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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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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. Report
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. Report
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! Report
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. Report
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. ?? Report
This article was so informative. I will now use the closed chain exercises for strengthen my knees. Report
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! Report
Great article.. This really helps me.... Report
I'll probably keep doing both. I don't have any joint problems. Variety is key for me. Report
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! Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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 Report
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"! Report
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 Report
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. Report
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! Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
Interesting article. I see from the information that I favor doing more open chain exercises. Report
This is interesting, I have done many of these while doing physical therapy.
Interesting blog. Thanks. Diana Report
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. Report
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. Report
Thanks, this article explains a lot of things I did not consider before reading. Report
I do alot of the lowwer body exercises that you speak of and I think it is great that your getting that word out cause it is so important coming from someone who was told I'd never walk again have not only walked with a helping device but I am now walking freely. By biulding the muscles above my knees I have strengthened them to the point where I use those to control my body as i have no feeling in my right leg from the knee down and only partial feeling in the left these exercises have given me a secongg chance at walking again. Balance will always be an issue and when I am tired r over worked i have to be careful of not falling because of the drop foot and no feeling it's easy to trip when you can't feel anything and your body is tired. I'll make it and I won't stop exercising both upper and lower has to be in my life for the reast of my life and there is no if and or buts'

Calling all Goonies
Team leader. Report
Thanks for the important heads-up. From here on out, I will change my lower-body workout to closed-chain exercises. Report
What a great article! I have never heard of open and closed chain exercises, but the distinction is definitely an important one for me, as I have some problems with my left knee. I love this blog! Report
I have knee problems as both of mine hurt if I go up stairs so thanks for the info,
lntrens Report
Great article. I had heard leg extensions were bad for the knees but never understood why. Report
I had never thought about it that way before, time to shake it up a little. Report
Great article!! It's amazing, I actually do more open chained exercised than closed chained...time to vary my program. Report
I think it could be a good idea to put on the Exercise Demonstrations when one is open chain or when it is close chain. Maybe it sounds easy to find out, but it isnt for me.
Thanks for the info I have had knee problems since I was 12. My knees are hiperextended, and they use to slip out of joint very easy, now I know when my legs are getting tired and I rest before that happens. Report
My knees are fine. I have had a hip replaced in 1996 when I was 39. My right hip needs to be replaced, but they are waiting until I'm older. Even though my hips are not "normal", I modify the exercises so that I can do them. Report
My particular knee problem involve weak muscles in the center of my knees and elongated tendons. My physical therapist always had me doing biking, rollerblading and knee extensions to workout that muscle. It's interesting to hear that might also injure my knee. Maybe I'll have to make sure that I keep the weight low and don't do it too often...? Report
I have a knee issue, and I'd heard before that leg extensions and curls were not good. And since I only exercise at home, I'm not tempted to use those fancy machines. I do like to do chest flies and chest presses, though, because I also have an elbow problem and pushups seem to exacerbate the problem, while my preferred 'open chain' exercises do not. I guess it depends on what your particular problem involves. Anyway--I found this to be a very informative article. Report
Thanks a lot for this article! I will be avoiding lower body open chain exercises from now on since I have been experiencing a little bit of knee pain lately. Report
GOOD article. It will help me in considering some changes to my strength training.

I like to use a rowing machine... so I think you would consider this a closed chain exercise? I alternate it with the stair/step master, the eliptic machine and tread mill (stationary biking bores me). Any advantages or disadvantages to one machine over the other and are they all considered closed chain? And is this a good way to warm up before doing any open chain exercises? Am I correct to assume that most free weight exercises would be considered open chain? Report
Good to know and perfect timing for me. I am getting ready to set up my off season strenght program. Thanks Report
Thanks I never have heard that mentioned before. That is v helpful info for my knee. Tks again! Report
I think I naturally tend towards closed chain exercises (especially since all my strength training is done at home, mostly on the stability ball), but thanks for the heads up. It's helpful to think about! Report
More reason to keep practicing yoga! Report
Very useful to know, thanks! Report
Open and closed chain exercises refer to body movements such as strength training exercises. Running (cardio) is a different type of full-body movement. It would be considered high-impact on the joints and it does stress the joints, including the knees, more than low-impact exercises (like walking, swimming or using the elliptical trainer). However, one thing to consider is that higher impact exercises also better strengthen your bones, so it's a good idea for most people to do a little of both high- and low-impact exercises.

Coach Nicole Report
Funny because last night I was at the gym and got off the leg curls machine because my knees were hurting me. Great article!

Is running considered a closed chain exercise? Report
Great info, I am going to have to watch the way I exercise since in have a knee that gives my problems from time to time. Report
I have knee and ankle issues so I've never done open chain exercises for my lower body. At that time I didn't know they were called open chain exercises, I just knew it put to much pressure on those joints. Report
I have problems with both knees, one of which needs to be replaced. This is good information for me, since I don't want to further damage my "good knee" and end up having to have it replaced too. Report
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