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Gym chalk leaves a distinct trail.
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
Before mounting the uneven bars, gymnasts generally engage in a ritual known as "chalking up." The loose chalk powder they rub on the palms of their hands is designed to boost performance quality and protect the skin. Notoriously messy, gym chalk tends to travel around the training area, leaving a visible trail. During training and competitions, chalk fills the air, settles on equipment and covers exposed areas of gymnasts' bodies, including the legs.
Gymnastics -- or gym -- chalk is composed of magnesium carbonate, which explains why some gymnasts refer to chalk as "mag." Gym chalk is inexpensive and readily available in the form of small blocks, sock-like bags of powder or loose, soft powder. Chalk works by whisking sweat and other moisture away from the skin. The powder absorbs moisture and leaves the palms and fingers dry, which improves hand grip and helps reduce friction. When applied to the hands, chalk enables a gymnast's hands to rotate smoothly around the uneven bars, which improves performance quality and helps prevent the skin on her hands from tearing.
When a gymnast "chalks up," she dips her hands into a deep bowl filled with chalk. She scoops up handfuls of chalk powder -- or rubs her hands with a block of chalk -- to cover her palms and fingers with the powdery white substance. If she wants more gripping power for the balance beam, she might also apply chalk to her feet . If a gymnast has visible chalk on her legs, it's likely she wiped excess chalk on her thighs, shins or calves after chalking up her hands or feet. Or her legs might have brushed or pressed against the chalky residue left on equipment by her own hands. Because chalk collects on mats, bars, vaults and balance beams, it easily spreads to other parts of a gymnast's body.
Gymnasts aren't alone in their use of chalk. Appreciating its beneficial drying power, John Gill -- a former gymnast -- introduced gym chalk to the rock climbing community in the 1950s. Other athletes -- including weight lifters, rock wall climbers and individuals involved in throwing sports -- regularly rub chalk on their hands to ensure a more secure grip. By reducing hand slippage, chalk lets athletes maintain their grip, which leads to longer and potentially more productive training sessions. Recognizing how messy and environmentally unfriendly chalk is, however, some gyms and climbing areas have outlawed its use.
Getting a Grip on Safety
As indispensable as chalk is for gymnastics training and competitions, those who are responsible for gym upkeep must ensure that equipment -- including mats, balance beams, vaults, trampolines and uneven parallel bars -- don't have an excess build-up of chalk dust. Heavy use of chalk on and near gymnastics equipment can cause layers of chalk residue to accumulate over time, which can have a negative impact on safety.