Open vs. Closed Chain for Dummies: The lower extremity


legsRecently, the functional exercise movement has taken off. AND I LOVE IT! However, when it comes to rehab and fitness we have to be careful of which movements/fads/etc we follow. If we do incorporate aspects of these movements, we have to have sound reasons why. Seeing and talking with certain therapists and fitness professionals addressing the lower extremity (LE) recently has led me to believe that too many people are forgetting about the open chain when rehabbing/training.

For those of you unfamiliar with open and closed chain of the lower extremity here’s a brief, probably too brief, overview.

Open Chain:

  • Open chain – Movements are performed without your foot on the ground/floor/platform/surface. Example: leg extensions
  • Open chain LE exercises are often thought to be NON-FUNCTIONAL (not true).

Closed Chain:

  • Closed Chain – Movements are performed with your foot on the ground/floor/platform/surface. Example: Squats
  • Closed chain LE exercises are gaining popularity, especially with books such as Mike Boyle’s Functional Training for Sports gaining recognition.

Let’s revisit what I said about open chain exercises. They are often thought to be non-functional. My argument is that during athletics you have a foot on the ground much of the time, BUT you also have the other foot in the air much of the time. For example: Where is a soccer player’s foot when he is kicking the ball?  Off the ground. According to Dictionary.com the definition of “run” is – to go quickly by moving the legs more rapidly than at a walk and in such a manner that for an instant in each step all or both feet are off the ground.

Running is probably the most performed “action” during athletics, so we can focus on that a little. During running, the LE performing the swing phase (foot off the ground) uses the quads and hip flexors to draw the foot forward. Then, to prepare the foot for touch down, the hamstrings must eccentrically contract to slow the leg down. All of this is done with the foot off the ground, say it with me now, OPEN CHAIN. As I talk to more clinicians and trainers, I hear talk of reducing the amount of open chain work people are doing, cutting out leg extensions and ham curls (I do not necessarily promote the use of these two exercises, they are just examples), and replacing short arc quads for terminal knee extensions.

I believe that to help our patients/clients get their best results we have to set them up with a comprehensive program that looks at what activities they perform, and then break those activities down into phases. A cross-country runner who suffers a hamstring strain will need to work on their eccentric hamstring strength in the open chain to ensure that they can perform this during running. Same thing goes for the hip flexors. A runner must be able to concentrically bring their leg from a hip extended position to a hip flexed position with their foot off the ground.

I am all for the functional exercise movement, but when rehabbing/training let’s not forget the open chain.

For any questions regarding this post or ways to rahab/train the lower extremity in the open chain please contact me at mikescott.dpt@gmail.com

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3 responses to “Open vs. Closed Chain for Dummies: The lower extremity

    • Hey Brad,

      Thanks for reading. I have seen PT promote “sport specifics” but then focus entirely on the closed chain. There are two sides to every story, and the open chain is often ignored. I’m not saying the the open chain is more important than the closed chian, but I am saying it cannot be forgotten about.

      Keep evolving – Mike

  1. Really good Mike. I think you hit the nail on the head with (comprehensive program). I do agree to lessen the volume of exercises of open chain movements such as leg extensions and hamstrings curls (machine work either seated, lying or standing). A (walking) lunge is much like the terminal knee extensions (for the hamstring). I also promote hamstring curls with a stability ball. (lying, hips in the air, heals on the ball) Though I do consider the movement closed chain and functional.’

    Thanks- Josh

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