Most people will raise their eyebrows a little when you say you’re training with chains. You probably better not ask what they think about and quickly explain what you’re doing. Or maybe you’re the person that overheard someone talking about chains and you’re now on your phone how and why they work. Let me help you out.
Chains are used in the gym to combine progressive resistance with the constant resistance of a barbell. The Chains are attached to the barbell but, the end of the chain is resting on the floor. The further you lift the barbell from the floor, the more of the chain and thus weight you have to lift.
Using chains correctly in the gym can have several training benefits. Find out why and how you can use them below.
What does it mean to use chains in training?
There is an explanation below but first take a look at this picture. It’s what people mean when they mention adding chains to their training.
As you can see, it means that there are chains attached to both sides of the barbell. This is besides the weight plates you would usually use on a barbell. Chains are not a replacement for weight plates but serve another purpose.
What are the benefits of using chains in weightlifting?
Why bother with all this chain business in the first place? It’s a bit complicated and a lot of work but for what? There are a few cool benefits but it’s not for everyone.
Let’s go over why chains work in weightlifting and if it’s right for you.
Most lifts with a barbell move the barbell away from the floor. That fight against gravity on every repetition is what allows you to use those movements to build muscle and strength.
When you put a certain amount of weight on the bar, the amount of gravity that is pulling on that barbell is the same no matter if it’s on the floor or lifted above your head. However, that doesn’t mean it FEELS just as heavy in every part of a movement.
In some parts of a movement, the barbell can feel much heavier than in other parts. For example, let’s look at the bench press. For many people, getting the bar off the chest is the most difficult part. The barbell isn’t any heavier in that position but your body is at a mechanical disadvantage in that position meaning you can exert less force on the bar and making it move. There could also be some muscle imbalances causing a sticking point like that.
Since you want to be able to take a lift through a full repetition, you have to limit the weight to what you can lift through your sticking point. The problem with that is, is that you lift below the capacity of your muscle after the sticking point. This means you’re leaving some muscle and strength gains on the table.
That’s where the chains come in. Chains allow you to set them up in such a way where the weight of them just comes off the floor AFTER the weakest point in the movement. So you lift the lower weight through the weak point of the movement and then it ramps up at the point where you are stronger.
That means chains can be used to optimize the muscle and strength growth after the weakest point in your lift whereas you wouldn’t be able to use the full potential of your muscles without the chains.
Not for beginners
Don’t bother with this if you’re a beginner. As a beginner you’re better off just following a linear progression without chains or bands. You’ll still be able to make big steps without bothering with other methods. It’s also important to really learn the movement form without any other complications. Some lifts can be a bit tricky to get right and you want to be really comfortable with them before adding extra things to them.
Once you’ve progressed to an intermediate level, adding chains or bands can be a great tool to increase the effectiveness of your training. At an intermediate level, a linear progression will become less effective than it was before and you’ll have to figure out some other training tactics and methods to keep getting bigger and stronger and using chains is one of those.
If you’re wondering at which level you are, check out www.strengthlevel.com . On that site you can compare your own numbers to thousands of other people to get an idea of where you stand.
Another way of looking at it is; if you’re still getting good gains with a simple linear progression, you don’t have to bother with other things like chains.
How heavy should a training chain be?
How heavy a chain you need really depends on how strong you are. T-Nation recommends the following;
- If you squat under 300 pounds, try using 10 to 15 pounds of chain per side.
- If you squat 300 to 500 pounds, try using 20 to 30 pounds of chain per side.
- If you squat over 500 pounds, experiment with 40 pounds (or more) of chain per side.
That is obviously only relevant for the squat. You will use a different weight on different lifts. However, you can get an idea of what kind of weights you should think about.
Training with chains should not be done by beginners. While a 300 lbs. squat isn’t huge it’s also not something most beginners will do right from the start. Wait until you reach intermediate level before you start with chains.
If you are at a point you want to start using chains to get to the next level, you can start with about 5% of the total weight per side.
However, you won’t be able to adjust the weight of the chain as precisely as the weight plates on the barbell. So getting exactly 5% might be difficult. Just try to get as close to it as possible but don’t sweat it if you’re 0.1% off.
Once you advance in weight and strength a bit more, you can also increase the percentage of the chain weight relative to the weight on the bar. For the most advanced lifters, up to about 8% per side is suitable. Don’t forget that this is per side so in total you’re adding 16% to the total weight at the top of the lift. That’s actually quite a bit so don’t underestimate the effect this can have.
So, how heavy should the training chains be? Start with 5% of the total weight on the bar (excluding chains) per side and progress up to 8% when you’re more advanced. Always start on the lighter end of things and build up to higher percentages.
How to attach chains to a barbell?
