Will Adding Chains to Deadlifts Increase Muscle Activation?

chains, muscle activation, infinite_labs

Will Adding Chains to Deadlifts Increase Muscle Activation?

By: Robbie Durand

If you are looking to take your strength gains to the next level,  than the vast majority of research points to chain training.  Chain training is a form of variable resistance exercise. What variable resistance training means is that the weight is not constant throughout the entire range of motion.   For example, the barbell squat, the weight of the bar stays the same throughout the lift.  When you add chains to a squat bar, it becomes a form of variable resistance which requires differing degrees of force to be applied to the target muscle to create constant resistance, compelling the muscle to work harder to meet the demands of the exercise. It’s been well established that changing the way a person lifts, will modify the recruitment patterns of muscle. For example, muscle activation of the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and tibialis anterior was greater during the sumo deadlift than during the conventional deadlift exercise. These altered patterns of muscle activation with changes in technique and the use of chains emphasizes the need for the strength and conditioning coach to carefully consider the implications of these methods on muscle activation and specificity of training.

Variable resistance exercise is designed to achieve maximum muscular involvement. One of the first forms of variable resistance exercise was the creation of the Nautilus machine.  The standard features of variable resistance training machines are the presence of cables, pulleys, or other devices to create variability, coupled with the placement of the user in a fixed position to ensure that the user cannot recruit other muscle groups to assist in the completion of the prescribed movements.

Powerlifters have been using variable resistance training with chains for some time now. Variable resistance training has been shown to increase strength, power, and rate of force development of users. With variable resistance training external load changes throughout the range of motion.  In a previous study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists compared in a meta-analysis (i.e. collection of studies) the effects of a long-term (≥ seven weeks) variable resistance training program using chains or elastic bands and a similar constant resistance program in both trained adults practicing different sports and untrained individuals. The published studies considered were those addressing variable resistance training effects on the one repetition maximum (1RM). Seven studies involving 235 subjects fulfilled the selection and inclusion criteria. At the end of the study, variable resistance training led to a significantly greater mean strength gain than the gain recorded in response to conventional weight training. Long-term variable resistance training using chains or elastic bands attached to the barbell emerged as an effective evidence-based method of improving maximal strength both in athletes with different sports backgrounds and untrained subjects. So based on this meta-analysis of studies, if you are looking to increase your bench press or squat, be sure to incorporate band and chain training into your regimen.

Add Chains Reducing Gluteus Maximum Activation

In the latest study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers wanted to examine how adding chains would affect muscle activation compared to doing the deadlift without chains.  Researchers hooked up electrodes to the gluteus maximus, erector spinae (lower back), and vastus lateralis muscles.   Thirteen resistance trained men performed 1 repetition maximum (1RM) testing of the deadlift exercise.

On day two, subjects performed one set of three repetitions with a load of 85% 1RM with chains and without chains. The order of the chains and no-chains conditions was randomly determined for each subject. For the chains condition, the chains accounted for approximately 20% of the 85% 1RM load, matched at the top of the lift. At the end of the study, EMG results revealed that for the gluteus maximus there was significantly greater EMG activity during the no change condition versus the chains condition. Muscle activation levels for the erector spinae and vastus lateralis muscles were unaffected by chain use. Collectively, these findings suggest that the use of chain resistance during deadlifting can alter muscle activation and force characteristics of the lift.

Key Point: Muscle activation is increased when chains are added to the barbell.

Nijem RM, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Lynn SK, Ciccone AB. An Electromyographic and Force Plate Analysis of the Deadlift Performed With and Without Chains. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jan 29.
Soria-Gila MA, Chirosa IJ, Bautista IJ, Chirosa LJ, Salvador B. EFFECTS OF VARIABLE RESISTANCE TRAINING ON MAXIMAL STRENGTH: A META-ANALYSIS. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 May 8.