Before we start to look at open and closed kinetic chain exercises and which might be better for the shoulder, let's explain what they are.
Open Kinetic Chain
An open kinetic chain movement occurs when the distal end is free to move in space1. For example, a kettlebell or dumbbell shoulder press.
Closed Kinetic Chain
Closed kinetic chain movements originally defined by Steindler were those that occurred in "conditions where the distal segment meets considerable external resistance that prohibits or retrains its free motion."2 This was updated by Kibler in 20003 as it was suggests that in fact there was a spectrum of open and closed kinetic chain movement from free to move, to being completely fixed. Training on gymnastic rings for example would be somewhere between a true open and closed kinetic chain movement.
In simple terms, you can think about it this way... In open kinetic chain exercises the hand moves around the shoulder and in closed kinetic chain exercises the body moves around the shoulder.
What the research says
Closed kinetic chain movements have been the preferred option for lower body training in strength and conditioning programmes for many years. Research has shown them to be effective in increasing vertical jump height, strength and stability. Both bilateral and unilateral closed kinetic chain exercises for the lower limb such as squat and deadlift patterns are deemed to have a greater benefit for sports performance4.
However, when it comes to the upper body, coaches are often taught to move away from machines and towards free weights (open kinetic chain) as this is suggested to be more 'functional'.
This approach is a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Closed kinetic chain exercises have been shown to increase joint compression forces, increase muscle co-contraction of agonist and antagonist, decrease shear forces and facilitate higher eccentric contractions.4 5 This leads to an increase in joint congruency, proprioception, neuromuscular control and functional stability.6
Research has shown that open kinetic chain and closed kinetic chain movements are both effective at improving glenohumeral proprioception.6
However, muscular co-contractions are greater in closed kinetic chain movements 7 which is potentially a neuromuscular response to the articular compressive forces. Whilst ligaments aid in static joint stability it is this muscular co-contraction about the joint that is crucial to dynamic joint stability and limiting glenohumeral translation.
Closed kinetic chain exercises are favoured during the early stages of the rehabilitation process with clients who have a shoulder injury. Once low level glenohumeral joint stability is improved, a move to open kinetic chain movements is suggested. However, with the benefits of closed kinetic chain training in mind, there may be an increasing role for this type of exercise in the strength and conditioning environment.
In recent times, upper body training protocols for the objective of strength and performance gains have tended to opt towards open kinetic chain movements. This may be for a number of reasons including the similarity to sports specific positions. However this may lead to a compromise between kinetic modelling for a specific sporting outcome versus improving dynamic joint stability. 8
Therefore it should not be a choice of one or the other but instead a decision to utilise both forms within a periodised training programme. 1
A study investigating the effect of closed vs open kinetic chain exercises on throwing performance 8 found changes in bench press one rep max were comparable between groups after a 12-week intervention.
However, the closed kinetic chain group also increased throwing velocity, external rotation power and peak power in shoulder flexion. The open kinetic chain group showed a performance decrease in all these tests.
Interestingly, despite training closed kinetic chain movements only, the closed kinetic chain group outperformed the open kinetic chain group in open kinetic chain exercises. It should however be noted that the closed kinetic chain group used a suspension training system so the terminal end was not completely fixed. Rogl et al reported that both open and closed kinetic chain training can improve joint position sense 6 so with this in mind it is possible that performance improvement is the result of improved kinetic chain integration which would have been greater in the closed kinetic chain group.
So which is better?
Neither. Both have excellent and varied benefits so utilise both like a pincer attack to improve shoulder performance.
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1. Karandikar N, MD, Vargas, Oscar O. Ortiz, MD. Kinetic chains: A review of the concept and its clinical applications. PM&R. 2011;3(8):739-745. https://www.clinicalkey.es/playcontent/1-s2.0-S1934148211001146. doi: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2011.02.021.
2. Steindler A. A historical review of the studies and investigations made in relation to human gait. JBJS. 1953;35(3):540-728.
3. Kibler WB. Closed kinetic chain rehabilitation for sports injuries. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am. 2000;11(2):369-384.
4. Blackburn JR, Morrissey MC. The relationship between open and closed kinetic chain strength of the lower limb and jumping performance. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 1998;27(6):430-435.
5. Kwon YJ, Park SJ, Jefferson J, Kim K. The effect of open and closed kinetic chain exercises on dynamic balance ability of normal healthy adults. Journal of physical therapy science. 2013;25(6):671-674.
6. Rogol IM, Ernst G, Perrin DH. Open and closed kinetic chain exercises improve shoulder joint reposition sense equally in healthy subjects. Journal of athletic training. 1998;33(4):315.
7. Wilk KE, Escamilla RF, Fleisig GS, Barrentine SW, Andrews JR, Boyd ML. A comparison of tibiofemoral joint forces and electromyographic activit during open and closed kinetic chain exercises. Am J Sports Med. 1996;24(4):518-527.
8. Prokopy M, Ingersoll C, Nordenschild E, Katch F, Gaesser G, Weltman A. Closed-kinetic chain upper-body training improves throwing performance of NCAA division I softball players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2008;