Warning: Some Exercise Machines Can Hurt Your Joints

Even though I do not have a local gym membership, I still love going into most gyms.

Usually I visit gyms when traveling to speak because it does me good to get out of my hotel room and meet new people, etc.

In fact, one of the first things I do when I arrive at the hotel is to find out where the closest “real” gym is. Next Monday I am speaking at a Health Care Executives conference in Orlando, FLA and am already researching which gym I should visit when I am thereJ

Because not only do I like to work out in different environments but also because gyms are often filled with people who are moving to improve their quality of life.

Man And Woman At Gym Together

And those are the types of people I like to be around and get to know.

And gyms of course also have a variety of exercise and fitness equipment in them.

And, I love to train and exercise my body and some of the equipment allows me to do that.

For the most part, for me, being in a gym is like being a kid in a candy shop.

But, like candy, too much exercise on some types of machines can possibly do more harm to you than good, especially for your joints.

And, this is even truer for those of us over 50 years old.

The reason for this has to do with the “kinetic chain” and the type of force that most strength building exercise machines create on your joints and ligaments.

There are essentially two types of strength training movements in regards to the kinetic chain.

One type is called “Open-Chain” and the second type is called “Closed-Chain”.

I do not like to give absolutes, but when it comes to your joints, in most cases, closed chain movements are better for your joints as they create a “stabilizing/compressive force” on the joint which makes it stronger, more durable and less prone to injury.

Open chain movements on the other hand, create a shearing and stressing force, which can, if overdone and done sloppily, create a more destabilized joint.

Having said that, I always include both types of movements in my own work-outs and in my 50FIT program work-outs as well.

What is the difference you ask?

Many of you probably haven’t heard of open and closed chain exercise as this is a term used in the fitness training and physical therapy professions.

Yet, it is important to know the difference as knowing how they affect your body can make a big difference in the short and long term health, durability and fitness of your body.

The “chain” is the kinetic chain of the body, which means that all of your bones and muscles are connected in a “chain”. As a result the movements you make are also part of a kinetic chain.

Here is the basic difference:

Open Chain Exercises: Put simply, your hand or foot is free to move during an open chain exercise.

In many cases these movements isolate a single muscle group and a single joint. For example, the one joint involved during a leg extension is the knee and the muscle group it isolates is the quadriceps.

Open chain exercises can be done with or without added weight, but when weight is added, it’s usually placed at the distal (far away) portion of the limb (like the ankle).

Some examples of open chain exercises include seated chest presses on a machine, lat machine pulldowns, leg press machines, leg curl machines and leg extension machines.

To further compound the problem however, many people do too many open chain exercises, especially in gyms and especially it seems, as they get older.

Many gyms are filled with machines that are strictly open chain movements and for many (especially people over 50) these are the only strength building exercises they are doingL

Unfortunately part of the reason they do this is that open chain exercise machines are easier because they require less work.

The problem is that they get far less results too! Also, some lazy and ignorant personal trainers I know have their clients do only open chain machine exercises because they are easy to teach their clients and make the trainer’s job easier.

Still, this is bad news for the client because they get mediocre results! The primary point is that you want to be sure to include some form of closed chain movements in your training sessions.

Closed Chain Exercises: During these movements, your hands or feet are in a constant, fixed position (usually on the ground) during the exercise like push-ups or squats.

All closed chain exercises work multiple joints and multiple muscle groups at once.

For example, a squat involves the knee, hip and ankle joints, and multiple muscles groups (quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and glutes).

Closed chain exercises can be done with body weight alone or with added weight as shown here (Also can obviously be done in a dapper business suit).

This is generally considered safer and more effective than the “distal” placement of weight during open chain exercises. Examples of closed chain exercises I use with my clients include various forms of push-ups, squats, and lunges, all of which can be done with or without added weight.

So why does this matter?

Fitness professionals, physical therapists, and athletic trainers agree that closed chain exercises, overall, are better for you. Here’s why:

  1. Closed chain exercises better mimic activities of daily living, which means they improve your “functional” fitness. Very few movements in real life or in athletics isolate joints and muscles like open chain exercises do.
  2. Closed chain exercises work many muscle groups at once. That’s great for the reasons above, but also because you can get more benefit in less time. Open chain exercises can do this as well if done with a kettle bell or dumbbell (see below).
  3. Closed chain exercises are safer for your joints—especially the knee joint, which is very vulnerable to stress and injury. The force involved in closed chain exercises like lunges and squats is compressive, meaning it actually stabilizes the joint and helps strengthen it. In contrast, open chain exercises, like knee extensions or hamstring curls produce shear force, which stresses the knee joint (and the ACL) and is more likely to result in injury.

However, as mentioned I still include lots of open chain exercises in my work-outs and include them in my 50FIT.

Why is this?

There are several reasons. In life, we still have to lift and move objects around and so we want to include movements that will strengthen us for that purpose. For example, lifting a can of paint from the floor to put it on the shelf is an “open-chain” movement, so you want to be prepared for that type of task.

Second, most people over 50 are not always yet strong enough to do only closed chain movements. And especially upper body closed chain movements like push-ups and pull-ups.

So, they often must start with open chain movements like a kettle bell overhead press or an upright row to build their strength.

And the reality is that for some folks over 50, they may never get to the place where they can crank out a bunch of push-ups or pull-ups. So for them, they may have to stay with open chain movements for the rest of their lives.

No worries though, if done correctly, the joints can still be protected and strengthened with open chain exercises.

How? By using a kettle bell and compound (two joint/multi-muscle) movements. You can also use dumbbells in place of a kettle bell, but due to the configuration of a kettle bell it places a more stabilizing type of force on the joint in my opinion.

Again, this is why most strength building exercise machines found in a typical gym are a substandard choice. They are almost always open chain, single joint, non-functional, joint stressing destabilizing movements.

And sadly, in observing people using these machines when I visit the gym, many of them are paying zero attention to tempo or proper form. I will write more about tempo in an upcoming blog post but for now tempo simply means the speed at which you raise and lower resistance.

But by paying extra attention to tempo you can still safely perform an open chain exercise and protect and strengthen the joints while gaining muscle strength.

Unfortunately, paying attention to tempo is not something most people do when strength training. I have observed many baby boomers and seniors for example, doing lat pull downs (open chain movement) by yanking down on the bar and letting it fly back up to the starting position and then yanking it back down again and again.

Not paying attention to tempo and being sloppy with form just increases the risk of using an open chain exercise machine and It is just a matter of time before they injure a jointJ

So…I hope that this post helps you to see that working out only on strength building exercise machines with open chained movements is not what you want to do if you want to bring out the best in your bodies joints, ligaments, muscles and overall health, function and mobility!

Until next time, stay strong!

Fred Schafer, MS, CFT

Putting the BOOM Back in Boomers!


www.absafter50.com (Fred’s Blog)

www.fredstrikes.com (Professional speaking)