Chalk is chalk...or is it? To the novice, a block of gym chalk or a bucket of powder may provide comparable results - enough dry friction to hold on - but more experienced souls know that not all chalk is created equal.
Magnesium Carbonate is an inorganic salt that is insoluble in water. It is typically mined from magnesite or dolomite rock. Its anhydrous property is what makes it so perfect for weightlifting, rock climbing, and gymnastics - when you can’t afford to have your grip fail. The ionic bond between Magnesium and CO3 is stronger than the energy released when hydrated in solution. This is why chalk is the ideal compound to dry sweat and increase friction between your hand and whatever your hand is holding - whether that's a kettlebell, barbell, pull up bar or rock hold.
So what makes one chalk better than the other? It all boils down to two factors: style and composition. We already said that chalk is MgCO3, so how could composition matter? Some low-quality chalks have calcium and other “impurities” such as silica, iron, and copper. Chalk with too many impurities could feel slippery or not stick to the hands. The trigonal crystal size can also change the feel and efficacy of the chalk. Making chalk is similar to baking a cake. You’ll know that you can have all the same ingredients in a batter, but if you don’t prepare them in the correct order or bake them at the correct temperature, you will wind up with vastly different end products. No one wants to eat a cake that isn't the right consistency.
So if you’ve prepped your “cake” properly, you will end up with one large compressed block of chalk. That block can be cut into smaller blocks, crushed into chunks, or ground into a fine powder. Fine powder can then be dissolved in alcohol to make liquid chalk, which dries on your hands as the alcohol evaporates. The type of chalk that works best for you will depend on your personal preference.
Kettlebell Sport competitors tend to prefer the chunk style chalk so that they can rub a thick “fur” coat on the kettlebell handle, allowing the chalk to last through a full ten minute set. Weightlifters, powerlifters and strongmen tend to prefer block chalk so they can rub a nice even coat on their hands, forearms or back of their shirt. Rock climbers tend to like fine powder so they can easily dust up their fingers while mid-climb. Liquid chalk tends to have the best staying power and is particularly useful in big box gyms where chalk powder messes are frowned upon. Many athletes use liquid chalk as a base coat and then re-apply as necessary with their solid version preference. The best of both worlds!
The Two Chalk Substitute Mistakes That Will Ruin Your Day
#1 School Chalk
School chalk (or sidewalk chalk) is meant for the chalkboard, not the gym. School chalk becomes very slippery as soon as it gets wet. That’s because school chalk is actually Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) and is water soluble. It will NOT help keep your hands dry and it won't help your grip.
#2 Baby Powder
Baby powder is made of either talcum powder or cornstarch. Talc is actually used as a lubricant, and baby powder is often combined with cornstarch. Cornstarch is used as an anti-stick on medical products, so it’s not something you want to use for friction. Baby powder in the gym will help the bar slide up your thighs during a deadlift, but keep it far away from your chalk and don’t get them mixed up. Unless of course, you're looking for a slippery grip.