How to use bands and chains
to increase your max lifts
by Dave Tate
Dave Tate knows strength. Dave's been assisting and training under Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell fame for over 10 years and has consulted thousands of athletes throughout the world. Dave is quick to point out that he's not a bodybuilder and therefore doesn't train bodybuilders. He's a powerlifter and a specialist in developing maximal strength. (Despite this powerlifting emphasis, the average guy under his tutelage puts on 30 to 40 pounds in the first year.)
In Dave's last article he taught you the art of box squatting. This time he'll introduce you to another Westside favorite, the use of bands and chains while benching and squatting. A word of caution, though. This is an extremely advanced method of training and should only be used by those who are familiar with Westside methodology. I should add, too, that the methods outlined below are also very complicated. However, at the very least, they'll open your mind to different, unconventional methods that may also have some application to bodybuilding as opposed to just powerlifting.
Extreme Training = Extreme Poundages
If you were to ask me what advancement has made the greatest impact on our training at Westside Barbell in the past five years, I'd have to say accommodating resistance. Before I get into the specifics behind this type of training let me step back in time. When I arrived at Westside I found out very quickly that this was cutting edge training. I was introduced to box squatting, Zercher squats, Paul Dicks presses and many other exercises I'd never seen or even heard about before.
We even had to make up our own names for some exercises since we'd never seen them before. The name didn't matter; what mattered was if it worked or not. I've seen some of the strangest things created using cables, boxes, benches, rings, dumbbell bars, you name it. When you train in a 20' X 40' gym you have to get creative. Some of these movements have had dramatic effects on our strength. The key has always been matching up the right movements with the individual sticking points.
When I came to Westside there were only three 800-pound squatters. A few other guys joined the club in the following few years; their progress was slow but steady. Then Louie introduced the chains. I liked the idea of attaching chains to the bar, so me and Joe Amato decided to give it a try for our next meet. We cycled the chains on our dynamic day for eight weeks. The result? We both put 60 pounds on our squats and became the next two to join the 800-pound club.
At this point we knew we'd found something. The chains were introduced to the rest of the gym and within the next year we had another six guys in the 800s. Not only were the chains working for the squats, but all of our benches were going through the roof as well! We were always used to slow, steady gains, but were now seeing dramatic increases in a very short time. A 500-pound bench soon became a joke.
Then about three years ago, Louie asked me to go to a basketball conference with him to check out some bands. I thought at the time he was talking about some type of surgical tubing like aerobic instructors use. I told him I thought it was a waste of time but went along any way, you know, so he wouldn't kick my ass. When we arrived at the conference, we found the vendor booth with the bands, which were being demonstrated for flexibility training. I now thought Louie was going to introduce flexibility into our training.
I went through some of the movements and was instructed to wrap the band around my back and perform some bench presses. The tension of the big bands was pretty strong and I began to feel it in my triceps after a few reps. Louie bought a bag full of bands and we were on our way. While driving back to the gym I asked him what he was planning to do with them. I figured he'd say something in regard to flexibility training or partner assisted exercises. I wasn't prepared for what he did say. He told me he wanted to attach them to weighted barbells, an idea suggested to him by Dave Williams of Liberty University.
I thought we were going to be flirting with disaster and didn't want any part of it. The chains had taken my squat from 760 to 855 in 12 months and I wasn't ready to change. Well, if you've ever trained at Westside you know two things are for certain. First, change is part of the process. Second, Louie will get his way!
I became the guinea pig and within the next few months squatted my first 900. Five of my teammates soon followed and 23 have now squatted 800. The implementation of chains and bands have made a 500 bench and 800 squat a joke!
So how the heck do chains and bands help you anyway?
At Westside we've always taken the approach of "try it first, then figure out why second." I feel this is the correct way to train. If you spend all your time trying to reason why something will or will not work, then you may miss out on a great opportunity. As the Nike slogan says, just do it! If it works, great, then figure out why. If it doesn't work, well, you've still learned something.
