Leg Training – Squats with Chains

The squat is one of the two major lower body exercises, the other being the deadlift. Squatting with chains allows you to overload the weight at the top of the lift, while lightening the weight at the bottom which allows you to drive out of the bottom of the squat much more explosively.  Since the chains pile up on the floor as you descend, the weight is lightest at the bottom of the squat, and increases in weight as you near the top of the lift.

Chain Squats have 3 distinct advantages over regular squats:

  1. The weight is lighter at the bottom of the squat, so you can train explosively, with heavier weights. Drive the bar as hard as you can while it’s ‘light’.
  2. Overloading the weight at the top – by driving explosively while the weight is lighter, you can use the momentum you’ve built up to lock out heavier loads.
  3. As you near lockout in the squats, you gain a greater mechanical advantage making the lift easier. As you ascend with chain squats the weight increases, providing you a heavier loads as you reach greater mechanical advantages.

Squatting with chains can prepare you to move greater amounts of weight and increase your explosive power. Before attempting chain squats, however, you should first perfect your technique with standard barbell squats.

Muscles Used for this Exercise

  • Primary Muscle Groups: Quadriceps, Glutes, Hamstrings
  • Secondary Muscle Groups: Both anterior and posterior muscle groups in the lower body are very important to this lift; if you are squatting correctly, they should all be considered primary
  • Stabilizers: Abdominals/Core, Upper Back (Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapezius), Lower Back (Spinal Erectors)

Because of the instability created by the chains, you use stabilizers when squatting with chains to a much greater degree than with your normal squat.

Exercise Classification

Exercise Technique

At first glance, the squat seems like a simple exercise – get under the bar, sit down and stand back up. To squat effectively is, however, quite complex. There are many nuances to the lift that will make the difference between a good squat and a great squat. Squatting with chains makes the lift even more challenging:

  • Equipment:
    • Squat rack – you will be lifting too much weight to lift onto your shoulders. Set the rack height at mid to upper chest height so that you will have good leverage to unrack and walk the weight out. Set the safety pins low enough so that you can squat to full depth without bumping them, and high enough so that they can catch the bar if you get into trouble.
    • T-Shirt – for squatting use a relatively tight t-shirt. The bar will be less likely to slide on a t-shirt than on your bare skin (ie a tank top), and a tight t-shirt will keep the shirt from sliding between the bar and your skin. For additional stability, run chalk along your back and shoulders where the bar rests.
    • Shoes – lift in shoes with a solid sole. Running or athletic shoes have soles that will compress under the weight of your body and the bar, greatly decreasing your stability.
    • Chains
      • Weight Chains – a single 5’ length of 3/8” chain weighs around 20lbs/9kg or 40lbs/18kg per pair, and are the perfect setup for chain squats.

      • Connector Chains – connector chains are lighter weight, and used to connect the weight chain to the bar and adjust the chain height. Another 5’ length gives you flexibility you need to adjust the weight chain up and down for different height lifters (see Chain Setup below).

      • Connector Hardware – there are a lot of different options in connector hardware. The simplest is a set of carabiners. A large size carabiner connects the weight chain to the connector chain. Smaller carabiners make adjusting the length of the connector chain quick and easy.

  • Chain Setup: To maximize the effectiveness of the chains, use the full length of the chain. When locked out nearly all the chain should be off the floor, with only 2-3 links from each end dragging the floor. At the bottom of the squat most of the chain should be piled up on the floor.

Setting Up

Technique for setting up and squatting with chains is identical to a normal squat. Greater care must be taken to stay tight, given the instability created by the chains.

  • Bar Placement: Demonstrated here is the low bar position. This will give you good leverage for maximum power. The bar should rest on the back of your delts at the base of your traps. If you slide the bar down your traps as you step under it, you will find a little groove between your delts and traps the bar slides right into.

Note: there are other bar placement options based on training goals and body mechanics – alternate bar placement is beyond the scope of this article.

