According to research, there were more than 205,000 health and fitness clubs worldwide in 2019 (Statista Incorporated & Lock, 2020). That's incredible, right!?During the COVID-19 pandemic, I often wondered how much that number would fluctuate due to the hard hit taken by the health and fitness industry.
Heck, what's better than that is McDonalds operated and franchised a total of 39,198 restaurants worldwide in 2020 (Statista Incorporated & Gough, 2021). So, there are more gyms than McDonald's restaurants? I'll take that as a win!
That leads me to believe people have more favorite exercises/machines than their favorite menu item. If that's the case, what's your favorite exercise or machine? If not that, what's your favorite accessory (resistance bands, dip belt, etc.)?
I have a few favorites, but my #1 has to be chains. Most people think chains are for looks. Sure, chains do look cool but they have their advantages and disadvantages like everything else.
Chains are commonly used to develop speed, strength and power. You'll see them a lot in training for strength sports such as powerlifting. You're probably wondering where the connection is between chains and getting stronger. In powerlifting, one's program must include training with heavy loads and the training velocity must be high (strength curve ascending to the right).
Let's look at squatting with chains as an example: Adding chains play into what's called accommodating resistance. Accommodating resistance is just a fancy term for saying the load on a bar provides the needed resistance throughout the entire range of motion instead of just a specific portion of the lift. Look at it like this: It will be much easier for me to hit a quarter squat of 500 pounds while only being able to hit a full squat at 400 pounds.
In photo A you can see that I have the chains set to where the weight is heaviest at the top (beginning and end of the squat motion). As I descend, the chain's weight lessens as it's transferred from the bar to the floor. In photo B, the weight on my back is as light as it's going to be. As I begin to stand back up, that chain weight begins to increase until I'm back at the amount of weight I started with.
What does all of that mean? With the chains added, the starting phase (going down with that heavier weight) will improve along with the power and speed in the turn around portion or the concentric phase (standing back up). When the chains are taken off, you'll notice the increase in strength and speed. That doesn't mean you'll be strong to the point where you can lift 70-lbs more all of a sudden. After some time, you'll notice how much "smoother" the weight moves when it may have been slightly difficult to lift a couple of weeks prior.
Now, some people have no business using chains. The reason I say that is because using chains does not mean you will automatically have a ridiculous amount of strength, speed and/or power. Proper planning and programming still applies here.
Planning and programming doesn't mean planning to do deadlifts next Friday then decide you will throw chains on the bar that day. What I do is look at what weight I'm planning to lift then take a little bar weight off to compensate for the chain weight. The chain weight may be about 10-15% of the bar weight (as an example).
Let's look at the positives and negatives of chains:
Great for developing power, speed & strength
The resistance and strength curves are matched
More motor units are recruited (the more motor units available, the stronger the muscle)
Helps with stability
Easy to find
The bad and the ugly:
They can get expensive
You will need to double of everything (Leader chains x2, carabiners x2, quick links x2, heavy/floor chains x2)
They are loud (mostly when hitting the floor)
They can slide off if the bar becomes unbalanced
You may need to weigh them (unless you buy from a set from a chain supplier or fitness equipment company)
Key Points & Chain Build:
When building or buying your chains, you will need double of everything like I mentioned previously. Each side will need what's called a leader chain, a stainless steel carabiner clip, a stainless steel quick link, and some weighted chain. Every lifter sets their chains up differently, but the method I use is simple.
The set up in the photo is for doing squats. With your 5'-7' leader chain on the floor (3/16th chain is perfect), grab one end then go up and over the barbell. Put a carabiner clip on one end and pull the other end down so it's 12+ links lower, then clip it to the 12th or which ever number link.
Lay your larger or weighted chain on the floor so it's one long length. Bring one end around and next to the other end like you're making a second chain. After doing that, you should have your halfway point/link opposite of the ends. If you have a lot of chain like I do, you can repeat that step so you have 2 halves. Take the end of your leader chain run it through the middle links like I did in the shown photo. Now, put your quick link on the end you ran through then clip the quick link to the 2nd or 3rd link back from the first weighted chain link and twist the nut so the opening is closed. The extra room on the loop in the leader chain going through the weighted chain is if you decide to add more weighted chain like I did later on.
When you hang the chain from the barbell, you should keep in mind that you want at least one link of the weighted chain ends on the floor when in the top portion of your lifts. Although the chain will swing a little (where the stability comes in), the ends not being on the floor will cause a ton of excess swinging which will can throw you off balance. Also, the chain will need to be shortened when bench pressing. You can loop the leader chain around the bar sleeves as shown in the photo. I do this so I don't have to adjust where the carabiner clip is every time I squat or bench.
Want to just buy a chain set? You can do that versus having to find a local place that supplies heavier 5/8" or 1/2" chain. Check out 1st Chain Supply (first reference below). They sell a variety of weight lifting chain based on the weight you want. Don't forget that shipping something this heavy isn't cheap!
1st Chain Supply. (n.d.). Chains - chain by type - weightlifting chain - 1st chain supply. https://www.1st-chainsupply.com/chain-by-type/weightlifting-chain/
Gough, C. (2020, October 30). Number of fitness and health clubs worldwide 2009–2019. Statista Incorporated. https://www.statista.com/statistics/275056/total-number-of-health-clubs-worldwide/
Lock, S. (2021, April 8). Number of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide 2005–2020. Statista Incorporated. https://www.statista.com/statistics/219454/mcdonalds-restaurants-worldwide/
Vecchio, A. (2019). The increase in muscle force after 4 weeks of strength training is mediated by adaptations in motor unit recruitment and rate coding. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30727028/