elitefts™ Sunday edition
What’s Up With The Chains?
I’m a really lucky guy.
For most of my lifting career, I’ve been able to train at some of the best powerlifting gyms in the country, including John Bott’s Eastside Barbell, where I’ve been for the last five years or so. When you do most of your training in a serious powerlifting gym, you begin to take some of the tools of the trade for granted. If for no other reason, because you never need to explain what a particular piece of equipment is or why you use it.
Chains are one such example.
If you’re familiar at all with the sport of powerlifting, the idea of using chains as a training tool is probably nothing new. If you’ve spent any length of time in a powerlifting gym, chains are as much a part of the landscape as dumbbells or plates. Popularized by Westside Barbell, training with chains has been a staple in powerlifting for decades.
Despite their widespread use among serious strength athletes, however, training with chains is still something of a curiosity to most of the weight training public. Most of the exposure the average gym-user has to chains comes from fitness modeling, where the chains are not actually being used, but are draped over some fitness babe’s neck, to make it look like she’s really into hardcore training, and not just, you know, being a hot fitness chick.
Whenever we break the chains out in a commercial gym, it’s a good bet that someone will ask, “Dude, what’s up with the chains?” This first question tends to be followed up with, “Why don’t you just add more weight?"
So, for those out there who are interested in the benefits and uses of chains, here’s what’s up.
How they work
The biggest difference between chains and straight weight is the ability to add accommodating resistance to whatever lift you're training. For those unfamiliar with the term, accommodating resistance basically means that the load changes during the lift to accommodate to your natural strength curve.
In the case of power lifts like the squat or bench press, you'll be stronger at the top of the movement than you are at the bottom, due mostly to more favorable leverage over the course of the lift. Using chains will allow you to increase the load as you generate more force.
The mechanics behind chains are simple. Let’s use the bench press as an example. I’ll go into more detail with this later, but properly set up chains should hang from the sleeve of the barbell, with only one or two links touching the floor when the barbell is held at lockout.
As you lower the weight to your chest, more and more links gather on the floor, lowering the actual amount of weight in your hands. As you press it back to lockout, you will gradually lift the links off the ground, increasing the bar weight.
Accommodating resistance provided by chains can be beneficial for a few reasons.
- Working through weak points: with chains, you're no longer limited to what you can handle at the weakest point of the lift. If, for example, you're only able to press 300 pounds off your chest, this is generally what your max will be, even if you're able to lock out 360. Without accommodating resistance tools such as chains, the only way to train around this type of sticking point would be to use partial variations of the lift. However, with chains, you could theoretically adjust weight to be 300 at the bottom and 360 at the top, challenging you maximally throughout the entire lift, while still using a full range of motion. Note, this example is just to illustrate a point. You don’t need to try to be this exact with it.
- Speed training: when you perform speed work with straight weight, it’s common to find yourself backing off towards the top of the lift. Really explosive lifters need to be careful that they do not lose control of the weight at the top and actually throw it out of their hands or off of their back. Chains are an effective tool for speed training because the accommodating resistance teaches you to push as hard as you can throughout the entire lift. The increasing load prevents you from building momentum like you can with straight weights, forcing you to push all the way to the top. This carries over very well to the competition lifts, where you cannot afford to back-off at any point.
- Stability: with all of the success that clubs like Westside, BIG and others had with various band set-ups, chains took somewhat of a backseat in terms of popularity. This is understandable given the effectiveness and versatility of bands, but there is one factor that chains can address that bands generally cannot. This is stability. When anchored from the floor, bands have a stabilizing effect, much like tension cables used to stabilize an antenna. Chains, by contrast have the opposite effect. Because they hang, as opposed to being anchored, chains will swing somewhat, and challenge your ability to stabilize yourself. This swinging can expose technical mistakes that bands often neutralize.
There are a few ways to set chains up, depending on the lift being trained and the goal.
As far as the chains themselves, the most popular size seems to be the 5/8 inch (referring to the thickness of the links), although, ¾ inch is also widely used. The length should be at least five feet, since you'll most likely be doubling them.
By the way, if you aren't strong enough to double the chain, you aren’t ready for chains.
For the squat/bench
To attach the chains to the bar, most lifters use a length of a smaller chain. Just use the smaller chain to form a loop and fasten the loop with a carabiner. Hang the loop off the bar and drape the larger chain through it. If you have multiple carabiners, you can also lock each large chain right to the small chain.
For floor presses/deadlifts
For exercises where the bar will remain close to the floor, you don't need to worry about the smaller chains or carabiners. You can drape the chain directly over the sleeve of the barbell.
A third, and even more challenging method of hooking up the chains, is to set them up at a length where they hang freely for all or most of the lift, without touching the floor. If your form sucks, this method will let you know it immediately. This is not easy, and not recommended for beginners!
Chains can be a valuable tool for assistance work. They can be easily draped over your neck to add weight for bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and glute-ham raises.
They can also be used for single joint stuff like these tricep extensions.
These are a good movement for lifters who’ve been in the game for a while and deal with elbow inflammation. The accommodating resistance allows you to work your triceps while minimizing the stress on the joint.
Working up with chains
One of the most common questions I get about chains is how to work up with chains. There seems to be some confusion as to weather the chains go on first, or weights first, then chain. I always recommend adding the chains first, before you start working up in weight. Adding them first will allow you to get used to the feel of them. Don’t bother trying to work up to a straight weight PR, then load the chains on for a chain PR. Just work one or the other for that day.
For record-keeping, don’t bother trying to figure out the combined weight of the plates and the chain. Just record the bar weight, plus the number of chains.
When to use them
Like most other advanced tools, the stronger you are, the more likely you are to benefit from training with chains. If you’re just starting out, pretty much any consistent weight training will work, so just stick to the basics. If you’ve been weight training for two years or less, you probably don't need chains at all.
These colorations are just estimates, but they should give you a rough guide as to how to incorporate chains based on your strength level.
If you're benching 200 pounds or less, you're most likely not ready for chains. If you're benching around 200 pounds and are a woman, start with one chain. (Each chain weighs about 20 pounds, so each set will add 40 pounds).
- For a 250 bencher, use one set of chains
- 300 – one to two sets of chains
- 350 – two to three sets
- 400 – three or more
- 300 or less, don’t bother. If you're a woman squatting about 300, use one set.
- 350 – one set
- 400 – one to two sets
- 450 – two to three sets
- 500 - three sets
- 550 – three or more
- Same guidelines as the squat