Palm Reader

Hey, have you been doing your upper-body work? This is still the year of the Upper Body, is it not? And it’s a good thing too because this article just came out: Why Women Can’t Do Pull-ups.

My commentary from our Facebook page: Just in case you saw this (ladies) and believe that you are genetically designed NOT to be able to do a pull-up, sorry. How many kinesiologists think that the human body can improve a life-long hole in a strength-to-weight ratio in 12 weeks of thrice-weekly exercises while attempting to lose mass and doing general upper-body exercises? And the leverage argument? Sorry again. Sure, it’s more difficult to fill the strength deficit, but that’s all. Long arms do not equal a genetic out. But if you’ve got long limbs it is waaay better to not let your strength go as a kid cuz it does take more work which means more food to fuel more work=bonus.

Everyone knows (hopefully) that the reason you exercise is to adapt the tissues of your body. The body does not adapt in general, however. Meaning that just because you have a few strong areas does not mean that you are strong all over. You can still have an Achilles heel. A weak spot. Missing scales on a dragon’s left breast plate that are easily penetrated by an arrow shot by one Bilbo Baggins (P.S. Commenting on that last reference will only out you as a huge nerd, which only makes me love you more). But guess what, this post is not about a pull-up. It’s about skin. And not just any skin. Weak skin.

There are lots of visual signs you can learn to read that give you insight into how you use your body and calluses are one of them. A lack of calluses is also a sign. Take a look at your hands and read the story your body is telling. Do you see evidence of your lifelong habits?

Believe it or not, when it comes to closing the upper-body strength gap, what gets in most people’s way is the weakness of their skin. Skin does not have muscle, but it actively thickens over time in response to different types of loading. Skin can adapt to pressure, but what really makes it thicken into a callus is a shear force.

A shear force is when one tissue (in this case, the skin) is pulled in opposing directions. Consider the palm of your hand while hanging:

You can see that the hand, sliding (even slightly) around the bar creates a shear force on the palm. But if you take a closer look at the layers of skin, the shear force is really between the topmost and subsequent layers of the skin:

When you take super-unloaded skin (that’s skin that hasn’t done a lick of work in its entire life) and load your body weight onto it, this shear force often rips the fresh skin. Viola! You’ve just made either a flesh wound or a blister. These are both signs that you tried to jump the skin-strength gap a little quickly. Ideally your skin would have been gently loaded throughout a lifetime, when you weighed less and “hung around” more frequently.

Callused skin is actually an area of strength in skin that has much better circulation than other areas and are a necessary part of the kinetic chain when it comes to movement. But wait! You thought that a callus was something that was unhealthy, right? When you get a little callus, because of repeated friction (like a corn on your toe or a tiny area of callus on the sole of your foot), this small patch of “health” becomes like a rock in a shoe (or a pea under a mattress if you’re a princess). Ideally, calluses should be developed widely — across the entire palmar surfaces of the hands and feet. We need strength in these tissues to really optimize the whole-body strength actions of both the upper and lower body.

And, now that you know how skin works, you can probably answer this reader’s question about his feet:

I’m trying to spend more time walking barefoot, but my feet are sooooo sensitive. Every little pebble, rock, or pillbug is a problem for me. The muscles of my feet don’t mind going barefoot, but it’s torture to the skin. It’s like The Princess and the Pea, but with walking instead of sleeping.

When I was a kid, I went barefoot all the time, even spending a year in Borneo without a pair of shoes. I remember being barefoot without issues until 12 or 13, then it’s a blur… What has happened to me? How can I get that back?

Dear Princess-Footed Sir,

What has happened to you is this: your skin has atrophied since those barefoot in Borneo days of yesteryear. Just like your body does not maintain unused muscle, the body will let skin atrophy if the skin itself is not loaded. My guess is the last 20-something years of keeping the foot skin tension and traction-free means that even with the arms, legs and torso of a god, it appears you literally have the foot-skin of a little wuss.

