Getting Started with Bands and Chains for Performance

   

I had never been a huge fan of accommodating resistance, but after a month of testing athletes who performed a full cycle of chain and band work, I am a believer. To me, accommodating resistance was useful for advanced athletes, but now that I have seen it used at the high school and college levels over the last two years, I recommend it for developmental athletes as well.

Accommodating resistance is not new, but some of the benefits of using chains and bands are now more mainstream. If you are working with athletes and have gone back and forth like me on whether or not to use accommodating resistance, I'm going to share my favorite reasons why bands and chains are clutch for strength coaches.

Rapid Fire Summary of Accommodating Resistance

Without getting too deep into the science, accommodating resistance is simply a way for the load to increase as the barbell stroke lengthens away from the ground.

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Most of the techniques employ heavy duty elastic bands or chains, and the research supports the use with both novices and advanced athletes.

Like most coaches, I prefer not to use additional equipment or specific methods when polishing the basics works so well. Still, if you want to make progress faster and teach better, adding chains and bands can make a noticeable difference. I took a break from using bands and chains for nearly ten years, but recently, after seeing the grade improvements with local NFL athletes, I went back to chains and bands with more confidence.

Over the last decade a lot of research on bands and chains shed light on the fact that they may be more than just nice to have; they may a cornerstone option for athletes.

If you want to dive into the science more, Science for Sport reviewed both the research on elastic bands and chains in depth. A key takeaway is that bands and chains increase the demand of conventional lifts like squats, bench press, and even deadlifts. For the most part, I like using bands and chains for squatting and benching, but several coaches have had great success with deadlift as well.

1. Bands and Chains Reward Full Range Movement

I realize that a lot of coaches are shunning deep squats, but I still believe athletes should squat as deeply as their anatomy can take them.

Knowing the end range of a squat and challenging the body in deep positions are useful for mobility and injury prevention. Partial squatting has some interesting outcomes in the research, but so does accommodating resistance. When squatting, I would rather have the benefits of both the theoretical performance (shallow) and joint development (deep) qualities.

A lighter load in the deep position of the squat is a great way to get full range movement, and both bands and chains can provide that lesson.

2. Bands and Chains Increase Explosiveness and Maximal Strength 

Another benefit of bands and chains is that the speed of the lift early on coupled with the heavy load at the end range is great for helping athletes develop explosiveness.

The rate of force development, a measure of how fast an athlete can generate their strength, is improved through the right combination of training methods. What we do know is that ballistic training as well has maximal strength training does help improve RFD, and using bands may help develop this quality.

Recent research out of New Zealand supported the notion that peak force and peak power were superior with band-based squatting, and this study involved both male and female subjects.

3. Bands and Chains Extend the Propulsive Phase of the Lift 

Training with very light barbells has a few drawbacks, and the primary one is called the braking phase of the lift. While I don’t see this scientific phenomenon as a real problem with high rep training, the idea of getting the most out of a repetition with bands and chains is intriguing.

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An athlete knowing they are going to reach lockout will decelerate enough that barspeed during the entire lift is compromised, so chains and bands can help fix that issue. While technically accommodating resistance doesn’t speed up the lift dramatically as a whole, what it does do well is make sure the entire stroke has great effort slightly longer during the concentric phase.

Why is this important? Coaches care about getting the most out of a repetition, and athletes at all levels cut their barbell stroke to prepare for the lockout position. As the athlete extends their barbell stroke, the resistance forces them to be honest, so bands or chains improve the quality of the repetition as a whole.

4. Bands and Chains Train both Stability and Eccentric Qualities

Chains, depending on the length, provide a challenge that is enough to wake up the athlete, while not too unstable that it becomes a circus act. Unstable surface training was proven to be just a bad idea ten years ago, but some oscillation work is useful from time to time. If the chain is long enough, a few links on the ground will keep the motion from being too wave-like, while a chain that is fully off the ground will have a large sway.

When an athlete returns to conventional benching or squatting, they have a newfound confidence in the lift.

Bands, due to their elastic qualities, provide eccentric benefit when doing speed work if they are done with high speeds. A study on drop jumps with bands did show value to accelerating the speed faster than gravity, and a specific squat study supported the theory that forces were increased during the early phase of the eccentric period.

Bands may provide stability benefits like chains, but the research is a little sparse as of now.

