If you have been in the fitness game for a while at some point you will probably see someone using bands or chains on a barbell for compound lifts like the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Sure it looks pretty awesome to have a bunch of chains hanging off your barbell but why exactly would someone use these tools and how do they work?
The Basics: Accommodating Resistance
Both bands and chains create something referred to as accommodating resistance. Normally, when a weight is lifted the resistance throughout the lift stays the same throughout the duration of the lift, for example, in a barbell bench press, this resistance is the same regardless of whether the lifter is at the top of the bench press or the bottom. While the strength curve (where it feels harder or easier due to the mechanics of your limbs and body) changes throughout the lift the actual resistance does not.
Bands and chains change the amount of resistance, at the top of the lift, the resistance is greater than at the bottom of the lift.
When using chains at the top of the lift more links are off of the ground, thus creating more resistance than when at the bottom of the lift. With bands it works the same; more resistance is provided at the top of the lift when the band is stretched and less at the bottom. This allows a lifter to challenge themselves more at the spots of the lift that are traditionally easier like the top half of the squat, deadlift, or bench press. Then at the parts of the lift that are normally harder like the bottom of the squat, deadlift, or bench press the resistance is less. This can allow a lifter to challenge themselves a bit differently and can make a big difference in increasing overall strength in the lift.
Bands also have an additional effect by acting to speed up the eccentric portion (lowering) of the movement and can have an effect on the lifters ability to move weights much quicker, this concept is called overspeed eccentrics. Strength is based not only on muscle mass but the ability of the nervous system, bands can help improve this aspect.
Do you need to use them?
So now that you know the basics of how they work the next question to ask is if you can benefit from them? The truth is, it really depends on your goals and purpose of training.
If you are trying to get as strong as you possibly can bands and chains can help take you to the next level after you have built a base level of strength. If you are more interested in putting on size, chains and bands can offer a bit of change in stimulus but they aren’t necessary, you can get a long ways with using straight weight.
Finally, if you are interested in improving athletic performance bands and chains can provide a benefit once you build a solid base of strength. I highly recommend looking into the work of Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell to learn more on using bands and chains to incorporate speed work to build explosive power.
You may have recognized a common theme in all situations, a solid base of strength. No matter your goals, start with more traditional methods of using straight weight, then once you build your training age a bit consider adding in bands or chains.