But why take my word for it when you could take my book’s word for it instead? Here’s a swiped paragraph (because I’m too lazy to write it out again…):

“The optimal way for getting super-regenerating skin would be to allow our foot to interact with natural surfaces outside of the shoe over a lifetime, prompting a slow adaptation in foot skin thickness over that lifetime, giving us a much better ability to cope with the sensations caused by walking barefoot.” – Katy Bowman, Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief.

Familiar with “a bed of nails”? I’m not going to explain how it works (you can read about it here), but basically the lack of a full-footed callus means everything you step on creates a higher amount of pressure. Everything you step on acts like a single nail.

If you were appropriately callused for your weight and environment, everything you stepped on wouldn’t hurt as much because you’d be distributing the pressure.

Now for those of you who email me, sending pictures of your blisters and jacked up feet following “the time you thought it would be fun to go barefoot for a 5K with minimal training,” here’s the skinny on surfaces.

I am a much bigger fan of natural surfaces when it comes to bare feet because the skin often takes a much greater beating on man-made stuff. This doesn’t have to do with the hardness of the surface, but how a surface is connected to itself.

Natural surfaces are not fused. The top layers move freely over the lower layers. So when you’re walking or running and push back to move forward, there is much less shear force on the skin because a tiny portion of the top layer of the ground moves back with the foot.

Man-made surfaces are firmly connected throughout and increase the tension and shear on the skin. And, when the surface is porous, like asphalt, it can act like teeth grabbing into the skin. Not a place to begin your barefoot habits.

In case you were wondering why these pictures are so crappy? I only had one hand to draw them with.

And in case you were wondering if I lead a glamorous life? I was pantsed by my 18-month old while drawing pictures with one hand.

 

 

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22 Comments

  1. Cydney says:

    LOL, literally, at that last photo… I almost spit out my water. I can just see this happening to me in a month or so, because my 19-month-old will grab my pants and try to climb me when my hands are full… but I can much more easily set down a bag of groceries, to prevent a pantsing, than I’ll be able to set down a newborn.

  2. Bethany says:

    I have nothing useful to say, but this post was so awesome in so many ways–I just had to say thanks!

  3. deb says:

    Seriously? Am I so much of a nerd that I don’t even realize that being a Tolkien fan makes me a nerd? Did you see my Halloween costume, BTW? I do know that I *am* a nerd… And I love the drawings and the glimpse of little yawn. More seriously, my biggest callous issue lately has been with my ring finger. For a while I was taking off the ring to hang and swing, then started leaving them on and it was mostly OK, and then, it seems like maybe the calluses got just a little too big and my non-callused skin started getting pinched between the callus and the ring. Make sense? Is it just better to go ringless or if I stick with it will the surrounding skin adapt? I guess I’m keeping the skin under the ring from callusing, so maybe it won’t ever really adapt? Perhaps too many question marks?

    • Katy says:

      OOooooh, I totally know that between the ring callus pinch. I’ve just got into the habit of taking my rings off before doing the “on-on” as we call it here. I don’t think you’ll ever get an adaptation because there will always be varying pressure where there is and is not a ring — if that makes sense ;) NO, I didn’t see your costume, but I wanna!

  4. Stacy says:

    Thank you for this post Katy- I have wondered about this. I am struggling right now with walking as several times (while wearing Sockwas walking on natural surfaces) I have stepped on a rock just the right size and bruised my heel. Then it hurts to walk for a week or so and I have to back off and get into a thicker soled shoe. Will I build up a callus wearing thin soled shoes like Sockwas or does it have to be completely barefoot? And is it all about the skin callus or will the fat layer build up too? I have heard about fat pad atrophy as a common source of heel pain and wondered what your take on that is. Conventional thinking is that the fat pad deteriorates after 40 and that you can’t get it back- but of course I question that!
    Love the picture of being “pantsed”- that is awesome!!

