The 8 Best Exercises to Do With Bands and Chains

Improve your lockout, warm-up, and lift with more power by using these band and chain movements.

If you’ve ever worked out with resistance bands, you know they’re more hardcore than they look. And chains? Well, they’re exactly as hardcore as they look. Both pieces of  equipment can help you lift heavier and with better form — all without overtaxing your central nervous system. Bands and chains can give you a path toward progressive overload that doesn’t involve setting yourself up for injury.

Adding resistance bands to your training will help you isolate and address your weak points. You’ll also isolate muscles that you might normally tend to overlook. Incorporating chains into your compound lifts and bodyweight work will function similarly. You’ll have the bonus of adding weight directly to your pull-ups and dips without the awkwardness of a weighted belt. Plus, chains are inherently unstable, so your stabilizer muscles will have to work that much harder. That’s exactly the kind of training stimulus you need to take your lifts to the next level.

Best Resistance Band Exercises

Horizontal Band-Resisted Barbell Row

You’ll have to play around with your exact distance from the anchor point, depending on the length and resistance level of your band. Start with a lighter weight than you can use so you can get a feel for the distance you need. While you always want to focus on form no matter what exercise you’re doing, it’s essential here. With regular barbell rows, you’re in a sustained hip hinge position and using your lats to move the bar. The added horizontal resistance here will make your attention to form even more critical. And that will only strengthen your results.

Benefits of the Horizontal Band-Resisted Barbell Rows

  • The horizontal resistance will force you to fire up your lats properly by pulling your shoulders back and down (AKA scapular depression).
  • Your isometric hip hinge will get stronger because of the added horizontal pressure.
  • The added attention to form and stabilization will bust you through barbell row plateaus.

How to Do Horizontal Band-Resisted Barbell Rows

Pick a spot in your gym where there’s a horizontal anchor available a few feet away from your barbell. Set up the barbell for your rows as you normally would. Loop a resistance band around the center of the barbell, and anchor it securely to a horizontal base a few feet in front of you. (You can also loops bands around both sides of the barbell as shown above.) Take a few steps back until there is sufficient tension from the resistance band. Perform your rows for four sets of 10. 

Band-Resisted Bench Press

You’ll find that as you bring the bar closer to your chest, the resistance from the bands will minimize and even vanish. But as you approach lockout, the bands will give their maximum resistance. This makes band-resisted bench presses especially useful for when you’re trying to improve your lockout strength. The important thing about your setup is that you don’t secure the resistance band directly under the bar. Instead, the band should be somewhat diagonal, forming a triangle with your horizontal body and your vertical arms holding the barbell. That way, it won’t be producing inappropriate shearing forces on your shoulders by placing you in a compromised position.

Benefits of the Band-Resisted Bench Press

How to Do the Band-Resisted Bench Press

Loop a resistance band around the bar’s sleeve — AKA outside of the barbell itself, where you load the plates. (The knurling can snap the band.) Run the rest of the band on the underside of the bench. It shouldn’t be right under the bar but rather roughly in line with where your nipples will be when you lie down. Pull it through and loop the other end of the band on the other sleeve of the bar. Load your plates, securing the bands on the sleeve with the plates. Bench for four sets of 12. To really increase your time under tension, try pressing for a slow count of four each rep.

Mini Band Squats

Squatting with a mini band around your knees will help fight knee valgus — that dangerous and painful caving in your knees mid-squat. The band will force you to overcorrect for medial knee collapse. This will train your body and mind to push your knees outward during your whole squat. Because you’ll be working that much harder on your form, lower the weight a bit. But don’t worry: this banded squat variation will force your form to near perfection. So the weights are pretty much guaranteed to go up afterward.

Benefits of Mini Band Squats

  • It will help to correct knee valgus, which will make your knees healthier and your lifts stronger.
  • Increase mental toughness by adding a physical restriction to your movement during a compound lift.
  • Improve your core strength by limiting your lower body’s ability to compensate for insufficient midline stability incorrectly.

