The kinetic chain concept in the human body comes from mechanical engineering. In the 1950s Arthur Steindler, an orthopedic doctor, adapted the idea of a kinetic link. In mechanical engineering, this link is a series of overlapping segments connected with a pin joint.
These interlocking joints work as a unit, where the movement of one joint affects the action of another joint attached to the kinetic link. In terms of the human body, these interconnected body parts, connecting joints, and muscles operate collectively to create movements. The term kinetic chain also describes the part of the spine they connect to.
The upper kinetic chain includes your fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders, shoulder blades, and spinal column. The toes, feet, ankles, lower legs, knees, upper legs, hips, pelvis, and spine make up the lower kinetic chain. Within this system, the body can perform open chain or closed chain movements.
What Is the Kinetic Chain?
The kinetic chain describes a range of musculoskeletal movements and how all the joints work together—the ankle, knee, hip, and back are all attached to this chain.
While this may all sound complex, it’s actually fairly straightforward, and knowing more about the kinetic chain and how to consider it when exercising is valuable for creating a strong and functional body. Keep reading to learn more about the kinetic chain and how to train it, with advice from chiropractor Jeffrey Klein, DC.
Why Should You Consider the Kinetic Chain for Exercise?
“Given the connectivity of the kinetic chain as discussed, in general, you will experience improved joint mobility as you’re targeting these different muscle groups at the same time, thus improving your overall strength and mobility,” explains Klein.
You should consider what types of kinetic chain exercises to perform depending on your fitness level and your goals. To do this, you need to understand the difference between closed and open kinetic chain movements.
Closed vs. Open Kinetic Chain
“A closed kinetic chain exercise means that you’re getting work out of the whole leg or arm, whereas an open kinetic chain exercise focuses on isolating specific joints,” explains Klein. If your body part is fixed to the ground or a solid surface the movement is closed. Think squats and push-ups where your body is fixed to the ground and uses it to work against gravity to perform a movement.
Closed chain exercises will give you the most bang for your buck—they work multiple joints and muscles at once and build balance, stability, and strength throughout your body. Closed chain exercises should make up the bulk of any training program.
Open kinetic chain movements are those that do not need the body part to be fixed to the ground; for example, biceps curls, chest flys, and leg curls. These smaller movements use fewer joints and muscles and are often considered isolation movements that are performed more for physical appearance or to build symmetry in your body.1
Open kinetic chain exercises are ideal for aesthetic goals or for improving strength in smaller muscles after an illness or injury. “By isolating specific joints in an open kinetic chain exercise, you can generate joint mobility. This is also the start of care for someone who is injured, who can then graduate up to closed kinetic exercise movements,” says Klein.
Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises
Closed kinetic chain exercises are those that are performed using a fixed surface. The movements occur at multiple joints and work multiple muscle groups. Examples of closed kinetic chain exercises include:
- Squats: Begin by planting your feet on the floor hip-width distance apart. Slowly begin to lower your glutes and hips down from this standing position, and then slowly push from your heels to raise the body back up to stand. Repeat. Note: Ensure that your knees are in line with your feet and do not overextend past the toes in order to maintain proper form, as your hip and knee joints need to remain in alignment for the exercise to be effective and safe.
- Lunges: Stand with one foot flat on the floor and extend the opposite leg back, bent at a 90-degree angle. Rise down, slowly lowering the leg to hover just above the floor (remember, depending on your joint mobility and flexibility, you may not be able to go as low, and we want to be careful to feel if there is any extra tension in the knee. If this arises, take note so you can modify and then extend the bent leg down and back up). Remember to keep your knee bent 90 degrees on the opposite leg and then rise up and down slowly; alternate feet and legs.
Other closed kinetic chain exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, calf raises, hip bridges, and cat-cow stretches.
Open Kinetic Chain Exercises
Open kinetic chain exercises include any that rotate at the primary joint where typically only one segment moves at a time. Only the muscles connected to that joint are worked in most cases. Examples of open kinetic chain exercises include:
- Biceps curls: If you’re able to utilize a light weight, start by standing straight with a light dumbbell in each hand. Your elbows should be relaxed at your sides while your forearms will extend out in front of your body. Lift the dumbbells up toward your shoulders, bending your elbows, and then slowly lower and repeat.
- Triceps extensions: Utilizing a light weight with feet hip-distance apart and allowing a slight bend in your knees, raise your light dumbbell behind you up to shoulder height level with elbows slightly bent, squeeze the triceps, and then slowly lower back down. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Hamstring Curls: Lie flat face down with your knees straight, then lift the foot of one leg bending your knee, and bring the foot back upwards towards your glutes; slowly move the leg up and down in this motion to gain flexibility and additional mobility.
Other open-chain exercises include chest and reverse flys, bench presses, and lat pull-downs
The Final Takeaway
The kinetic chain provides a framework for understanding how your body moves as a unit and ways to train that will help you become more stable and move more functionally. Focusing on multi-joint movements with a sprinkling of open chain exercises to increase the symmetry and strength of your smaller muscle groups is an excellent way to design a training plan.