It's taken us five years to figure out why we think chains and bands work. We had to do some research into the force velocity curve and individual strength curves. We sought out individuals like Dr. Mel Siff and went back and re-read texts by Roman, Zatsiorsky, Bompa and others. After hours of reading, many discussions, and plenty of time spent under the bar, this is how I see it.
Zatsiorsiky defines accommodating resistance as using special means to accommodate resistance throughout the entire range of motion rather than a specific point. Because of some joint angles and the velocity of movement, the force of the movement is less at certain joint angles. For example, in the barbell squat you may be able to quarter squat 500 pounds while you can only full squat 300. Another common example is the standard dumbbell curl. The force at the beginning is much greater than the force at the top. Max Herz addressed this problem around the year 1900 by inventing a cam. This cam was to be part of a machine that would accommodate the resistance to the strength curve.
Years later, Nautilus tried again to solve the problem with their cam. This odd shaped cam applied the resistance in a variable form so the load varies according to the average strength curve. This is to provide greater resistance where the athlete is strong and less where they're weak.
This cam poses several problems. First, it was designed on average strength curves that don't carry over well to most athletes. Louie uses the deadlift to demonstrate how individual strength curves can vary. One lifter may blast the weight off the floor and fight through the last three inches of the lift. Another may be slow off the floor and lock the weight out easy. The same machine may not benefit these lifters in the same way.
A second problem according to Zatsiornsky is that the number of degrees of freedom is limited from six in natural movements, to only one with machines. Paul Chek has also explained this in much greater detail in his pattern overload articles. Third, the acceleration and deceleration is also very different than natural movements. Fourth, the manufacturers of several machines have altered the cam (to avoided patent lawsuits) to the point that they don't even match average strength curves! Ever wonder why you can lift so much more with one machine when compared to another? Now you know.
Another way that's been used to accommodate resistance is isokinetic training. With isokinetic training the speed of the motion is constant no matter how much force is applied. The disadvantage with isokinetics is the same as machine training: it's applied on only one plane. Most isokinetic machines are also built for one joint movement and the velocity of movement can be too low.
Yet another popular way to accommodate resistance is with the use of a power rack. Take the bench press for example. You can set the safety pins at a point so you'll only work your lockout. While you may be able to overload a certain position of your bench press many times, it's nowhere close to your groove and won't carry over well to the competitive press. In the deadlift, the "pin pull" or deadlifting off pins, is a great way to overload the muscles of the lift, but this doesn't carry over well to the full deadlift because the hip may be in a different position.
Accommodating resistance must be an important aspect of strength with all the attention being paid to it, right? Well, we've found a way to accomplish this while still maintaining the benefits of the three dimensional value of the barbell and not sacrificing the path of movement. By attaching chains and/or bands to the bar we can accommodate the individual strengths curves and beat the machines at their own game. Not only can we accommodate these strength curves, we can do it in the squat, bench press and deadlift as well as all of our supplemental and assistance movements.
This will have a great effect on the intermuscular coordination of the lifter because of the ability of the stabilizers, neutralizers, agonists, and antagonists to work together. Another benefit of the chains and bands has to do with the force velocity curve. A very simple definition of this would be "the more velocity developed, the less force needed to move the object." If you lift a weight with great speed, the less force is needed to complete the lift.
Another aspect to look at is the deceleration of the bar. I don't care how you lift the weight, at some point you have to begin to decelerate. If not you'd have to actually throw the barbell. Now at what point do you begin to decelerate? Is it at three or four inches before the lockout, or three to four inches off your chest in the bench? I don't know for sure, but I can guess it's different for everyone and is based on several individual things such as joint angles, fatigue, and previous training experience. Bands and chains can train you to break through these sticking points.
Note: One thing to keep in mind with this concept is if you decide to use bands you don't want to use them for every movement in the workout or training program. The effect of the bands will inhibit the work of the antagonists to a certain degree. This may not be all that important for a powerlifter who's always lifting heavy objects, but could have a potentially negative effect on other athletic movements like throwing a football or baseball. Without the braking effect of the antagonist there can be a potential for hyperextension of the joint.
