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Powerlift Assistance Exercises:
Bands and Chains

by Gary F. Zeolla

The use of bands and chains are mentioned on the Powerlift Assistance Exercises pages. This page will describe their use. The use of bands and chains are especially recommended for those who compete using squat and deadlifts suits and a bench shirt. The bands and chains mimic the effects that the gear gives and provide extra work for the top part of each lift. However, those who compete raw (e.g., without such gear) will benefit from their use as well, but such lifters should be sure to balance off band and chain work with exercises that work the bottom part of each lift.

See Bands Pictures, Reverse Bands Pictures and Chains Pictures for pics of the setups discussed below.

Bands

Bands are most popularly used on benches. For this exercise, for someone benching around what I do (220 best contest equipped bench), you need a pair of "mini-bands." These basically look like fan belts, only a little longer. They are available from Amazon .

To set up the bands, loop each end of each band around the bar against the inside collars of the bar so that they will be inside of the weights. Then insert a 70-80 pound dumbbell through the bottom loops. The dumbbell should then stretch the band so that the dumbbell is resting on the floor. The bands will add about 70 pounds total of resistance at the top of the lift, so just the bands and an empty bar is the equivalent of about 115 pounds.

Once the bands are set-up, bench as usual. But what will happen is as the bar is pressed from the chest, the bands will stretch and add resistance, so the effect will be that of gradually adding resistance. This is the same effect a bench shirt gives. It helps the most at the bottom of the lift but gradually helps less as the bar is pressed, so, in essence, the weight gets heavier as the bar is pressed. Therefore, bands are an ideal training method for those who will be competing with a bench shirt.

One thing to note though, if you have short arms as I do, the mini-bands might be too long for you. The bands won't be stretched out enough at the top to give the full resistance. As such, what I do is wrap the bands around the bar once before setting them up. This effectively shortens the bands. It is with doing so that I get the above indicated 70 pounds of resistance at the top. Those with bigger benches than I might need to use two or three sets of bands to give sufficient resistance for the desired effect.

Along with in mini-band (1/2") size, band are also available in "light" (1-1/8"), "average" (1-3/4"), and "strong" (2-1/2") sizes. Each larger size gives increasing resistance. These bands are generally used on squats. The light size is for those squatting less than 450 pounds, the average size for those squatting 450-650, and the strong size for those squatting over 650.

When I first tried using light bands on squats, I had a couple of problems setting up them up. First, you're supposed to loop the bands over the bar and then "choke" them near the floor around the bottom of the power rack or dumbbells. "Choking" means to wrap the band around the support and then through itself. But the power rack I was using was not bolted down, so I couldn't use it, so I used dumbbells. But the problem was, with as short as I am (I'm 5'1"), the bands are too long. And choking them around the dumbbells didn't do much. Thus instead, I had to choke them around the bar, wrapping them around a couple of times.

Second, when I set them up at a gym, I was not able to walk the weight out in the power rack. It jerked me around too much. If I had a monolift to work out with, this would not have been a problem. But with only a power rack, my only option was to start in the down position, with the bar resting on the safety bars. To do them this way, set the safety bars in the power rack, rest the bar on the safeties, squeeze underneath, then squat the weight up from off of the bars. For subsequent reps, just touch and go off of the bars, until the last rep, when the bar is rested back on the bars, and squeeze out. I have the safety bars set so that I am about an inch below parallel at the bottom.

However, once I set up my home gym, I found I was able to set it up so that I could walk it out. I think the key was setting things up so you only walk it out a very short distance. It still jerks around some, but not so much as to make it unmanageable.

But using bands on deadlifts is even trickier. There are two ways to set them up, both of which require the use of a power rack. The first requires a power rack in which the bases on each side are elevated enough that you can get the bands underneath and which is bolted to the floor. You choke the bands around each base, wrapping them around three times then pull the other end over the bar. Then deadlift as usual.

However, if your power rack (like mine) does not fit this description, then you will need to use dumbbells. What I do is to put the dumbbells inside of the bases on each side of the power rack. I then choke the bands around the bar, again wrapping them three times, then pull the other end around the dumbbells. But I found this still wasn't short enough, so I had to wrap them twice around the dumbbell bars. This was easy for me to do since I use changeable dumbbells. But put the bands on first then the weights. If you're using pre-set dumbbells, then it might be difficult to get the bands wrapped around the dumbbells. But if you can get it set up, the bases will keep the dumbbells from being pulled out underneath the weights. For conventional stance deadlifters, then deadlift as usual. But for sumo stance deadlifters, you have to put your toes in-between the weights on the dumbbells.

