Benefits of Lifting Chains
Chains—they're used to tow boats, lift steel beams, and pull trailers. You name it and they can lift it. In the world of strength and conditioning, chains have a totally different function. Instead of doing the lifting and handling of the load, they are the things being lifted and they actually become the load.
Chains have made their transition from powerlifting gyms to sports performance facilities throughout the nation. To some, this isn’t a new concept. Strength coaches have been training with chains for a minimum of ten years. It’s fair to say that Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell really brought training with chains to the forefront of the strength world. But like most things in the strength and conditioning world, the message and benefits got lost along the way. Hopefully, this article will keep the strength world on the right path.
Proper strength training will shift the force velocity curve up and to the right. In order to do this, your exercise program must include training with heavy loads and training at high velocities. Over the past ten years, a style of resistance has been developed that simultaneously improves both aspects of training. This is known as accommodating resistance and it's typically done by using bands and chains. To truly understand the benefits of training with chains, it’s important to understand strength curves and what exercises fit into each category.
A strength curve is a mathematical model that represents how much force can be produced at specific joint angles. In other words, it's the amount of force produced over a range of motion. Strength curves are further broken down into ascending strength curves and descending strength curves. Every exercise fits into the ascending or descending category.
Ascending strength curve:
Exercises that represent an ascending strength curve are those that are easiest at the top ranges of motion (i.e. squatting). An overload set on squats will overload the top half—your strongest half—of the movement. Think about the guys you see in the gym who's idea of training legs is to throw three plates on the bar and do a few sets of quarter squats. They might not realize this, but they are using the ascending strength curve in their favor, creating a misconception as to how much they can truly squat.
Exercises that fit into this category are those that create force through extension (i.e. squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses).
Descending strength curve:
Exercises that represent a descending strength curve are those that are hardest at the top range of motion (i.e. pull-ups). Think about the last time you did a high amount of reps of pull-ups. Unless you defy the laws of strength or were doing kipping pull-ups, it became harder and harder for you to get your chin up to the bar as you fatigued. This is the descending strength curve working against you.
Exercises that fit into this category are those that create force through flexion (i.e. a bicep curl, pull-up, upright row, standing lateral raise). Using chains in exercises that fit into this category don’t enhance your strength throughout a full range of motion. Instead, they act solely as a heavier load.
What causes the difference in the two strength curves? The difference in the two strength curves is dependent on muscle strength tension relationships. The muscle strength tension relationship states that the amount of force a muscle fiber can produce is related to the degree of overlap between the actin and myosin filaments. If the fiber is stretched or shortened too much, the number of actomyosin complexes that can be formed is limited, resulting in restricted force production.
To sum it up, exercises that have an ascending strength curve (training the bottom range of motion) limit your strength potential in the top ranges of motion. If your views of training are similar to mine, you want to get the most out of each rep, maintaining overload in the top half of motion while still overloading the bottom half. In order to do this, you would need to have varying loads on the bar or, in this case, have a load on the bar that will vary throughout the range of motion. How can you do this? Apply chains to the bar!
Enter the lifting chains...the effect of lifting chains works due to the concept of accommodating resistance. Accommodating resistance means that the load on the bar accommodates the varying strengths of your body throughout the entire range of motion rather than at a certain point. Again, let’s look at the back squat. Based on differences in joint angles, you can squat a lot more in a quarter squat than you can in a full squat.
There are certainly different ways to train with accommodating resistance. You can use different style cams and fancy machines that will run you thousands of dollars. You can train using overload sets/lockout sets, or you can outsmart the machines, maintain specificity of the movement, and apply bands and chains to the bar!
Benefits of lifting with chains
Training with chains and bands, when applied properly, has the potential to improve the velocity on the bar by enhancing the force-velocity relationship. This will improve your stability under the bar and your ability to blast through the sticking point you face while training.
Improving the force-velocity relationship
The force-velocity relationship states that the speed at which a muscle changes length also changes the force it can generate. External load and speed of the bar play a significant role in changing the force-velocity relationship. Obviously, increasing the load on the bar will change the velocity at which the bar is moving. Training with chains and bands has the ability to improve the force-velocity relationship at a given load over time.
