Bands and chains are weightlifting tools that were popularized by Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell powerlifting team.
Louie used bands and chains to help his world-class powerlifters build explosive strength and break powerlifting world records year after year. However, bands and chains aren’t just for powerlifters! Many of the world’s best bodybuilding coaches like Josh Bryant and John Meadows use bands and chains to help elite level bodybuilders build as much muscle mass as humanly possible.
Bands and chains make the weight lighter in the bottom position of your exercises and heavier in the top position of your exercises. This is known as “accommodating resistance.” This helps you to build size and strength faster because you are overloading the entire strength curve of your exercises and creating maximum muscle tension at all joint angles.
Here is a perfect demonstration of IFBB pro Ben Pakulski bench pressing with chains:
The chains fall on the floor as the athlete lowers the weight down. This makes the exercise lighter in the bottom position when the bar is on his chest and heavier in the top position when the bar is in the lockout position.
Bands are completely different from chains. Bands are really giant elastic bands that you can attach to barbells, machines and any other exercise to make an exercise more challenging.
Here is Ben Pakulski giving a perfect demonstration of the band bench press:
The bands are stretched more and more as you press the weight up to lockout. This makes the exercise feel heavier in the top position of the exercise and lighter in the bottom position of the exercise.
Bands and chains may sound similar. They both do the same thing: they make the exercise lighter in the bottom position and heavier in the top position so you can create maximum muscle tension throughout the entire range of motion. In other words they are accommodating resistance training tools.
In reality bands and chains feel completely different from each other. They challenge your muscles in different ways and they both have their own advantages and disadvantages for a bodybuilder trying to build maximum muscle mass.
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to use bands and chains for bodybuilding. This guide will be divided into four parts:
Outline: Bands And Chains For Bodybuilding
- Part 1: Chains
- Part 2: Bands
- Part 3: Reverse Bands
- Part 4: Hanging Bands
In this guide I will teach you some of the best exercises, training strategies and training routines for each of these methods. Many of these exercises such as chain flies, banded leg presses or reverse band hack squats were popularized by some of the best bodybuilding coaches in the world including John Meadows, Josh Bryant and Stan Efferding.
After reading this article you will have several strategies that you can start using today to target your weak muscle groups and build slabs of new muscle tissue all over your body.
Note: if you have trouble reading the training routines in this article then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Chains
Chains are an incredible training tool for building muscle. They are much easier to recover from than chains which makes them a great choice for a huge number of exercises.
Chains have many advantages for building muscle mass:
- Chains make the exercises heavier at the top and lighter at the bottom which helps you create maximum muscle tension throughout the entire range of motion.
- Chains force you to accelerate as hard as possible during the concentric phase of your exercises which helps you to recruit more muscle fibers.
- Chains decrease the weight in the bottom position during more dangerous exercises like chest flies and triceps extensions which decreases your risk of injury.
- Chains oscillate back and forth which forces you to recruit additional muscle fibers to stabilize the weight.
- Chains lower the center of gravity of the exercise which helps you to achieve stronger muscle contractions.
Talk about a powerful training tool for building muscle mass! It’s hard to think of another training tool that has so many things going for it. Chains are mostly used by powerlifters on exercises like the squat, bench press and deadlift.
These are all great exercises but chains can also be used by bodybuilders on isolation exercises. Let’s take a look at some of the best chain exercises for building muscle mass.
The Best Chain Isolation Exercises
Chains work incredibly well with different types of isolation exercises. One of the best strategies is to perform isolation exercises where chains make up 100% of the weight used for the exercise. Josh Bryant has used this strategy with many of his IFBB pro bodybuilding clients including Johnnie Jackson and Branch Warren.
One of Josh’s favorite chain exercises is the chain fly. Here is a perfect video demonstration:
If you have never performed this exercise then you don’t know what you are missing!
