Open-chain or Closed-chain Exercises: Which Are Best for the Joints?
Open-chain and closed-chain describe the position of the hand or feet during an exercise. During an open-chain exercise, the hand or foot is free and movement is limited to a single joint. For closed-chain exercises, the hand or foot is in contact with a surface and therefore stationary while multiple joints may be involved. Both have been shown to improve muscle strength and reduce pain.[ii],[iii]
Is one better than the other for joint health? As always, it depends.
Benefits of Open-Chain Exercises
Open-chain exercises make it possible to isolate a muscle which can be an important part of physical therapy or muscle building and toning. These exercises allow for a specific muscle or joint to get repetitions which can be used to restore strength during recovery. In this way an individual to rebuild an area that became weak due to injury or disuse.
Benefits of Closed-Chain Exercises
Closed-chain exercise shares the load with related muscles, which can take stress off a joint. The shared load helps to build muscular strength around a joint and increase stability during a recovery.[iv] In many ways, closed-chain exercises are more typical of every day living as, for example, an individual’s feet are most likely on the floor when lifting.
One benefit of many closed-chain exercises is that they can be done without weight, or by using body weight only. This makes them both an effective and a cost-effective exercise anyone can do anywhere.
Examples of Open-Chain Exercises
There are open-chain exercises for just about every muscle group. Upper body open-chain exercises include[v]:
- Bicep curls
- Bench press
- Lateral Press
Some lower body open-chain exercises would be[vi]:
- A seated leg extension
- Standing calf raise
- Hamstring curls
These can be done with gym equipment, but just as easily with free weights or no weights at all. Weight machines provide the best isolation for the muscle. Free weights increase the number of muscles engaged as stability becomes a factor too.
While these exercises are good for building or rebuilding muscle, swimming offers an open-chain exercise that is easy on the joints.[vii] Water adds support which reduces stress on the joints. This makes water a great setting to improve range of motion and endurance.
Examples of Closed-Chain Exercises
Closed-chain exercises work a variety of muscle groups and often more than one joint. Some examples of upper body close-chain exercises are[viii]:
For the lower body, closed-chain exercises include[ix]:
- Seated calf raises
These exercises can be done with weights, but weights aren’t needed. Three sets of ten reps of squats can be enough for many to not only get the joints moving but get a great workout too.
Exercises that Feature Both Open- and Closed-chain Motions
Exercise forms like yoga or Tai Chi offer a variety of movements that include both closed-chain and open-chain motions. They are also adaptive and can be adjusted to meet an individual need. For example, Tai Chi forms which involve movement from one position to another can also be adapted so they can be done while seated.
And while there is a certain amount of repetition in yoga and Tai Chi, there are also sequences of movement which engage active memory, exercising the mind.
Which Exercises to Physical Therapists Prefer for Joint Pain?
According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, physical therapists generally used closed-chain exercises for rehab and to help people who suffer from joint pain. The reason is the stability they give to the joint.
So maybe closed-chain is better for the joints after all. Ultimately, however, getting exercise is what’s best for the joints.
[ii] Kim MK1, et al. Effects of open and closed kinetic-chain exercises on the muscle strength and muscle activity of the ankle joint in young healthy women. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017 Nov;29(11):1903-1906. doi: 10.1589/jpts.29.1903. Epub 2017 Nov 24.
[iii] Heron SR1, et al. Comparison of three types of exercise in the treatment of rotator cuff tendinopathy/shoulder impingement syndrome: A randomized controlled trial. Physiotherapy. 2017 Jun;103(2):167-173. doi: 10.1016/j.physio.2016.09.001. Epub 2016 Sep 21.
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