Chains and Circuits – A Review
Exercise selection should occur with specific training goals in mind. Exercises can be classified according to their “chains” and “circuits”. Here we will provide an introduction to chains and circuits, their applications, and when to use them.
Closed chain exercises involve movement around a distally fixed position, integrating ground reaction force, and internal energy management. Most exercises performed standing up are closed chain because the athlete is moving around the distally fixed ground. A pull-up is also closed chain, as the body moves around the distally-fixed pull-up bar.
Open chain exercises have the load move around a distally-fixed body position that is stabilized by a machine or bench. This reduces the stability demands, generally making open chain exercise variations easier. Common examples of open chain exercises are the lat pull-down, bench press or leg extension.
Closed circuit exercises use both limbs dependently with the joints functioning in cooperation. Barbell bench press, military press, and bent over row are all closed circuit exercises. Back squat, front squat, deadlift, and leg press are all closed circuit as well.
Open circuit exercises use a single limb or unilateral load and require increased localized and central stability relative to the weight. Dumbbell presses or rows are common examples of open circuit exercises as are lunges. Open circuits promote localized stability and increased range of motion.
Exercises can be classified by their specific chain and circuit. For example, a barbell bench press is Open Chain-Closed Circuit; a back squat is Closed Chain-Closed Circuit; a single leg extension Open Chain-Open Circuit.
Closed Chain – Closed Circuit
Closed Chain – Open Circuit
Open Chain – Closed Circuit
Open Chain – Open Circuit
If the goal of your training is range of motion and stability, closed chain-open circuit exercises should be used. Stability demands for closed chain exercises are higher because the individual needs to stabilize themselves (no machines). Open circuit loading can be accomplished by training one side at a time (unilateral) or loading one side of the body (asymmetrical) as well performing bilateral movements with dumbbells (dumbbell military press) or other separated weights. These loading patterns improve range of motion at the trained joint. Examples include sandbag loaded walking lunges, dumbbell bent over row, and lateral lunge.
If the goal of training is sports-related strength, closed chain-closed circuits are ideal, as this allows for the heaviest weights and fastest movements. Examples include the barbell back squat, power clean and bent over row.
If the goal of the training is body building, isolation is key, so open chain exercises can be either open or closed circuit. Dumbbell or barbell bench press, lat pull down or single arm hammer row are all good options.
Understanding an exercise as open or closed chain and circuit can help with exercise selection based on client goals. It can also serve as guide for exercise progressions and modifications to help keep training interesting.