5 Ways to Use Chains in Your Workouts

Unchain your workout’s potential with these fun and challenging variations.

Photo: GettyImages

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Chains might be one of the most intimidating-looking fitness implements around, but they’re good for much more than just draping the shoulders of muscle-bound bodybuilders on magazine covers.  

Here’s how you can use these deviously simple tools to amp up five fundamental weight-training exercises.

  1. Barbell Bench Press

“The reason you might consider adding chains to some of your exercises is to make the resistance curve of a tool you are using, such as a barbell, a better match for the strength potential of the targeted muscles,” explains trainer Andrei Yakovenko, founder of New Element Training (NET) in Toronto, Canada. “This can provide a better stimulus threshold especially through the portions of the range of motion where muscles can handle more resistance. Offering more resistance where the muscle is stronger will offer it a better stimulus overall.”

One such exercise where this applies is the bench press — by draping chains over each end of the barbell with excess links that reach all the way to the ground, as you push the bar upward, it gets incrementally heavier as each link comes off the floor. At the same time, you’re stronger as the bar rises further from your chest do to the more advantageous biomechanical position and the ability of your triceps to kick in more as the arms straighten.

The move: Lie faceup on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, with a long chain draped around each end of the Olympic bar, far enough in that it’s in contact with the weight plates. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Unrack the bar and slowly lower it toward your chest, keeping your wrists aligned with your elbows and your elbows pointed out to your sides. When the bar just touches your chest, press back up explosively, driving the weight away from you until you almost lock it out. 

A quick note: If you’re not ready for bench pressing with chains, there’s another option that also targets the pectorals — push-ups with a chain placed around your upper back. As you lower yourself down, the links rest on the floor, and then come off as you raise yourself, meaning the resistance increases as you reach the top of the movement.

  1. Barbell Squat

Similar to the bench press, the benefit to squatting with a chain on each side of the bar adds a small amount of weight as you come up from the “hole” — the bottommost part of the exercise where your thighs are parallel to the floor. The initial move from that position is the most difficult, but it gets easier as you get closer to a full standing position, again due to biomechanics and the synergistic action of the glutes, hamstrings and quads.

The move: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart holding a bar across your upper back, with a long chain on each side of the bar that’s touching the outside of the weight plate and reaches all the way down to the floor with excess. Your knees should be slightly bent and your toes turned out a few degrees. Keeping your head in a neutral position, abs tight, bend at the knees and hips to slowly lower your body as if you were going to sit down in a chair, going as deep as you can handle — ideally to a point where your thighs reach a point at or below parallel to the floor while maintaining your natural lower back arch. Then forcefully drive through your heels, extending at your hips and knees until you arrive at the standing position.

  1. Hip Thrust

The bench and squat are seriously hardcore movements — and adding chains to those difficult exercises might be well outside your comfort zone. That’s certainly fair. However, you can still incorporate chains into other movements, including exercises like the hip thrust off of a bench. Instead of trying to add resistance to this move by balancing a dumbbell or kettlebell on your hips, you can drape a chain over your midsection to kick the challenge up a notch.

The move: Sit on the floor with your upper back in contact with the side of a flat bench or platform, with a chain draped across your stomach that reaches down to the floor on each side. (For comfort, you could lie a towel or pad on your midsection to reduce any discomfort or chill from the metal.) Bend your knees, placing your feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart. To start the movement, drive through your glutes and heels to bring your hips upward, your upper back pivoting onto the bench. Stop when your torso is parallel to the floor and you’re in a bridge position, tabletop flat from your shoulders to your kneecaps, head down atop the bench. Squeeze your glutes, then lower your hips back down, keeping your upper back in full contact with the bench for support, and repeat. 

  1. Parallel-Bar Dip

If you’ve been doing dips for a while and handling your own bodyweight like a champ, adding chains is a quick way to dial up the resistance, especially if you’re not ready for strapping on one of those leather belts that allow for attaching weight plates. Unlike the first three movements described here, the chain should not reach all the way to the floor — here, it’s simply to increase the weight you’re working against throughout the range of motion.

The move: With the chain hanging around your shoulders and neck, grasp the dip bars with your arms extended. Lean forward and bend your knees while keeping your legs crossed. Keep your elbows out to your sides as you bend them to lower your body down until your upper arms are about parallel to the floor. Press your hands into the bars to extend your arms and raise your body back up.

  1. T-Bar Row

“When someone understands the muscle-joint biomechanics and how any given tool offers a certain resistance profile for the targeted muscles, they can then use chains as a tool (for) a more potent training experience,” Yakovenko says. “So, a trainer could be creative with chains in many ways.” For instance, both common variations of the T-bar row — either with a barbell secured in a landmine or on a T-bar station where your chest rests against a pad and you pull handles toward you — can incorporate chains as an added element. By putting one chain over the bar, the exercise will get slightly harder as you pull upward, and then easier as the ends of the chain come to rest on the floor on the way down.

The move: Load a T-bar apparatus with the appropriate weight and drape a chain over the end so that it rests against the last weight plate. Place your chest against the pad, your feet set on the platform shoulder-width apart. With your arms fully extended, grasp the handles with an overhand, palms forward grip. Without letting your torso come up off of the pad, pull the handles toward you, keeping your elbows close to your body and your head in a neutral position, core tight. Hold the peak contracted position momentarily before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position.

‘Off’ the Chain

Like nearly every training tool, chains do have their limitations. As one example, they’re typically better suited to free weights than machines. “If a machine already offers a varied resistance profile, such as Nautilus and MedX machines, there’s no need to add chains, as the machines have already been calibrated to give your muscles more resistance where they are stronger and less at the range-of-motion positions where they are weaker,” Yakovenko explains. “Also, it may not be practical to add chains to some machines. But if one can do it safely, it would likely be on a lying chest press or a leg press.”