Chains & Bands Can Double Your 1RM Strength Gains on the Bench and in the Squat Rack, Meta-Analysis Shows

Dude, it won't suffice to just bring your chains to the gym to show them off, you will also have to attach them to the barbell before squatting and benching to see results... and bro, the science on the benefits of elastic bands is much more solid - even though they are not as "cool"!
I've written about the use of bands and chains in previous SuppVersity articles, but Miguel A. Soria-Gila recent paper is the first meta-analysis that aggregates the available data to answer the important question, whether the use of "variable resistance" training (VRT), as the use of bands and chains is usually referred to in the literature, is generally advisable, or if the existing positive results are nothing but outliers.
Retraction alert: In November 2018, the paper by Soria-Gila that is at the heart of this article was retracted due to "honest error [...] which completely invalidated the results and interpretation of the findings (read more). Unfortunately, the type of error is not reported, so I can just say: probably my conclusions were mislead, too.
Now, from the headline of today's SuppVersity article you already know that Sotia-Gila's analysis yielded positive results, or as the authors have it: " Long-term VRT 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."
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What is particularly interesting, though, is whether the statistically significant benefits are practically relevant enough for you to consider bringing your chains and/or resistance bands to the gym.
Figure 1: Relative strength increase in bench press (BP), back squat (BSQ), leg press (LP) and squat (SQ) in response to regular and variable resistance training; if not indicated otherwise, the variable resistance training was done with bands, only the study by Ghigarelli, et al. compared bands to chains (Soria-Gila. 2015).
To answer this question we need both, the relative and absolute strength increases in both, the variable resistance training (VRT) and control groups of the four pertinent studies in the meta-analysis - data I've plotted for you in Figure 1 and 2.
Figure 2: Absolute increase in 1-RM strength (all values in kg) in the respective exercises (see Figure 1 for abbreviations) in the seven 7-week plus studies that were part of the meta-analysis (Soria-Gila. 2015).
In five of the studies (indexed with "(T)" in Figure 1) the subjects were trained individuals, in the studies by Anderson (basketball and hockey players + wrestlers), Cronin and McCurdy (baseball, Division I) the subjects actually had ~3 or even more years of training experience. The results of these studies may thus be of particular interest for the average SuppVersity reader of whom I know that he / she is not a total foreigner to gym. If we assume that they / you would see the same benfits, the extra-increases on the bench and in the squat would be:
  • An extra 5% increase in 1RM and thus 2x greater strength gains on the bench.
  • An extra 11% increase in 1RM and thus 2.6x greater strength gains for squats.
In relative terms the benefits you may achieve after only 10-13 weeks are thus quite impressive. But can the same be said for the absolute extra-gains? Soria-Gila et al. report an extra strength gain of 5.03 kg (95% confidence interval: 2.26–7.80 kg) for all studies and all exercises. If we, again, consider only the bench press and the squat and eliminate the studies with untrained participants, the absolute values are much smaller: 1.8 kg and 2.7 kg, respectively.
Are you looking for more ways to maximize your strength gains? Find out if training to failure or modifying your rest times can help in this SuppVersity article.
Variable resistance training for explosive gains? In relative terms, the effects are huge. Two-fold larger increases in 1-RM strength in trained subjects speak for themselves. The absolute strength gains, on the other hand, are - and that's typical for people who have been training for several years - relatively small. Accordingly, you should not expect to start gaining strength like a rookie again, when you incorporate bands (which are better researched than chains) in your training regimen. What you can expect, though, is that your progress will accelerate significantly. For the next 2-3 months this would mean that you may be able to add 4 kg to your bench instead of just 2 kg. That's not exactly earth-shatteringly much, but it's still a 100% increase in 1-RM strength and in my humble opinion worth the effort... no? | Comment on Facebook!

  • Anderson, Corey E., Gary A. Sforzo, and John A. Sigg. "The effects of combining elastic and free weight resistance on strength and power in athletes." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 22.2 (2008): 567-574.
  • Bellar, David M., et al. "The effects of combined elastic-and free-weight tension vs. free-weight tension on one-repetition maximum strength in the bench press." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 25.2 (2011): 459-463.
  • Cronin, John, Peter Mcnair, and Robert Marshall. "The effects of bungy weight training on muscle function and functional performance." Journal of sports sciences 21.1 (2003): 59-71.
  • Ghigiarelli, Jamie J., et al. "The effects of a 7-week heavy elastic band and weight chain program on upper-body strength and upper-body power in a sample of division 1-AA football players." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.3 (2009): 756-764.
  • McCurdy, Kevin, et al. "Comparison of chain-and plate-loaded bench press training on strength, joint pain, and muscle soreness in Division II baseball players." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.1 (2009): 187-195.
  • Rhea, Matthew R., Joseph G. Kenn, and Bryan M. Dermody. "Alterations in speed of squat movement and the use of accommodated resistance among college athletes training for power." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.9 (2009): 2645-2650.
  • Shoepe, Todd, et al. "The effects of 24 weeks of resistance training with simultaneous elastic and free weight loading on muscular performance of novice lifters." Journal of human kinetics 29 (2011): 93-106.
  • Soria-gila, Miguel A., et al. "Effects of variable resistance training on maximal strength: a meta-analysis." Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research/National Strength & Conditioning Association (2015): Accepted article.
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