Deadlifting with Chains

TAGS: spring collar, chains, wendler, strength, deadlift, strength training, training

Almost a year ago, Matt Bash and I put our collective heads together and were thinking of different ways to approach our weak point in the deadlift; the lockout.  Basically nothing was helping and this gets very frustrating.  I felt that I had exhausted just about every possibility:  reverse hyperextensions, glute ham raises, pull-throughs, etc.  Everyone reading this article knows the drill, right?  So Matt and had an idea of deadlifting with chains.  This was right after we thought of 100 reasons why we shouldn’t train that day. I think this made a huge difference in my lockout, even after a few workouts.

The Set Up

The biggest question is how this is set up.  First of all, you need to have spring collars.  Often, spring collars have a rubber ends.  You need to slip these ends off so that you can attach the carabineer through the ends.  See the picture below.

These collars need to be set on the bar so that they are close to the end of the sleeve.  Do not bring the collars close to the bar weight.  This will ensure that once the weight is lifted and put down, you will lessen the chances of the plates landing on the chains.  For a frame of reference, we placed the collars a length of “three fingers” from the end of the sleeve.  It’s not too scientific, but it’s better than bringing a tape measure to the gym, which automatically qualifies you as a Douchie LaRue.

Here’s another picture of the set up.  This is shown in a power rack to give you a better view of what it looks like.

The next important point in the set up is to have the chains right under the bar or towards the lifter.  You do not want the chains in front of the bar.  This will cause the bar to move forward, out of position and at risk of injury.  So unless you want to spend the next 4 months asking Tom Deebel and Michael Hope questions, keep the chains behind you.  You may have to do some maneuvering on each side to make them even, but you don’t have to be perfect.

Now the carabineer on the chains was never moved to accommodate the deadlift.  With our chains, the carabineer is placed in the middle of the chain.  This will ensure that you have almost the full load of the chain when locked out.  If you don’t have our chains, then buy some.  If you still don’t have them, then just find a carabineer that fits a 5/8” chain and place it in the middle.

How many chains?

Now that we’ve got the set up covered, let’s look at how to use this in your training.  First of all, we never used more than 3 chains per side.  We found that using anymore would make the contrast in load too much.  The 3 chains worked great for both of us; Matt is about a mid-500 deadlifter and my best pull is 700.  If you are significantly weaker than this, then 2 chains would probably be your best bet.  The point of this is that you don’t want to have a small amount of bar weight and 400 pounds of chains per side.

We never accurately measured how much each chain weighs at lockout, but we figured about 20lbs per chain.  Each of our chains weighs 22lbs (roughly) but I’m the last person that is going to be splitting hairs over this stuff.  This is what forums are for.

So with 3 chains per side, we have about 120lbs at lockout.  Whatever you want to calculate the total chain weight is fine, just make sure that you set it up the same way each time to accurately gauge your progress.

The Training

We simply used this as a max effort movement.  Since we had no idea what we could do before we started, we took the chain weight at lockout (120lbs) and subtracted it from 90% of our best deadlift.  So if you can deadlift 600lbs, 90% would be 540.  120lbs (the chain weight) subtracted from 540 would be 420lbs of bar weight.  Are you confused yet?  Basically, the weight at lockout needs to equal about 90% of your best pull or what you think your best pull would be on that day.  There is a big difference for some in regards to their training max and their competition max.

We used this as a goal and a guideline for the workout.  Once we established where we were at, we used this as a set point for our training.

We worked up like a normal max effort day; working to a 1RM with our goal weight in mind.

Though I have never tried it (and thus I am now turning into a writer that I despise; giving theory rather than tried-n-true experience) I would imagine that one could use this exercise for multiple sets with about 80-90% of your 1RM (your 1RM for this particular exercise) as either your main movement of the day or as a second movement.  Just make sure that you account for the added stress of pulling as this exercise can beat the hell out of you (as do most deadlift movements).  Follow Prilipin’s chart to give you the optimum number of reps at the given percentage; I would probably stay at the low end of this chart for deadlifting movements.

What we noticed

The first thing we noticed is that we could pull much more (total) at lockout than our normal deadlift.  I believe I worked up to close to 600 of bar weight and Matt was also over 100% at lockout.  This doesn’t mean you are going to be the same, but it is probably going to be the same for most people.  This really let us know that part of the problem that we had might be mental.

The second thing that I noticed is that I liked this much, much better than pulling against bands.  For whatever reason, pulling against bands was very awkward and I always felt like the band was dictating my groove way too much; sort of like pulling in a weak Smith Machine.  The chains seemed to give me a smoother transition in the contrast.  Plus, the chains allow you to manipulate the bar before you lift it.  With bands, this is not always the case.  For example, with chains, I could still use a rolling start i.e. I start my deadlift similar to how Garry Frank does (but he finishes with a lot more weight than I do); by pushing the weight out in front of you, pulling it back to your shins and then beginning the pull.  Bands didn’t allow me to do this.

The last thing we noticed is that we got faster with our pulls.  This was especially apparent when we took the chains off.  But this was done as an experiment only, to see if it really made a difference.

Important Points

  • We quickly learned that it’s hard to pull more than one rep per set.  This is because the chains tend to move and get caught under the weights.
  • The chains have to be placed slightly behind the bar (towards the rear of the lifter) to ensure safety and groove.
  • Use spring collars to so that you can attach the carabineers through them.
  • Make sure the chains are placed evenly on both sides.
  • Be conservative the first time doing this exercise and have a goal weight to shoot for.
  • And in the words of the great George Carlin, “The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to get the job done.”
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