Adding bands and chains to your main lifts can provide a different training stimulus to take your strength and power to new heights. Some lifters use bands and chains as a staple in their programming. Others may not use them at all.
Bands and chains are a tool in your toolbox that, when properly applied, can help you break through training plateaus and sticking points, improve technique, and provide unique adaptations by modifying the strength curve. To decide if and how to use bands and chains in your program, you first need to understand what they do and how they work.
Why Use Bands and Chains for Accommodating Resistance
Adding bands and chains to conventional barbell movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench press works via accommodating resistance. In a standard lift, the amount of resistance or force required to move the bar decreases as the lifter works through the range of motion.
Any experienced lifter knows that it’s harder to get out of the hole of a squat than it is to complete the last bit of the rep. Adding accommodating resistance using bands or chains means that the force required to move the bar increases as you complete the range of motion.
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Accommodating resistance modifies the strength curve of a movement. The strength curve is a function of how much force you need to apply to move the bar at the various joint angles throughout a movement. In a squat, the greatest amount of force is required to come out of the hole when joint angles are their longest. Less and less force is required as you complete the rep.
Adding accommodating resistance via bands and chains means that comparatively less force is required when joint angles are the longest. More and more force must complete the rep as bend tension increases or as more of the chain length is lifted off the ground. This change in the strength curve results in increased bar speed, greater eccentric velocity, and a longer acceleration phase.
The change in the way force is applied to the movement can create unique training adaptations that can be extremely helpful for a wide array of lifters and potentially not helpful to others. We’ll explore the effects of adding bands and chains to your training program so that you can decide if this tool is for you.
How to Set Up Bands
Before you start wrapping bands around a barbell, you need to understand how to calculate the amount of band tension you’re applying to your lifts. The first and most important concept is that you will need to reduce the amount of bar weight that you normally work with before you start adding band tension.
If your max squat is 405 pounds, you will not be able to lift 405 pounds of bar weight plus band tension. As a starting point, add 50% of your 1RM in bar weight before adding band tension. Band tension is somewhat difficult to measure as it varies across manufacturers, and it changes constantly and non-linearly as the band increases in length through the lift. For example, if a given band adds 100 pounds of band tension, it might only add 70 pounds through the first half of the range and then 30 pounds through the second half of the range.
Some manufacturers reveal the amount of tension in their bands, which generally refers to the amount of tension in the band when fully stretched. Depending on your height and set-up, you could apply a different amount of tension than what’s stated by the manufacturer. There are ways that you can measure band tension directly.
- One way is to wrap the band around a fishing scale and stretch the band to the same length it will be at the end of the range of motion in your setup.
- The other is that you can step on a scale, wrap the band around the bottom of a squat rack or another solid anchor point, and then stretch the band to the length it will be at the end of the range for the exercise you’re doing. The difference in scale weight before and after you applied the band tension tells you how much band tension you have in your setup.
The exact way you set up your bands will depend on your setup, and of course, it changes depending on if you’re using bands with your squats, deadlifts, or bench presses. We’ll use the squat as an example to explain the proper band setup.
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Ideally, you’re working with a squat rack that has multiple holes for pins along the bottom. First, load up the bar with plates and add clamps to each side. Next, wrap the band around one or more of the pins and then loop the band through itself. Next, pull it tight and place the loop around the bar, fairly close to the clamp. You want the band to be tight enough that it is still applying some tension in the bottom position of the lift. If you don’t have pins, you can wrap the band around the base of the rack.
You can also increase the amount of tension in the band by looping one end of it around the bar again. Take care to ensure you have set your bands up in the same way on both sides of the bar. Although setting up in a squat rack is ideal, there are a lot of other ways that you can set up bands with your main lifts. This video demonstrates one such example with a deadlift.
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In some setups, the band will be placed on the shaft of the barbell, inside the plates, rather than on the sleeves.
