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The kinetic chain is all about connections in the body. When you move, you never move a single muscle or joint component. Everything works together in a chain, which can be open or closed.
Open and closed kinetic chain might sound technical, but it’s a fairly simple concept. Knowing when and how to use open exercises to meet your or your client’s fitness goals is important. Using the right mix of exercises will help you get to those goals faster and more effectively.
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.
The kinetic chain is the system of muscles, joints, and connective tissue that work together to produce specific movements. Because everything in the body is connected, every movement you make involves a kinetic chain. So, if there is a movement in one segment, it can affect other segments. These other segments can be either proximal (closer to the torso) or distal (further from the torso) in location.
For example, consider swinging a pickleball racquet during a game. You aren’t just moving your arm. The movement starts in your lower body to create some force, moves through your core muscles to stabilize your position and allow for rotation, and finishes in the upper body with movements in the shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints.
The definition and distinction between open and closed movements are simple, but the implications are a little more complicated. In general, closed chain movements are compound exercises, like squats and lunges. They are efficient exercises that work several muscles at once. They are also generally functional, mimicking the kinds of movements people engage in daily.
Open kinetic exercises are most often isolation moves. For instance, a leg curl (open) as opposed to a deadlift (closed). While there are exceptions, open exercises usually involve one joint and fewer muscles than a closed exercise. An exception to this is the bench press, which involves the shoulders and elbows as well as several muscles.
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.
Any exercise you can think of in which the distal end of the body moves through space is an open chain movement. Here are some typical examples:
Biceps curls (elbow flexion)
Triceps kickbacks and extensions
Seated or bent over row
Leg extension (knee extension)
Leg curl (knee flexion)
Seated leg press
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.
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.
While compound movements are more efficient overall, sometimes you want to isolate one muscle or a small group. This is where open kinetic chain exercises shine. Bodybuilders use a lot of isolation exercises to develop specific areas, for instance biceps curls or triceps extensions to get definition and size in the arms.
Another reason to use isolation exercises is to correct muscle imbalances. Injuries or just poor form can lead to more strength in one area than another. It can sometimes be useful to use an open chain exercise to selectively strengthen one muscle to improve form and reduce injury risk.
Targeting small muscles and muscle groups for strength and aesthetic reasons isn’t just for bodybuilders. Try these exercises to bulk up the often-overlooked forearms.
For anyone who participates in a sport, open chain exercises can be useful for training. In training, it helps to do exercises that mimic the movements used in your sport.
If you play a sport that involves throwing a ball or swinging a racquet, you might want to include some open chain exercises that mimic that motion: throwing a medicine ball, wood chops using a cable or free weights, or even adding a core and arm rotation to a lunge.
A closed chain, or compound, exercise requires that multiple joints and muscles work together to perform a functional movement. While there are major benefits to strengthening the body through these types of exercises, there can be pitfalls.
During a closed chain exercise, if one part of the movement, one joint for instance, isn’t doing its job, there are consequences for the rest of the movement. Open chain exercises can be useful for correcting any muscle or joint weaknesses that contribute to poor form during a compound movement.
While bigger compound movements provide a lot of benefits, they can cause more harm than good if the form isn’t right. Use open chain exercises to isolate those areas that need work to improve and get more benefits from closed chain exercises.
Physical therapists often use open kinetic chain exercises to rehabilitate clients. Rehabilitation from an injury or surgery often requires focusing on one joint. Open chain, isolation exercises allow the patient to rebuild strength in a specific area before moving on to more complicated movements.
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.
What exercise movements fall into the closed kinetic chain category? Some that involve the hands being fixed on a stationary object are:
Closed kinetic chain movements where the feet are fixed include:
There are also some exercises in the closed kinetic chain category in which both the hands and feet are fixed. The push-up is one.
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.
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.
CKC exercise offers a few different benefits. One, according to research, is that it helps improve balance (1). In fact, this type of exercise was found to be better for improving balance than open chain exercise.
Athletes rely on balance to stay upright when making certain moves on the field or court. A figure skater needs balance when landing from a jump. A football player needs balance when waiting for the ball to be snapped.
Balance is important not just during exercise but also in everyday life. It helps you walk up and down stairs without falling forward or back. It also enables you to squat down to pick something off the floor. Good balance keeps you from being injured during these daily actions.