Reverse Bands

Another way to use light, medium, or heavy bands is in a "reverse band" fashion. For this, you choke the bands around the top of a power rack or around safety bars set near the top. You then place the bar through the loops at the bottom and place sufficient weight on the bar to pull it down into place. The bands then give the effect of a suit or bench shirt in "pulling" the bar up from the bottom position, but less so as the bar is raised.

This setup can be used for all three powerlifts. Different placement of the safety bars at the top of the power rack and/ or wrapping the bands around more than one time around the top of the rack when choking them can be used to adjust the height of the bottom of the bands where the bar is placed. The ideal is to have the band tension setup so that the bands add about what your gear adds.

Chains

Chains are great way to train and are definitely worth the cost. I got my chains for squats and deadlfits from Topper Supply Company (866-424-2467). Chains with a different style than to be described are available from Amazon. I later got chains for benches from Amazon. The idea behind using chains is similar to bands. As you lift the bar, the chains will come off of the floor gradually adding weight to the bar. This will mimic the effect of a bench shirt or squat or deadlift suit.  Ideally, the change in weight from the bottom to the top of the lift should be such that it feels like the effect of your suit or shirt.

Chains are available in 5/8" and 1/2" sizes. I got the 5/8" size from Topper Supply. The full set consists of two each of a main heavy chain, a lighter leader chain, and a metal "triangle" that connects the two. The total weight is about 55 pounds. So just the chains and an empty bar is the equivalent of about 95 pounds at the top of the lift. And I found the change in weight from bottom to top to be sufficient for benches. However, for squats and deadlifts, I needed to add another pair of heavy chains to get the right effect. These can be ordered separately. With the two pairs of heavy chains, the total setup weighs about 90 pounds, or about 135 pounds with an empty bar. My contest bests are 410 - 215 - 410, so this should give you some idea of how many heavy chains you'll need for each lift.

To set up the chains, the leader chain goes around the bar and then through the triangle, connecting back onto itself. The main chain(s) then hang doubled over the triangle, so that the middle of the chain is over the triangle and each half is hanging down. Loop the leader chains over the bar and hook the clasps onto the leader chains so that length of the main chain is such that at the top position as much chain as possible is off of the floor but is still touching the floor. In the bottom position as much of the main chain as possible should be lying on the floor. For a video of chains "deloading" in this fashion, click here.

As a little tip, the main chains tend to slip off of the "triangle" in the middle of the set-up, so I purchased a couple of pairs of "C-clamps" from a  hardware store and use these to hold the chains in place. Also from a hardware store, I purchased a couple of clasp-type hooks (the kind used on cable machines in most gyms) to use on the leader chains. These hold better than the hooks that came with the chains.

For squats and benches the leader chains should be placed inside of the weights, against the inside collars of the bar. But for deadlifts, I put the triangles directly on the bar, placed at the ends of the bar to prevent setting the weights down on the chains. They can be kept in place by using two sets of clip-type collars, one on each side of the triangles. I still use the leader chain, hanging it from the triangle with the heavy chains just for the little extra weight.

The chains I got for benches are a bit different.  I got these so that I would need to put on and take off the second set of chains that I use squats and deadlifts. These chains consist of a large hook that connects back to itself. the setup is rather straightforward. Just make a loop with the hook and and hang it over the bar.

Advantages of Bands and Chains

There are several advantages to using bands and chains over other forms of assistance exercises and even over doing the actual powerlifts with gear.

First, the point of using chains and  bands is that the "feel" of the lift is very similar to doing the actual powerlift with gear. There is more tension at the top of the lift than at the bottom. Yet, they are all full range of motion exercises and thus the carryover to the actual powerlifts is greater than when doing partial movements (like bench squats, board benches, or rack pulls).

Second, chains and bands provide variety into the workout. I mention in various places on this site the importance of periodically changing your assistance exercises. This is so that your body does not adapt to a particular exercise. But by training the actual powerlifts every workout, your body will adapt to them and that could lead to stagnation. Now one approach to try to keep this adaptation from happening is to cycle from higher to lower reps. But for various reasons, higher reps are not the best training approach for a powerlifter. But to alternate the actual powerlifts with chain and band work is a way of changing the exercise and thus to prevent stagnation.

