Fitness Defined: Open and Closed Chain Exercises

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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Good information Report
VHAYES04 10/10/2020
Ty Report
CECELW 6/30/2020
interesting...hmm Report
YMWONG22 1/29/2020
Great. Report
hmmm.......... it's something to bear in mind, but not a golden rule. In my opinion, whatever ST you are doing, it's important to do it slowly and mindfully. Then you can feel what's going on. Report
Great info; have not seen this presented in this manner. Very helpful! Report
Thanks Report
Thanks Report
Interesting! Report
Great article. Didnt know this before Report
Thank you. Report
Great information. Thanks. Report
Thanks Report
Good info Report
Great article! Report
Awesome...thanks... Report
I will share this one with my friend who just had knee surgery. Thanks, Coach! Report
What a great article comparing the two! I've heard the terms closed chain and open chain before but didn't know what they meant til now....thanks Coach! Report
Great info, thanks Coach! Report
good tips Report
This should be taught at all gyms Report
I never go to the gym, so doing exercises on machines is not an option.. However, I have three sets of dumbbells and work out every day. If I don't, I feel like I'm missing something! Squats and lunges are a big part of my workouts, and I have NO knee or hip pain...ever... and I am 60! Report
Great article. Closed chain for me! Report
Thank you for this interesting article, and thank you so much JACKSONSPARKS for sharing your personal experience. I am currently waiting to have surgery on a torn medial meniscus, and have been told no squats or lunges. It is encouraging to know I can eventually do them again. Report
I have what I describe as 'delicate knees' after operations on both L and R menisci. Over a 2 year period I've built up to be able to perform CC squats and lunges and my knees 'feel better and stronger' than they have since the operations. Before being able to achieve this though I had to first gradually build the muscle around both knees using OC leg raises (joint movement: hip / primary muscle groups: hip flexors & quadriceps), then ankle weighted leg raises, then I graduated to chair squats and finally unassisted squats and lunges. Lunges used to set me back but now I can do them without regressing. When I tried OC leg extensions at the gym - they felt WRONG and dangerous and still do. I think this article is informative and full of experiential wisdom. Perhaps letting people know that some lower leg OC exercises e.g. straight-leg leg raises, in a semi-reclined position, where the hip joint moves, and where the distal weight isn't producing force on the knee joint, can actually be good for strengthening the leg muscles without detriment to the knee joint. I believe doing this (and continuing to do whenever my knees feel a little delicate) enabled me to eventually be able to do squats and even lunges which I agree are fabulous CC functional exercises (though I'm still wary of lunges and often use a TRX to take some the weight off my legs). Thanks for the fantastic article.
p.s. I wasn't sure about one of the examples: I need help understanding how bench press and push-ups differ (other than the obvious hands on floor and bar in hands etc.) b/c don't they work the same joints and muscles? Report
Yes I definetly will avoid open chain exercises when it comes to my knees and legs.. for SURE!! TY :) Report
Learned something! Thank you!! Report
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. Report
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. Report
Thank you, I hadn't thought about this before. Report
thank u for this valuable information..... Report
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. Report
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? Report
I do both, and still will. Report
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! Report
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. Report
I find that squats and lunges make my knees hurt. What am I doing wrong? Any ideas? Report
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! Report
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. Report
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! Report
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. Report
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 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. Report
I prefer to train in the closed chain exercises! Open chain exercises just make you sore :) Report
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. Report
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) Report
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!! Report
I have found that my favourite and most beneficial closed circuit exercise is all of the functional muscle groups as well as provides a great cardio workout! Report