Now, let's put all this info to work!
Accommodating resistance with the main lifts:
Box Squat and Bench Press
Squatting with Chains
This is the exercise that started it all. As mentioned in earlier articles the squat is to be trained with a four week wave using between 50 and 60 percent of your competitive max. If you don't have a competitive max with the use of equipment (suits, wraps etc.) then you'll need to add 10 percent to make up for the advantages these impliments would give you.
After the completion of your warm-up sets, you'll perform 8 to12 sets of two reps. Most will want to keep the rest periods at 45 to 60 seconds. A larger man over 242 may want to go up as high as 90 seconds. These short rest periods are responsible for a great release of growth hormone and Testosterone.
You must pause for a spilt second on the box and explode up. The faster you move the weight, the more your neuromuscular system will get involved. The more neuromuscular system involvement, the stronger you'll become. When using chains with the squat, the chains aren't added into the percent. This is because the chains are deloaded at the bottom of the squat. This keeps the training percent low enough to build an incredible amount of explosive force out of the hole. As you stand up with the bar, the weight of the chain is lifted off the ground.
To set up the chains you'll need a five foot 1/4 inch chain to act as the support chain. This chain is suspended from the bar sleeves. A metal ring will be suspended in the 1/4 inch support chain. Then the training chains (five feet long, either 5/8" or 1/2" thickness) will pass through the metal rings so one half of the chain falls on each side of the ring. You'll set the support chain so three links on each side of the training chain are on the floor at the top of the lift. When you sit down on the box most of the training chain will be on the floor. You have to keep a certain amount of the chain on the bar to avoid the chains swaying back and forth throughout the movement. The recomendated amount of training chain weights for the dynamic squat day is listed below.
Chains per side
Weight of chain (top)
1 (5/8), 1(1/2)
2 (5/8), 1(1/2)
Note: When squatting with chains it's also important to use them throughout all the warm-up sets.
So, if your maximum squat is, say, 500, you'll need to load 2 of the 5/8" chains on each side.
Squatting with Bands
Squatting with bands is perhaps the greatest thing to happen to our squat poundages in the last few years. When we first started training with the bands I hated them. I felt they slowed the bar speed down too much. I stuck with it, well, because I really didn't have a choice. It was either use the bands or be called "scared" every squat day!
After my first meet training with the bands I was sold. There are two ways we use the bands for the dynamic squat day. I'll discuss the first, the basic training phase, in this article. The second way to use them is with a circa-maximal phase. (This is a very intense, detailed phase that will be the topic of an upcoming article.)
To use the bands for the basic training phase you'll have to reduce the training percentage by 10%. The normal suggested percent for an intermediate lifter is a four week wave, cycling the percent from 60% to 70% of your competitive squat max. It may look like this: week 1 at 60%, week 2 at 63%, week 3 at 67%, week 4 at 70%. After the warm-up sets, perform 8 to12 sets of 2 reps with one minute rest between sets. With the use of bands the percent range would drop to 50%-60% of your competitive max squat.
We've found the bands to be superior to chains in accommodating resistance. This is because of several reasons. With the bands the weight is being pulled downward to the floor at a greater force than without the bands. This is a form of maximal eccentrics and can be very demanding on the system. This style of training can and will make you very sore!
This maximal eccentric loading can also help to develop an incredible amount of explosive strength. Picture a basketball. If you were to just drop it to the floor it'll only bounce so high. Now, if you were to throw it down with more force wouldn't the ball bounce higher? Of course it would. The key is to make sure there's still tension at the bottom of the lift. If the band tension lets off at the bottom, you'll lose much of the training effect. We found this out through trail and error.
