by Travis DeGraff

Training with chains attached to a barbell is nothing new but much like all training protocols, lifts, or theories on exercise science research is limited.  Anecdotal evidence is generally positive, but depending on the need and goal of the trainee chains may not always be necessary.

Chain Training 101

The purpose of using chains to load a barbell is simple.  Think about how hard a full olympic, ass to grass barbell squat is.  Specifically the hardest part of the lift is coming out of the very bottom.  The easiest part is the first quarter of the lowering/eccentric phase.  This is why we talk shit about guys who do quarter squats (they are taking the easy way out).  You might be able to do 505lb quarter squats for reps, but using the same weight in a full ass to grass squat my bury you.  With chains attached to the barbell the overall load is greatest when you are standing.  As you begin to descend the weight starts decreasing because the chains begin to pile onto the floor.  At the lowest point of the squat the load is the least it will be in the entire range of motion.  As you begin to ascend back up the weight again begins increasing.

An easier example would be if you had a 1 rep max squat of 405lbs.  To load it properly you would put 325lbs on the bar (or 85% of 1RM), then add chains so that at the very top of of the squat the load would be 405lbs, but at the bottom it would be closer to 325lbs.  It’s worth mentioning one additional challenge, or benefit that loading a bar with chains can add.  That is stabilization of the body.  If you set chains so that they are hanging, but not fully touching the floor it will require a greater level of stabilization muscles so that that chains are not swinging wildly back and forth.  This is particularly noteworthy as you will see in the latest study on chain training.

Variable Resistance Training (Chain Training Study)

In research using implements such as chains is often referred to as variable resistance, or “accommodation training”.  And the newest study on variable resistance training using chains was a collaboration between researchers at Kharazmi University in Iran, Ohio State, and Texas A&M Universities.  They wanted to put traditional weight training up against training with chain loaded barbells in athletes that generally relied on explosive power and strength, which in this case was wrestlers and Wu Shu (Kung Fu or the preferred form of Kung Fu by IP Man).  Here’s some details on these athletes:

  • 8 trained wrestlers
  • 8 trained Wu Shu athletes
  • Average age 20
  • Average weight 155lbs
  • 12.8 % bodyfat
  • 175lb 1RM in Bench Press
  • 260lb 1RM in BB Squat

You might be thinking these guys were relatively weak and small, but it’s possible they were not doing any weight training prior to this testing which is common in some athletic populations.  Nonetheless the authors to not clarify, so we are left to speculate.

chain training studyThe training protocol was fairly simple.  They tested the 1 rep max of all guys for the barbell squat, and barbell bench press.  Based on these values they assigned half to normal resistance training and half to chain training.  They all completed 4 weeks of 3 resistance training days each week.  In each session they completed a standardized warm up followed by 3 sets of 5 reps of both the bench press and squat (2 minutes rest between sets).  The normal resistance training group used 85% of 1RM as a loading parameter.  The chain training group used the same, but added chains so that the top of the lift was actually 100% of 1RM, and by the time they reached parallel depth it was 85% of 1RM.

A key point – at the top of the lift the chains were not touching the floor, which required a greater level of muscle stabilizers to be used.  The speed of the lift was controlled, and participants were asked to maintain their weight during the study period.

Does chain training increase strength?

Well in this case the results can be seen here:

Upper body strength – In the normal training group they increased bench press from 167lbs to 194lbs, or +27 lbs.  In the chain training group bench press increased from 176lbs to 204lbs, or +28lbs.  In other words chain training with the bench press did not seem to add any additional strength.

Lower Body Strength – In the normal training group they increased squat strength from 257lbs to 314lbs, or +57lbs.  In the chain training group squat strength increased from 259lbs to 360lbs, or +101lbs.  Or nearly double that of the normal training group!

So why the difference between lower and upper strength between the two training protocols?  This is difficult to answer, but the authors suggest the difference may be due to the greater muscle mass of the lower body.  There may be other factors involved as well such as range of motion, rate force development, etc.

One important point to note from this study is that total volume was not controlled.  The chain training groups did more overall volume by way of a greater load.  If you have utilized chain training feel free to post your results below.  Based on this research, it seems that chains may be more beneficial for lower body training.  Especially since the chain training in upper body actually required a greater volume for only 1 additional pound of strength increase.


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