Closed chain movements can also assist with rehabilitation. One 2018 study involved 29 people performing either open or closed chain abduction of the shoulder joint (2). Muscle activity was monitored during the concentric phase of the movement pattern.
Based on the data collected, researchers reported that open chain movement helped stabilize the rotator cuff and axioscapular muscles. (These muscles include the trapezius, rhomboids, and serratus anterior.) They also added that the use of movements involving a closed kinetic chain may provide greater range of motion during shoulder abduction, especially when used earlier in the rehabilitation process. And closed chain movements can do so without placing as much demand on the rotator cuff.
Someone recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction may also use closed chain movements during rehabilitation. A 2019 article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy talks about this process (3). It shares that one of the top priorities after surgery is to restore knee extensor strength.
If muscle strength isn’t improved, problems can result. Knee function can be reduced while knee osteoarthritis (knee OA) risk increases. To avoid these issues, strength training exercises should target the muscles around the knee joint. Closed chain exercise is part of the training protocol.
A 2018 review noted that some studies have connected CKC exercise with less pain and greater knee flexion than OKC exercise (4). It should be noted that the differences were not statistically significant. So, it cannot be said that closed chain exercise was superior to open chain exercise or vice versa. Instead, both provided positive results. That makes each one important for rehabilitation.
Other benefits associated with closed kinetic chain movements include:
Providing functional training. A study comparing open and closed kinetic chain movements concluded that the latter may be a preferred form of functional training (5). Some attribute this to closed chain exercise involving multiple joints. So, they’re more like everyday movements. They also work multiple muscle groups at the same time.
Greater muscle activation. A 2022 study found that closed chain exercise was better at activating certain muscles in the shoulder and trunk (6). They were the infraspinatus, lower trapezius, erector spinae, and external obliques. The activation of these muscles was enhanced during both the concentric and eccentric phases.
Better knee joint health. Knee pain is a common issue. For many, the pain surrounds the patella, also known as the knee cap. A survey of 99 physical therapists revealed that the most common strategy for treating patellofemoral pain was closed chain strengthening exercise (7). This suggests that this type of exercise is good for improving knee joint health.
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.
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.
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.
ISSA's Strength and Conditioning course bridges the gap between science and application by giving students the "how" of helping athletes achieve any sport-related goal. With this course, not only will you learn the exercise science behind strength and conditioning, but exactly how to create the perfect training program for any athlete. Further, it offers one of the only accredited exams in the strength and conditioning space, making you a hot commodity to any employer.
Kwon, Y. J., Park, S. J., Jefferson, J., & Kim, K. (2013). The effect of open and closed kinetic chain exercises on dynamic balance ability of normal healthy adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 25(6), 671–674. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.25.671
Reed, D., Cathers, I., Halaki, M., & Ginn, K. A. (2018). Shoulder muscle activation patterns and levels differ between open and closed-chain abduction. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 21(5), 462–466. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2017.07.024
Buckthorpe, M., La Rosa, G., & Villa, F. D. (2019). RESTORING KNEE EXTENSOR STRENGTH AFTER ANTERIOR CRUCIATE LIGAMENT RECONSTRUCTION: A CLINICAL COMMENTARY. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 14(1), 159–172.
Jewiss, D., Ostman, C., & Smart, N. (2017). Open versus closed kinetic chain exercises following an anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Medicine, 2017, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/4721548
Gottschall, J. S., Hastings, B., & Becker, Z. (2018). Muscle activity patterns do not differ between push-up and bench press exercises. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 34(6), 442–447. https://doi.org/10.1123/jab.2017-0063
Pozzi, F., Plummer, H. A., Sanchez, N., Lee, Y., & Michener, L. A. (2022). Electromyography activation of shoulder and trunk muscles is greater during closed chain compared to open chain exercises. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 62, 102306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jelekin.2019.05.007
Smith, B. E., Hendrick, P., Bateman, M., Moffatt, F., Rathleff, M. S., Selfe, J., Smith, T. O., & Logan, P. (2017). Current management strategies for patellofemoral pain: An online survey of 99 practising UK physiotherapists. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-017-1539-8