Another theory I have with the bands deals with the intensity of the movement. Let's say your max squat is 600 pounds. Now let's say you set the training up so the resistance is 400 pounds with an additional 150 pounds of tension. This is 550 pounds at the top of the lift. Because of the acceleration of the bands as you squat down, the force of the movement keeps the intensity very high, possibility the same as it was at the top (550). Even though the bands are getting shorter, the tension is getting higher because of the added force throwing you down.
When you sit on the box the intensity will become deloaded to the tension of the band at the bottom (say 40 pounds of tension.) As you raise the weight (the concentric phase) then tension is progressively being loaded back onto the bar. This is known as accelerated eccentrics and progressive concentric. Whatever you call it, our average squat increase has been 40 to 60 pounds after the first meso cycle with bands.
To use the bands you'll attach one end of the band around the inside part of the barbell sleeve. The other end will be anchored around a set of dumbbells or around the bottom of the power rack. The best way to train with the bands is with the use of a Mono-lift device. If you don't have access to one you'll have to make use with what you have. If you have to use the dumbbells or power rack to attach the bands you may not be able to use the desired tension as listed below. This is because you'll have to walk the weight out. As soon as you break the J hooks the weight will be slamming you backwards. This could potentially send you flying backwards on your ass. While this may be entertaining to some in your gym, I'd rather not see you kill yourself. For you, I recommend using as much band as you can and making up the difference with chains.
This chart will help you figure out how much band you need:
Benching with Chains
Training the bench with chains is still one of our most effective ways to push up our max lifts. After warm-ups you'll train your bench at 60% of your shirtless (bench shirt) max for the intermediate lifter. Eight sets of three repetitions will be performed as quickly as possibility. This means you'll drop the weight quickly (under control) and catch and explode back up as fast as possibility. There's no pause between reps. When using chains you'll throw them on with the training weight. There's no need to reduce the training weight because most of the weight will be deloaded onto the floor.
You'll use the same chain set-up as the squat . While the bar is in the rack, one half of the training chain should be on the floor. This will allow for a total deload at the bottom. As a side note, if you were to attach the training chain to the bar sleeve without the support chain (as some manufactures are doing with their devices), you'll get very little deload because most of the chain will remain off the floor while very little chain will actually end up on the floor. This is why those who don't know how to use a product should never try sell it! (If these manufacturers are going to steal one of our ideas they should at least get it right! If you're interested in the chains and bands we use, call Toppers at 614-444-1187. Tell them I sent you and they'll treat you right.)
Recommended chain loading for dynamic day:
Chains per side
Weight of chain (top)
1 (5/8), 1 (1/2)
2 (5/8), 1 (1/2)
Benching with Bands
Benching with bands is much harder on your body than benching with chains. For this reason I don't recommend training with the bands for longer than four weeks at a time. It's best to cycle a four week wave with the bands followed by a four week wave with the chains. When you cycle with the bands you'll want to deduct the added tension the bands create at the bottom off the barbell for the training. The training sets and reps stay the same as the dynamic day with chains. You'll place the bands on the inside part of the bar sleeve then begin adding the plates.
The other end of the band will need to be anchored around the bottom of the power rack or a set of dumbbells. To adjust the tension make the anchor bigger. For example, to create more tension wrap the band under two dumbbells rather than one.
Accommodating resistance for max effort lifts
We've found the bands and chains to be very effective when used with our max effort movements as well as the competitive lifts. The focus with the max effort movement is much different than the competitive lifts. When training with the dynamic effort method we're focusing on the development of explosive and acceleration strength. With the max effort movement our focus is on the development of maximal strength. This means working up to a heavy set of one or three reps. The main goal with this type of training is straining. The longer the strain the longer the time under tension. When you add the element of chains and/or bands to this mix, you add the time the muscle will be under strain. Some examples are listed below:
Floor Press with Chains
This movement is performed by lying on the floor and performing your regular bench press. This exercise takes much of the legs out of the motion and adds more stress to the pecs, delts and triceps.
