Theory Of Body Tension #2

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This is the second post in which I lay the ground work for a full understanding of body tension. The next post will tie everything together.

Kinetic Chains
The concept of Kinetic Chains is fairly important to climbing, but its not often discussed among climbers. In simple terms there are two types of kinetic chains, open and closed. Open kinetic chains describe movement situations in which the distal end of the chain, or body segment, a hand or foot, is free to move in space. Examples include waving a hand or a seated knee extension.

A close kinetic chain occurs in movements where the distal end of a body segment or chain is in contact with an external force and meets considerable resistance that restricts free movement.1 This describes what is going on when our hands or feet are planted on holds. Just as important though is the fact that in a closed kinetic chain movement at one joint necessitates movement at other joints. When standing on a foothold with the knee and hip flexed, even a small movement at the ankle will cause movement in the knee, the hip or both. Also consider pivoting the knee down as in a drop knee, this movement actually originates at the hip joint. The ankle and the knee have no choice but to move as well.

There are a number of other features that define closed kinetic chain movements. The table below compares characteristics of open and closed kinetic chains.

Characteristic Open Kinetic Chain Closed Kinetic Chain
Stress PatterNumber of joint axesNature of joint segments


Number of moving joints

Planes of movement

Muscular Involvement


Movement Pattern

RotaryOne primaryOne stationary, the other mobile

Isolated joint motion


Isolation of muscles with minimal Co-contraction


Often non-functional

LinearMultipleBoth segments move simultaneously

Multiple-joint movement

Multiple (triplanar)

Significant co-contraction


Functionally oriented

(Adopted from Ellenbecker 2001)

For our purposes I want to emphasize the functionally orientated nature of the movement, the multiple planes of movement, the intermuscular coordination, and the fact that multiple joints are involved.

What makes all this important is that, in climbing as in other sports, it’s the proper use of the entire chain that makes movements efficient and effective. For example in a tennis serve it’s the working of the entire kinetic chain that is responsible for the force produced in the serve. The legs and trunk are said to contribute 54%, the Shoulders 21%, the elbow 15% and the wrist 10%. If the timing of the serve is incorrect, or the movement of an individual segment is incomplete then the total amount of force produced will be decreased and other problems will arise such as the risk of injury.2 What is even more impressive is that in a motion such as a baseball pitch the final velocity of the throwing arm is greater in a properly coordinated pitch than can be achieved by the arm alone. So it’s the contribution of the entire kinetic chain that is responsible for the speed and force achieved at the end of the chain.3 In climbing we are not so much concerned with arm speed but the idea that the entire chain contributes to the outcome of the move is very meaningful.

The goal in climbing is the moving or positioning the COG in space in such a way that allows a hand or foot to attain a new hold. While there is great variety in climbing movement it’s the effective use of the kinetic chain that produces the most efficient and precise movement of the COG. If there are gaps in the chain, or segments are used poorly then the move will be less efficient, or unsuccessful. The idea of gaps or improper use might seem odd, but this actually happens all the time. Look around at the crag or gym and you should be able to find several climbers who make good hand and foot contact with the holds, but somehow their upper and lower body does not seem connected. Even if you can’t quite describe why, it’s a good bet that you are seeing gaps in the kinetic chain, specifically at the hips and trunk. After watching several ABS youth competitions this month the most obvious difference between the top performers and the rest is the degree to which they utilize, and are able to consciously control their use of the kinetic chain, or chains involved in their movement.

In any climbing move we can identify the kinetic chain or chains at work and analyze the efficiency of their use. Any climbing move that has two or three points of contact during the move is a closed kinetic chain. Other moves such as four point dynos are really both closed and open chain moves, They start closed and then become open as the hands and feet release from their holds and then close again as hands and feet are re-established on new hold.

In climbing it’s very often the case that the kinetic chains we use connect the upper and lower body. In some situations a closed chain will connect the hands such as in the case of opposing gastons, or holding two side pulls, but its most often the case that the closed chain run the length of the body. Finally, like in other activities the proximal to distal patterning of movement seems to be effective. In essence this means that moves start in the lower body, move through the hips and trunk and end at the hand making contact with the new hold.


Climbing utilizes mainly closed kinetic chains, and the goal of movement is to properly utilize the kinetic chain to move the COG in space facilitating the advancement of a hand or foot. Proper utilization includes the relative amount of force arising in each body segment, the speed of movement, the coordination of the segments, and the proper range of motion from each body segment.


  1. Ellenbecker, Todd S. Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises, 2001 Human Kinetics
  2. Groppel, JL, High Tech Tennis, 1992, Human Kinetics.
  3. Ellenbecker, Todd S. Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises, 2001 Human Kinetics

3 Responses to “Theory Of Body Tension #2”

  1. JoshuaNo Gravatar says:

    If you get a chance and are interested in how tension is developed throughout the body by way of our fascial system, please check out the book Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers. It is pretty in-depth, but it covers many of the trains/connections in the body that help explain how tension is ceated throughout different segments of the body and how repetition of a certain motor pattern can lead to a greater development in certain parts of a chain.

    This book also illuminates how when pain is present in your elbow for example, it may not be your elbow that is the problem, but rather the joints most proximal to the elbow are the problem and the pain is then reffered to the elbow. This is the science behind trigger point therapy and many other treatments (SMR, Graston, ART).

    Thanks for this series, thought-provoking.

  2. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    Thanks for the suggestion, I’m all over it. As for pain in one area being caused by issues in a different area. That is a great topic, and its my sense that many people are mystified as to the source of pain in their bodies because they don’t understand that the body is a system. How many people with lower back pain don’t understand that the pelvis, hips, and knees often play a role in back pain.

    Also sorry everyone that my chart got messed up in the post. It looked fine in preview, but became hard to ready after publishing.

  3. [...] can also read my attempts at a provisional definition of body tension here, here and [...]

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