Why gymnasts use chalk and grips on the uneven bars.

By Maggie Astor

If you spend any amount of time in gymnastics facilities, you grow accustomed to the smell of chalk.

It’s everywhere — in buckets by the uneven bars, on the bars themselves, on the mats, on hands and feet and leotards. It gets in your hair. It gets in your eyes. You get used to it.

Gymnasts use chalk because of the other thing you grow accustomed to smelling in gymnastics facilities: sweat. The chalk in question is made of magnesium carbonate — distinct from the calcium carbonate of classroom chalk — and it helps keep gymnasts’ hands dry.

That’s particularly important on the uneven bars, where one of the scariest and most dangerous things that can happen is “peeling off” — having your hands slip off the bar while swinging, sending you flying. (Here’s an example from the 2004 Olympian Courtney McCool. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt.)

Along with chalk, most gymnasts use leather hand grips while competing on bars because they help reduce blistering and tearing. The grips high-level gymnasts use have a narrow rod called a dowel that rests horizontally across the fingers, providing a firmer hold on the bar. They’re secured by wrist straps and two or three finger holes.

Some gymnasts choose not to use grips because they are more comfortable having their hands in direct contact with the bar. Svetlana Khorkina of Russia, the Olympic champion on bars at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, didn’t use them, and some Chinese gymnasts don’t either. But that’s uncommon, because let’s face it, who wants patches of skin ripping off their palms?

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