    • Katy says:

      A callus really needs friction, so not likely in a Sockwa (unless you’re slipping around!) Yes, fat, in general, seems to wane as people get older, but I believe this is a more whole-body phenomenon that has more to do with personal body use and nutritional intake over a lifetime. Of course, if we haven’t used our fat-pad to cushion, it makes sense that it goes away over time. This is a long answer for “I don’t know” :)

      I’ve got my pants back on now!

  5. Marinda says:

    Katy
    very interesting post…. I have significant callouses on the bottoms of my feet and have been totally ashamed by the appearance of my feet my whole life. I love to go barefoot, which increases the callous formation. I teach yoga, so I “show” my feet a lot, and I’m so embarrassed by my feet!
    Do I have to just get over it?

  6. Yvonne says:

    Awesome post! Thanks Katy! Love the pictures too. :) I always wondered why asphalt gave me worse blisters than cement and cement worse blisters than gravel while walking barefoot.

  7. rosie_kate says:

    Wow… the outright boldness of posting a photo of yourself with your pants down on the internet… Hilarious! Toddlers really are something else. I have two of them, so I can relate.

  8. joann says:

    From the title, I was hoping for insight into the fat pad mentioned above by Stacy. My heel isn’t the worst of it. It is everywhere, including the hands during work on the bar, of course. After reviewing the Female Physics Webinar, I was thinking it is part of the decompensation effect from adrenal fatigue. Anyway, it is a drag and I will worry about it more when I conquer my bow legs, osteopenia, arthritis… The good news is the back pain I had for years is much diminished and I think it must be improved belly relaxation and ribs down. Time for another set of leg squeezes. Love you Katy. Happy mothering!

  9. Louise says:

    I was given a accupressure mat for my birthday. I quite enjoy stepping on it and shifting my weight to feel the sensation all around my feet. I used it as a party trick also. I stepped on it when a new friend came in and I said “you must try this it is so nice on the feet”. There reaction was very funny. shock and horror and a big yelp! The more you use it the more pleasant it is.
    Have you stepped on one Katy?

  10. Bria says:

    As usual, you have perfect timing! My mom and I were just discussing calluses. We’ve been wanting to go out and hang on some monkey bars, but she says that the pain in her hands always holds her back since she doesn’t have calluses built up on them. Looks like we’re just going to take it little by little. Every time that I get on the monkey bars, I find that my calluses build up again pretty quickly. (I was on them all the time as a kid and had some great calluses built up then!) But if I spend more than a couple days off them, the calluses seem to go away pretty fast, too! The weather is starting to get pretty cold here, so I’m currently searching for an indoor option for me to get in my “hang time.” I’m determined that this time I will stick with it!

  11. Melanie says:

    That was an interesting post, and I felt like it really pertained to my experiences, both with skin-loading and with pull-ups! So, in case anyone cares, here’s my little anecdote:

    When I was a little kid I used to love to- “crossbar”-is what I called it. You know, when you hang from the swingset and go hand over hand back and forth? I used to do that for hours and hours. (And by the way when I wasn’t “cross-bar-ing” I was reading: it was Bard the bowman that shot the arrow that killed the dragon. Why I can remember that when I can’t remember where I parked my car at the last movie I saw is another topic). Anyway, I regularly used to get skin “peels” on my palms, which were awful and bummed me out because I had to lay off the swingset for a few days.

    Fast forward to age 24 when I had to learn to do pull-ups to meet the physical requirements to be on a fire crew. I wish I could have told those folks trying to get women strong enough to do pull-ups it’s more a matter of learning the movement than almost anything else. Others have said it: to do a pull-up, work on pull-ups. Anyway, I got to the point of being able to do lots of pull-ups, but never suffered skin peels again.

    Today at age 39 I can still walk up to a bar and do a couple pull-ups, even if I haven’t specifically trained them in months. I don’t have any of the typical mechanical advantages: I’m a long-armed 170 pound 5’9″ chick with a freakishly tall sitting height (as measured by the US Army).