Normally when you perform a set of dumbbell flies there is a ton of tension on your chest in the bottom position and very little tension on your chest in the top position. With the chain fly you have a TON of tension on your pecs through the entire range of motion!
The exercise almost feels like a hybrid between a chest fly and a compound pressing exercise. You can expect some serious chest soreness after a few sets of chain flies! Josh Bryant has also had a lot of success using chains with lying tricep extensions.
Here is a perfect video demonstration:
Josh Bryant tore his triceps tendon during his powerlifting career when he tried to do a lying triceps extension with 330 pounds. He said if Bill Kazmeier can do it then so can I!
Josh learned his lesson and realized that using as much weight as possible on isolation exercises isn’t the way to go. Instead you want to use exercises where you can really feel the target muscle working.
The chain tricep extension fits this description perfectly. The chains feel lighter in the bottom position and heavier in the top position. This makes the exercise much safer on your elbows and creates maximal muscle tension through the entire range of motion.
Another great option is to use a combination of chains and straight weight on isolation exercises. Charles Poliquin said in one of his “Dojo of Strength” videos that the decline triceps extension with chains was the single best exercise you could perform to build big, strong triceps. Talk about an endorsement!
Here is a perfect video for this exercise:
The chains are so effective here because they perfectly match the strength curve for the triceps. The triceps have an ascending strength curve which means they can produce more force when they are fully shortened than when they are fully stretched.
In other words your triceps are stronger in the top position of a decline triceps extension and stronger in the top position. When you add chains to this exercise your triceps have to work equally hard in every part of the range of motion. The feeling on your triceps is unbelievable!
The bottom line is chains can be used on different isolation exercises like chest flies and triceps extensions to make them even more effective.
The Best Chain Compound Exercises
Chains were originally used by powerlifters to boost their strength on the squat, bench press and deadlift. However, some creative coaches like John Meadows figured out that bodybuilders could use chains on compound exercises to make them even more effective for building muscle. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Everyone knows that the squat is one of the best exercises you can do to build up your legs. One of the challenges with squats is they can be very difficult to recover from. They put a lot of stress on your lower back in the bottom position of the exercise.
Chain squats are a great option for bodybuilders because they take pressure off your lower back in the bottom position so you can train with more overall volume and intensity.
Here is a perfect demonstration of the chain squat by IFBB pro Shelby Starnes:
As you can see the chains fall on the floor in the bottom position of the squat. This makes the exercise much easier on the lower back and much easier to recover from. Chains can also be used on other powerlifting style exercises like the bench press.
Chains are an awesome tool when you want to train more explosively on the bench press to recruit the higher-threshold muscle fibers. The chains make the exercise heavier as you approach the lockout position so you really have to explode the weight up as fast as possible.
Here is IFBB pro Ben Pakulski giving a perfect demonstration of the chain bench press:
Just look at how hard Ben is exploding the weight up to lockout! I can feel my triceps trembling just from watching that video!
As a general rule of thumb you will recruit your triceps more whenever you use chains on the bench press. This makes chains a great choice for bodybuilders who have a hard time feeling their triceps working whenever they perform close grip bench presses.
Here is a great triceps routine written by Charles Poliquin featuring the chain bench press. Check it out:
Charles Poliquin Chain Bench Press Triceps Hypertrophy Routine
- A1: Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead), 5 x 6, 3/1/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press against chains (shoulder-width grip), 4 x 6-9, 4/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Standing overhead rope cable extensions, 4 x 6-9, 2/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
This routine uses the chain bench press later in the routine after your triceps have already been per-fatigued by the lying triceps extensions. This is a great strategy for any aspiring bodybuilder to use.
Of course using chains on other compound exercises besides the squat, bench press and deadlift does not make you a bad person. The bodybuilding coach John Meadows uses chains on all kinds of compound exercises. One of his favorites is the one-arm barbell row with chains.
