Nothing in the weight training field looks more hardcore than lifting with chains. Not surprisingly, we see a lot of people squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting with chains who have no business using them. And you're probably in that group.
I get it. It looks awesome, draws attention in the gym, and makes you feel like a serious lifter. And if you're like me, you love playing with new training tools.
But most people shouldn't be using them. A lot of lifters are using them incorrectly. Others simply use chains when they don't need to, or they're just not ready for them. Except for a small minority of lifters, most people should stay away from chains.
How Did Chain Work Get Started Anyway?
While I'm sure that someone else added chains to a barbell in some deep corner of the world, the person who undoubtedly made it popular is Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell, a dominant force in powerlifting.
Chain work spread to other powerlifters and throughout the strength training community. Now, the mere aura of Westside is enough to prevent most people from questioning one of their methods. But most people also forget that chains are, first and foremost, tools to maximize performance in EQUIPPED powerlifting.
That doesn't discredit the method, and it doesn't mean that chains aren't useful for other purposes. But you need to at least understand why they work, as well as their benefits and drawbacks.
What Do Chains Do?
It's simple on the surface, but the full impact is a lot more complex.
Basically, chains allow you to overload the second half of the range of motion. At the start of the lift, some of the chains are on the floor. As you lift the barbell, the chains come off the floor, adding weight to the bar as you lift it.
Depending on the lift and the number of chains you're using, there could be a difference of between 45 pounds (one set of chains per side) and 135 pounds (three sets of chains per side). Some stronger lifters even use four sets for a difference in loading of up to 180 pounds between the bottom and the top of the movement.
This is great for equipped powerlifting – a category of competitive powerlifting that allows the use of supportive gear like bench shirts, squat/deadlift suits, and heavy-duty knee wraps. (I don't want to get into the equipped vs. raw debate. Both are different sports and have their own merit.)
However, the key point is that the supporting gear (shirts, suits, and wraps) can add 100 pounds or more to your lifts by providing an elastic rebound effect. When the gear is stretched (i.e. in the bottom of the lift when the fabric is tightened) it provides a very strong rebound that helps you catapult the weight up.
Most importantly, lifting gear reverses the movement's normal strength curve. In a regular lift you're weaker in the first half of the movement and you get stronger in the later portion of the range of motion or ROM.
The supportive gear makes the first part of the lift easier. In the second part of the movement (where the gear no longer provides much help), the lift becomes relatively harder – the opposite of what happens in a normal strength curve.
In that specific case, the use of chains is warranted. The chains also change the strength curve by making the second half harder than the first. This is very specific to the sport of equipped powerlifting.
However, the effect on a regular, non-equipped lift is much less beneficial. It could even lead to performance issues if it's used too much.
Just remember, chains allow you to overload the second half of the movement, but it changes the force curve of the exercise. That new force curve is the same as with equipped powerlifting but different than any lifting done without supportive gear.
The Strength Curve Factor
In most basic barbell lifts we're weaker at the start of the concentric (lifting) phase and stronger in the later parts of the range of motion. For example, you can lift more weight using a half bench press verses a full-range bench press.
Of course, the fact that the range of motion is short allows you to move more weight, but it's mostly because you'll be at your strongest once a joint is at an angle of 90 degrees or more.
When you use chains, you change the strength curve. The movement now either becomes equally as demanding at all points in the ROM or harder in the second half of the lift. On the surface, that actually looks like something positive.
Here are the supposed benefits:
- It allows you to better overload the whole range of motion by adding weight where you're stronger and where a normal lift becomes under-loaded.
- If you're doing explosive work it allows you to accelerate for a bit longer because the increased weight decelerates the load for you. If that doesn't happen, you need to decelerate early to avoid shocking the joints.
- It strengthens the second half of the ROM, which is the range most useful in sports (sprinting and jumping for example).
This is all true... to some extent. But the complete picture is never as perfect as it seems.
