Fitness Defined: Open and Closed Chain Exercises

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
10/3/2008 6:03 AM   :  77 comments

Most of you probably haven’t heard of open and closed chain exercises. But chances are, you do them all the time without even knowing it. It’s important to understand the difference between the two because one type is safer while the other can increase your risk of pain and injury. Do you know the difference?

The “chain” that these terms refer to is the kinetic chain of the body, which simply means that all of your bones and muscles are connected in a “chain” and therefore the movements you make are also part of a that kinetic chain.

Open Chain Exercises: Put simply, your hand or foot is free to move during an open chain exercise (like a chest press). These types of movements tend to isolate a single muscle group and a single joint. For example, the one joint involved during a leg extension is the knee and the muscle group it isolates is the quadriceps. Open chain exercises can be done with or without added weight, but when weight is added, it’s usually placed at the distal (far away) portion of the limb (like the ankle). Examples of open chain exercises include chest presses, biceps curls, leg curls, and leg extensions (with or without added weight).

Closed Chain Exercises: During these movements, your hands or feet are in a constant, fixed position (usually on the ground) during the exercise (such as pushups). Closed chain exercises work multiple joints and multiple muscle groups at once. For example, a squat involves the knee, hip and ankle joints, and multiple muscles groups (quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and glutes). Closed chain exercises can be done with body weight alone or with added weight. When external weight is added, it is usually rested across the back of the shoulders or the front of the chest, which is considered much safer than the “distal” placement of weight during open chain exercises. Examples of closed chain exercises include pushups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges, all of which can be done with or without added weight.

So why does this matter?
In general, fitness experts, physical therapists, and athletic trainers agree that closed chain exercises are better for you. Here’s why:
  1. Closed chain exercises better mimic activities of daily living, which means they improve your “functional” fitness. They’re great for athletes, too, since sports require multiple joint and muscle movements to happen at once. Very few movements in real life or in athletics isolate joints and muscles like open chain exercises do.
  2. Closed chain exercises work many muscle groups at once. That’s great for the reasons above, but also because you can get more benefit in less time.
  3. Closed chain exercises are safer for your joints—especially the knee joint, which is very vulnerable to stress and injury. The force involved in closed chain exercises like lunges and squats is compressive, meaning it actually stabilizes the joint and helps strengthen it. In contrast, open chain exercises, like knee extensions or hamstring curls produce shear force, which stresses the knee joint (and the ACL) and is more likely to result in injury.

What does this mean for you?
If you suffer from joint pain or previous joint injury, you should try to avoid open chain exercises at that particular joint. So, if your knees are bad, do squats and lunges (closed chain exercises) instead of leg extensions or leg curls (open chain exercises). If you injured your elbow, do pushups (closed chain) instead of chest presses (open chain); if you have shoulder issues, try pull-ups in lieu of overhead presses, and so on.

In general, the knee joint is the most vulnerable joint in the entire body. So it’s a good idea to limit the amount of open chain exercises you do for the lower body—especially with heavy weights—to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

Personally, I think this gives even more reason to vary your exercise program. I do both open and closed chain exercises, but I NEVER perform any open chain exercises for the lower body unless it involves little to no added weight. That means that I do not use machines for leg extensions or hamstring curls, because the added weight and the position of that weight (again, on the “distal” part of the leg) is risky for the already-vulnerable knee joint. Squats and lunges are some of the best exercises you can do anyway, so those are my go-to exercises for the lower body. Since the joints of the upper body aren’t as prone to injury as the knee is, I do both open and closed chain exercises, but I try to vary between the two on a regular basis.

How about you? Will you avoid open chain exercises now that you know the difference?


