As weight trainers, we face a constant, yet welcome, battle against gravity. The great leveller. The pull towards the center of the Earth. The thorn in the side of every physicist on the planet. But what if you could cheat gravity? What if you could manipulate it and mould it into your own muscle and strength-building monster?
Weights are just heavy lumps that you hold in your hand. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter what brand of discs you lift, what gloves you use, whether you use iron, vinyl, or platinum. They’re just weights, and they’re controlled by gravity.
Humans have been lifting weights for centuries, and gravity has been in control for millennia, so what can we do about it now?
The answer is to make use of a range of resistance aids to drastically alter the dynamics of your lifts.
These resistance aids aren’t high tech, massively scientific, or super expensive toys. In fact, the most common pieces of equipment that are used to accommodate resistance and add new slants to age-old exercises are simply bands and chains. These are common in more serious, powerlifting-type gyms. You may have seen people using them. You may have had a go yourself.
Bands, chains, and other resistance aids are excellent for stacking on strength and power. This extra strength and power can also be used to build quality muscle, hitting the muscles in a way they have probably never before been worked.
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Before we delve deeper into the equipment and how to use it, it’s time for a quick science lesson.
The core mechanism of muscular contraction is the sliding filament theory.
This theory states that muscle tissues are made up of different filaments that interact and slide between each other, shortening and lengthening the muscles.
The myosin filaments are activated by energy molecules called ATP. This causes myosin to interact with the actin filaments, gradually pulling itself past and shortening the muscle. As you can see from the image above, when the muscle is stretched, less myosin is able to interact with actin. This explains why the extended part of a lift, the bottom of a bench press for example, is harder than the top of the movement when more filaments are able to interact, producing more power and strength. Put simply, as muscles contract and shorten, they become stronger. This is where equipment such as bands and chains come in.
Bands and chains allow you to add extra resistance to the parts of the lift where the muscles are in their most powerful position. Rather than a lift becoming easier as it progresses, it becomes harder, or at least it stays just as hard, keeping pressure on the muscles and really hitting fibers that would normally not get much of the workload.
Bands vs Chains
So if both bands and chains add resistance, what’s the difference? And which is better?
It will come as no surprise to hear that there is a big difference, and that both bands and chains have their own, individual uses. They can also be used together to really up the ante.
As bands stretch, they add resistance. This is a straightforward principle. Bands add this resistance in a much smoother fashion than chains, but the major difference is that at the top of a movement, bands, when used from the ground up, are actively pulling downwards. This can be an uncomfortable and even dangerous situation to be in. Consequently, bands are best used with slightly lighter weights and higher reps than chains.
Another difference is that bands are far more restrictive. They govern the plane of motion through which you can lift, often resulting in unnatural feeling-movement that can, again, lead to accidents and injuries. However, when used smartly, bands are an excellent addition to your workouts. They are also lightweight and far easier to transport than big, bulky chains.
Benefits for Strength Trainers
Both bands and chains can dramatically increase strength and power due to the drastically altered dynamic of the resulting lift. The force-velocity relationship is greatly improved, adding stability to your lifting and raising the ability to push through parts of lifts that are otherwise largely neglected.
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Benefits for Bodybuilders
As previously mentioned, strength increases can easily be turned into muscular gains. If your two-rep max suddenly leaps up by 15%, it stands to reason that the weight you can use for muscle-shredding sets will also raise. More resistance breeds the need for muscle tissue.
Another benefit of using bands and chains is that the top portions of your big lifts become far tougher, resulting in very different muscle stimulation. For example, increasing tension at the top of a bench press will result in much greater stimulation of the inner pecs, leading to fuller chest development.
When using bands and chains, ALWAYS ensure that the equipment is in perfect working order and that everything is attached evenly and securely. Slipping or breaking equipment can lead to extremely nasty injuries.
A Note on Chains
Take a look at the picture of the guy pushing a bench press. Note the chain setup. A support chain is attached, and short pieces are added along its length. There’s no point in simply hanging a bunch of chain from the ends of the bar. This doesn’t achieve the dynamic effect that you are aiming for at all.
When squatting, obviously, the support chains need to be longer. You are aiming for the weight of the chains to be virtually absent at the bottom of the lift, gradually increasing towards the top of the movement.
A Note on Bands
Resistance bands can also be used from the top down, with great results. This has a similar effect to using them from the ground-up, but with a slightly different feel. Instead of constantly pulling downwards, using bands in this way will actually help you through the bottom part of the lift before slackening off towards the top.
Always use a competent spotter when using techniques like this, especially with weights that are heavier than you are used to. Never attempt any heavy lifting without safety measures in place.
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Another excellent resistance aid is eccentric hooks. Eccentric hooks allow you to perform heavy negatives without the aid of spotters.
A weighted hook is hung from either end of the bar. An extremely slow negative can then be performed with no worries about being trapped under this excess weight at the bottom of the movement. This is due to the fact that these hooks are designed to detach and fall away when they come into contact with the ground.
Negatives, or eccentric reps, are excellent ways to work the muscles and inspire growth. It is actually believed that, during the negative phase of a lift, more muscle fibers are stimulated.
Watch a video demonstration Here.
Training with the equipment detailed in this article is extremely strenuous work. The methods mentioned above will really take it out of your body. They’ll train your muscles in ways they’ve never been hit before and can easily lead to overtraining. It is recommended that you don’t train with equipment such as bands and chains for long periods of time. Take a break, switch it up. If you find yourself suffering from symptoms associated with overtraining, such as dark urine, aching joints, or morning tiredness, take a week away from the gym to relax and let your body play catch-up.