How can you mate the barbell and a chain together? It’s not difficult so, let’s take a look.
There are three ways to combine a chain and barbell.
- Use barbell collars that have an extra hook for chain attachment. Just link a carabiner to both the chain and the loop on the collar and it’s attached. Just let the rest of the chain hang down.
- Wrap the chain around the bar. This doesn’t require any special equipment but there is a small chance the chain will slip off. It can also damage the sleeve of the barbell.
- Use a combination or small and big chains. You can create your own chain collars by wrapping a smaller chain
The method with collars is preferable since it’s safer for you and your equipment although the second method looks cooler and doesn’t require anything extra. Some people use such heavy chains that the first method doesn’t work because the chain links are too big to get a carabiner around. You have to be lifting some pretty extreme weight for that to happen though.
If you want the chain to be attached to the barbell in the middle and let the chain drape down at both ends, that’s possible with both methods. The benefit of that is that you double up the progression of the weight compared to only letting one end go down.
How to use chains with other equipment
There is some other equipment you could use chains with although a barbell is by far the most common one.
Another good one is a dip/pull up belt. A belt like that allows you to attach weight plates to your waist for extra resistance during dips and pull ups. Instead of a weight plate, you can easily attach a chain as well. Exercises like that aren’t often trained with progressive resistance so this can be a really interesting variable to introduce into your training program.
Technically you could use chains with dumbbells or kettlebells but in reality that isn’t very practical. Resistance bands are much better suited for those purposes.
How long should a chain be for weightlifting?
It’s important that the chains are long enough for a few reasons.
How long your chains have to be depends on the method you use to attach the chains to the barbell.
Chain collar with single chain
If you’re using a collar that allows you to attach a chain directly, the chain has to be at least as long as you with your arms stretched above your head.
If you don’t know how long that is, luckily the NBA has a concept called ‘standing reach’. This is how high you can reach without jumping. They figured out that on average this is on average 1.335 times your height. So, if you’re 6’ tall, your standing reach is about 8’. To make sure the chains don’t come off the floor at the highest point, your chains have to be at least 8’ long and preferable a bit longer.
To be clear; you can use the two chains method both with special collars and without. In one case you just attach the light chain to the collar. In the other, you wrap it around the sleeve. Both methods allow for the adjustment you want and need.
If you’re going to use the two chain system, the length requirements are a little different.
The heavy and the light chains should both be 6’ or slightly longer. That way you can adjust the chains correctly for all the different exercises.
You don’t want the chains to come completely off the floor during a lift. If the chains are completely free from the floor, they can start swinging which can cause instability. When you’re already lifting close to your maximum, a sudden instability is going to be very dangerous since you don’t have the reserves to correct for that instability, especially if you don’t expect it.
At the same time, you might not want the extra weight to kick in too early. You probably don’t want any resistance when you’re in the hole on a squat or bench press since that’s your weakest point. However, at the end of the rep where you can handle more weight, you want the chains to add extra resistance.
So, to make sure you can adjust the chain to the correct height for that to happen, both the heavy and the light chain have to be long enough.
How long is that? Both the heavy and the light chains should be about 6’ long each.
That’s long enough since you’ll probably always want to use the light chain to lower the heavy chain enough so it’s the lightest at the start of the repetition where you’re usually the weakest. If you need extra weight at the beginning of a repetition, just add more plates and don’t add constant weight with the chain.
Where to get chains?
Maybe you’ve decided you need some chains now. Where can you even get these magical chains? Some more weight and powerlifting oriented commercial gyms will have them but most big gyms don’t. If your gym doesn’t have them, they are probably not too happy about you bringing your own.
As a side note, if you can’t use chains, resistance bands can do a very similar job. Most gyms won’t have a problem with you bringing resistance bands. The only downside to resistance bands is that you have to anchor them somewhere close to the floor as well as around the barbell. Most power racks have pegs you can use to anchor bands.
In a home gym you can do what you want though. It’s one of the benefits of having a home gym. For a home gym you can easily get these chains online or in most hardware stores. You can use any chain you like.
Of course you can also easily buy them on Amazon;
Loading chain: Amazon link
Weight chain: Amazon link
The most important part of a chain for use in the gym is the weight. It really doesn’t matter how strong it is since it only has to lift its own weight. You’re not pulling trucks. The weight is important since that’s what you’re going to be lifting. Read more about the recommended weights at the bottom of this post.
The benefits of chains that are aimed towards the weightlifting market are usually available in different weights so you can easily pick one that’s right for you. Other chains usually don’t quote the weight. These chains are also the correct length so there is no need to wrap around, cut short or attach two chains together to get the correct length.
The fitness oriented chains usually also come with some kind of attachment mechanism although that’s easily to get for any other chain as well.