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Comments

  • 77
    Yes I definetly will avoid open chain exercises when it comes to my knees and legs.. for SURE!! TY :) - 1/26/2014   9:13:08 PM
  • 76
    Learned something! Thank you!! - 12/4/2013   2:59:46 PM
  • 75
    I hadn't heard of open or closed chain exercises, either. It makes perfect sense - I always feel like I've had a harder workout when I've done closed chain exercises. - 5/9/2013   6:54:52 PM
  • 74
    I will focus on more squats and lunges, but I am not fit enough to do the upper body exercises regularly - I can chest press more than I can do pushups, and I can military press more than do pullups. - 4/25/2013   10:00:38 AM
  • 1954MARG
    73
    Thank you, I hadn't thought about this before. - 4/1/2013   12:44:49 PM
  • PADMINIAMEY
    72
    thank u for this valuable information..... - 3/31/2013   1:28:24 AM
  • LAZUR1
    71
    Numerous fallacies in the article. In fact: 1/ Most basic OC exercises are multi-joint, not single-joint as the article implies: Leg-presses, pull-downs, chest presses, standing rows, bent-over rows, standing presses. 2/ Many, perhaps most, real-world & athletic functions are OC: From punching, throwing, tackling, to taking something off the floor or putting it on a shelf. 3/ Basic exercise should be for the muscles, not for a movement's function. Functional training is skill training, & must be specific to the skill you wish to enhance: A/Squats make a stronger football player, but not a better one, until he applies his new strength to practice of the specific skills of his position. B/ CC squats are no more transferred to skill than OC leg-presses. 4/ The deadlift, considered by many top strength coaches to be the single most important strength exercise for athletes, is an OC exercise. 5/Safety? There's no evidence of safety being more of an issue for OC than CC. If anything, CC squats are the most dangerous. - 2/8/2013   4:14:19 PM
  • THESPECIALIST1
    70
    does anyone else think it's weird that in the same sentence they say an open chain exercise is single joint and uses one group of muscles, then use the chest press as an example of an open chain exercise? - 10/14/2011   11:31:26 AM
  • 69
    I do both, and still will. - 9/7/2010   7:00:50 AM
  • 68
    I don't know how I missed this blog last fall...anyway, it's wonderful for me to have a solid theoretical framework for what my intuition has been arguing all along! I've been calling them 'body-weight' exercises, and prefer to do them rather than weight-lifting-types. It's my one argument with my trainer, who wants a wider range (esp. lower body). She's 26 years younger than I, and I won't do things I feel are unsafe, but now I have a language for it. AND it makes sense. Thanks! - 7/7/2009   8:49:18 AM
  • 67
    First of all, I really learned something new in reading this article. Thank you. Yes, I will be mindful of using more closed end exercises in my strength training sessions. I really don't use weights for the lower body exercises; except squats with dumbbells. There is an exercise demo in SparkPeople. - 4/29/2009   1:37:52 AM
  • 66
    I find that squats and lunges make my knees hurt. What am I doing wrong? Any ideas? - 12/28/2008   6:22:45 PM
  • 65
    For my squats, I do "ball squats". I put a yoga ball behind my lower back and then "pretend like I'm sitting in an invisible chair" for 1-3 seconds. To increase the challenge, I hold the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th repetition for 5 seconds and also hold dumbbells in each hand. This has proven to be easy on my knees, and my form is always good if I use the yoga ball! - 10/11/2008   11:53:30 AM
  • 64
    This sounds good. I have a question though. It could just be me, but is there a lighter way to do squats? When I do them my knees sound like snap crackle pop the whole time. I do not have pain but it feels weird. - 10/10/2008   10:16:02 AM
  • 63
    Good to know! Now I know why after a couple of workouts I found myself avoiding leg curls and extentions. This will be great in watching out for my knee! - 10/9/2008   11:14:58 AM
  • WTHOMPSON
    62
    I'm surprised someone hasn't mentioned how the hips can affect knee pain. A few months ago I was having severe knee pain especially climbing stairs. I went to see one of the best sports doctors on the east coast. Her assistant came in and had me balance on one leg with the other about two feet off the ground straight in front of me. The assistant immediately said the problem is your hips not your knees. A few minutes later the doctor came in and without the assistant saying anything see had me do the same thing and immediately said it's your hips.

