It’s a pretty common sight to see powerlifters training with chains. But, is there a benefit to using chains in powerlifting?
Training with chains is an effective way to add variation to any powerlifting movement. The chains allow the lifter to experience more or less load at certain ranges of motion. Using chains for powerlifting can help target weak areas, sticking points, and overload the lift.
Whether you have a specific sticking point in your lift and need help getting over the hump, or simply feel you’ve plateaued in your progress with that lift and can’t seem to add more weight, properly incorporating chains can be an effective solution to break through those walls. Let’s discuss why.
Check out my article on breaking through a squat plateau.
What Is The Purpose of Training With Chains For Powerlifting?
To establish the value and benefit of chains, we have to define the strength curve.
The strength curve explains the amount of force required to complete the full range of motion (ROM) of a lift. At certain stages of a lift, greater force will be required to move the weight than at other stages.
Chains allow coaches and athletes to control or manipulate that curve by making the lift easier in one stage of the ROM and harder in another stage.
Look at the image above and imagine the barbell moving downward as a lifter performs a squat. Every inch or two the bar gets closer to the floor, a link of chain unloads off the bar and sits on the floor. As the weight of the chain sits on the floor, it’s no longer supported by the lifter, making the weight on the bar lighter.
As the barbell moves upward, with every inch or two a link of chain comes off the floor and is loaded back onto the bar, making the load heavier as it gets higher and closer to the end of the ROM.
You can imagine what a lifter who started with 40lbs of chains on the bar feels at the bottom of a squat when all or most of that chain weight is no longer pulling on them. They can explode upward out of the bottom of the rep without that extra weight.
Alternatively, that 40lbs being added back onto the weight can make that final third of the ROM extra difficult for the lifter to lock out. This final third of the lift may usually be a portion of the lift where the lifter exerts minimal energy to finish it out, but the added weight of chains forces them to exert more energy and force to complete the lift.
As coaches and lifters recognize the strength curve for each lift, they can incorporate chains to make the hardest stage of the lift easier, or overload the easy parts of the lift to acclimate the lifter to a heavier load they would like to be able to perform one day in the future.
4 Benefits Of Lifting With Chains
We’ve discussed a few reasons why chains are a beneficial addition to a powerlifter’s program. Here are the top benefits of lifting with chains:
1. Increase Power By Training With Speed
When you use chains to unload weight at the bottom of your lift, lifters can focus on accelerating out of the bottom of the lift with less weight. As the chain weight increases as the bar moves upward, that speed will naturally be challenged by the increasing chain weight. The lifter must focus on exerting continual force against the growing weight. This is also referred to as the Dynamic Effort Method.
As lifters train with chains to keep accelerating through that counter force of the added chain weight, that skill will transfer over to them moving just the weight on the bar. They can continue to exert maximal force into the bar when the chains are removed, resulting in a much more powerful lift, especially in the phases of the strength curve where they previously didn’t exert maximal force.
Another great exercise for developing speed is the Banded Bench Press.
2. Increase Strength By Safely Overloading Lifts
Hitting a plateau is a common challenge among powerlifters. We are always chasing that next PR, but increasing the weight linearly every workout or every week only works for so long before we can’t keep up.
Adding chain weight is a great way to get a feel for heavier loads without just jumping to the same weight in plates loaded onto the bar.
For example, if your max squat is 405lbs, adding 10%, or 40 more lbs to your max could take some time if you’re just adding bar weight.
With chains, however, you can load up 315 in plates onto the bar, add 120lbs in chains, and many athletes would be able to do reps with it. It all adds up to 435lbs at the top of the rep. You can now get the feeling of walking out 435, squatting it down, fire up 315, and end up with 435 at lockout.
This variation is much safer than simply throwing 435lbs on the bar and potentially overreaching. You can give yourself a preview of coming attractions as you chase those bigger numbers.
Learn more about overload training in my other article on Using Boards For Bench Press.
