The No Nonsense Guide To Understanding Variable Resistance Training


Vince Del Monte, WBFF Pro Fitness Model, Certified Fitness Trainer
and Nutritionist and author of No Nonsense Muscle

Everything you need to know about using bands and chains to make an exercise more complete, increase muscle tension and maximize results.


What The Future Holds… But First, A Look Back, So We Can Move Forward

In his book series ‘Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors,’ Randy Roach covers the origins of bodybuilding, and how it came to be what we know of it today. Along the way, several key characters are introduced, none more controversial, and possibly revolutionary (to the Iron Game) than Arthur Jones.

Arthur’s contributions are highlighted by his introduction of a series of machines (which he personally designed, along with his son) in which the resistance varied to match the body’s ability to generate force at various ranges of motion. He used these machines to demonstrate his approach to how muscle should be built – high intensity training, or ‘HIT’ for short. While his methods, in terms of high intensity training are highly debatable, and likely of a great interest for many (possibly a topic for another day), our focus moving forward will be on variable resistance – why Arthur believed it was the way in which the body should be trained, and the integration of what he set out to achieve with his resistance machines, with the one piece of equipment that will forever remain a constant in the world of strength and muscle building – the barbell!


Where Did Variable Resistance Come From?

It’s not entirely known where the concept of variable resistance originated (nor does it matter), but as it relates to Arthur Jones, he ‘discovered’ the need for it while performing traditional barbell exercises. He noticed that the movements he was performing (squats, presses) were increasingly more challenging to perform the lower the barbell was in relation to the floor, and how much easier they became as the barbell was lifted away from the floor. This undoubtedly catalyzed some critical thinking and questioning on his part, among the questions being – why does the exact same amount of weight on the barbell feel heavier (or lighter) during various phases of the exact same movement in which the exact same musculature is involved?

With his vast knowledge of biomechanics, geometry, physics, etc, he quickly came to the conclusion that the exact same musculature involved in the lift was in a position of either mechanical advantage, or disadvantage, depending on the relative joint angle.

Muscles, and their ability to produce force, follow what can be referred to as a ‘bell curve’ (which visually would look like an inverted ‘U’), meaning that they are weakest when they are at their fully lengthened and shortened positions, while strongest at the mid-range position. This is why the exact same amount of weight on the bar felt as if it was heavier, or lighter, to Arthur, at different ranges of motion, and is what led to the idea that the only way to account for discrepancy in terms of necessary force output was to create machines that would increase and/or decrease the amount of resistance felt throughout the range of motion, thus creating a more ‘complete’ exercise.

A Look Forward

At the time it’s likely Arthur hadn’t known, or at the very least even considered, the idea of varying the resistance on the barbell itself – after all, at first glance it’s likely many would come to the same conclusion as he, in that developing a machine was likely the only way it could be done. But somewhere along the line, powerlifters who train almost exclusively with free weights had discovered that by attaching heavy chains, or resistance bands, around the barbell, you could get the same effect – as the bar is raised away from the Earth, more and more links of the chain are hoisted off the ground, and as it is lowered, the links rest on the floor and thus the resistance is less (the same goes for resistance bands, although there are slight differences between the two, which we’ll get to later).

The added resistance provided by the chains and/or bands would be the great equalizer in increasing the force output required to complete the lift – which is ideal because the body is able to produce more force at certain ranges of motion anyway. Those strictly looking to build muscle can borrow this idea from their powerlifting counterparts to create a more ‘appropriate’ way of performing exercises they’re already doing.

A lot of people believe the notion that to build muscle, the muscle needs to be placed under tension, and this certainly is true as muscles only know and respond to tension.1 However, there’s a difference between tension, and maximal tension, and therein lies the beauty of variable resistance!

First Things First – Understanding Strength Profiles vs Resistance Profiles

There is all sorts of jargon used when discussing variable resistance, which can easily confuse anyone, so for argument’s sake, it’s necessary to create our own definitions so that you can understand the concepts that are about to be illustrated.

Each and every exercise has two components worthy of mention – one is internal, the other is external.

The internal component consists of the capacity of the involved musculature to produce force – generally this is referred to as the ‘force curve,’ ‘strength curve,’ or ‘strength profile’2 (see how this can get confusing quickly?). From this point forward we will refer to it as the strength profile (although the other terms can be used interchangeably – at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what you call it).