Chains for Hypertrophy
From a muscle-building perspective, overloading the whole range of motion is useful. It will create a greater mechanical load on the muscles. However, that comes at a price: it will cause more overall muscle damage as well as a greater demand on the nervous system.
If you use the same volume with chains as you would with normal exercises, you might in fact get fewer gains because you might have a hard time repairing the extra muscle damage while the elevation in post-workout protein synthesis is still in effect.
In a sense, doing work sets with chains has a similar effect as doing more volume. How much of an impact does that make? Hard to say exactly, but 25-35% is in the right ballpark. For example, doing three work sets with chains will have the same physiological and neurological impact as doing four to five regular work sets. You need to take that into consideration when designing a program.
This same point was made by John Meadows. At one point he was using a lot of chains and bands for his hypertrophy work. It worked well for a few weeks. After that he actually started to regress because he was unable to recover.
Chains for Strength Work
Depending on how much chain you use, it's possible to add an extra 10-25% load in the second half of a big compound lift. Let's say you put 315 pounds on the bar with one set of chains. You'll have around 325 pounds at the bottom and 365 pounds at the top – an extra 15%. A stronger lifter could have 450 on the bar and use two sets of chains per side for a bottom load of around 470 and a top weight of around 550 – an increase of around 20%.
Let's say that you perform 5 reps with 80% on the bar. You'd have 90-105% on the bar at the end of the lift. This allows you to:
1. Desensitize the Golgi tendon organs.
These are "sensors" that protect you against yourself. When they sense that your muscles are producing too much force for your own safety (risk of tearing a muscle/tendon) they will inhibit force production.
These are normally set at a very conservative level. The more heavy work you do, the more you can gradually reset them to allow you to use a greater proportion of your muscle strength. Overloads of any kind will desensitize them fairly rapidly. Chain work allows you to do that fairly safely compared to some other overload methods.
2. Strengthen the second half of the range of motion.
By putting a greater load on the later portion of the ROM, you improve the neurological factors involved in force production in that specific range. This is a good thing if your goal is to become really strong only at that angle.
It's useful for athletes who need to be strong at a knee angle from 90-180 degrees because that's the range involved in sprinting and jumping (among other things). This is called "accentuation." But it has its limitations as we'll see.
3. Get mentally used to handling a bigger weight.
Any method that allows you to support a weight that's close to your limit, or higher than your limit at any point in the ROM, will be effective at getting you used to handling a heavy weight. This will often allow you to be more effective at heavy lifting simply by having less anxiety or doubt when unracking a near-maximal or maximal load.
The Limitations of Chains for Strength
First, the gains don't transfer that well to full-range lifting strength. Just like with partial movements, the biggest strength gains occur mostly at the trained joint angles. That's because the adaptations are mostly neurological.
In a "normal" strength lift, the weaker part of the range of motion is at the bottom or in the middle (transition point between the first and second half of the ROM). As such, overloading the second half of the ROM doesn't strengthen the weaker part of the movement. The gains in full-range strength won't be huge because of that. Of course, it's a different story if you're a powerlifter competing in equipped competitions.
I've also seen and experienced a motor pattern "confusion" when you do too much work with chains (and bands). If you practice too much with a reversed strength curve, you program your nervous system to use that different strength curve when squatting, bench pressing, or deadlifting. This can eventually lead to being weaker in the bottom position of the lift.
The movement might even start to feel "weird" without the chains, further decreasing performance potential. Of course, this only happens if your big lifts are mostly done with chains, but it's a risk nonetheless.
Chains for Speed Work
The second major use for chains is so-called "speed work," also referred to as the dynamic effort method.
The dynamic effort method refers to lifting moderate (or light) weights as explosively as possible. Typically, lifters use anywhere between 50 and 70% barbell weight and often add either chains or bands to get a top weight of 70-80%. For example, if you use a barbell weight of 60% of your max and add an extra 20% in the form of chains, at the top you'll be handling 80%.
