Why Do Powerlifters Chalk Their Legs? (It’s Not Actually Chalk)

If you have ever watched a powerlifting competition, you may have noticed that many of the athletes have a white powder applied over their legs and thighs when they deadlift.

So, why do powerlifters chalk their legs? The white powder on their legs is not chalk, but rather, another white substance called talcum powder, which is commonly known as baby powder. Powerlifters use baby powder on their legs because it helps reduce the friction of the bar as it rubs against their legs. As a result, the lift becomes easier because the barbell isn’t ‘sticking’ to their thighs.

In fact, it would be a terrible idea to put chalk on your legs while deadlifting because chalk serves to ‘grip the barbell’, which would increase (not decrease) the friction and make the lift harder. In this article, we’ll discuss the ways powerlifters use chalk and baby powder differently; what ‘reducing friction’ actually means; and, if you decide to use baby powder on your legs, how to do it properly.

Chalk vs. Baby Powder

Powerlifters use both chalk and baby powder, so it’s important to know when and why each is used.

Chalk is more commonly associated with barbell sports, such as CrossFit, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting. The reason is that when athletes exercise their hands will become sweaty and lose grip on the barbell. In the deadlift, it doesn’t matter how strong your back or legs are if you can’t hold onto the barbell to finish the lift. Chalk can improve a lifter’s grip on the barbell by increasing friction, and getting rid of the ‘sweaty palm’ that happens when exercising. This is why you’ll see lifters putting an excessive amount of chalk on their hands and fingers before lifting a maximal weight.

Chalk on hands when lifting weights
Chalk on hands when lifting weights

Unlike chalk, baby powder is only associated with powerlifting, and no other barbell sports use it to gain an advantage. Baby powder does the opposite of chalk in that it makes the barbell feel slippery. This is why athletes do not use baby powder on their hands, but rather, on their legs. Many powerlifters say that after applying baby powder to their legs that the bar slides more easily across their bodies.

Baby powder on legs when lifting weights
Baby powder on legs when lifting weights

I remember coaching a group of first-time powerlifters at a competition who came up to me prior to their deadlift saying that they saw some other powerlifters applying chalk on their legs, and they too had applied chalk to their legs. My reaction was a mix of amusement and horror as I had to explain to them that the white powder was baby powder, not chalk, and that the chalk on their legs would make the lift harder. We were able to remedy the situation by wiping off the chalk and applying baby powder to their legs before lifting.

Takeaway: powerlifters use chalk on their hands and baby powder on their legs.

The #1 Reason To Use Baby Powder: It Reduces Friction When Deadlifting

When we deadlift, the force exerted on the bar is in two directions:

(1) We generate force to drive the bar upwards. In fact, the competition rules for deadlift state that the bar must continue to travel upwards without a downward movement for the lift to qualify as successful.

(2) We also generate horizontal force to maintain the bar as close to our bodies as possible. If we don’t have the bar on our shins and thighs throughout the movement, then the lift becomes increasingly more difficult to overcome the horizontal forces on the barbell trying to pull you forward.

Baby powder on legs reduces the friction of barbell
Baby powder on legs reduces the friction of the barbell

For these reasons, it’s important to reduce the amount of friction on the barbell as it makes contact with our bodies so that it can continue to travel upward (without any downward motion as per the rules).

For the deadlift event only, competitive powerlifters are required to wear socks all the way up to just below their knee when they compete. This is because the bar has rough knurling that can lead to adhesions of the shin and thigh, potentially causing a lifter to bleed. No one wants to see blood on the bar, which is why socks are required.

Therefore, carefully applying baby powder to the portions of the sock and leg where the bar makes contact will reduce the potential friction from the knurling, while also helping to prevent adhesions to the shin.

Applying Baby Powder Is Different Based On Your Style Of Deadlift (Conventional or Sumo)

In the conventional deadlift, the lifter applies baby powder:

  • Over the front of their shin
  • Over their sock
  • Over the transition from sock to the knee
  • On the thigh
  • Over the transition area where the thigh meets their singlet
  • On their singlet on the upper thigh
Baby powder on every aspect of the leg
Baby powder on every aspect of the leg when conventional deadlifting

In the sumo deadlift, the baby powder should cover the same areas; however, it should be applied more on the inside of the leg and inner thigh.

Baby powder on the inside of the thigh when sumo deadlifting
Baby powder on the inside of the thigh when sumo deadlifting

Additional consideration specific to sumo deadlifting is that the lifter’s hand will also pass up and along the inner thigh. This is especially true with lifters who use a mixed grip where one hand is up and the other hand is down. So baby powder should cover both where the bar and the lifter’s hand make contact.

What Is The Scientific Evidence For Wearing Baby Powder While Deadlifting?

To date, there are no studies examining whether baby powder reduces the friction between the bar and the lifters body specifically in powerlifting. However, there are studies showing it reduces friction in other contexts so we can use logic to extrapolate these findings for powerlifting.

Another potential mechanism by which baby powder works may be the powerful effect of placebo and/or the benefit of a psychological routine. If a lifter thinks that baby powder is going to have a positive effect, then it probably will.

It has also been demonstrated that a lifter having a set routine or pre-lifting ritual, which can include the application of baby powder, can help reduce anxiety and increase confidence.

Practical Considerations When Using Baby Powder For Deadlifts

Here are 5 practical considerations when using baby powder on your legs for deadlifts:

1. Remember to Pack Your Baby Powder

Make sure to pack your talc into your training or competition bag. You don’t want to arrive at your meet that you have been preparing for months or years to find you are expecting to have talc and used to it and have forgotten it. This could throw off your lift or mindset.

2. Apply The Baby Powder Carefully So That You Don’t Get It on Your Hands

Apply your talc carefully so that you don’t get it on your hands, as this could make them slippery and reduce your ability to maintain a firm grip on the bar during the lift. A better strategy is to have your coach carefully apply your talc for you and keep your hands clear of the application process and finished product.

3. Be Considerate of The Gym or Competition Venue

Baby powder is messy. When you are competing, it may not be your primary concern what state the venue is left afterward but it’s good etiquette to not make a total mess all over the floor. Typically, there is a designated area for applying powder, or sometimes you have the option to go outside. Spreading a towel over the floor can also be helpful.

4. Wipe Your Feet

Take care not to step in the talc when you go out to deadlift. You don’t want to risk slipping on the platform. If you do accidentally step in baby powder, wipe your shoes with a wet towel.

Sometimes the platform which is usually covered in the carpet at meets can get slippery from baby powder, so take your time when setting up and wipe your feet again if you need to.

5. Be Wary of Accidental Contamination or Sabotage

Generally speaking, Powerlifting is a friendly sport with great sportspersonship and camaraderie. There was only one competition, which happened to be at a World Championships, where I remember lifters cautioning other lifters not to use the chalk in the bucket as it seemed to be contaminated with baby powder, making their handgrip slippery. Never ever enter into the realm of bad sportspersonship or accidentally mix up your baby powder and chalk.

Final Thoughts

Powerlifters apply baby powder, not chalk, to their legs for deadlifts only, not just to look more hardcore on the platform, but to reduce the friction of the bar along their body and clothing, reducing the chance of adhesions, often resulting in a smoother upwards lift.

References

Comaish, S., Bottoms, E. 1971. The Skin And Friction: Deviations From Amonton’s Laws, And The Effects of Hydration And Lubrication. British Journal of Dermatology, 84(1): https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2133.1971.tb14194.x