Here is a perfect video demonstration:
John likes to use chains on the 1-arm barbell row because it gives the exercise a completely different feel. The chains overload the top half of the exercise and give you a huge contraction in your lats. The chains also make the center of gravity for the exercise closer to the ground which helps with the mind-muscle connection in your lats.
Another one of John’s favorite chain exercises is the chain hack squat. Here is Matt Kroc giving a perfect video demonstration:
John Meadow’s whole bodybuilding program called Mountain Dog Training is designed to help you safely build as much muscle mass as possible.
John believes that some exercises like hack squats can be very tough on your knees. This is especially true in the very bottom position of the exercise. John usually performs hack squats towards the end of his leg workouts after performing other exercises like squats and leg presses first. However, sometimes John takes things a step further and uses chains to make machine hack squats even safer.
The chains unload in the bottom position of the exercise which takes a TON of stress off your knees and makes the exercise much safer.
The bottom line is chains can be used with all kinds of compound exercises to make them safer and more effective for building muscle mass. Chains are easily one of the most important training tools for the serious bodybuilder!
Part 2: Bands
Bands are another awesome tool for bodybuilders. Bands are like a more extreme version of chains. They create even more tension in your muscles and can build more muscle than chains but they are also much more difficult to recover from.
Here are some of the big advantages of bands for building muscle mass:
- Bands make exercises much heavier in the top position and much lighter in the bottom position which lets you overload muscles in their shortened position.
- Bands force you to accelerate the weight as hard as possible during the concentric phase of your exercises which helps you to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
- Bands create a ton of eccentric stress on your muscles which can be a great strategy for stimulating muscle growth.
- Bands help you to strengthen your joints and connective tissue which can make your regular exercises safer to perform.
Bands are also light enough that you can fit them in your gym bag and take them anywhere you go. They truly are one of the most versatile tools in the world for building muscle. Bands can be used on a huge variety of isolation and compound exercises.
Let’s look at some of the most effective band exercises for building muscle.
The Best Band Isolation Exercises
One of the best band training strategies is to use them on isolation exercises where they are the only source of resistance. In other words you would only use band tension for that particular exercise.
One of the oldest and most effective band isolation exercises is the band pull-apart. Here is a perfect video demonstration:
The band pull-apart is an unbelievably effective rear delt exercise. It was invented by the Westside Barbell powerlifting team as a way to train the rear delts for a bigger bench press. The contraction you get on your rear delts in the fully contracted position is absolutely insane!
The bands are actually pulling your hands together faster than the speed of gravity which creates an enormous amount of stress on your rear delts. This exercise is also great for keeping your shoulders healthy.
The strength coach Christian Thibadeau says that band pull-aparts are one of the reasons he could bench press heavy again after many years away from the exercise.
Another classic Westside Barbell band isolation exercise is the band tricep pushdown. For example:
One of the problems with regular cable pushdowns is they don’t put a lot of tension on your triceps when your elbows are locked out. As you already know the triceps have an ascending strength curve which means they are much stronger when they are fully contracted vs when they are fully stretched.
The band tricep pushdown solves this problem because the bands are strongest in the bottom position when your arms are fully straightened! The Westside Barbell team loves to use band pushdowns as a post-fatigue exercise to build size on their triceps.
For example Louie Simmons loves to superset lying dumbbell triceps extensions and band pushdowns. Check it out:
Westside Barbell Triceps Band Pushdown Superset
- A1: Rolling DB triceps extensions, 5 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Band pushdowns, 5 x 12-15, 2/0/1/1, 120 seconds rest
After five rounds of this superset your triceps will be ready to explode!
Louie Simmons has another great strategy for using band pushdowns. If a Westside Barbell powerlifter had lagging triceps he would have them perform 100 reps of band pushdowns on their off days. They could perform 3 sets of 33 reps, 5 sets of 20 reps or any other set / rep combination to get that magical 100 rep count.
These sets should be reasonably hard but NOT all the way to failure. Many Westside Barbell lifters dramatically increased the size of their triceps within 6 months of using this strategy.
