Paul Carter is the chief executive at Lift-Run-Bang.com and has more than 25 years of experience under the bar, having coached some of the best strength athletes in the world. He is the author of Strength, Life, Legacy, and Base Building and is based in Kansas City, Kansas.
To get as big and strong as possible, eventually you’re going to have to start thinking about using chains as a form of accommodating resistance. In powerlifting or strength training circles the phrase accommodating resistance is often used to describe adding additional resistance throughout the entire strength curve of a lift.
Why would you want to do this? As with any lift you are only as strong as your weakest link. If you can lockout 400lb on the bench press, but can only do a full-range bench press with 300lb, then the top part of the movement isn’t being fully taxed.
For powerlifters who wear equipment, using accommodating resistance in the form of chains or bands can be very helpful because the top portions of the movement can be overloaded. That’s where equipped guys need the most resistance and it is limited by the strength curve of using free weights only.
But for raw guys, the bottom portion of the movement is generally the area that needs to be improved in
order to get stronger throughout the entire range of motion. For these lifters chains are one of the best types of accommodating resistance.
Velocity and strength
Before I get into when and how to use chains, it’s worth looking into why you might want to consider using them. Weak point training used to be all the talk in powerlifting. In essence, it was defined as working the portion in the movement where the sticking point was. So if you were weak in the middle portion of the bench press, you would do two-board presses because that’s where you missed maximal lifts.
On paper this might seem logical. But what’s on paper doesn’t always translate to reality. I’ve never seen someone two-board press less than they could bench press. So if that is the case, then it should be obvious that working that point in the movement isn’t going to improve the lift if you’re already stronger there than in the full range of motion. The area that has to be strengthened, therefore, is the area just before the sticking point. Because if there isn’t enough acceleration from the bottom position of a movement to drive the loaded bar through the sticking or transition point, then the lift will be missed.
This makes sense. If you are using a light weight, it’s easy to drive the bar with enough acceleration to casually move the bar through a full range of motion.
As the weight gets heavier, the ability to accelerate the bar diminishes. When acceleration declines enough there won’t be enough force to drive the bar through the sticking point. So either the lifter is not strong enough – strength being defined as the ability to move a certain weight – or powerful enough – power being defined as the ability to move a certain weight with a great amount of force – to finish the lift.
The need for speed
Because each person’s nervous system is different their ability to generate maximal force will be different. A world class sprinter, for example, can generate a tremendous amount of force and acceleration when they sprint. Lifting is no different. Some lifters can lift very fast, and other lifters are ‘grinders’ and simply cannot move maximal weights with a lot of power.
Nevertheless, even the lifter who doesn’t have a high degree of power output still has thresholds in terms of bar speed that will dictate making or missing a lift. When the lifter cannot generate enough force/acceleration/power from the bottom of a lift then there won’t be enough momentum for the bar to finish the completion of the lift. Thus a ‘sticking point’ is created.
It’s therefore very important for every lifter to be able to generate enough power to take the bar from point A (the start) through point B (the middle or transition part of the lift) so they can can make it to point C (the completion of the lift). With accommodating resistance we can overload points in the movement that teach the lifter how to apply more force into the bar, so that when there is no accommodating resistance, the lifter can power through the sticking point.
Using chains as accommodating resistance is an advanced tool to be used by advanced lifters who understand how they should be implemented. Beginners or novice lifters really have no need for such training tools because they should still be getting all they need out of free weight work only. If you are ready to take your training to the next level then chains are most beneficial to compound multi-joint movements such as squats, bench presses and deadlifts.
To fully capitalise on using chains, you need to set them up so that all of the chain weight comes off the floor a few inches before the area where you tend to miss in a lift. If that is at lockout in a bench press then the total chain weight should come off the floor right before that, which would be at around the mid-range portion of the movement. You want to overload the area prior to the sticking point, for the reasons already discussed.
If it’s in the squat, and you miss a few inches coming out of the hole, then the total chain weight should come off the floor at the point right after you reverse out of the hole. I have actually used them for front squats quite a bit to overload the mid-range portion of that movement, the area where I would often let the bar get too far out in front of me, causing me to miss a lift. This taught me to be cognizant of staying more upright, and strengthening my low back and rhomboids. This will take some introspection on your part, and an understanding on your own weaknesses and where you tend to miss maximal lifts.
Chains in isolation
Chains can also be used in isolation lifts. Because they deload onto the floor I found that chains allowed me to do skullcrushers again relatively pain free. The eccentric portion of skullcrushers always made my elbows hurt, no matter how I performed them. But because the chains would reload during that portion, I found them to be beneficial.
They can also be used for moves such as flyes, or even attached to dumbbells for pressing which tends to require more balance, thus making the support muscle groups fire a bit harder. So chains can be an addition to almost any barbell or dumbbell movement, within reason. Just make sure that you understand why you are using them in that movement, and what the purpose is. I wouldn’t advise adding chains to everything you do just for the sake of looking like you just escaped prison.
Selecting the weight
So how much chain weight should be used in training? I’ve seen lots of guys pile on hundreds of pounds of chains, but this isn’t required to get great benefits out of using accommodating resistance. For bench presses I would suggest something in the range of 50lbs – by that I mean, 50lb that comes off the floor – and for squats and deadlifts, I advise using around 90lbs.
Remember that there should be enough chain weight so that there is a mental cue to drive harder when they come off the floor. There shouldn’t be so much chain weight that you are grinding every rep when that happens. For other movements you will have to play around to see what feels best.
Putting it into practice
Working with accommodating resistance can be implemented into your routine as a mainstay. However, it shouldn’t be something you use on an every workout basis. Rotational use tends to work best in my opinion.
For example, in your bench press programme, if you bench twice a week, you could have a heavy bench session with chains, and a lighter session without them.
Session one: bench press (heavy)
• Work up to a single at 85% of your training max plus 50lbs of chains
• 4 sets of 5 reps at 75% plus 50lbs of chains
• 1 set of as many rep as possible with 60% plus 50lbs of chains.
Session two: bench press (light)
• 5 sets of 8 reps @ 70% of your training max
Squats could follow a seminar pattern, but on an alternating week type basis.
• Work up to a single at 85% of your training max plus 90lbs of chains
• 8 sets of 3 reps at 80% of your training max plus 90lbs of chains
• 5 sets of 5 reps in 12 minutes using 60% of your true one-rep max
Chains are fun and a great tool to implement into your training, but they should only be used as an accessory and not something you use in every training session. They should work as a supplement to your free weight training, not as the basis of every workout. Use them properly, and accordingly, and you should find that they help take your lifts to a new level.