    As it turns out if you have weak hip abductors the hip don't provide all the support they should and the knee has to carry more weight. I started doing abductor exercises with bands and within about a month my knee pain was gone. I simply strengthened by abductors by laying on my side with the bands on my ankles and doing single leg lifts or walking sideways with the bands around my ankle. It did wonders for me. - 10/9/2008   12:39:23 AM
  • 61
    This is interesting, but I hear nothing from those like me that have had two knee replacements...the king of excersizes that I did that were the best to build the quad were mostly done while lying in bed. pushing the knee down to the bed and holding it and releasing. butt squeezes to make stronger the butt muscle. also it is true the squats on the toilet seat are the best to do. siting down and getting up. A must. lunges, when you do a lunge make sure your back knee bends till it can eventually touch the floor with your front knee at a 90 degree angle and not over yur toes. just go slow till it finally comes. Yes there is life after knee replacement but it is a devil getting there. You must also always protect your back.. I ruined my knees and back by overdoing.. I did water aerobics for 3 years everyday, all that jumping even in water is bad and too much twisting along with weight training and along with competitive dance rollerskating..talk about wearing out your treads! Why do we think we have to stress out our bodies to strong and beautiful? There. must be a more pleasing gentle way to enhance our beauty and strength.. and not yoga either.. oh and not ti Chi either it twists the knees. been there done that also. So now I guess it is silver sneakers for me..but Im not ready for the rockingchair yet. - 10/8/2008   7:09:56 PM
  • 60
    I prefer to train in the closed chain exercises! Open chain exercises just make you sore :) - 10/8/2008   3:34:38 PM
  • 59
    Oh, 1 more thing about squats... how long do you plan to be able to get up & down off a toilet seat? Sorry to offend, but I work w/ seniors & ask them that almost every class. - 10/8/2008   3:17:06 PM
  • 58
    ps - I also suffer from knee pain. Squats & lunges strengthen your quads which in turn help your knee function (depending on your injury). There are exceptions to every rule - if your doc tells you not to do it, don't do it (duh). But *done correctly* squats are awesome (& yes, it's supposed to hurt - your quads, that is. If it didn't - you're not doing "squat." LOL) - 10/8/2008   2:50:18 PM
  • 57
    Great timing! Thank you. Very useful, not only for me, personally, but for the seniors I lead in exercise class. I'm not a fitness expert (yet), but I'm going thru the training to become a registered, certified (certifiable?) fitness instructor for seniors. I'm sure this was covered in Fitness Theory, but *whoosh* it left my brain as soon as I turned in the exam. Thank you!! - 10/8/2008   2:47:04 PM
  • 56
    I have found that my favourite and most beneficial closed circuit exercise is rowing...works all of the functional muscle groups as well as provides a great cardio workout! - 10/8/2008   1:24:03 PM
  • ROKKUDAN
    55
    A very beneficial article. My experience with training with open and closed chain exercises has led me to believe that form is a major contributor to injury more than the movement or amount of weight used. Proper form, with increasing weight, can be safe and pain-free as long as proper form and controlled movements are maintained. My recommendation is to take advantage of the benefits for both open and closed chain movements, until some level of discomfort is experienced. If abnormal pain is experienced, drop back on the weight and continue the movement; if pain continues then eliminate that movement from your routine. Good luck. - 10/8/2008   12:32:07 PM
  • WELCHTA
    54
    Hooray for functional movements. Let me share my experence. 6 months ago I changed my exercise routine significantly, using mostly functional movements, the results have been remarkable. At 49 years young, I am faster, stronger, feel better overall, than I have in the last 5 years. And, my lower back pain is GONE!
    Functional movements are universal motor recruitment patterns; they are performed in a wave of contraction from core to extremity; and they are compound movements—i.e., they are multi-joint.
    Folks, these type movements are part of your DNA. Use apporopriate loads, or no load at all. Squat, dead lift, pushup, pullup, dips, clean and jerk, run, jump and throw are examples. - 10/8/2008   10:40:33 AM
  • BEVJER
    53
    Morning: just reading your article - I have been in an osteoporosis study for the past 2 years that includes weights twice a week. I have noticed even though I walk constantly my knees have been giving much more problem. The open chain exercises we are the ones shown and we do ADD weight over time. Maybe this is my problem - going to cut back on the weights and amount of repetions. - 10/8/2008   8:28:02 AM
  • 52
    For those of you that mentioned that doing squats and lunges hurt your knees more- have someone review your form. Those two exercises are excellent (I do them often and have the kids that I coach do them), but you have to be very diligent about form (for example, on both of those exercises the shins should stay within a few degrees of vertical, and the knees definately shouldn't go past the toes). They're wonderful exercises when performed correctly, but can be painful (or possibly damaging) if performed incorrectly. - 10/8/2008   1:32:25 AM
  • 51
    I'm not sure if I can agree with this article. I have a bad knee from a previous injury and surgery (I have been diagnosed with Pattelofemoral Syndrom). And I have been forbidden by my Dr. and physical therapists to do squats or lunges. Instead they prescribed some 'open chain' leg lifts to strengthen my muscles around my knee. They said that doing the aerobic/type exercises I had been doing for so long (and 'pushing through the pain' so to speak), is why my knee has been rapidly declining. Maybe it depends on the type of knee problems one is having, but I'd be careful about offering this as a one size fits all type remedy! I hear other people on here saying the same thing I did- "it hurts when I do lunges, but I'll just keep it up and maybe one day it won't hurt anymore." Just beware- that's all I'm saying! My knee problems have a lot to do with the movement of the joint combined with pressure (as in a squat), so I need to find ways to strengthen my leg muscles without a lot of motion in my knee. I agree with what you were saying about adding weights to an open chain exercise, because I do start to notice more pain with that! This is just my 2 cents. Keep up the good work everyone! - 10/8/2008   12:06:09 AM
  • VMENDI63
    50
    Like several of you, I also have knee pain. I don't go to the gym, so I don't do open chain exercises, but squats are not very pleasant! I agree that stretching before and after helps a lot, and also, make sure you give your knees a rest. If they're sore, listen to them, and work upper body instead. I'm also hoping that as the weight comes off, the pain will go away. - 10/7/2008   11:17:11 PM
  • 49
    I'm not sure, then, why open chain exercises do not hurt my joints (leg extensions, hamstring curls, chest press, etc.) but when I try to do close chain exercises (especially those lunges), my knees just SCREAM in pain. So this blog would contradict what works for me. ?? - 10/7/2008   11:03:34 PM
  • PATLIZ1
    48
    This article was so informative. I will now use the closed chain exercises for strengthen my knees. - 10/7/2008   5:07:43 PM
  • 47
    Good article! I do both types of exercise, and at the moment I would find it hard to give up leg extensions and some of the other "open" exercises that I really do like. But I will keep this in mind and not skip out on those squats! - 10/7/2008   1:10:13 PM
  • 46
    Great article.. This really helps me.... - 10/7/2008   8:54:35 AM
  • 45
    I'll probably keep doing both. I don't have any joint problems. Variety is key for me. - 10/6/2008   10:59:32 AM
  • 44
    Very informative! I didn't know about open or closed chain exercises and since I'm off to the gym this morning and usally use the hamstring curl and leg extension machines, I won't bother now! I get more bang for my buck with squats and lunges, especially since my knees are pretty crunchy. Thanks Coach Nicole! - 10/6/2008   7:39:30 AM
  • 43
    TaeBo and Kettlebell workouts are two things I love, so I wonder where they "fall" in this area. TaeBo works out all your muscles and Kettlebell is awesome. - 10/5/2008   6:56:36 PM
  • NATEVILLE
    42
    Thanks! This was a well written and informative article. It explains a lot for me regarding my knee pain due to an old injury. I have actually unknowingly been doing only the closed chain lower body exercises for other reasons, but no I understand how it has helped me. I went from not being able to do squats or lunges to doing them nearly painlessly.
    I have found that in addition to concentrating on only squats and lunges, meticulous stretching before and after workouts has also helped. I think cycling would also be considered a closed end lower body workout with a nice cardio benefit as well. - 10/5/2008   10:05:32 AM
  • 41
    Now I know why my trainer seldom has me do leg exensions - my bad right knee. like others who have commented squats and lunges are not pain-free for me. I stop the bend just before I hit the point of pain. After 18 months of regular weekly training, I can go lower before I feel discomfort. I also find it much easier to get out of the car, sit down and stand up, squat to pick up something, and go up and down (especially down) stairs. My experience tells me the article is right on target for improving daily functioning. - 10/5/2008   9:15:44 AM
  • 40
    Like so many others, I have to be very careful of any exercises that involve the knees. The wall-squats darn near killed me. I am hoping that my weight is part of the problem but in reality age has a lot to do with it too. Lunges are causing me a lot of pain too so they are side-lined for now. Maybe in a few more pounds??

