Open and Closed Chain Exercises

If going to the gym is part of your regular routine, it’s likely you switch it up and do a variety of different exercises, week to week. But do you know exactly what type of movements you’re doing and what effect they have on your joints?

The difference between open and closed kinetic chain exercises is just one way to differentiate between movements and make sure you’re getting the most out of your workouts. A kinetic chain is just that, the chain your joints make and the effect they have on each other during any given movement. Most of the exercises you perform in the gym will fall under one of these categories, and it’s beneficial to know which is which. So, without further ado…

An open chain exercise is a movement performed where the hand (in arm movements) or foot (in leg movements) is free and not in contact with a surface, like in a leg extension or leg curl. A closed chain exercise is when the hand or foot is fixed and is in contact with a surface, like how the feet are grounded to the floor during a squat or lunge and the hands and feet are grounded to the floor during a press up.


Open chain exercises work by isolating a specific muscle, while closed chain movements are often compound and work many different muscle groups at once. Some physical therapists and fitness experts believe that closed chain exercises are better because they are more functional as they tend to imitate common movements used in life, such as squatting down to pick something up. They are also considered by some to be more useful due to their ability to save time by working more than one muscle group at once, instead of one muscle at a time.

Another thing to consider with regards to kinetic chain exercises is where the weight is being loaded. There are three factors at play when considering load; the amount of weight, the length of the lever and the resistance curve. The resistance curve is determined by considering the direction of resistance. For example, a lever parallel to the direction of resistance provides zero load, and a lever perpendicular to the direction of resistance provides maximum load. Consider a bicep curl. When the arm is held out straight, or parallel, even if the hand is holding a weight, there is no load bearing until the arm starts to move toward a perpendicular position. The resistance curve can be measured between these two positions, parallel and perpendicular. Basically, every exercise you do will involve a perpendicular movement, or there’s not much happening. Consider a squat. When you’re standing upright, even if you’re bearing weight on your shoulders, there is no resistance curve, therefore, zero load. As soon as you squat down, the curve begins until it reaches its end point; the final position in the squat, and then starts again on the way back up.

One of the arguments against open chain exercises is that since the force is perpendicular, it can be unsafe because of the potential danger of displacing your joints. While you certainly have to be careful to do these exercises properly, there is no evidence to support this claim. Most exercises require perpendicular force, as mentioned above, so the argument that a perpendicular force is inherently unsafe could be flawed. While that particular claim might not hold up, it is important to note that if you have pre-existing knee problems or any sort of knee pain, it might be a good idea to replace open chain exercises with closed chain ones during lower body exercises. For example, if you have knee pain, doing squats or lunges (closed chain) instead of leg extensions or leg curls (open chain), could be a good idea as these movements involve compression force rather than shear force, and require more skeletal stabilization, making it easier on the knee joints.

IMG_0201It really depends on your level of training. Some people who are just starting out find it extremely difficult to do closed chain bodyweight exercises like chin ups or press ups and are more likely to get discouraged when they aren’t able to do it right off the bat, therefore resulting in a negative experience and a higher likelihood of giving up. In this case, properly executed open chain exercise with less weight bearing on the distal limb (ankle in a leg extension, hands in an overhead shoulder press) can have more benefit and cause less frustration. The main thing with weight training is to show up and do the work. It doesn’t really matter all that much what type of exercises you’re doing as long as it works for you, and you’re doing them properly.

Like everything else, everyone has an opinion about the different types of kinetic chain movements, and the answer to which is better will depend on who you ask. While both have their benefits and risks, the most important thing to take away from this is that no matter which type of exercise you’re performing, you’re taking care of your joints and doing them properly. Closed chain movements can result in injury just as easily as open chain movements can when performed incorrectly.

Ashley Jude

IG @ashleyjude


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