3. Strengthen Sticking Points
Working through sticking points is the primary benefit of training with chains and deferred loads. Your sticking point is the weak link in your lift (pun intended).
If you fail lifts in the same spot each time you attempt it, then you know you need to train that specific stage of the ROM. However, it can be exhausting to do that with straight bar/plate weight.
By incorporating chains to unload/reload the weight as you descend/ascend in the lift, you can work that specific stage of the ROM without exhausting everything else.
Over time you’ll develop strength and skill to use maximal force through the entire strength curve of the lift by fighting against the accommodating chain weight. When you go back to moving just the bar/plate weight without chains, those habits will pass over so you can use maximal force through the entire lift.
I discuss more strategies in my article on overcoming bench press plateaus.
4. Increase Stability
By using the third setup option described below, chains can be a great option to replace a bamboo/earthquake bar to train your stability throughout a lift.
Many lifters struggle to keep their core (and their whole body) insanely tight and engaged during a lift. By rigging up chains to make the bar unstable and shaky, lifters can focus on engaging all those muscles they had been neglecting to stay tight and stable against the bar’s movements.
This is typically effective with the squat and bench, less so with the deadlift.
Science Of Using Chains For Powerlifting
There haven’t been a ton of formal studies on the effects of chains in powerlifting.
However, one study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined the effects of adding chains to a deadlift to incorporate explosive resistance training (ERT), or continually accelerating through to the end of the lift.
Here’s the good news: it worked.
“Compared to using a constant resistance, the inclusion of chains enabled greater force to be maintained to the end of the concentric action and significantly increased peak force and impulse, while concurrently decreasing velocity, power, and rate of force development.”
In simple terms, that means the amount of effort the athlete had to expend at the top of the lift was indeed greater, and the speed and accelerating of the movement slowed down as the force increased.
The signs of slowing down and decreasing acceleration are good in this case, because it shows the chain load was effective enough to get that outcome.
When the athlete reverts back to deadlifting just the bar and plate resistance, with no chain to slow their speed or acceleration, they’ll have a more explosive deadlift.
Training with chains was mentioned as a “special method” in my article on 10 Special Exercises To Improve Your Powerlifting Movements.
How To Set-Up Chains When Lifting
When benching or squatting, create a loop with the smaller lead chain and a carabiner and hang it over the sleeve of the barbell outside of the plates you’ve loaded. I recommend using a second collar and placing it outside of the chains to keep them from slipping.
With deadlifting, you can do the same and hang the chains from the barbell sleeve.
Alternatively, if you pull sumo, you can drape the heavy chain over the middle of the bar between your hands. You can also attach the lead chain here and drape the chains from the lead chain if you want to defer the load to later in the lift, rather than having the chain load up immediately off the floor.
Your chain setup will be dictated by your goals. Let’s look at 3 different setups of chains and the reasons you would want to use them that way:
Setup #1: Good For Squat, Bench, & Deadlift
The first setup is designed to consistently load/unload chain weight throughout the full ROM of the lift, top to bottom. It essentially hangs the chain in a straight line so that the very first and the very last inches of the lift equally load/unload weight.
For this setup, loop the small lead chain around the outsides of the barbell and close it off with a carabiner. Drape the heavy chain in half over the bottom of the lead chain loop. Adjust the lead chain so that the heavy chain is fully extended to the floor, allowing only a few links to drag on the floor.
This setup is fantastic for lifters wanting to incorporate chains for the first time. You can start to get a sense for how loading and unloading weight during the lift feels.
Setup #2: Good For Squat, Bench, & Deadlift
The second variation is designed to specifically target when and where in the lift’s ROM or strength curve you want the added weight to load or unload, rather than linearly throughout the full ROM.
This setup will benefit a lifter who is struggling through a sticking point mid-lift by targeting the chains to fully load during or just before that sticking point to strengthen it.