The external component consists of the amount of resistance to overcome – generally this is referred to as the ‘resistance curve,’ or ‘resistance profile,’2 and from this point forward we will refer to it as the resistance profile.

Because the strength profile varies throughout the range of motion, which is dependent on the length of the prime movers involved in the lift, and the resistance profile does not vary when lifting a free weight (the weight on the bar is the same regardless of how far away from the Earth it is), under normal conditions the involved musculature is only maximally (relative to the range of the movement) stimulated through a very small range of motion. On the flip side, the involved musculature is heavily under-stimulated for the majority of the range, which thus limits our overall ability to build muscle!

By adding resistance bands or lifting chains to a barbell, you do what is called ‘matching the resistance profile to the strength profile’ – meaning that the resistance becomes greater as your force-producing capacity increases – once again, this can be considered a more ‘appropriate’ way to train, especially for those looking to build muscle. Therefore, instead of the involved musculature only being under maximal tension for a very brief range of motion, the muscles are under maximal tension throughout the entire range of motion! This is something powerlifters have been aware of for years, albeit for different reasons, but recently bodybuilders have begun to understand the benefits of using such tools (bands and chains).


Ascending vs. Descending vs. Concave – Strength Profiles

Matching the resistance profile to the strength profile using variable resistance lengthens the time under ‘maximal’ tension, and this simply doesn’t happen when performing an exercise under normal conditions, but there is one caveat — not every movement will benefit from variable resistance. Actually, every movement will benefit from the right kind of variable resistance, but the way in which the resistance is varied should vary (you following me?). In case I lost you there, in layman’s terms it means bands and chains won’t work for EVERY exercise.

There are different kinds of strength profiles, and they are based on whether or not the weight gets easier as it is lifted away from the Earth, harder, or a combination of the two (concave – think of a bicep curl using free weights, which get progressively harder until the forearm is parallel to the floor, at which point it becomes increasingly easier to complete the range of motion).

If the weight gets easier as it is lifted, which is the case for most extension oriented exercises – think squats, deadlifts, and presses — then this indicates that the involved musculature goes from mechanical disadvantage to mechanical advantage, and therefore the exercise is labelled as having an ascending strength profile. These exercises benefit the most from the inclusion of bands and chains.

Obviously, if the opposite occurs and the weight becomes more challenging to overcome as it is lifted, which is the case for most flexion oriented movements – think pull-ups and pull-downs — then this indicates that the involved musculature goes from mechanical advantage to mechanical disadvantage, and therefore the exercise is labelled as having a descending strength profile. These exercises will rarely benefit from including bands and chains to the exercise, since they naturally get harder on their own without the addition of extra resistance being applied.

In the rare situation that the weight gets heavier up to a point, and then lighter as the range of motion is completed (or vice versa), which is the case for most free weight curling exercises, and overhead triceps extensions to a minimal degree, the exercise is labelled as having a concave strength profile. These exercises will also rarely benefit from including bands and chains to the exercise.

Watch this video for a variation on squats that work with both the strength profile and the resistance profile of the exercise:

There’s An Exception To Every Rule

The rare occasion in which exercises with a descending, or concave strength profile, will benefit from using bands and chains is for those who have a difficult time recruiting a certain muscle, in which case the bands or chains are used more as a learning tool than an actual muscle-building method. For this specific purpose, a relatively light weight is used, so that as the muscle attempts to overcome the resistance, the resistance gradually increases, thus acutely heightening the mind-muscle connection.

In fact, in situations like these, the bands or chains themselves may be all that’s necessary to help strengthen this connection. Strengthening the mind-muscle connection will thus increase the capacity to recruit the muscle at will.

The Different Applications Between Powerlifters & Bodybuilders

For those wondering how a powerlifter would use bands and chains compared to a bodybuilder, it’s important to understand the quality of strength they are trying to develop. The word ‘power’ itself illustrates the primary difference between what a powerlifter is trying to accomplish and what a bodybuilder is trying to do — build muscle. In the case of the powerlifter, the goal in using bands and chains is to teach the lifter the concept of acceleration, and to emphatically try to overcome the resistance from start to finish, whereas the bodybuilder is simply looking to increase the time under maximal tension – although a bodybuilder developing the ability to accelerate will undoubtedly contribute to increasing their capacity to recruit more muscle fibers3 (something that would obviously benefit anyone looking to build muscle).