How to Set Up Reverse Bands
Reverse bands work using the same principles as a standard band setup. Whereas a standard band setup applies the least resistance in the bottom position, reverse bands apply to the most assistance at the bottom of a lift. Although a reverse band setup does not apply the same eccentric stress that a typical banded variation does, the result is similar.
Ideally, if working with reverse bands, you have a squat rack equipped with pins along the top of the cage. You’ll wrap the band around the pins as you did in the standard band setup and then wrap the bands around the bar. In contrast to a standard band setup, you don’t need any tension in the top position. The band tension increases as you descend, making the weight progressively lighter as you descend to your depth in the lift.
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How to Set-Up Chains
Compared to bands, chains are relatively straightforward to use. The key to setting up chains is that you want most, if not all, of the chain links on the ground in the bottom position of the lift and off of the ground in the top position of the lift. Some chains are sold with collars attached so that they can be attached directly to the bar. Although this may look cool, it means that only a few of the chain links come on or off the ground throughout the range of motion.
Depending on the weight of your chain links, you may only be adding five or 10 pounds throughout the range. This won’t be enough to alter the strength curve in a way that drives adaptation. Instead, what you want to do is wrap a strap or another small chain around the bar and then hang your chains from that strap at a high so that all of the chains are on the ground in the bottom position and off the ground in the top position.
The Benefits of Bands and Chains
We’ve established that working with bands and chains alters the strength curve and that this creates changes like increased bar speed and different muscle activation sequencing (1). These changes can create unique adaptations and benefits that we’ll review here.
Increased High-Velocity Strength
Adding accommodating resistance, particularly with bands, results in faster bar speeds, increased eccentric velocity, greater use of the stretch-shortening cycle, and a longer acceleration phase when compared to the standard barbell variation of the lift (2).
The downward pull of the bands increases the speed of the bar through the eccentric or lowering phase. This extra speed means more force is required to transition back to the lifting or upward phase of the movement. It takes a significant amount of force to overcome this eccentric velocity, some of which is contributed by the elastic properties of muscles and tendons.
All of these changes combine to increase your ability to produce force at high velocities. This has implications across a wide range of performance activities ranging from throwing a baseball to Olympic lifting.
Increased Strength at Short Muscle Lengths
In most conventional exercises like a squat or bench press, the greatest amount of force is required in the bottom position of the lift. In this position, the prime movers are in their most stretched or longest position. As you complete the lift and the muscles shorten, the movement gets progressively easier. This means that most of the strength gains occur at long muscle lengths. Although this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it does mean that you’re not optimally strengthening muscles to function at short lengths in these exercises.
Many athletes require elite levels of strength and power with muscles at short lengths. Consider jumping, be it in basketball, football, soccer, or any other sport. Athletes do not get into a deep squat before jumping. To optimally prepare these athletes for elite performance in their sport, some work in the weight room should be spent developing strength and speed at short muscle lengths. Accommodating resistance using bands and chains is a great way to do just that.
Variation is one of the keys to long-term progression. Still, it must be reconciled with the need to train your main lifts consistently and not getting distracted with suboptimal or trendy new exercises. Adding bands or chains to your main lifts is a great way to change the stimulus while staying laser-focused on the most important exercises. A squat with bands or chains is still a squat, but it has a different force-velocity curve, a longer acceleration phase, and different muscle activation patterns.
Other Uses for Bands and Chains
Bands and chains have uses beyond applying accommodating resistance to the competition lifts. Here are the other ways that you can add bands or chains to your training program.
Using Bands and Chains for Accessory Exercises
Bands don’t only apply accommodating resistance when being added to a barbell movement. Almost any exercise done with a band uses the principle of accommodating resistance. Consider the face pull exercise. When done with a band, the exercise is the easiest when the arms are extended in front of you, and it increases in difficulty as you pull the band tight and complete the rep. The cable variation of the same exercise is the most difficult at the beginning of the range of motion. Training both variations can strengthen the involved muscles at both short and long lengths for superior adaptations.
