The Difference Between Open Chain and Closed Chain Exercises

·2 min read

This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

There are lots of ways to classify the exercises that make up your workouts, and if you spend any time around the weight rack, you’ll undoubtedly encounter the most common one: joint involvement. Compound exercises mobilize multiple joints (think: squat, deadlift, bench press, pullup), while isolation exercises involve just one (e.g., biceps curl and lateral raise). But if you really want to level up your gym game—or impress the pants off a trainer—start considering the exercises you do in the context of the kinetic chain.

The “kinetic chain” refers to the idea that the body is a system of interrelated segments that work together to produce everyday actions such as walking, running, jumping, and lifting. This can be defined more specifically as “the collective effort of two or more joints to produce movement,” according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and there are two types of movement in that regard: closed chain and open chain.

In closed chain movements, the end of the chain (i.e., the limb or limbs doing the movement) is fixed in place on the ground. Classic examples include the squat, deadlift, pushup, and pullup, in which your hands or feet remain stationary. In open chain movements (e.g., bench press, biceps curl, triceps extension, lateral raise), the ends of the chain are not stationary.

Many trainers focus on closed chain exercises in their programs, pointing to the fact that they’re typically compound in nature, and therefore more “functional” than open chain moves, which tend to be isolation exercises. But the truth is that both of types of kinetic chain exercises belong in a well-designed training plan.

Photo credit: Men's Health
Photo credit: Men's Health

Your move: For most strength training goals, you’ll benefit from a higher ratio of closed chain to open chain exercises. Closed chain exercises generally encompass the big muscle moves that are ideal for packing on lean mass and building total-body strength.

Conversely, open chain exercises are typically best for laser-focusing on a specific muscle group to make it pop. And integrating both into your program will help you build the kind of body that turns heads and elevates your performance both in the weight room and beyond.

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