With bands especially, there is an enhanced eccentric component4, not only because they are providing additional resistance, but they are also trying to drive the bar down into the Earth. This places a higher demand on the lifter to decelerate the bar to prevent it squashing him/her in the process. Because of this, bands are slightly more draining, and dangerous, than lifting chains.

Probably the greatest difference between resistance bands and lifting chains is the fact that bands are much more versatile and can be attached nearly anywhere to add an element of resistance that otherwise would not be possible. For the record, the usage of bands always suggests that they are anchored to the BOTTOM of a power rack – unless otherwise specified. Chains on the other hand, much like free weights, only provide resistance against gravity.

The Most “Appropriate” Barbell Exercises To Combine With Variable Resistance

As stated above, movements with an ascending strength profile are the ones that will benefit the most by adding chains or bands to vary the resistance, and while they can be used on virtually any exercise, the most appropriate in my mind, in no particular order are:

Squats – or as I now call them, ‘appropriate squats’
Deadlifts – or as I now call them, ‘appropriate deadlifts’
Presses (any bench angle will work) – or as I now call them, ‘appropriate presses’

How It’s Done

To make any of the exercises listed above more ‘appropriate’ all you have to do is attach your resistance bands, or lifting chains to the barbell – chains will generally come with an attachment to allow them to easily slip on in the same manner in which a weight plate would slip onto a bar. Bands on the other hand can wrap around the outside of the plates, or inside the plates, just outside the width of your grip. Your best bet is to have them line up as straight as possible, in direct opposition from where they are anchored so that the resistance is direct, and won’t negatively influence the natural bar path.


How Much?

Percentages are thrown around a lot in the strength training realm, but they are simply to indicate a starting point, and it is then up to you to figure out through trial and error how much additional resistance should be added. To spare confusion, I’m not going to give a set percentage of ‘bar weight’ and ‘variable weight,’ but rather would suggest that you do two things to figure out how much variable resistance should be used;

1) work up to a near maximal attempt through a full range of motion for the chosen lift, and
2) after reaching a near maximal attempt, continue working up to a near maximal ‘top quarter rep.’ To give you a better idea, here’s an illustration of how to do this:

Set 1: 135 lbs X 3
Set 2: 165 lbs X 3
Set 3: 185 lbs X 3
Set 4: 205 lbs X 3
Set 5: 225 lbs X 3
Set 6: 245 lbs X 2 (given that 3 reps could not be managed, this will be your ‘near maximal’ weight)
Set 7: 265 lbs X 3 (performed through a very limited range – top quarter only)
Set 8: 295 lbs X 3
Set 9: 315 lbs X 2 (once again, given that 3 partial reps could not be managed, this will be your ‘near maximal’ partial weight)

In this example, you know that you can manage 245 lbs through a full range of motion, and 315 lbs through a partial range of motion. Therefore, the weight on the bar should be no more than 245 lbs (and should actually be a bit lighter, depending on how many reps you are aiming to perform), and the resistance of the bands or chains should not equal more than 70 lbs total (which is the exact discrepancy between your full range and partial range near maximums).

I’d suggest starting slightly lighter than your near max weight, especially for those who have never trained with bands or chains before. A better bet would be to take 20-50 lbs off your near max weight and start from there. Through trial and error you will find out exactly how much weight should be on the bar, and how much resistance should come from bands or chains, simply by paying attention to your performance.

It’s also worth noting that because of the fact that the muscles are under near maximal tension for greater durations, the amount of reps that you will be able to perform will undoubtedly be compromised. For this reason, and this is strictly my opinion here as it relates to using bands and chains to build muscle, I’d suggest aiming for a lower working rep range, but at the expense of using greater loads (in layman’s terms, go heavy when using bands or chains to really maximize their effect).

Buying Your Own Set of Bands

When it comes to buying bands, I picked up a set of bands in 10lb increments from 20lbs to 100lbs at my local fitness store in town. You can also purchase them here. These are the exact ones I own. If the calculations above are too complicated for you, simply start with 20lbs on each side and see how that feels. A good indication that you have an appropriate amount of bands is that the movement should feel smooth from start to finish. There should be no “stop,” “start,” “stop,” “start” throughout the movement. It should be the smoothest thing you’ve ever experienced (in the gym). J  Don’t forget to buy the carabineers too. You can save a few bucks and buy these at your local Home Depot for about $3. They are much more expensive in the fitness stores.