  • Hand Placement/Grip: Grip the bar as close to your shoulders as your flexibility will allow. Moving your hands out wider, away from your shoulders will reduce tension on your shoulders and elbows, if you lack flexibility, but it will loosen your upper back, reducing your stability. Conversely, bringing your hands in will tighten your upper back, increasing your stability.
  • Foot Placement: As a starting point, your feet should be set with your heels at shoulder width with your toes pointed outward. You may have to adjust the width of your stance based on your body mechanics and mobility to find the optimum position for you. Some general guidelines:
    • A wider stance increases emphasis on your hips, reduces tension on your glutes and hamstrings, and can make it more difficult to hit full depth. A wide stance also reduces the range of motion of the squat.
    • A narrower stance increases the stretch of your glutes and hamstrings allowing them to aid more in the lift. With the proper foot position, a closer stance can make it easier to squat to depth.
  • Step under the bar using the hand and bar placement as discussed above. To unrack your feet should be in a relatively narrow stance, hip width apart, with your toes pointed forward (see the first frame of the walkout diagram below).
  • Take a deep breath, filling your lungs and abdomen completely with air. Drive the air down and tighten your core, blocking to create intra-abdominal pressure and stabilize your spine.
  • Rotating your torso as a solid unit, drive your hips forward under the bar. Lift the bar straight up out of the rack using strong leg/quad drive (I call this the quad pop – the bar should pop right out of the rack).

Block your torso and rotate at the shoulders to shift your hips forward

  • Watch your feet as you walk out, to ensure correct placement. Take at least two, but no more than three short, quick steps back from the rack to set up.
    • I prefer to take one foot straight back, move the other back into the lifting position, then move the first over into lifting position. The fewer and shorter steps you take, the less energy you will expend.

  • When ready to squat, take another deep breath into your lungs and abdomen and block again, tightening your core and holding the air in.

  • Begin your descent by driving your knees outward and sit down into the squat as if sitting into a chair.
  • Keep your head and chest up, and your back flat throughout entire lift.
  • Depth: Proper squat depth depends on a number of variables.

    • If you are a competitive powerlifter, every squat rep should be below parallel. The top of your thigh at your hips should be below the top of your knee.
    • To build muscle mass, you will get maximum hamstring activation at parallel. To maximize glute activation, you should squat 1-2″ below parallel.
    • It is possible to squat too deeply. If you lack flexibility, and your lumbar bar spine begins to flex as you reach parallel, and your buttocks tuck under, limit your squat depth to the point where the tuck begins – until you can improve your mobility.
  • Drive the weight back up explosively. The weight will be lighter at the bottom because the chains are piled on the floor. Drive hard out of the bottom when the weight is light to help you carry through the sticking point as the weight gets heavier.
  • Keep your head and chest up and drive down through your heels to maximize the use of your hamstrings and glutes. Force your knees out as you begin the drive and through the lift, this will prevent them from collapsing in, and will help you increase hip drive.
  • Complete the lift by locking out your knees, squeezing your glutes to force your hips forward and bringing your back fully erect. Exhale once you pass the sticking point and through lock out.
  • Select a weight that you can perform all of your repetitions using proper technique. On your last 1-2 sets, your last repetitions should be very difficult, but you should maintain good form.

Strength Standard

  • The purpose of squatting with chains is to overload the top end of your squat. Set up the bar and chains so top end of the lift is 10% over a straight bar weight set. For example, if you normally lift 315lbs for 5×5, set up the bar to 355 (315 bar weight and 40lbs of chains).

Common Mistakes

  • Partial squats: performing squats without descending at least until your thighs are parallel with the floor reduces the effectiveness of the exercise. Reduce the bar to a weight you can control through the full range of motion.
  • Leaning forward: leaning forward will make it more difficult to squat to proper depth, will reduce the workload on your legs, and increase the tension on your lower back. Note that the chains can exacerbate mistakes such as leaning.
  • Allowing your knees to buckle in: don’t let your knees buckle inward during the lift; this puts unnecessary strain on your knees; forcing your knees out as you lift gives you greater stability and power.
    • If your knees are caving in, try a narrower stance; too wide of a stance can make it more difficult to keep your knees out during the squat.
    • Pointing your toes ahead and not driving your knees out will push your hips back, this will make hitting depth more difficult.
    • Pointing your toes out and driving your knees out will make hitting depth less difficult.
  • Rounding your back: keep your back flat throughout the lift.
  • Taking too much time to set up: set up quickly and get into position to squat; the longer your setup takes with the weight on your back, the less weight you will be able to squat.

Exercise Safety

  • Secure the chains to the bar with collars. Because the chains will sway as you walk the bar out, they can easily slide off the bar, creating a high risk of injury.
  • Always use a spotter when squatting. Make sure your spotter knows how to properly assist you if you get into trouble.
  • Perform your squats in a squat rack or cage with safety bars in case you have to dump the bar. Before starting, make sure the safety bars are set properly for your height. You should be able to complete a full squat without touching the bars, but with the barbell on the safety bars you should be able to easily get out from underneath the barbell.
    • Never dump the barbell onto the safety bars unless your spotter is aware and able to get out of the way.
  • Perform your squats with proper form. Use weights that you are able to control each repetition with strict form. Keep your back flat. Don’t let your lower back round.


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