A lifter getting stuck at the bottom of a lift would benefit from having all the weight offloaded at the bottom so they can get the concentric part of the lift started with a reduced load, and introduce the deferred load later in the lift’s ROM.
For this setup, you can do two different things:
Either lengthen the lead chain so that all or most of the heavy chain (when folded over the end of the lead chain) unloads on the floor at the desired point in the lift, or fold the heavy chain in half before draping it on the lead chain so that more of the heavy chain comes off the floor with each inch of ROM.
Think of it this way:
- If you hang the heavy chain straight down from the barbell, you have one link loading/unloading off the floor at a time.
- If you fold the heavy chain over the lead chain once, you have 2 links coming off the floor at once, and half the distance to do it, so the weight loads and unloads twice as fast in half the distance.
- If you fold the heavy chain in half, THEN drape it through the lead chain in half again, you have 4x the links loading/unloading at once in a quarter of the distance of the ROM.
Using this setup and adjusting accordingly, you can have the entire weight of the chains load or unload exactly where you want the load to get easier or more difficult.
Setup #3: Good For Squat & Bench Press
In each of the two previous setups, we want to leave at least a few links dragging on the ground. By doing so, the chains don’t shake freely from the barbell, and the floor helps stabilize the bar especially while walking out a squat or unracking a bench press.
For the third setup, we don’t want the chains touching the ground at all. This will be primarily used for squat and bench stability.
Shorten the lead chain or fold the heavy chains so that they never touch the floor, even at the bottom of your rep. You can wad or ball the chains up if you like. The longer your lead chain and the more wadded your heavy chain, the more shake and instability you will experience while performing a rep.
Similar to the bamboo bar for bench pressing and overhead pressing, or the way a cambered bar pulls a squat forward, this variation forces a lifter to fight against the free-swinging chains to maintain stability throughout the lift.
Note that this setup should NOT be used with heavy weights. It will not require much to make this lift unstable, so don’t go throwing instability chain setups on 90% of your max.
Cons Of Lifting With Chains
Chains aren’t for everyone, and there are a few downsides to training with them. Let’s look at a few of the cons of lifting with chains.
It’s true, the chains do make noise, especially while training for speed with chains. Add the clanging of chains to the banging of heavy weight, and it can be unpleasant for others around you.
Depending on your gym, its culture and environment, that can be an obstacle to effectively training.
Check out my other top rated bench press variations that will help you improve your strength and technique.
They’re not cheap.
A quick search online shows you can easily spend $100 bucks to get enough chain for your first setup, which likely won’t be enough chain for lifters who are progressing.
Not everybody can afford to buy their own or have access to a gym that offers them as an option. Not only that, but if you DO buy your own chains, it’s not exactly easy to throw 40-60lbs of chain in your gym bag to bring along for the day’s workout.
In my early years of training powerlifting, I had to adjust my program to avoid using chains or drive an extra hour to go to a gym that had them.
This article might make you think chains are the silver bullet you’ve been looking for, but if you can’t access them, they can’t help you.
False Ego Boost
This is my favorite thing to see on social media – people posting about squatting or benching or deadlifting 525lbs when they add up the chain weight to the bar and the plates. Some will even throw in elastic band tension on top of it to get an even bigger number.
Don’t lie to yourself – the weight with the chains is ONLY the weight at the top of the rep. Just because you had 225 on the bar and 300lbs of chains doesn’t mean you squatted 525. It means you squatted 225 with 300lbs of chains.
Hold yourself accountable and don’t trick yourself into thinking you’re stronger than you are. Use the chains as a tool and eventually you will squat that weight+chain number with just the weight on the bar.
Extra Setup Time
Getting your chains set up takes time, especially if you need to dial in exactly where in the lift you want the chains to load/unload. It may take a few reps/sets to get it right.
If you’re in a hurry, or have limited time to use equipment in a crowded gym, taking the time to properly set up chains is a big downside.
