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Workout chains

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Jan 18, 2016 10:00:00 AM

workout chains

Workout Chains

This is to give you a quick overview what chains can be used for in your exercise regime. You can appl them to bodyweight and barbell movements for different purposes. All in all chains are a good tool for intermediates to deevlop their strength further.

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Why use chains ?

Chains are a good tool for getting stronger and play around with loading your body or compound lifts. The benefits are that the load becomes a bit more organic than with plates. This is achieved either by making the chains wrap around your body or attaching them to the barbell

For bodyweight movements you usually find chains to be a better option to load the movement than with a plate, if there is no weight vest available. Also chains are easier to handle if you wanted to add a lot of weight, which can get cumbersome or expensive with weight vests.

Usually the weights for vests are custom build for the specific vest. They use some kind of sand or grain in bags or specifically sized metal plates. If you swap them to other vests, the experience you'll have is normally less than optimal. The bags don't fit the slots and there is too much slag or risk of them falling out during the exercise. This makes their overall use very limited and also poses a disadvantage compared to chains.

What weight vests have going for them is that they usually work better for loading explosive movements like sprints, jumps and the like as these movements need the load to be close to the body to avoid impairing mobility and provide stable load during the exercise. (Imagine turning around for a sprint with a chain around your neck and you get the picture... you might choke yourself to death or knock your own tooth out when the links come travelling in direction of your face... won't happen with a vest).

This is why chains can be a good overall utility for a gym to load bodyweight exercises in various ways.

Which movements can I use them for ?

I personally find them useful for any non-explosive bodyweight movement and work with free weights where you attach the chains to the barbell.

These exercises include:

  • Pull ups
  • Dips
  • Push ups
  • Squats
  • Barbell Squats
  • Barbell Deadlifts
  • Barbell Bench presses 
  • Barbell Overhead presses

Exercises where chains are not first choice to loading the movement:

  • Sprints
  • Box Jumps
  • Clap Push Ups
  • Sled pushes / pulls
  • Farmer’s walks

Chains are good to load any movement where force is applied relatively equally in one direction only. If the amount of force is being changed drastically during the movement or it has a sudden change of direction vests are a better option than chains, due to them being and unpredictable and har to secure to the body.

For bench presses, squats and deadlifts chains open up interesting possibilities for heaving higher load at the top of the movement and lower load at the bottom /middle of the movement.

If you place all of the chain links on the ground at the lowest point of the squat, the weight is not on you at this pont of the moment. If you then move up and the chain expands the weight you lift will increase link by link which moves off the ground.

This enables you to push through plateaus or work on weak pots in your lifts by altering the load depending on your needs. This technique is usually used to either make a lifter more explosive or work through a sticking point in the lift.

What do chains weigh ?

Chains come in all shapes and forms. The ones which have been specifically designed for use in gyms have usually a weight of 5, 10 , 15 and 20kg matching the most common denominations for lifting plates.

There reports that the chain weight does vary a lot depending on the make and quality standards the vendor holds himself accountable for. If you really want to make sure, weigh the chain in question yourself.

Most movements done with a chain are usually not a one repetition maximum, but rather loaded accessory work and modified high load efforts. I have not seen any competitions yet where the weight of the chains really mattered.

How to set chains up for squats?

If you want to set up chains for squats there are two ways in which this is most commonly achieved

  • Attach the chain with a cuff system to the barbell
  • Attach the chain with a smaller chain to the barbell

I have used both and find the latter to be the superior one. The provided cuffs usually are no good to the barbell and also only provide stability for one chain. You are also somewhat limited in varying the height and therefore how many links are on the ground when you start the lift.

Attaching your chains with another chain enables you to connect multiple chains to the barbell by looping them through the connector chain, modify how many links you want to have loaded on your squat in the highest position and is quicker to set up.

Be careful with the quality of the connector chain in this scenario. If it breaks you have created a considerable imbalance somewhere mid-lift, which can lead to serious injuries.

How to set up chains for deadlifts?

For deadlifts you can

  • Use the cuff system
  • Lay the chains over the barbell

Again the latter system is the superior in my opinion in terms of setup time and possibilities. Especially by putting the chains with their middle on the barbell, leaving the same length / load of chain, to each side of it before initiating the lift, you have a quick and easy setup to work with chains on your deadlift. Be careful that the chains you choose are long enough. You never want them to leave the ground completely as this makes them move a lot more and the lift can become very hard to control. Ideally let one link of the attached chains always stay on the ground to provide stability.

How to set them up for the bench press ?

Same setup as for back squats. Only difference is that the travel path of the barbell is shorter in total and overall closer to the ground. Therefore readjustments compared to the squat setup are usually necessary.

Who should use chains?

Chains are a helper of the experience lifter who has to put his / her body under unpredictable stresses and shock the system to further progress. The underlying basic movement should have been mastered before loading it with chains, as it adds complexity to controlling the movement.

What are your experiences?

Chains are fun and I started using them after 1.5 years of weightlifting in the gym to get more explosive. The first few tries were awkward and you may want to be careful with loading the movement in the beginning. Get used to how the chains behave and only use the barbell with chains or a small chain depending on the movement, even though if you were able to get the big guns out right at the beginning. Chains are also quite loud and seldom used. So don’t expect a lot of applause when you bring them out from other gym members, given the uncommon possibility that your local has and actually allows the use of chains.


Chains are a great tool for experienced lifters who know their stuff and also know how to set them up. Beginners should stay away from them and master the basics first before using them. Between vests & bands chains have their place for incremental load increase during the movement for the big lifts or loading a body weight movements.

Further reading

On the deadlift

On the squat

On the bench press