Strength Training | Training Tips

Kinetic Chain Exercises: Open Versus Closed

Kinetic Chain Exercises: Open Versus Closed

Remember the song about bones we sang as kids? The leg bone is connected to the knee bone. The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. You get the idea. It was a fun little song to sing when we were kids. More importantly, as adults working in personal training, it is as real today as we thought it was singing about bones as kids. We just call it the kinetic chain. Instead of a knee bone, the anterior cruciate ligament connects the tibia and the femur.

What Exactly is the Kinetic Chain?

The kinetic chain is a concept adapted from mechanical engineering. A theory was proposed saying a series of overlapping segments connected by pins creates a movement system. The idea was when one segment moves it would affect how other segments move. In 1955, Dr. Arthur Steindler used this concept and applied it to human movement. This system of overlapping segments connected by pins applied to how bones, joints, and movement occurs is the kinetic chain. The kinetic chain is a method of describing human movement. 

Open Versus Closed Kinetic-Chain Exercises

There are two types of kinetic chains.

  1. Open kinetic chain
  2. Closed kinetic chain

Open Kinetic Chain

The open kinetic chain involves a combination of successively arranged joints in which the most distal segment moves freely in space. 

Closed Kinetic Chain

The closed kinetic chain involves a combination of successively arranged joints in which the most distal segment is restricted from movement. 

Uses and Benefits of Open Kinetic-Chain Exercises

Open kinetic-chain exercises focus a greater concentration of work on a targeted joint or muscle. In most cases, open kinetic chain exercises are single-joint movements. For example, when performing the leg extension exercise, the only movement occurs at the knee joint. This targets the muscles of the quadriceps. In this example, the lower leg is the most distal segment moving. The lower leg freely moving in space during the exercise makes this an open kinetic-chain exercise. 

Open Kinetic Chain Exercises

Lower Body:

  • Leg extension (knee extension)
  • Leg curl (knee flexion)
  • Seated leg press

Upper Body:

  • Bench press
  • Shoulder press
  • Seated row
  • Triceps extension (elbow extension)
  • Biceps curl (elbow flexion)

Single-joint exercises, like the biceps curl or leg extension, target one movement and one muscle group. The importance of single-joint exercises is for the development of muscle activation. Improving muscle activation through training allows for the muscle to work more efficiently. When doing these types of movements, you should focus on proper movement mechanics and isolating the target muscle (aka no cheating). Correcting any movement inefficiencies during single-joint exercises will help you perform complex movements more efficiently. This reduces pain and the potential to injury. 

It is important to first strengthen the muscles. When individual movements and muscles work properly, they can work in conjunction with other movements and muscles to safely perform complex movements. Every movement aligns, working in sync with the entire movement system. 

Who Can Benefit from Open Kinetic-Chain Exercises?

The short answer: Everyone. Bad movement habits can develop through activities of daily living just as easily as they can in sports. Training with open kinetic-chain exercises will help you target specific muscles for specific movements and will keep your movement aligned. Having good movement alignment will help prevent joint injuries.

In order to have strong closed kinetic-chain movements you must first have strong open kinetic-chain movements.

Uses and Benefits of Closed Kinetic-Chain Exercises

Closed kinetic-chain exercises focus more on moving the body against a permanent fixture, like the ground. For example, in the squat exercise, the feet plant firmly on the ground and do not move. Rather, the body moves against the ground. As you descend in the squat, the knees and hips flex, but the feet do not move. The feet are the distal segment of this exercise and they stay stationary. Therefore, the squat is a closed kinetic-chain exercise. 

Closed Kinetic-Chain Exercises

Lower Body:

Upper Body:

  • Push up
  • Pull up

Multi-joint exercises, like the squat or the push up, target multiple movements and multiple muscle groups. The importance of multi-joint movements is most movements in activities of daily living and in sport use multiple joints and muscles. When doing multi-joint movements, multiple single-joint movements work in sequence. If this sequence is “off” or is performed inefficiently, then the total movement becomes ineffective. 