How to Do Mini Band Squats

Loop a mini resistance band around your thighs (or your calves if your thighs aren’t doable). Set up for a squat and proceed as usual for three sets of 10. To up the ante, add a three-second pause at the bottom of each rep. 

Band Pull-Apart

In addition to your traps, band pull-aparts target your rear delts, rhomboids, and rotator cuffs. With this move, you’re really able to isolate those oft-neglected muscles. You’re training scapular retraction here, which you need everything from a solid bench press to a strong low back squat shelf. Sure, band pull-aparts don’t seem as glorious as loading a bunch of plates on a bar. But program them before deadlifts, pull-ups, and benching. You’ll watch your numbers rise.

Benefits of Band Pull-Apart

  • Target your rear delts, rhomboids, and rotator cuffs, which are often neglected.
  • Form a stronger shelf for your low back squat.
  • Improve upper back stability and isolation for crossover into stronger main lifts.

How to Do Band Pull-Apart

Hold the band at shoulder width with your palms facing down. Brace your core, keep your shoulders down, and your chest up. Retract your shoulder blades so that your rear delts pull the band apart, not your arms. Let the band come back together under slow control. Try for four sets of 25, holding the band at maximum tension to failure for the last few reps of each set.

Chain Pull-Ups

After you get good at pull-ups — think 10-15 strict reps per set — you’ll need a new way to overload your muscles. Weighted pull-ups using chains are a great way to give you exactly that. The added resistance provided by the chains will stimulate upper back hypertrophy and give a huge boost to your grip strength, core stability, and general upper body pulling strength

Benefits of Chain Pull-Ups

  • Overload your muscles to bust through your pull-up plateau.
  • Improve your grip strength and core stability by adding a measure of weighted instability to your usual lift.
  • Stimulate upper back hypertrophy.

How to Do Chain Pull-Ups

Gently position chains around your neck draped as comfortably as you can across your traps. Proceed to perform strict pull-ups for four sets to failure. To add an extra challenge, perform your first set to failure, then double the number of reps with as little rest as possible.

Chain Dips

Much like with chain pullups, chain dips are all about improving on an already solid basis. Your form will need to be rock solid to keep the chains steady on your body. By adding chains to the mix, you’ll be increasing chest and triceps hypertrophy and overall strength. 

Benefits of Chain Dips

  • Increase chest, triceps, and shoulder hypertrophy.
  • Breakthrough plateaus with your dips.
  • Improve core and forearm strength by adding an extra instability challenge.

How to Do Chain Dips

Drape the chain across your traps, making sure the weight is distributed evenly on either side of your body. Perform dips as you normally would. Keep strict form and a full range of motion. Perform four sets to failure. For some added oomph, take as little rest as possible after your first failure set and then double the number of reps.

Chain Front Squats

Why use chains for front squats? By nature, front squats are going to tax your core strength, stability, and quads. Adding chains to the lift adds an extra layer of instability, which boosts the benefits of the lift. The unstable chains will force your thoracic spine to stay erect throughout the lift. That’s got major carryover benefits to your back squat, overhead press, bench, and deadlift.

Benefits of Chain Front Squats

  • Use accommodating resistance to make the lift as hard as possible throughout the entire move.
  • Force your thoracic spine to work in anti-rotation as the unstable chains pull on either end.
  • Help your mind get more comfortable in the bottom of the squat (because with chains, that’ll be the “lightest” part).

How to Do Chain Front Squats

Use two chains, securing one on either side of the bar while it’s racked. Make sure the chains are falling evenly. Unrack the bar and perform your front squats as normal. Try for four sets of 12. 

Use pause squats to get even more out of the workout. With most pause squats, you’ll want to pause in the hole. When you’re doing chained front squats, though, you’ll want to pause at the top. It’ll give an extra challenge to your stability and core.