    Linda - 10/5/2008   7:17:48 AM
  • CRACKERMOM
    39
    This concept makes sense. But in reality squats and lunges absolutely KILL my knees both while I am doing them and the next morning when I get out of bed and try to walk. Are there any strengthening exercises I can do so I can do lunges and squats without the pain, or do I just give up on those completely? At 52 I am not willing to "just live with the pain"! - 10/4/2008   10:08:02 PM
  • 38
    When I injured my knee, the first exercise the PT gave me was reclining leg lifts, no weight added. I believe this author is saying this is Open Chain? but most of the others were weight bearing, (Closed chain?) FWIW, Kitty - 10/4/2008   2:55:52 PM
  • MICHAELA2780
    37
    Amazingly, the only exercise I've tried that bothers my knees are lunges...any type of lunge is painful...but I have noticed that some of the open-chain movements aren't always comfortable, either. - 10/4/2008   11:24:12 AM
  • 36
    I don't know if it's the concept, the way it's written, or the fact that I just woke up, but I finished reading the article and still have no idea what either one is. Maybe I should wait a couple of hours and try again! - 10/4/2008   6:29:13 AM
  • 35
    Now I'm wondering why my experience is different from the rest of yours. The leg extensions & leg press machines are among my favorites & I haven't had any problems with those. What I do have problems with are lunges & squats. The only squat I can do with any degree of comfort is the wall squat. I'm assuming this is because with the wall squat, your back is straight & with the other types of exercises, your weight is out a little further & this stresses my knees beyond comfort. Why this is a problem, I don't really know. Would love to figure it out, because it is good to do squats & such, but not when it hurts. - 10/4/2008   3:35:14 AM
  • 34
    Thanks for this information.

