Hanging chains on the bar while lifting weights may seem like something only elite powerlifters do to maintain their incredible strength and power.
You may also think that these medieval-looking chains couldn’t possibly have much of an influence on the training effect, especially compared to all the modern-day machines and equipment available in most gyms today.
Well, truth be told, chains are probably one of the most effective ways to increase strength.
The potent influence that chain-loaded training has on strength occurs because properly positioned chains on the barbell, that settle to the ground one link at a time during the descent portion of the movement, effectively decrease the resistance on the bar as more and more links in the chain rest on the ground.
On the other hand, going in the upward direction lifts the chain off the ground, one link at a time. This increases the resistance on the bar throughout the ascent phase of the lift.
When the decrease in resistance from the chains during the descent adequately matches the decrease in muscular force, or when the increase in resistance matches the increase in actomyosin-driven force production in the muscle, the chains effectively provide what is called accommodating resistance.
The primary result from accommodating resistance is a greater velocity on the bar throughout the entire movement.
This is essential for maximizing strength, as greater velocity on the bar throughout the movement preferentially stimulates muscle growth of the more powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers.
It also induces post-activation potentiation and increases neuromuscular efficiency, which collectively drives remarkable strength gains.
Chain-loads Potentiate Muscular Strength
Post-activation potentiation (PAP) is the increase in muscular force production that occurs as a result of maximal activation of the muscle from a previous lift.
The use of a maximal-effort lift increases the number of interactions between actin and myosin during subsequent lifts, promoting greater force production by the muscle fiber1, while also stimulating greater activation of the nervous system. This produces additional muscle fiber excitation and also increases force generation during ensuing lifts.2
Moreover, maximal acceleration of a chain-loaded bar has also been shown to induce PAP.
In fact, a study by Baker et al.3 demonstrated that using chains increased the velocity of the bar, on average, by 10 percent during the bench press while subjects were lifting 75 percent of their one-repetition maximum, with 80 percent of the weight on the bar coming from plates, and the other 20 percent coming from chains loaded on the bar.
The authors of the study suggest that the increased velocity could be explained by the use of chains during the lift, which decreased the resistance while lowering the bar to the chest. The lower resistance increased lifting velocity during the concentric phase of the bench press, inducing PAP, which further increased muscular force production and the velocity of the bar.
Preferentially Trigger Fast-twitch Muscle Fiber
Because training with chain-loaded bars inherently increases the velocity of the bar, the use of chains plausibly activates fast-twitch muscle fiber contraction over slow-twitch muscle fibers. This is based on a well-established rule called the size principle, which asserts that more force production required by the muscle preferentially activates the larger, fast-twitch muscle fiber.
The requirement for greater force production when bench pressing at higher velocity is based on the simple relationship between velocity and acceleration, where an increase in velocity increases acceleration— and according to the well-known equation (force = mass x acceleration), the increased acceleration of the bar increases the force required to lift the bar.
Altogether, the preferential activation of fast-twitch muscle fibers from chain-loaded movements should improve strength performance, as fast-twitch muscle fibers produce superior muscular force relative to slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Loaded Chains Reduce Deceleration, Increase Muscular Force
As previously mentioned, the use of chain-loaded training provides accommodating resistance, which markedly increases the rate of acceleration of the bar. The increased level of acceleration requires a greater amount of deceleration to effectively stop the bar and, most importantly, avoid injury.
Surprisingly, studies have shown that performing relatively high-velocity bench presses actually minimizes the amount of deceleration required by optimizing the neuromuscular system’s deceleration efficiency, which minimizes the total deceleration.4
The reduction in the length of the deceleration phase effectively increases acceleration time, bringing about gains in strength and power production.
In order to see if greater acceleration of the bar from chain-loaded training could also increase the length of the acceleration phase, a study by Swinton et al.5 investigated the effects of chain-loaded deadlifts in resistance-trained athletes.
The deadlift was performed with 30 to 70 percent of each subject’s one-repetition maximum, with two different chain loads adding 20 and 40 percent of their one-repetition maximum.
The researchers found that adding chains led to a significantly longer acceleration phase, suggesting that training with chains does have a similar effect as training with lighter weights— where chain-loaded training enhances the ability to decelerate, which reduces the amount of time necessary to achieve the required deceleration.
Of course, the increased time of the acceleration phase increases force production, plausibly improving strength.
Strength Gains With Chains
Taking into consideration all of the positive effects associated with chain-loaded training, it is no surprise that this form of training produces considerable strength gains. Indeed, several studies have clearly shown significant gains in strength from the use of chain-loaded exercises.
In one of these studies, McCurdy et al.6 investigated the influence of chain-loaded and plate-loaded bench-pressing on strength, in college athletes with many years of resistance-training experience. The athletes were split into either a chain-loaded or a plate-loaded training group.
The results showed that both training groups displayed significant increases in strength. However, the researchers noted that there was a trend for the chain-loaded group to improve to a greater extent in bench press strength.
Correct Movements & Intensity to Perform Chain-loaded Work
In general, when the lift is easier to perform at the top of the lift and harder to perform at the bottom of the lift, it is amenable to chain-loaded training— meaning that the use of chains will result in accommodated resistance and strength gains.
These lifts are said to have an “ascending strength curve,” meaning as you ascend in the movement, strength increases. Most complex, lower-body lifts, such as the squat and deadlift, have ascending strength curves— as do many complex, upper-body movements like the bench press and shoulder press.
This means they all have the greatest force production at the top of their respective movements and are, therefore, responsive to chain-loaded training.
In addition to knowing the right chain-loaded movements to perform, it is essential to know the most effective combination of free weight and chain resistance to use for optimal strength development.
Several reports show that using 65 to 85 percent of your one-repetition maximum, combined with 15 to 35 percent of the total load in chains, should produce the most optimal strength gains.7,8,9
- Liu Y, Schlumberger A (2003). Different effects on human skeletal myosin heavy chain isoform expression: strength vs. combination training. J Appl Physiol; 1985;94, 2282-2288.
- Rassier DE and Herzog W. Force enhancement following an active stretch in skeletal muscle. J Electromyogr Kinesiol; 2002;12, 471-477.
- Baker DG and Newton RU. Effect of kinetically altering a repetition via the use of chain resistance on velocity during the bench press. J Strength Cond Res 2009;23, 1941-1946.
- Cronin JB, McNair PJ and Marshall RN. Force-velocity analysis of strength-training techniques and load: implications for training strategy and research. J Strength Cond Res 2003;17, 148-155.
- Swinton PA, Stewart AD, et al. Kinematic and kinetic analysis of maximal velocity deadlifts performed with and without the inclusion of chain resistance. J Strength Cond Res 2011;25, 3163-3174.
- McCurdy K, Langford G, et al. Comparison of chain- and plate-loaded bench press training on strength, joint pain, and muscle soreness in Division II baseball players. J Strength Cond Res 2009; 23, 187-195.
- Anderson CE, Sforzo GA and Sigg JA. The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2008;22, 567-574.
- Bellar DM, Muller MD, et al. The effects of combined elastic- and free-weight tension vs. free-weight tension on one-repetition maximum strength in the bench press. J Strength Cond Res 2011;25, 459-463.
- Wallace BJ, Winchester JB and McGuigan MR. Effects of elastic bands on force and power characteristics during the back squat exercise. J Strength Cond Res 2006; 20, 268-272.