Chain Close-Grip Bench Press

If your bench lockout strength gives you trouble, close-grip bench pressing with chains can help for more than one reason. Close-grip presses target your triceps to begin with, which will often help with bench press lockout. Adding chains to the mix increases instability and accommodating resistance. You can maintain a relatively constant load throughout your lift, increasing time under maximum tension.

Benefits of the Chain Close-Grip Bench Press

  • Add strength and muscle mass to your triceps.
  • Target your triceps without adding additional mechanical strain to your shoulders.
  • Improve your lockout strength by combining a triceps pressing move with increased time under tension over a broader ROM.

How to Do the Chain Close-Grip Bench Press

Secure chains on either end of the bar. Make sure the chains are falling evenly. Complete your reps as usual. Perform four sets of 10. To add training variety, increase your time under tension, and further boost your lockout strength, press for a slow count of four for each rep.

The Benefits of Training With Bands and Chains

Whether you’re having trouble putting more weight on the bar or you can’t sort out that lockout issue, training with accessory equipment can help. Yes, you’ll have to strip some weight away at first — but it’ll be worth it. Lifting with bands and chains will make you pay extra attention to your form. In turn, that’ll help fight your weaknesses and boost your totals.

Accommodating Resistance

One of the reasons chains, in particular, are so helpful is the principle of accommodating resistance. In a nutshell, accommodating resistance increases the load throughout the range of motion. For example, with a front squat, the bottom of the squat is usually the toughest — when the weight feels heaviest. But adding accommodating resistance with chains adds weight to the top of the lift. The chains are most heavy at the top and lightest at the bottom. Ergo, the resistance is more consistent throughout the whole lift. Talk about time under tension.

This will also allow you to emphasize areas of your lifts that you might take for granted. The more efficiently you stabilize yourself at the top of your squat, the better your lift will be overall. Lifting with accommodating resistance will help you emphasize those little things — with big results.

Strengthen Form to Address Weaknesses

Adding bands and chains to your training will address all your weaknesses. Knees caving in on your squat? Add a mini band. Not engaging your lats enough on your barbell row (which is the point of the lift)? Set up a horizontal resistance band. Need to maintain a good bar path during your bench press to improve that lockout strength? Grab a resistance band and get pressing.

Bands ensure that you can’t overcompensate for your weaknesses and force imperfect reps. The bands will provide the cue for your body, so you won’t have to think “knees out” during your squat. Your body will have to do it or fail the lift. It’ll build impressive mind-muscle connections that will address even your most stubborn weak points.

Improve Training Under Instability

Have you ever carried eight hundred uneven grocery bags at once? (Because thou shalt not make multiple trips.) The actual weight of the bags might not be too terrible, but the weird shapes and instability of it all make it quite the workout. Similarly, adding chains to your lifts makes forces you to work a lot harder.

Your stabilizer muscles — largely in your core, but really across your whole body — go into overdrive to adjust for the shifting weight of the chains. Of course, they should always be secure for safety. But by nature of their shape, lifting chains will always be flopping around to some degree. That shiftiness will force your body to be even more precise in its movements. That precision will translate into much more efficient movement. And more efficient movement means more powerful, heavier lifts.

Increased Kinesthetic Awareness and Lifting Confidence

Whether you choose bands, chains, or both, working with these new stimuli is bound to increase your lifting confidence. You won’t be adding plates to the bar — yet — but you’ll be conquering a new training stimulus. The bands and chains force you to become hyper-aware of your body’s relationship with the bar and the new implements. To complete the lift properly, you’ll be forced into near-perfect form. In doing so, you’ll become more kinesthetically aware, more in control of your movements, and more certain of your form. If that increased body knowledge doesn’t make you more confident, the badass sound of lifting chains definitely will.

More On Chain and Resistance Band Training

Upping your game with resistance bands and chains is well worth it. If you’re ready to add a new training stimulus to your program, check out these articles on band and chain lifting.

Featured Image: Andy Gin/Shutterstock