Postural control is another important aspect of the closed kinetic chain. Working up from the ground, the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone, the leg bone is connected to the knee bone. Now that the song is playing in your head again (you’re welcome), you can understand how the movement of each segment affects the movement of the next segment. If your knee motion is not aligned properly, the hip must adjust to keep the movement occurring. This will not be without harm to one or more joints. All the body’s segments and joints are in one continuous kinetic chain. Any weak link in the chain will compromise the movement of the entire system. 

Who can Benefit from Closed Kinetic-Chain Exercises?

The short answer: Everyone. Yes, just like open kinetic chain exercises, it is equally important for your programming to include closed kinetic-chain exercises. Training with closed kinetic-chain exercises will increase joint stability and improve functional movement patterns. Therefore, closed kinetic-chain exercises are effective for the general population as well as for athletes.

The weak link can work forward or backward in the chain. Any joint in the chain not aligned can affect the joint above it or below it. For example, when the knee is not moving correctly through the range of motion during walking, either the ankle or the hip must adjust to accommodate the difference in movement. As a result, this will cause pain in either the ankle, knee, or hip (and in some cases, all three). In this case, try using some corrective exercises to get the segments working more efficiently together, thereby, reducing pain and dysfunction.

How to Design an Exercise Program with Open and Closed Kinetic-Chain Exercises

Is one better than the other? No. You need to train both open and closed kinetic chain movements. They each have specific advantages. However, one does not work well without the other. In order to improve overall functionality, you need to train the entire kinetic chain. That means segment by segment, bottom to top, and as a whole. 

Many consider closed kinetic-chain exercises more functional. However, most activities involve a combination of open and closed kinetic-chain exercises. 

To visualize this, think about sprinting mechanics. Sprinting is a great example of how open and closed kinetic-chain movements work together to complete the motion, in this case, running. Recall, open kinetic-chain movement occurs when the distal segment is free to move in space. Whereas, closed kinetic-chain movement occurs when the distal segment is placed against an immovable object (i.e., the ground). 

With sprinting, there are times when the leg is in the air (i.e., during the swing phase) and there are times when the foot plants firmly on the ground (i.e., during the power or propulsion phase). Therefore, developing muscle strength for sprinting will require using both open and closed kinetic-chain exercises.

Strengthening Each Segment

It is important to first develop muscle strength in each muscle segment along the kinetic chain. If you are new to working out or have clients who are novice, start with simple single-joint, open kinetic-chain exercises. The focus can be on proper technique and alignment while building muscle strength. This will help train the body to perform specific movements properly. 

Start by focusing first on single-joint exercises. These single-joint movements target one muscle group and only use one movement at a time. Less to think about and more focus can be directed to just one thing. As you progress and become efficient and stronger you are now ready to progress into closed kinetic chain movement and multi-joint exercises.

Even if you are experienced, it is important to focus equally on both types of movements. Open kinetic chain movements are always important to build strength and continue to support efficient movement patterns. In some cases, open kinetic chain movements and single joint exercises will correct inefficient movement patterns. 

With that said, since multi-joint movements use higher weights and more complex movements, you should begin your exercise program with multi-joint exercises. For example, for a lower body strength training day, you should squat before the leg curl exercise. Since the squat exercise requires postural control it is best to perform weight bearing exercises before the muscles become fatigued. 

Importance of the Kinetic Chain in a Rehabilitation Program

Understanding the kinetic chain and how to use it becomes very important in a rehabilitation program. Whether you have a repaired rotator cuff or an anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction it is important to know how to progress through a range of exercises. These are going to begin with single joint open kinetic-chain exercises and progress slowly toward multi-joint and closed kinetic-chain exercises. In these cases, a physical therapist will guide you through your specific rehabilitation exercise progressions. 

Understanding the kinetic chain and how to apply it to your specific condition, whether you are building strength, correcting a movement pattern, or going through a rehabilitation program, is the first step to getting back to action quickly and effectively. 

Learn more about the kinetic chain and how to apply principles for strength, rehabilitation, and activities of daily living to get the most out of training with the ISSA Strength and Conditioning Certification and be on your way to better and more efficient movement.