    Now I know the difference, but I can't do to many of the close chain exercise will do some of the open chain exercise.

    Great information. - 10/4/2008   2:01:52 AM
  • 33
    Thanks for the info. I've always preferred machines like leg curl and leg extension to lunges and squats because you don't have to think about balancing. Now you have given me something to think about. Every once-in-a-while I experience some pain and stiffness in my left knee. Perhaps it is trying to tell me something. - 10/3/2008   11:39:00 PM
  • FUNKYPHANTOM
    32
    Interesting article. I see from the information that I favor doing more open chain exercises. - 10/3/2008   10:43:57 PM
  • 31
    This is interesting, I have done many of these while doing physical therapy.
    Interesting blog. Thanks. Diana - 10/3/2008   10:08:04 PM
  • 30
    I have had many surgeries on my knee and continue to have a lot of trouble, and whats strange is my trainer only has me do open chain exercises such as leg press machine and leg curls. He doesnt have me do closed chain at all since I have so much difficulty doing them. I will have to print out this blog and show it to him and see what he has to say about it.
    THanks for posting it. - 10/3/2008   10:07:14 PM
  • 29
    I used to do rehab with people so I did a lot of closed chain exercises with them. Even now, most of my lower body exercises are closed chain because I have knee problems. They are safe and very effective as well. - 10/3/2008   9:51:31 PM
  • NUNANA
    28
    Thanks, this article explains a lot of things I did not consider before reading. - 10/3/2008   7:44:15 PM

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