But the dynamic effort method won't work for everybody. From my experience, it's effective at increasing maximal strength mostly in lifters who rely on their natural acceleration and velocity to overcome their sticking points. But lifters who are natural grinders won't get much out of it. Dave Tate makes the distinction and notes that there are explosive lifters and strong lifters.
It seems counterintuitive though. If you're a grinder, it's easy to believe that doing speed work would allow you to become faster. But the body will always rely on what it's best at and programmed to do. Someone who's a grinder will remain a grinder even if he does speed work. In his case, the speed work may actually detrain his grinding capacity.
Jim Wendler came to the same conclusion. Jim is a "strong lifter" and his barbell speed wasn't as high as someone like Tate, an explosive lifter. Despite being a former Westsider, Wendler moved away from doing speed work as he found that, for him, it did more harm than good.
In his own words:
"...using the dynamic bench press in my training did nothing for my bar speed and really pushed my bench press poundages back. It wasn't until I slowed down the eccentric portion, took the bands off, and eventually took the whole movement out of my training that I saw results."
Note that when he writes "took the bands off" you could just as easily say "took the chains off."
Doing speed work will help if your natural lifting strategy is to use velocity to overcome a weak point. It'll make you even more explosive, enhancing your natural strategy.
Think of a weak point like a mud pit on the road. If you drive through the mud pit it will slow down your vehicle significantly. If it slows your vehicle down so much that you come to a halt, you won't be able to start again (you miss the lift).
The first way of driving through a mud pit is to approach it so fast that even if it decelerates you, you still maintain enough speed to pass through. The second way is to actually slow down, put yourself in slow gear, and gradually force your way through.
You can't use the first strategy with a tractor, nor can you use the second strategy with a Lamborghini! To use one of my favorite analogies: a Saint Bernard will always be a Saint Bernard; it can't become a Greyhound.
Those who will benefit the most from barbell speed work with chains (or bands) are fairly advanced lifters with a high level of technical mastery, and who naturally use acceleration and velocity to overcome sticking points.
If a "grinder" wants to become more explosive, the best approach is to do jumps and throws, or maybe power variations of the Olympic lifts. Doing basic barbell lifting with a high level of acceleration will have limited benefits for him.
But when you consider chains added to the bar to do dynamic effort work, you must consider other elements. In that specific case, the chains' (or bands') main benefit is to decelerate the bar in the second half of the movement without you having to voluntarily decelerate.
Imagine that the end of the range of motion is a wall. If you don't stop, it will stop you. The faster the car goes, the sooner it must start to brake. It's the same thing with barbell work. The faster the bar moves, the sooner you need to decelerate in the range of motion.
When doing barbell speed work you could, in fact, decelerate and reduce force and power production for the whole second half of the ROM. This isn't a problem if you're a powerlifter. But it becomes one when you're an athlete because the joint angles where you need to be able to accelerate are in the second half of the ROM. By doing dynamic effort work, you're learning to decelerate where you need to learn to accelerate. And ironically, the more explosive you are, the sooner you learn to decelerate.
That's why I don't use the barbell dynamic effort method with athletes anymore. To develop power and explosiveness for their sport, I prefer to use exercises where there's a projection at the end of the concentric action (jumps, loaded jumps, throws, power clean, and power snatch). This way they can keep accelerating throughout the whole range of motion. Much more transferable to actions like jumping, sprinting, changing direction, tackling, etc.
Chains (and bands) are touted as a way to prevent voluntary deceleration. The added load reduces lifting speed while you can still try to accelerate. The intent to accelerate being more important than the speed itself.
However, the reduction in speed due to the added load is actually not sufficient to completely prevent the need for the lifter to slow down. There is still some voluntary deceleration even though it's not as important.
Furthermore, the main training effect of using chains or bands on explosiveness is that you learn to be more explosive at the bottom of the lift so that you can "beat the chains" (create a lot more acceleration before the added resistance kicks in). Essentially, you learn to take advantage of the zone with the lesser load to produce more velocity so that when you're forced to decelerate you have enough speed to keep going.
