When we think explosive, the last thing that comes to mind is the deadlift. Yet any lifter worth his or her salt will tell you that the deadlift is anything but slow. Once we get past the learning curve of the barbell deadlift and start building strength, adding in chains (or bands) is a great training tool to build the speed and explosiveness necessary to pull some impressive weight off the floor. Given the right circumstances and programming, chains do an excellent job of improving athletic development and sports performance too.
As a newbie powerlifter over a year ago, chains appeared complicated and intimidating to me. What are they for? How do we set up? How do I avoid tripping over this thing and slamming my face on the ground? I had a lot of questions!
(P.S. If you want to dig deeper into the why, how, and when of training with chains, I recommend reading this T-Nation article.)
As I got stronger however, the more work I needed with speed and lockout, and lo and behold, deadlifting with chains improved exactly those things.
Why you should train with chains
First and foremost, training with chains is not for beginners. While it looks cool and is helpful in overall athletic development, training with straight weight to drill down setup, technique and strength is paramount. You can’t skip this part. Period.
Some coaches recommend only adding chains if you can deadlift say, 300lbs but I’m not about some arbitrary number that has nothing to do with me or my goals. If you don’t care about pulling 300lbs off the floor, are you destined to be slow or weak forever?
I think not!
This is why we can’t marry ourselves to any one person’s training philosophy no matter how smart they are. However, there is a time and place for adding chains to the mix and it’s important to know if it makes sense to use them. If a client’s deadlift is strong technique-wise and they want to improve in a few aspects of the lift, adding chains will help with that. Case in point, my best pull in competition was 209lbs a year ago (I haven’t tested my max since due to injury) and I had trained with chains leading up to the event without it negatively affecting my performance. My lift felt smooth like butter that day.
We don’t necessarily need to use chains (one can also use bands or work on speed with lighter weight), but like dumbbells, kettlebells, and ViPer equipment, the chains offer a slightly different training stimulus that can be very beneficial. Here are a few:
Accommodating resistance is a funny term because there’s nothing accommodating or easy about it. What it means is that the load placed on the body during the lift changes throughout the movement. The lift gets increasingly harder as you pull from the floor and gets lighter and lighter on the descent.
This is an important benefit to note because most of the time we think of progressing a lift merely by adding more weight to the bar or increasing volume. Adding chains is another progression method that doesn’t require a “lift as much as possible every workout” approach.
What I love about training with chains is the instant feedback it creates for the lifter. This is important if you are training in a group or don’t have a coach eyeballing your every move to give you feedback. I can feel if I’m pulling slow AF just like I can tell if my speed off the floor is lightening fast. Ultimately your goal is to pull like a lightening bolt, and chains provide fast enough feedback you can use to progress or regress your training.
Deadlifting with chains feels awkward at first because it’s never as smooth with straight weight, but the swinging and movement of the chains forces the lifter to recruit or increase the use of more stabilization muscles. This is more apparent to me when squatting with chains than deadlifts but the benefits go both ways. When deadlifting we think more about recruiting bigger muscles of the posterior chain, mainly lats, glutes and hamstrings, but with chains you can feel your abs and obliques a lot more. For someone that struggles to maintain tension in the torso during the deadlift, the chains act like a helpful and gnarly reminder to turn that damn thing “on”. If adding stability training is important or fun with you, I’d rather you train with chains than doing circus tricks off a BOSU.
Unlike the Olympic lifts, which are very technique-based, the deadlift has a much smaller learning curve and can be used as a “power” exercise if used correctly. Athletes need to build explosiveness necessary for their sport and using chains, be it in the deadlift or squat, can provide a similar training stimulus without having to learn a complicated lift like the snatch, clean or jerk.
If you’re as clumsy as I am, deadlifting with chains can get very frustrating. With the right equipment, you can set up the chain in the middle of the bar. I’ve never tried that personally but it looks cleaner and less of a headache. What I tend to do is set the chains at the end of the barbell, using four collars on either end of the chain to hold it in place. You can see an example of that below:
The downside to this is that you have to remove and reset the whole thing every time you add more weight to the bar. It’s annoying and time consuming but life isn’t perfect so you just suck it up and deal. Trust me, it beats landing the plates on the chains or tripping all over it. I made that mistake so you don’t have to.
How to use it in training
There is no “right” way to program deadlifts with chains but there is a smart way to do so depending on your goals, injury history and proficiency. Then again, that goes for anything in fitness. I asked a few of my favorite coaches how they like to program deadlifts with chains for clients and here’s what they had to say:
Michael Anderson, owner of Anderson Strength and Fitness
“I use it with everyone except Olympic weightlifters because it’s more of a speed exercise. But for powerlifters I use it as primary auxiliary exercise for the deadlift. For example, a workout might look like:
A1) Primary deadlift
B1) Speed deadlifts with chains
C1-C3) Other assistance work
I tend to use the percentage of the bar weight [to program how much they should lift], so if I have someone work for a heavy triple set of deadlifts, they’ll do doubles of speed deadlifts with chains, 75% of their heaviest triple of the day.
For the general athlete like my baseball players, I’ll program a trap bar deadlift with chains as the primary exercise or a sumo deadlift with chains to help emphasize speed. For a lot of team sport athletes I use the trap bar because it’s marginally safer and gets them in a better position. I might throw some chains on RDLs sometimes just because it changes the force velocity curve and creates violent hip extension. Everything good in life starts with violent hip extension.”
Tim Liu, owner Tim Liu Fitness
For my general population clients I don’t have them deadlift with chains regularly because many of them are still mastering the basics of the hip hinge and building a solid strength base. When I do have clients use chains, we keep the reps in the 5-6 range. The sumo and trap bar variations are my favorite with the chains.
Jesse Malcomb, co-owner and powerlifting coach, CrossFit Fortius
“I use chains in the deadlift very similar to the Westside Barbell protocol – as speed work later in the week. I like to use light to medium barbell weight, and medium to heavy chains, with a protocol of 10-15 working sets of 1 or 2 reps with 60-90 seconds between sets. The goal is power and speed right out of the bottom. If barbell speed is too low, weight is lowered (as opposed to lowering the chain weight). Sometimes I throw in a deficit to really focus on power in breaking the bar off the floor. I personally like to put it in the ‘Conversion to Power’ style – the 12 week cycle before the 12 week [powerlifting] competition prep cycle.”
Clearly, the need for speed is a common theme among coaches, but again you can use it for other things, too (lockout, athleticism, Instagram likes….jk on that last one). The point is, knowing the “why” behind what you’re doing comes before the “how” especially if you’re dragging a bunch of chains to your local Y.
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I just read your article on lifting with chains. I’m not a power lifter but often lift with that style only because I don’t want to gain extra weight. For my work I need strength without getting heavier. And at 230lbs, I’m heavy enough.
One thing I notice with chains is that they are of the most benefit with near max weight, singles and doubles.
To use chains for higher rep work I think you are further ahead to just load the bar with plates. Not to say it won’t benefit the lifter but to me the thing I like is that with chains in heavy singles, I’m well over my 1rm at the top of my lift and that is where those massive strength gains come.
Just my thought. Great article!
That’s definitely one way it works! I’ve never tried to use chains at near max weight because frankly, 80% of my 1RM is hard enough. I prefer to use it for other purposes. And I think a lot of intermediate to advanced lifters can benefit from lifting with chains, even if they’re not powerlifters, just like you! The downside, of course, is that not all gyms have them and they can be kind of a pain in the butt to use at times.