There's no need for the support chain with this movement because the bar is close to the floor; you'll just place the chains over the bar. There're many ways to perform this exercise:
1. Work up to 50% of your competitive max, then begin adding one chain on each side until you fail.
2. Start with a set number of chains on the bar. For example, start with five chains on each side (200 total pounds), then begin to work up to your one rep max.
These are both great movements for increasing the strength off the chest or at the bottom of the bench.
Reverse Band Press
The movement is performed in the power rack with the bands suspending the barbell from the top of he rack. Make sure to load on enough weight to start with so the bar will stay on the J hooks.
With this movement you'll perform a standard close or medium grip bench press up to a one rep max. Most of you will like this movement because the bands help to launch the bar off the chest. This will feel really easy until the weight gets heavy. As the weight gets heavier the bands still only help so much. They'll help you out of the bottom, but you'll have to be able to finish the lift. This movement is great for lockout strength.
Reverse Band Deadlift
I pointed out at the beginning of the article how the power rack can have many short comings in regard to strengthening the groove of the lift. While "pin pulls" still have their benefits for overloading the muscles of the deadlift, the reverse band deadlift can accomplish what the pin pulls cannot. This movement can help the lifter get the bar off the floor then overload at the top position.
The bands will help get it off the floor but will do very little of anything at the top. The most important aspect of this movement is how the bands are attached. You want to set them up so the bar will come out of the bands at the top of the lift.
Bench Press, bands behind back
With this movement you perform the standard bench press but you'll be holding a elastic band behind your back.
This creates a incredible amount of tension at the top of the lift. You'll want to hold the top (end position) of the lift for a peak contraction before beginning the following rep.
Low Box Squats with Bands
This movement is performed with the same form as the standard box squat except your stance will be closer and you'll be squatting on a box that's two to three inches lower than parallel.
Accommodation resistance for supplemental movements
Band Triceps Extensions, elbows out
This is a great movement for the long head of the triceps. From a standing or inclined position lower the dumbbells so they rest high on the chest with your elbows forced outward.
Pause on the chest for one second then raise the dumbbells back to the starting position. While pressing the dumbbells upward, keep the bottom parts of the bells together as you extend up. Pause for one second at the top and repeat.
Band Triceps Extensions, elbows in
This movement is great for the lateral head of the triceps.
Lower the dumbbells to the point where the head of the dumbbell hits the deltoid, at which point you'll roll the dumbbells back to get a stretch in the triceps, then extend the bells back to the starting position. Pause for one second and repeat.
Triceps Floor Extensions with chains
This is set up the same as the floor press with chains, except you'll be performing a triceps extension.
The deloading the chains offer is great with this movement because there'll be less stress on the elbows. A major disadvantage of the triceps extension is that many times the stress on the elbow is greater than the strength of the triceps because of the leverages of the movement. With chains you can overload the top position where the triceps are strongest.
Training with chains and bands can almost be thought of as a form of eccentric overloading. This type of training should only be used by those with a strong training background. At least three yeas of consistent training or a "class one" in the sport of powerlifting. If you're not at or above this level then general strength training should be enough. This style of training can and will make you very sore.
Make sure you have enough protein in your diet; supplementation with antioxidants may also be effective after these types of workouts. You may also have to alter your next max effort workout if you use these methods on dynamic day. Training in this manner is very difficult to recover from. If you need to alter the max effort workout then alter the volume, not the intensity.
This is a small sample of the number of ways you can accommodate resistance. The use of chains and bands has been a major breakthrough for many coaches, trainers and strength athletes throughout the world. By implementing these methods into their training programs they've begun to see the average lifter become a great lifter and the great lifter get even better.
There can also be some major benefits for the development of muscle hypertrophy with these methods. The change in the strength curve has great application for this type of training. To do this, you want to maintain the proper parameters for hypertrophy training. These methods are far from the norm but in the words of Angil Spassov,
"Who wants to be normal? We want to be exceptional; exceptions confirm what is not normal."
Now go have fun watching everyone's jaws drop when you drag a bunch of chains into the gym!