Bands can be used on tons of other exercises like face pulls, rows, lateral raises and so on. Here are a few video examples:
I wouldn’t use bands on all of your isolation exercises. However, they are an incredible tool that you can use to build slabs of new muscle mass.
The Best Band Compound Exercises
Bands can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are a powerful tool that you can use to build size and strength. On the other hand bands can be very hard to recover from. This is especially true when you use them on compound exercises like the squat, bench press and deadlift.
IFBB pro John Meadows likes to use bands on compound machine exercises to keep you safe and reduce the risk of injury.
One of John’s absolute favorite compound exercises to use bands on is the 45 degree leg press. Here is a perfect demonstration of this exercise:
One of the drawbacks of the regular 45 degree leg press is it can be very tough on your knees in the bottom position. This is especially true if you are an older lifter and have been lifting seriously for 10+ years.
The banded leg press completely eliminates this issue because it makes the exercise heavier in the top position and lighter in the bottom position. Many bodybuilders like IFBB pro Stan Efferding have actually cured their knee pain by using banded leg presses in their routine.
Here is Stan Efferding’s favorite bodybuilding quad workout:
Stan Efferding’s Quad Workout
- A1: Single-leg leg extension, 2 x 20, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: 45 degree band leg press, 2 x 20, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Machine hack squat, 2 x 20, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Walking DB lunge, 2 x 20, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
John sometimes even uses high-intensity techniques like drop sets or ascending-descending sets with the banded leg press. It really is one of the most versatile quad exercises for the serious bodybuilder. John Meadows also likes to use bands on various hammer strength machine exercises.
For example here is John’s client Ken Jackson performing the banded decline hammer strength press:
The bands increase in tension as you press the handles forward. This gives you an UNBELIEVABLE contraction in your chest in the top position of the exercise. Ken Jackson’s chest lags way behind the rest of his body so John had him perform the banded decline hammer strength press as part of a tri-set for his chest. Here is the exact routine:
Ken Jackson Chest Pre-Exhaust Tri-Set
- A1: Machine pec dec, 1 x 10-15**, 1/0/1/1, no rest
- A2: Standing cable fly / press hybrid, 1 x 10-15, 1/0/1/1, no rest
- A3: Decline hammer strength press against bands, 1 x 10-15, 1/0/X/1, rest as needed
**Perform 5 forced reps with a 3-5 second isometric hold in the contracted position after reaching failure.
You can click right here to watch Ken Jackson perform this brutal chest tri-set ending in the decline hammer strength press with bands.
In my experience it’s easier to bring up lagging muscle groups by overloading the stretched position of different exercises but using bands to overload the contracted position is another viable strategy.
The bottom line is bands are an awesome tool to build muscle. They can be used on all sorts of isolation and compound exercises.
Just be careful with using them on compound barbell exercises like the squat, bench press and deadlift. These exercises are very effective but they can be difficult to recover from once you start throwing lots of band tension into the mix.
Part 3: Reverse Bands
The reverse band method is sometimes called the “lightened method” or the “future method” by powerlifters. Reverse bands are used to make an exercise lighter through the bottom part of the range of motion or even the entire range of motion.
Here is a perfect video demonstration of the reverse band bench press:
As you can see the bands are hanging from the top of the power rack and attach onto the barbell. The bands pull the bar up which makes the weight feel lighter throughout the entire range of motion.
Reverse bands are similar to regular bands or even chains. They make the total resistance lighter in the bottom position of the exercise and heavier in the top position.
The big difference with reverse bands is the weight is being pulled down *slower* than the speed of gravity. This makes reverse bands EXTREMELY friendly on your joints and very easy to recover from. IFBB pro John Meadows uses reverse bands on a variety of bodybuilding exercises to make them more effective, safer and easier to recover from.