This is very effective for a powerlifter: the more speed you can produce in the first half of the movement, the higher in the range of motion the sticking point becomes and the easier it is to overcome it. It's even more effective for an equipped powerlifter because in competition the bottom position is relatively lighter because of the help provided by the squat suit or bench shirt.
But for an athlete this won't help at all. You don't need to be explosive from the full squat position or at the bottom of a bench. That's why, for athletes, jumps and throws are vastly superior to the dynamic effort method on the basic lifts – with or without chains.
Proper Lifting Qualification
People who have no business using chains are those who are the most likely to use chains.
They often think that chain work is the magic bullet that will unlock inhuman strength gains. If you understand how chains work, you know that's not the case. It has its purpose, but it's not magical.
I see guys squatting 315 pounds or less, and benching 205 or less, using chains. It's an advanced strength tool. To paraphrase Jim Wendler "If you think that chains are the tool that will allow you to bench 275, you have no business using them."
You need a decent level of strength before even thinking of using chains. What's decent? The Stuart McRobert standards are pretty good for men:
- 500 Pound Deadlift
- 400 Pound Full Squat
- 300 Pound Bench Press
Before that, you have no business using chains. For a woman that would come up to around a 300 pound deadlift, 205 pound squat and 145 pound bench. Now, this is NOT when you should use chains. It's just when it's not totally idiotic to want to THINK about using them.
You also need to have pristine lifting mechanics before using chains. Not just good technique, but excellent technique that's the exact same with every rep you do. No unwanted weight shift or movement. Precise, solid, and consistent.
Here are two great examples by lifters from Ollie's Gym, trained by Coach Dan Montague. The first is Sloan Kitowski demonstrating what truly solid squatting technique looks like. And take note of the perfect chain setup:
And here's Michelle Morrison doing a textbook Romanian deadlift with the correct chain setup:
Chains change the motor pattern of the exercise by affecting the strength curve. This can create a certain confusion when trying to engrain a movement pattern. If your technique isn't automated, this confusion could make it even harder to reach a high level of mastery.
If You Do It, At Least Do It Right
One last problem I see quite a bit, especially on social media, is using a chain setup that's completely idiotic.
They hang the chain from the bar itself and let it run through all the way down. In fact, some companies even sell chains with a collar attached on one end to make it easier to attach it to the bar. This is a gross misunderstanding of how chains work. It makes them completely useless.
Check this out:
The purpose of chains is to create a large variation in load between the bottom half and the top half of the movement. If you use the idiotic setup on a squat you will have around a 7 pound difference per side between the top (one link on the floor) and the bottom (seven links on the floor). If you're taller than 5'11" it'll be even worse because no link will be on the floor at the top and four to five will be on the floor in the bottom – around a 5 pound difference per side. That is not a significant load difference.
If you set the chains up properly – folded in two, either hanging from a smaller secondary chain or an EZ strap by EliteFTS – the difference in load can be as high as 25 pounds per chain for a total of 50 pounds for one set of chain. Compare that to 10-15 pounds. It's significant.
If you're going to use chains, at least use them properly. You want one to two links on the floor at the top of the movement and the whole chain on the floor in the bottom.
Do Chain Work For the Right Reasons
I'm not against chains. If used properly they can be useful. Specifically, they can be beneficial in these cases:
- If you're a powerlifter who lifts in equipped competitions.
- To accentuate strength in the key range of motion used in sports. But this should only be done for a short period of time (2-4 weeks at most) when the athlete is already strong and technically masterful in the full-range lift.
- By a lifter who relies more on speed than grinding to overcome a sticking point. This makes his own default strategy more effective.
- By advanced lifters to train with an overload to desensitize the Golgi tendon organs. But this can also only be done for 2-4 weeks.
- By the rare lifter whose sticking point is at the top of the ROM.
And as always, you should only consider using chains if you have a pretty good foundation of strength to start with and have a solid level of technical mastery. Otherwise, stay away from chains, even if they make you look hardcore.