One of the most significant advancements in strength training in the last 20 years has been the introduction of chains.
The concept of training with chains is brilliantly simple and they’re so easy to use and work into your programme.
They are an incredibly versatile tool to have in your training arsenal too – there application extends to almost any fitness goal you could imagine: strength, size, speed and even injury prevention.
If you’ve still never used chains as part of your training programme, then here are four top reasons you should start using them right away…
Maximal muscular tension
The use of chains in your training follows the principle of ‘accommodating resistance’. This is described as the ability to ‘develop maximal tension throughout the complete range of motion rather than at a particular (e.g., weakest) point’ by sports scientist Vladimir Zatsiorsky in his excellent book ‘the Science and Practice of Strength Training’
Due to the nature of different exercises, individual biomechanics and leverages, you will always be stronger at certain joint angles than others. For example, you will always be able to quarter squat a lot more than you can full squat, as the top end of the squat is significantly easier.
By adding accommodating resistance in the form of chains, we can match the strength curve and allow maximal loading at every point of the range of motion.
If we were to take chain squats as an example, as you squat down, the links on the chain lie on the floor, decreasing the load at the bottom of the lift, where you’re weakest. As you lift up, more chains come off the ground and the total weight you’re lifting increases.
If you’re interested in strength, you’ll be able to address your weak points in the lift. If you want muscle, you’re now dialling the intensity up in your training by keeping maximal muscular tension throughout the range of motion, with every rep.
When Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell first popularised chains, his main intention was to use them to improve bar speed.
For example, let’s examine bench-pressing with chains. When you lower the bar to your chest, the chains will pile up on the ground, creating a ‘deload’ at the bottom. Now, when you push the bar up, if you were to apply the same force as was required at the bottom of the lift, you’re going to get stuck.
The chains will force you to lift hard and fast, in order to complete the rep.
For speed training, performing 5-10 sets of 1-3 reps on variations of the squat, bench and deadlift works best.
If you’re generally a ‘slower’ lifter, you’ll benefit greatly from working in some speed training with chains.
The ‘deload’ of weight at the bottom of the lift that chains provide can be a useful tool for anyone with a history of injuries.
Typically, the end ranges of movements are where you’re most vulnerable.
If we look at the deadlift, for example, the most vulnerable position for your lower back is the bottom. By adding chains, we can now minimise low back stress.
This applies to the shoulders at the bottom of the bench press, and the hips and knees in the bottom of the squat, too.
So far we’ve discussed chains in the context of their use in the big lifts.
A lesser-known application for chains is in isolation exercises such as flyes and lateral raises, where they can be used to intensify the peak contractions.
Chain Flyes: By using chains, you reap the benefits of both the dumbbell and cable fly versions, without any of the negatives. You’ll feel a similar stretch as you feel with a dumbbell (that’s missing with cables), but without much of the strain on your shoulders. As you squeeze back up, the chains will come off the floor and you’ll get a strong peak contraction (that’s missing with dumbbells).
Lateral Raises: Chain laterals with a slight pause at the top can provide a tremendous peak contraction for the shoulders. This goes against the typical application for chains, whereby you normally overload the easiest part of the move. However, for bodybuilding purposes, emphasising the peak contraction on certain moves such as lateral raises or spider curls can add an exciting twist.
Chains can be a great plateau-buster for anyone who has been stuck in a rut and wants to get bigger, stronger and faster.
When you do use them, don’t overdo it. Pick one exercise, run with it for a few weeks and see how you go. Implementing chains can be more demanding on your recovery, so it’s important to cycle their use and pay attention to biofeedback.
Of course, it goes without saying, but if you can only bench-press 60 kilos, chains aren’t for you. They are an advanced tool, so use them accordingly.