Buying Your Own Set of Chains

If you train at home, chains are a must. I recommend buying three sets -30lbs, 45lbs and 63lbs like these ones. 

Saving The Best For Last – Reverse Band Training!

You guys knew I had a trick up my sleeve didn’t you? All joking aside, one tip I wanted to share as it relates to the versatility of resistance bands is that they don’t always need to be anchored to the BOTTOM of a power rack. In fact, my favorite way to use them is to anchor them to the TOP of the power rack, creating a reverse effect.

Here is an example:


The difference between having the bands anchored to the bottom of the rack or the top is this – when the bands are anchored at the bottom, not only are they increasing the demand to decelerate the load, but they are doing so in such a way that the resistance is very unforgiving when the body is in a position of mechanical disadvantage. When the bands are attached to the top of the rack, the opposite occurs, and the bands actually limit the demand to decelerate the load, thus creating a much *SAFER movement – safer because when we are in our weakest position, we are receiving the MOST HELP! This applies to each of the appropriate exercise variations listed above.

Want To Minimize Wear & Tear On Your Joints?

Then make reverse band training your new best friend.

In addition to being safer, the reverse band set-up is also a very joint friendly way to subject the primary muscle groups to high levels of tension while sparing the joints – because the tension is reduced at the range at which the joints are most susceptible to injury. This makes the reverse band set-up especially valuable to experienced lifters, or those whose joints have some serious mileage on them, and as a result have a difficult time performing exercises that have been staples in their routine for years – like the bench press for example, in which the stress on the shoulders is dramatically reduced when using a reverse band set-up.


And finally, one primary difference between anchoring the bands to the top or bottom is that it affects the amount of bar weight. As stated above, when the bands are on the bottom, the amount of weight on the bar is less than the amount that can be handled through a partial range, simply because it is the bands (or chains) that provide the additional resistance as the end range nears. When the bands are attached to the top however, the amount of weight that can be handled through a partial range is put on the bar – and while roughly the same ‘net weight’ is used, there is a very different psychological effect taking place for you, the lifter, when you are holding a bar with 315 lbs on it, as opposed to 245 lbs, irrespective of the bands or chains.


Fear is what prevents people from lifting heavier weights, but the ‘reverse band’ set-up, in which the bands are anchored to the top of the power rack allows a lifter to experience the feeling of handling a heavy weight through a full range of motion, in a manner that otherwise would not practically be available. It is for this reason that the reverse band set-up is my personal favorite – not only is it ‘appropriate,’ but it’s highly beneficial for developing the confidence needed to lift heavier weights and build bigger muscles!


  • Each and every exercise has a strength profile and a resistance profile – under normal conditions the resistance remains constant, and thus the targeted musculature does not remain under maximal tension due to increased leverages at differing ranges of motion. The most effective way to make your workout complete is to match the strength profile to the resistance profile for each exercise you do.
  • To create a more complete movement for exercises with an ascending strength profile, variable resistance is necessary – and the most practical way to create variable resistance is to either attach a pair of resistance bands or lifting chains to the barbell.
  • Variable resistance increases the time under maximal tension, which is advantageous for those looking to build muscle, but this will undoubtedly limit the amount of reps that can be performed – therefore, instead of trying to go at this head on, take what is given to you and simply opt to use greater loads, since the amount of reps you’ll be able to perform is already compromised.
  • Of all the ways in which variable resistance can be used, among the most effective, safe, and joint friendly, is the reverse band set-up in which the resistance bands are anchored to the top of a power rack. Pound for pound, in comparison to the regular band set-up (in which the bands are anchored to the floor), the reverse band set-up alleviates the joints of the pressure they would otherwise be under.
  • As a simple rule of thumb, your movement through any exercise should feel smooth so that you can maintain constant tension in both directions.
Scientific References:
*1: Fahey, T.D. (1998). Adaptation to exercise: progressive resistance exercise. In: Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science, T.D.Fahey (Editor). Internet Society for Sport Science
*2: Equipment, Training &. “The Science of Strength Curves.” Bigger Stronger Faster. KIM GOSS, MS, n.d. Web.
*3: Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-872. Web.
*4: Lorenz, Daniel S. “VARIABLE RESISTANCE TRAINING USING ELASTIC BANDS TO ENHANCE LOWER EXTREMITY STRENGTHENING.” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (2014): n. pag. Web.
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