Why bench press with chains?
This is an overview on why to bench press with chains. The easy answer is that you can develop more strength and explosiveness by using chains and still progress with more weight on the bar if used correctly. Chains and bands are tools for more experienced lifters and I would recommend to use them together with a coach who knows how to set them up when you have finished a year or two in progressing on novice programs with chains or bands. They are also more suited to the needs of equipped powerlifters than to bodybuilders.
Hitting a plateau on the bench press
You have made your first progress on the bench press, the deadlift and the squat moving all three lifts north of 100kg / 225 pounds. Now you are looking into options to advance even further. There are safety bar squats, glute-ham raises, speed work, duffalo bars and all kinds of secret sauces and rep schemes. One of the more extreme approaches is to use bands and chains which have been mainly promoted by Louie Simmons as the main part of his conjugate method. To you, it looks a bit extreme to put a lot of chains on the bar and start exercising. It is loud, rough and impractical. In addition, it might even not be allowed in your local gym so why all the fuss?
Since the early times of the bench press (which is actually not that long ago) bodybuilders, powerlifters and strongmen have been in search of big strong chests. The bench press established itself as one of these exercises which, depending on how it is executed, helped with both. Once you progress to a certain level according to body size, composition and genetics you will plateau on the bench press. This is due to the law of diminishing returns which states that the longer you will do the same thing the less progress you make if you do not change. These professionals were confronted with the same challenge in their personal careers. So what can you learn from them to progress quicker for longer?
Different solutions to blast through your plateau
Repetitions and sets influencing the volume of your training can only be varied to a certain extent. They are your bread and butter when it comes to strength and you should know programs like Stronglifts 5x5, Wendler 531, German Volume training and the Texas method. Still, repetitions and sets are only one way of varying the amount of weight you push during the bench press. Their special weakness is that they are not well suited to address certain weak points in the bench press, also called "sticking points".
The paused bench press is a great tool which you should have in your arsenal, both for bodybuilding and powerlifting/strength purposes. While it is a very good tool to stimulate the chest to grow and to practice conditions in a powerlifting competition, due to its nature it might not be the ideal helper to break through bench press plateaus. The paused bench press does not help you to build confidence to push bigger weights directly. Instead, it rather helps to build strength more gradually as you usually press less on a paused bench press.
A variation of the load is also a good example of tools at your disposal to crush your limits, especially when combined with a new repetition scheme. The only downside of this is that when facing a plateau you are more likely to adjust to less weight than more weight. Especially when your program is already built around 1 - 3 repetitions per set. In this scenario, there is not a lot of room to go up with the weight whilst performing lesser repetitions.
The isometric pin press is an isometric exercise in which you set up the safety pins in the range of your bench press sticking point. You take an empty bar and execute a bench press against the safety pins by pushing as hard as you possibly can. This will help you to push through sticking points better. While this is a great tool to get hold off your sticking points it has the downside of not using a full range of motion. You also won't do this for many repetitions as this exercise is very tiring.
The pin press is a bench press in which you set up the safety pins at a certain height which is higher than your chest and start the bench press from there. Here you are executing a partial movement to push through your plateaus. The pin press and the board press are very similar in what they achieve, while the board press has a more natural movement pattern and is easier to adjust during the exercise if you have a spotter.
Strength curves and how they apply to bench pressing
To fully understand the value of adding chains to your bench press, you need to understand strength curves. Strength curves are mathematical models which represent how much force can be produced at specific joint angles. In laymen terms, a strength curve is the amount of force produced during a range of motion. There are exercises with ascending and descending strength curves. Where the squat has an ascending strength curve in which the exercise becomes easiest at the top of the movement a pull up has a descending strength curve as it is hardest at the highest point of the movement. That is why people like to to do quarter squats or pull ups without touching the bar with their chest because it is easier to perform only a part of the full motion.
The bench press has an ascending strength curve which means it becomes the easiest at the top range of the motion. Therefore you can move more weight in the upper third of the movement than in the middle and lower part. Once you get to a plateau that leaves you with the challenge that the bottom or middle part of the lift becomes your limiting factor. Translated in easier terms you would be able to bench press 150kg if you were not to touch your chest but only 130kg when you lower the weight to your chest fully. This is more likely applicable to more experienced lifters, as there is enough stress that these different phases of the lift actually become relevant. Here chains and bands come into play to manipulate the strength curve in your favor.
Why bench press with chains
Bench pressing with chains will enable you to load the movement with more weight at the top of the movement than at the bottom of the range of motion. This will mean for you that the weight you are moving will constantly increase when you push the weight up. This is highly effective for building speed, strength and power on the bench press to get around your sticking points. I personally find them most beneficial for speed and maximum effort work as the number of repetitions per set or total set number is lower on these days. For repetition work, I find the setup to cumbersome. Overall science seems to support that chains are beneficial to strength training and developing more explosive force.
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