Depending on how geeked-out you get about fitness, you might consider a handful of factors when planning out your workout of the day, including the muscle groups each exercise will train, how it’ll affect your heart rate, and how much rest time you’ll give yourself in between sets.
But there's one other element you should start thinking about before and throughout your sweat sesh, even if you're not a total exercise nerd: Your kinetic chain. Here's a breakdown of what the kinetic chain is and how different kinetic chain exercises impact your body — and results.
What Is the Kinetic Chain?
Simply put, the kinetic chain is the idea that your muscles, joints, and segments are all interrelated — forming a “chain” throughout the body — and they work together to create movement, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “Everything is linked together in your body, and so if you were to use one muscle, typically there’s a chain reaction of other things happening,” says Heather A. Milton, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., a board-certified clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center.
Think of how your body moves in order to throw a baseball: You’ll plant your feet into the ground, then your lower extremities and core will generate a force that’s ultimately transferred through your upper extremity, including your throwing arm and hand, to release the ball, according to American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Your kinetic chain is even working when you’re straightening your leg while sitting, as your quads contract in order to extend your knee joint, adds Milton.
Closed vs. Open Kinetic Chain Exercises and Movements
Every single movement you carry out can either be described as “closed” or “open,” depending on whether the distal end of the kinetic chain (aka the part of the body that’s furthest away from the center, typically the hands and feet) is fixed or able to move freely, according to ACE.
Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises
During a closed kinetic chain movement, the distal point of a given limb is fixed to the Earth or an unmoving object (think: a bar, a plyo box, a machine), says Milton. When you're performing a push-up, for example, your hands and feet are anchored to the floor, while the rest of your body is moving toward and away from them, she explains. In the gym, you might tackle closed kinetic chain exercises such as:
Closed kinetic chain exercises are typically compound movements, meaning they recruit multiple muscles and their associated joints, says Milton. “If your goal is improving your body composition or decreasing your body fat, then you want to use more compound movement because then you are getting a higher metabolic response,” she explains. “There are more muscles recruited for the given movement, so more energy is utilized.” For example, you won’t tap as many muscles — and, consequently, use as much energy — to complete a round of leg extensions as you would for a round of squats, says Milton.
Open Kinetic Chain Exercises
With open kinetic chain movements, the distal point of a given limb is moving freely in space, rather than resting on a stable object, says Milton. During overhead tricep extensions, for instance, your hands are pressing the dumbbell up toward the ceiling and lowering it back down to your body. Along with that tricep-crushing move, open-chain kinetic exercises include:
Unlike their counterpart, open-chain kinetic movements generally call on one single joint, says Milton. In turn, they typically recruit only the musculature associated with that joint during resistance exercises, according to ACE. Translation: Open chain kinetic exercises are best forisolating and strengthening specific areas of the body, which can be beneficial for bodybuilders and folks undergoing physical therapy, says Milton. “If we think about physical therapy, a lot of times if you’re working toward rehabilitation of a specific joint, then you might start with open-chain movements to focus on that one particular area before transitioning to more complex, closed-chain movements,” she explains.
Still, some exercises that are considered to be open-chain movements do function as compound movements and utilize multiple joints, says Milton. Take the bench press, for instance, which employs the shoulder and elbow joints, as well as the deltoids, triceps, and coracobrachialis muscles, to thrust the weight toward the ceiling, according to information published by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. All that’s to say an exercise’s “open” or “closed” classification doesn’t always give you the full picture of the move’s benefits, but it’s generally a useful guide to look to when planning out your workouts.
The Benefits of Considering the Kinetic Chain During Exercise
On a daily basis, you perform both closed and open kinetic chain movements, whether you’re walking up the stairs, standing up from the couch, placing a can on the top shelf of your pantry, or picking up a heavy book while sitting at your desk, says Milton. And that’s why it’s important to include both types of exercises in your workout program, she says. “When you think about your fitness [routine], think about choosing things that would translate to the ability to perform everything you would want to do in your daily life better,” she adds.
If you're a recreational athlete, you'll also want to consider which kinetic chain exercises will help you best utilize your body in your sport, suggests Milton. Softball players, for instance, may want to concentrate on exercises that mimic the "throwing" motion, such as chops using a cable column, medicine ball throws, or lunges with rotations, she says.
Of course, your personal fitness goals matter, too. If you're trying to get the most bang for your buck, focus a bit more on closed kinetic chain exercises, which tend to be more metabolically taxing and put multiple muscles and joints to work, says Milton. "If you're doing burpees, squats, lunges, those are going to be working a whole kinetic chain versus using one single machine where you may be seated and using one body part at a time," she explains.
TL;DR: “It might be useful to do some open-chain exercises to isolate a muscle you want to be working hardest, but then also include some of the closed chain moves as well,” says Milton. “It’s all about really optimizing your workout.”