5. Bands and Chains Motivate Athletes the Right Way

Let’s be honest, adding spice to training can create a spark during heavy training periods. There's bothing wrong with adding variation provided it has a purpose, and athletes respond very well to changes that are novel and fun.

I reward athletes with chains and bands by making sure they value the basics. Rushing toward variations or advanced options sends the wrong message to today’s athlete: that they are entitled to train like a pro when they didn’t do the dirty work. Creating a clear standard, such as a specific combination of years training and maximal strength, is a great way to teach athletes that you must earn advanced training.

Giving everyone the same “training privileges” only waters down the process of training. If an athlete is not ready to progress, make sure they know why in advance and what it takes to earn advancement to avoid conflict.

Practical Recommendations Before Starting Out

Now for the more applied information that most coaches will likely want to know. Based on two years of practice, what I would do today is very similar to what I did in the early 2000s. Remember that principles are timeless, and usually the advancements in training are just refinement of the craft versus a paradigm shift.

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Here are takeaways that you should be privy to before adding bands and chains:

  • You need to have a few months of training with bands and chains personally before implementing them with teams. Coaches don’t need to be world class powerlifters, but you can’t try it once and then program them in. Pay your dues.
  • Inspect bands before and after every session thoroughly. I have never witnessed a snapped band, but I recommend replacing elastic bands every season and recycle the old bands for stretching.
  • Chains are great for other needs like weighted push-ups and even resisted sprints. Using chains instead of sleds is sometimes more turf friendly and keeps the grounds crew happy.
  • Know the proper set-up for chain lengths and bands based on typical athlete heights (squatting) and arm lengths (benching). After a few sessions, this is easy to remember, like converting pounds to kilograms.

The above tips and recommendations are just a starting point, and I recommend visiting coaches who use bands and chains regularly. Having a purpose is also important, so remember to place bands and chains during max strength phases and use them to solve specific needs in training.

Example Workouts for Beginners, Intermediates, and Advanced Athletes

Most of my information comes from the lead strength coach at Exceed Sports Performance, Shane Davenport. It was actually his use of chains and bands that convinced me they were worth putting back into my own workouts.

Beginners

Beginners should use chains due to the linear resistance being easier to grasp than elastic bands. Adding chains to higher rep ranges, say 6-8, is great for neophytes in training that need to learn both the movement and how to be aggressive during the entire range of motion.

I don’t like using chains in large groups of beginners because they have so many basic needs to begin with. If you are working in small ratio settings, beginners can benefit from learning to express their strength.

Intermediate

Intermediate athletes are those that have 2-3 years of strength training under their belt and are finding their improvement curve slowing down. During this time, we like adding heavy band squats for 4 sets of 4 reps. If done right, the last rep of the last set lingers, and the athlete knows another set would have been sloppy.

Our rest periods between sets run typically 4-5 minutes, as this is part of a maximal strength block.

Advanced

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Advanced athletes are not only experienced lifters in general, but they are also comfortable with both bands and chains and can safely perform variations to the lifts without worry.

I still don’t like speed lifts unless the technique is extremely tight. We like upper body benching with bands or chains and usually perform 3 sets of 6 reps, resting 3 full minutes between sets.

Overall

Overall, chain work and band work are demanding, and that’s why I prefer using them in the off-season and using cluster training for peaking or in-season work.

You only need to employ a 4-week cycle to gain small benefits if you are using accommodating resistance twice a week with maximal effort. Two months is ideal, especially if you have a full period of conventional training between two cycles. Research on accommodating resistance use typically longer periods of time, but those periods are most likely longer due to the less aggressive loading strategies.

Know When Not to Use Bands and Chains

Sometimes knowing when not to use a strength training method is just as good and knowing when to use it.

If you are committed to using accommodating resistance, dive in and work with a coach who has spent time using it with groups of athletes. If you are not ready and need time to experiment before applying it to groups, then, by all means, take your time.

Bands and chains do work and are worth it if you program them in properly during maximal strength phases, and the guidelines I shared are more than enough reasons to add them to your training.

About The Author

Coach Valle has coached Track and Field at every level, from high school to the Olympic level in the sprints and hurdles. He has had the privilege of working with great athletes that have been All-American and school record holders. A technology professional, Coach Valle has expertise in performance data as well as an understanding for practical application of equipment and software. Carl is currently the lead sport technologist for SpikesOnly.com, and focuses his time on testing elite athletes and using technology to help everyone on any level of human performance reach their goals.

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