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Chains also have uses beyond applying accommodating resistance. They can also add extra resistance in the same manner a barbell or dumbbell does. For example, you can drape chains around your shoulders when doing dips or chin-ups. This can be a more comfortable and stable setup than having a plate hanging between your legs, and the resistance from the chain is the same throughout the movement.
As a Teaching Tool for Young Athletes
Athletes and people who are new to barbell work can struggle with the concept of driving out of the hole and accelerating a bar quickly. It can also be difficult to teach this skill with light loads, and coaches are right to be cautious not to load up a bar too heavily for a new lifter who hasn’t yet established a consistent technique.
Chains are a great option for helping new lifters develop the skill of moving the bar with speed. Because chains increase the force required as the load increases throughout the range, the bar speed will decelerate unless the lifter makes a concerted effort to drive the bar up quickly. This decelerating force gives the athlete something to work against, helping them understand this core concept safely. Chains are preferred to bands because bands actively pull the bar down is a challenge for beginners.
As a Tool for Training Around Injuries
As we’ve reviewed, most exercises are the hardest in the position where muscle lengths are the longest. This is also often the position of the greatest joint stress. Someone might have a nagging elbow injury that makes a barbell skull crusher uncomfortable. By substituting a banded variation, you can still get the benefit of the movement. Still, the exercise is the hardest with the band when the joint is under comparatively less stress.
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How to Program Bands and Chains
There are countless ways to build bands and chains into your program. How exactly you choose to do so depends on what type of athlete you are and the broader context of your training program. Bands and chains can develop max effort strength, dynamic effort, or simply as a tool for variation. You will want to be aware of how the accommodating resistance that you are applying impacts sets and reps for a particular workout, and also how you manipulate this resistance from week to week to ensure ongoing progress.
In terms of how to actually load the bar for a given lift, you’ll start by reducing the weight on the bar as a percentage of your one-rep max. The exact amount will vary. Working with 50% of your 1RM on the bar and adding band tension from there. If your max deadlift is 405 pounds, you would load up 202.5 pounds of bar weight and then could add a total of 150 pounds of band tension for five sets of doubles with a focus on working on speed. You can also periodize your use of accommodating resistance as you would with any other training variable. For example, you could use bands in your squat focussed sessions for a mesocycle and then on your deadlifts the next. You could work with chains one week for a given lift, bands the next, and then bar weight only in the third week.
It’s important to be aware of the additional eccentric loading of bands as this can cause excessive soreness. As with any other training tool or exercise, you can have too much of a good thing. Using a variable amount of band tension and chain weight can help you get the benefits of accommodating resistance while minimizing any potential issues.
How Often to Use Bands and Chains
You can use resistance bands and chains all the time or not at all. Although they are highly effective in specific situations that we have reviewed, there are other instances where they are only marginally effective, if at all. It’s also important to note that many people have achieved elite levels of strength without ever working with bands or chains. For example, accommodating resistance is regarded as being particularly effective for equipped powerlifting as it closely mimics the effect of the gear but not as effective for raw powerlifting.
Of course, some raw powerlifters train with and swear by the effectiveness of bands. If you determine that accommodating resistance is relevant for you, you will want to use it for your main lifts at various points throughout the training year. Working with bands and chains can be highly effective in certain situations. If you’ve built up some strength with standard barbell movements and are looking for a way to get even stronger, consider adding bands and chains to your program.
- Nijem, Ramsey M.; Coburn, Jared W.; Brown, Lee E.; Lynn, Scott K.; Ciccone, Anthony B. Electromyographic and Force Plate Analysis of the Deadlift Performed With and Without Chains, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2016 – Volume 30 – Issue 5 – p 1177-1182 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001351
- Rhea, Matthew R1; Kenn, Joseph G2; Dermody, Bryan M2 Alterations in Speed of Squat Movement and the Use of Accommodated Resistance Among College Athletes Training for Power, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: December 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue 9 – p 2645-2650 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b3e1b6
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