Third, putting on a tight suit or shirt and wrapping your knees for every set is difficult and time-consuming, so workouts with gear tend to be rather long. But setting up the chains and bands is relatively easier and quicker, so the workouts are shorter. Workouts with gear also seem to be more demanding on the body than working with chains and bands. Therefore, using the chains and bands instead of gear on the powerlifts for some of the workouts gives a break from the difficulties of using gear but still provides a similar training effect.

 

Update

In September of 2010, I tired doing something that I recommend not doing in my powerlifting book, Training for Raw and Equipped Powerlifting. Follow the article link for full details in that regard. But in regards to the subject of this article, the discussion below is what I learned about bands and chains from that experiment.

At first I was doing reverse band squats. I think that those caused me to feel weak in the hole on the raw squats. With reverse bands, the bar is being "lifted" in the hole, so there is little work being done by the muscles at that point. But then later I did chain squats. For those, the bar weight plus un-deloaded chain weight in the hole was about the same as what I did for raw squats. As such, the chain squats did not weaken the bottom of the lift. But then the weight of the loading chains was about the same as how much my gear added. As such, they helped prepare me for equipped squats.

For benches, I first did band benches. For them, the bar weight is very low, so there is little weight to push off of the chest. As result, I felt weak on raw benches. Later, I did reverse band benches. Like with squats, that also weakened my raw bench.

In addition, for both forms of band exercises, the bands help "hold" the bar in the groove, so your muscles don't have to. As a result, I felt unstable on equipped benches, as after doing those two assistance exercise I wasn't used to holding the bar in the groove myself. But with chains it is the exact opposite. The chains "destabilize" the bar, making it harder to hold steady. You thus have to use more musculature to keep the bar balanced.

For deadlifts, I first did chain deadlifts. And raw deadlifts is the only lift that went well at that time. I think the reason has to do with how I explain in my book to set the chains up. By laying them out to the sides, for the first rep you have to drag the chains across the floor, thus strengthening the pull off of the floor. Then as the chains load, you strengthen the top of the lift. However, later I did reverse band deadlifts. But again, the lift of the bands is too unnatural. I also especially noticed how the bands hold the bar in the groove. On a couple of reps I started to lose control of the bar, it going forward. Normally, that would have caused a missed rep. But the bands pulled the weight back into place. But that of course does not happen with either raw or equipped deadlifts.

Bottom line of this discussion is I think chain work is valuable for both raw and equipped lifting if you set the chains up properly. "Properly" meaning on squats and benches the weight of the loading and deloading chains should be about equal to the difference between your raw and equipped lift. On deadlifts, the chains should be set up as described in my book. However, I now feel that band work is not helpful and even detrimental for both raw and equipped lifting. Of course, many would strongly disagree with me and swear by the value of bands. But I doubt I will be using bands again in my training.

But I should mention some say reverse bands should only be used shortly before a contest to help the body get used to heavy loads. The idea here is similar to the "Walk Outs" and "Lift Ups" I describe on the Squat Assistance Exercises page. You load about 5-10% more than your best 1RM (one rep max) on the bar and then only do one rep. The bands will enable the greater weight to be used. This will get your body used to handling heavier weights and should be done in a power rack or with reliable spotters for safety reasons.

But personally, I find such "overload" exercises to be a waste of time. Handling extra heavy weights a week or two before a contest does not make the weights feel lighter at a contest. I think it is better to get the body used to handling heavier weights by doing the top-end exercises described on the respective Powerlift Assistance Exercises pages.
10/24/14

Second Update

The above Update was written after my experience in one training routine of using chains and bands for several weeks, and then doing the actual powerlifts for two weeks, the first raw week and the second equipped. But more recently,  I reviewed 12 years of my training logs, and by doing so a different picture emerged. Bands have in fact been helpful for both my raw and equipped powerlifts, provided they are coupled with a bottom-end exercise. Doing so eliminates the discussed problems. I am doing that in my current training routine. I will post an update once I see how well that works out. But I am leaving the above Update posted as the discussed problems could result if bands are used without being so coupled.
3/12/15

Third Update

After a couple of years of coupling chain and band work with bottom-end work, I can say without a doubt, that the band and chains are helpful, even with competing raw with wraps as I have been doing. All three powerlifts have progressed contest to contest, without any sense of feeling weak at the bottom of the lift. Moreover, I have never missed a lift at the top either. But then again, I have gone 9/9 at every contest I've entered in the past two years, so my contest performance has been spot on.
6/13/17

Bands and Chains. Copyright 2004-2006, 2014, 2015 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site October 30, 2004.
It was last updated June 13, 2017.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Powerlift Assistance Exercises

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