One of John’s favorite reverse band exercises is the reverse band hack squat. For example:
John Meadows believes that hack squats are a great quadriceps exercise but they can be hard on your knees. John likes to use reverse bands on the hack squat for two reasons:
- They decrease the total weight in the bottom position of the exercise
- They decrease the eccentric stress of the exercise
Both of these factors make reverse band hack squats much easier on your knees compared to regular hack squats. As an added bonus it is very easy to set up reverse bands on most hack squat machines. Another one of John’s favorite reverse band exercises is the reverse band back squat. The set up for this exercise is very similar: you add the bands to the top of the power rack and wrap them around the barbell.
Here is IFBB pro Shelby Starnes giving a perfect demonstration of the reverse band back squat:
The reverse band back squat is extremely friendly on your lower back and your knees. It also locks your body into a power groove which makes it easier to really feel your quadriceps working.
The bottom line is reverse bands are easier on your joints and recovery ability than regular bands or even chains. They are a great way to reap the benefits of accommodating resistance without overtraining your body into the ground.
Part 4: Hanging Bands
Hanging bands are an incredible training tool for building muscle mass. The basic idea is to hang weights or kettlebells from a barbell using resistance bands. Here is a perfect video demonstration of the hanging band method on the bench press:
I have to admit that hanging bands look like one of those “functional training” gimmicks like bosu ball squats or glute bridges. I mean, what the heck is the hanging band method supposed to accomplish? The hanging band method is basically a form of chaos training.
The weights or kettlebells oscillate in every direction while you perform your exercises. This forces both your primary muscle groups and the smaller supporting muscle groups to work much harder to stabilize the weight.
Some of the strongest powerlifters in the world including the bench press world record holder Julius Maddox use the hanging band method as a core part of their training program.
The weights also bounce up and down while you lift which creates a TON of eccentric stress on your muscles. The hanging band method results in some serious muscle soreness!
Here are some sample training videos of advanced bodybuilders and powerlifters using the hanging band method on various exercises:
- Hanging band bench press
- Hanging band overhead press
- Hanging band curls
- Hanging band triceps extensions
If you train in a hardcore bodybuilding or powerlifting gym then you might have access to a couple of specialty bars that are designed for the hanging band method:
- The bamboo bar
- The earthquake bar
Both of these specialty barbells are made out of bamboo. No – I’m not kidding! They are actually made out of bamboo, that bendy plant that pandas like to eat.
These bars are extremely light and bend all over the place while you perform your bench presses or any other exercise. In other words the weights oscillate even more with the bamboo bar and the earthquake bar than they do with a regular 45 pound barbell when you use the bamboo bar.
These bars make the hanging band method even more effective so you can build muscle mass even faster.
If you do not have access to the bamboo bar or the earthquake bar then don’t worry, you can still get awesome results using the hanging band method with a regular barbell. Personally I love using the hanging band method with barbell overhead presses and lying triceps extensions.
I get a MUCH stronger contraction in my shoulders and triceps and have a much easier time getting stronger when I use the hanging band method with these exercises.
Bands and chains aren’t just for bodybuilders! They are easily one of the best tools that you can use in the gym. If your gym does not have access to chains then you may not be able to use them.
I spent many years in my 20s carrying a pair of 25 pound chains over my shoulders to my local gym but I realize most people won’t do something this extreme.
Fortunately bands are extremely lightweight and can easily fit in your gym bag. If your gym does not have bands then you can purchase your own and bring them with you to your gym to train.
I recommend most people go and purchase a pair of mini-bands, monster mini-bands and light bands to get started. This will keep you busy for a very long time. You can also keep things simple and purchase the Mountain Dog band pack available at elitefts.com. Regular bands, reverse bands and the hanging band method are all awesome training methods that anyone can use in any commercial gym.
So what are you waiting for? Start training with chains and bands and watch your gains shoot through the roof!
“There are two types of people who will tell you that you cannot make a difference in this world: those who are afraid to try and those who are afraid you will succeed.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training program!
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