Why Do Gymnasts Tape Their Hands? The Gymnasts At Rio Have A Good Reason For Using All That Athletic Tape

While watching the Simone Biles, Madison Kocian, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Laurie Hernadez tear it up at the Rio Olympics, many have probably idly wondered about the same, slightly peculiar question: Why do gymnasts tape their hands? Is there a reason that, say, uneven parallel bars specialist Kocian is rarely seen without her palms and wrists all wrapped up in athletic tape or clad in some other kind of gear? As it turns out, there is. It all comes down to one thing: Friction.

Here’s the thing with events like the uneven parallel bars, the regular parallel bars, the rings, and the pommel horse: All those acrobatics involve spinning and flipping your body around on wooden bars using your hands. Performing these stunts can cause an awful lot of friction to develop between the bars and your hands — and if you’re doing it all on your bare hands, that friction can, according to one study, “mechanically separate epidermal cells at the level of the stratum spinosum.” That is, you can end up with really gross and painful blisters. If those blisters open up, they’re usually referred to as “rips.” (Because there are literally rips in your skin.) And speaking as someone who was also a gymnast once upon a time (it’s the only time in my life I might actually have been described as “athletic” — something which my 30-something self now finds hilarious), I can attest to the fact that rips are no fun. Not one bit.

But that’s what the tape is for: In order to protect the bare skin of your hands (and wrists and ankles, for that matter) from bearing the brunt of all that frictional force, you can use athletic tape to make something called grips for yourself. It’s easy to do; most gymnasts, as well as a lot of circus performers and other folks who spend a lot of time doing acrobatics, can make a set of grips out of athletic tape in no time flat. For the curious, this video shows you how its done:

T3APOT on YouTube

Tape isn’t your only option for protection against blisters and rips; you can also buy grips if you don’t feel like making them yourself. Also, not unlike what happens when you play the guitar, developing calluses can be a big help. Of course, even if you take every measure possible to prevent rips, that’s still no guarantee you’ll never get them; odds are they’ll still make an unwanted appearance every now and again.

Caring for rips isn’t necessarily difficult — for most gymnasts, they’re just a fact of life — but they’re kind of a pain in the butt: First, you’ve got to remove the damaged skin (making sure, of course, that you both clean the wounds and sterilize your scissors before doing so); then you’ve got to keep the rips wrapped up for about a week while they heal. Since they’re literally open wounds just kind of hanging out on the palms of your hands or your wrists, keeping them clean is essential to avoid infection; it might also help to use an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin. Back in the mid '90s, my coach used to recommend applying vitamin E to the wounds as well, but this may not have actually been the best advice: A 1999 study examining the effects of vitamin E applied topically to wounds found that not only does applying vitamin E not help reduce the appearance of scars resulting from the wounds, but moreover, it actually made them worse in some cases.

USA Gymnastics — the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States — has a fairly detailed rundown on their website of common treatments for rips from Larry Nassar, DO, ATC, including what does and doesn’t work, so head on over there if you’re curious about the (sometimes literally) gory details; what it mostly comes down to, though, is doing what you can to prevent infection and give yourself time to heal. Who knew that something as simple as tape could do so much to help?