you’re LeBron James you do this cool little pre-game ritual thing with it. It’s… chalk! Seen in elementary schools and CrossFit gyms across the world, chalk is an invaluable tool that is often misused. Let’s take a deeper dive into the structure and function of every CrossFitter’s favorite fine white powder (uh, I hope!)

What

Says Wikipedia: Chalk ( /ˈtʃɔːk/) is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite. Calcite is an ionic salt called calcium carbonate or CaCO₃. Most chalk used in CrossFit gyms is made from Magnesium Carbonate

Chalk is a rock, crushed into granules so incredibly fine that they feel almost soft when held in the hand. The use of chalk in CrossFit gyms was a carryover from the rock climbing world- if you have ever climbed or seen climbers you may have noticed that they often clip a small bag with chalk in it to their belts.  Since then, it’s been adopted by gymnasts, powerlifters, and competitive exercisers alike.

Chalk can come in a few forms- block, loose, or liquid. Block chalk comes in a big square that is broken apart or rubbed directly onto the skin. While it takes a very small bit of work, block chalk allows you to achieve a preferred consistency each time. Some companies pre-pulverize their chalk into loose form, which usually makes it softer and smoother (sometimes to fine for some people’s tastes) and quicker to apply. Liquid chalk is relatively newer creation- it’s just magnesium carbonate mixed with alcohol- you squirt it on your skin and it leaves a chalky residue as it dries. While liquid chalk is very easy to use it’s the least “customizable” as far as consistency goes.

My personal fave is Primo Chalk, an Austin based company that adds some natural herbs and oils to their mix to make the chalk smell better, feel better, and have some medicinal/anti-microbial properties.

Why

What climbers and CrossFitters have found is that moisture is the enemy when it comes to their sport. Your body produces natural secretions, oils, sweat, etc. and when it’s hot and you’re working hard you tend to produce more. Especially in a pursuit with a big metabolic aspect, like CrossFit, sweat tends to be the main culprit. Sweaty hands make it harder to grip a barbell or kettlebell or to stay on a pull-up bar. Chalk helps absorb some of that moisture and give the hands a uniform gripping surface.

Different bodies secrete slightly differently. Are you that “sweaty dude” at your gym? Then you probably want to take lots of trips to the chalk bucket. Conversely, if you are a light sweat-er you may find you don’t need much chalk at all.

When

This is fairly straightforward- use chalk when your hands are sweaty and you feel like it is compromising your grip. Hot days, long workouts, and pieces with lots of grippy elements are all times when you might want to head to the chalk bucket. Rub a little on your hands, and for your coach’s sanity please keep it in the bucket. Get a nice even consistency and do work, son. You don’t need to keep reapplying- just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not working.  Barbell and kettlebell work, any movement done hanging from a pullup bar, really anything where your hands are holding something that doesn’t want to be held- chalk up.

Just as important is when NOT to use chalk. Do not use chalk when your hands are not in use.  If you chalk for box jumps or situps, you are a jabroni.  Do not use chalk before every lift, every time you touch a pullup bar, or every time you need a rest. Chalk can become a mental crutch, a ritual of sorts that you feel you need to complete or your whole mojo is off. Don’t let that happen. I’ve seen athletes with four pullups left in Fran head for a chalk bucket and I almost tackled them- deal with it and finish! Use chalk when you feel like you really can’t hold on, or when you already need to rest, and be honest with yourself.

And for God’s sake, don’t be LeBron. Your gym owner will thank you.

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