    And I can still mess around on swingsets without tearing my palms. :)

    So I guess what I’m saying is I’m glad my parents bought me that silly swingset that I never used for swinging.

  12. Would you be interested in testing my new Sandpaper Insoles™?

    I made a Venn Diagram; people who have sensitive feet & people who wear shoes. You should see the overlap!

    Princess-Footed Sir

  13. feldyjan says:

    I would like to comment on the ‘callouses on your barefeet’ thing. I want to make sure that the word callous means the same thing to everyone, & if my interpretation is incorrect, what language I should be using. My interpretation is a ‘very hard, tough section of skin’ that may have a very defined edge. I get ‘callouses’ by my rings when I try hanging from a bar (trying being the operative word!). Or on my finger tips when I try my guitar. And on the balls of my feet from years of wearing heels, along with the edges of my big toes, below the big toe & below my pinkies (bunion-related). These callouses have NOT come about from barefoot running. In fact every barefoot runner who has been doing it for years will extol the importance of lifting the feet & NOT ‘pushing off’ which creates more friction which in turn creates hot-spots/blisters & maybe ‘hard spots’. And if the toes lift when you land, then the skin under the ball gets stretched just a little which reduces the friction even more. The skin of successful barefoot runners is thick & does not have that ‘hard’ feeling or any hard edges.

    My husband has great ‘texture’ on his feet & can tolerate many surfaces. Me however???? I started BF running when I was 58 (now 61), my skin is still ‘thin’ & every little stone hurts. I am assuming that age is a factor (but even as a child it was REALLY hard for me to walk over stony English beaches). I LOVE to run barefoot, the ground contact is absolutely exquisite, sensations that nothing else can give you, & it saddens me that I may never be able to do more than a couple of miles in my n’hood, or 6 miles on smooth concrete (& I can’t imagine running on trails with so many more knobbly things to step on).

    And because of aforementioned callouses, the edges, when I land on a stone ‘right there ‘are SOOOO painful. It’s the ‘callouses’ that get in the way (because they are a different texture to the rest of my foot & very slightly closer to the ground so a little more pressure). And they STILL have not ‘blended in’ with the rest of my foot.

    Oh, & I have never gotten any actual blisters from barefootin’. I get them from my vibrams! (And I can lie on a ‘bed of plastic nails’ quite well & occasionally stand on it. Though it’s the weight shifting preparatory to taking a step that is the ‘oucher’).

    Any suggestions for ‘strengthening my feet skin’ would be SOOOO gratefully received.

  14. Cordula says:

    Stacy, as a body worker I have seen a bunch of feet where the fat pads seem to move ‘out of place’ (I haven’t witnessed any deteriorate yet, but I am sure it happens…). Then they aren’t located under the bones anymore that they are supposed to pad, and those bones hit the ground straight on…. OUCH! I have worked with people through a combination of hands-on work and movement re-education (how they use their feet). Some of them are in their 60s, and it worked fine so far. With others it takes a lot longer to change those movement habits, and some may rather buy a gadget for that than change… Anyway, I believe that nothing is ever cast in stone, and things can change and change back when it comes to bodies. We just have to figure out how they work, or better how they are supposed to work!

  15. kaurorac says:

    I loved the last picture. It made my day (of couse the education on skin shear was interesting, too)

  16. Lars says:

    I see no nerde here worth their salt. Obviously, Bilbo didn’t shoot the arrow. Clearly this is common knowledge.

  17. Haaskc says:

    Lol….As I read this, this morning I can totally relate, I am drinking my coffee while my 11 month old is attempting to chew on my yoga block and I smell like pee because my three year old and I fell asleep together in the recliner last night and … Yea…lol. I did have a question though while the subject of walking (or feet) is brought up, I know you say treadmills are bad… Are ellipticals okay for walking ?

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