For the athletes of the training world who are using bands and chains on the bar, it is important to remember that accommodating resistance places a larger emphasis on the concentric phase of the lift rather than the eccentric phase. This means that the antagonist muscles and those responsible for decelerating aren’t trained to the same extent. Being able to decelerate properly and efficiently will save you from a lot of injuries. This doesn’t mean that you should eliminate the use of chains and bands if you are an athlete. Just remember to consider the demands of the sport. Bands don’t need to be used with every exercise that fits into the ascending strength category. Load your athletes appropriately.
Science and using chains
Overall, science appears to support the benefits of training with chains. When looped around the bar instead of hung straight down, they have been shown to have positive effects on bar velocity and stability.
Neelly and colleagues (5) compared the mechanical effect of double looped chains to chains hung straight during the back squat. Results showed nearly twice as much variable resistance at the top of the squat compared to the bottom with the double looped chains compared to the linear looped chains. In other words, you must pay attention to the way the chains are hung. To get the full effect of accommodating resistance, chains should be double looped instead of hung in a straight line.
Baker and colleagues (1) compared the difference of bar velocity during two bench press conditions. The first condition was two sets of three reps at 75 percent 1RM plate loaded while the second condition was also two sets of three. However the 75 percent 1RM was broken down to 60 percent plate loaded and 15 percent chain loaded. Results of the study found that the plate and chain loaded condition increased bar velocity by a mean of 10 percent on both sets. The reason for the increased velocity could be explained by the eccentric unloading of the chains. Baker explains that eccentric unloading will result in a more rapid stretch shortening cycle and possibly a repetition post-activation potentiation.
The final study by Coker and colleagues (2) compared the biomechanical and perceptual influence of chain resistance while completing one rep at 85 percent 1RM on the snatch. The first snatch condition was 85 percent plate loaded with the second being 80 percent plate loaded and 5 percent chain loaded. There wasn't any significant biomechanical difference between the chain and plate loaded conditions. However, subjects did perceive there to be a significant difference between the two conditions. The chains require greater force during the initial pull and a greater amount of stability within the shoulders, core, and back during the catch.
The benefit of lifting with chains could have been overshadowed by the high load the lifters were tested with. Because Olympic lifting is such a technically demanding lift, training with bands and chains could have a more profound effect when there are lighter loads on the bar.
When all is said and done, accommodating resistance, which is accomplished by training with bands and chains, has the ability to take your training to the next level. The benefits of lifting with bands and chains are most effectively realized during exercises that have an ascending strength curve, meaning exercises that require a large amount of force to be produced during extension.
Applying chains to exercises that have a descending strength curve will apply a greater amount of instability to the bar, which has its own benefits separate from the topic of this article. However, this doesn't fit the accommodating strength model. Applying chains or bands to exercises that fit into the descending strength curve category wouldn't provide the same benefits.
Research on training with chains has shown that chains should be looped rather than hung linearly from the bar. Training with chains improves the speed of the bar during the bench press, and although research didn't show improved bar speed during the snatch, anecdotal evidence suggests a potential improvement in shoulder, core, and back stability.
In conclusion, training with bands and chains allows athletes, coaches, and experienced gym goers a way to improve their totals through accommodating resistance. Applying this modality to your training is a surefire way to improve your strength and speed throughout the entire range of motion of any lift that fits into the ascending strength curve.
- Baker DG, Newton RU (2009) Effect of Kinetically Altering a Repetition Via the Use of Chain Resistance on Velocity During the Bench Press. J Strength Cond Res 27:(7)1941–46.
- Ebben WP, Jensen RL (2002) Electromyographic and kinetic analysis of traditional, chain, and elastic band squats. J Strength Cond Res 16:547–50.
- Kraemer WJ, Fleck SJ (2012) Exercise Physiology: Integrating Theory and Application. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore, MD.
- McMaster TD, Croning J, McGuigan MR. Quanitificant of Rubber and Chain Based Resistance Modes. J Strength Cond Res 24:(8)2056–64.
- Neely KR, Terry JG, Morris MJ. A Mechanical Comparison of Linear and Double Looped Hung Supplemental Heavy Chain Resistance to the Back Squat: A Case Study. J Strength Cond Res 24:(1)278–81.
- Siff M (2003) Supertraining. 6th edition. Denver.