There are lots of ways to overload, work through sticking points, and train stability. If you’re pressed on time, remember that chains is just one of many options.
You can rig up chains for every workout, but if you do it wrong, you’ll spin your wheels and get no added benefit from them. You can also hurt yourself, which we can all agree is far worse.
Learning a new training style or configuration takes time and expertise. Take the time to work with someone to help you get it right before you try to do too much with chains.
Where To Get Chains For Powerlifting
You could try to visit a hardware store and piece it together, but in my experience, Lowes and Home Depot don’t carry chains heavy enough to make a dent in even a novice lifter’s program.
My recommendation is to get a chain kit from Rogue (click for today’s price) complete with the lead chain and carabiners.
Rogue offers a few different kits depending on what you are looking for. You can get pairs with 10lb lengths of chain, 15lb lengths of chain, or you can get single lengths of chain to expand your set.
For smaller lifters or beginners, adding 10lbs to each side of a barbell can add plenty of progressive resistance to help you break through a plateau or a sticking point.
For bigger lifters or intermediate lifters, you’ll likely want to go right for the 15’s to add 30lbs+ to your lift.
For most lifters, 20-30lbs won’t be enough outside of their bench press work, so consider the single link options to expand your set and increase the amount of weight you can load/unload via chains.
Program Example: Bench Pressing With Chains
Here’s an example bench+chains workout you can follow for 5 weeks. Ideally, this block would strengthen an athlete’s ability to explode off their chest and/or increase their force at lockout.
- Bench Press with Chains – 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70% of 1RM + 10% in chains
- (If your 1RM – 1 rep max – is 315, you would have 220 on the bar and 30-35lbs of chains)
- Paused bench press – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 70%, no chain
- (Focus on how it feels when you drop the chain off and continue exerting maximal force throughout)
- Chains Skull Crushers – 3 sets of 8 reps
- Dumbbell Floor Press – 3 sets of 12 reps
- Bench Press with Chains – 5 sets of 5 reps @ 70% of 1RM + 15% in chains
- Paused Bench Press (pause half way up) – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 70%, no chain
- Wide grip bench press – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Incline DB Flyes – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Bench Press with Chains – 4 sets of 5 reps @ 75% of 1RM + 15% in chains
- Close Grip Bench Press with Chains – 4 sets of 6-8 reps @ 60-65% of 1RM +15% in chains
- Chains Skull Crushers – 3 sets of 8 reps
- Rope pull downs – 3 sets of 12 reps
- Bench Press with Chains – 5 sets of 5 reps @ 75% of 1RM + 15% in chains
- Paused bench press – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 70-75%, no chain
- Flat bench DB flys – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Wide grip push ups – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
- Bench Press with Chains – 3 sets of 3 reps @ 80% of 1RM + 15% in chains
- Paused Bench Press (pause half way up after hitting your chest) – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 70-75%, no chain
- Close Grip Bench Press with Chains – 4 sets of 6-8 reps @ 65% of 1RM +15% in chains
- Skull Crushers – 3 sets of 10 reps
Alternatives To Chains
Chains are not the only way to increase or decrease the load on a bar throughout a lift’s ROM.
Resistance bands (and reverse resistance bands) are commonly used in the same lifting programs to get similar outcomes, but with added variation. Take a look at my article on Banded Deadlifts, which offers a guide on how to replace chains with bands.
Resistance bands are a great way to get similar effects of training with chains for less money, and easier to bring to and from the gym.
When I do banded bench press, I use the 0.5 inch (red) and 1-inch (black) bands from WOD Nation (click to check band size and price on Amazon).
Every lifter runs into obstacles while trying to get stronger. Some of the most common ones are hitting a plateau in the amount of weight we can move, and discovering a sticking point in our lift. In both scenarios, incorporating chains is a fantastic solution.
When used properly, chains allow lifters to acclimate to heavier weights, target weak points of their lifts with deferred load, and increase the speed and power that accompanies their strength.