Home Blog Strength and Conditioning Programs: Open vs. Closed Loop Exercises

Strength and Conditioning Programs: Open vs. Closed Loop Exercises

Written on June 28, 2011 at 8:05 am, by Eric Cressey

A few months ago, I decided that 2011 was going to be the year for me to learn to play golf.  Considering that my grandmother actually beat me on nine holes last year, and that I have a world record in the deadlift, yet didn’t really use my hips when I golfed, I had a big window of adaptation ahead of me.

To that end, I’ve been taking golf lessons with a great pro around here every Wednesday morning for the past six weeks.  I’m a very type A personality and ultra-competitive, so you can bet that I’ve been practicing a ton and thinking about it a lot.

This past weekend, I had my re-match with Gram in our first golf outing of the year.  While I narrowly edged her this time around, I shot a 59 over 9 holes – including a 10 on the 4th and a 12 on the 8th – so I didn’t exactly end up with bragging rights. In fact, if a trophy had been awarded, I would have still received this one:

The funny thing is that my swing is dramatically improved and I can easily identify what I’ve done incorrectly when it doesn’t come off the club the way that it should.  About 80% of the time, I’m putting them straight-ahead.  The only problem with that 80% statistic is that it’s based on nice, flat, turf tees at driving ranges, and not what really happens in golf when you’re on the side of a hill with leaves, divots, and a tree directly between you and the hole.

In other words, all my golf practice thus far has been closed loop, while the nature of golf is much more open loop in nature.  What do I mean with these terms?  Rather than reinvent the wheel, he’s an excerpt from my e-book, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, that describes open and closed-loop drills:

The overwhelming majority of agility drills fall into the category of closed-loop drills; very simply, they’re predictable tasks.  Closed-loop drills are extremely valuable for teaching proper technique in sprinting, changes of direction, and other sport mechanics, and should therefore comprise the overwhelming majority of the drills utilized in the general off-season period.

These “conscious” efforts in the general off-season give rise to integration of appropriate mechanics subconsciously in the late off-season and in-season phases.  By these phases, the athlete has become conditioned to act efficiently without thinking about how to react to a given stimulus.  Ideally, this occurs completely prior to the integration of open-loop drills that challenge the athlete’s ability to accommodate unpredictable external stimuli.

Eventually, both open- and closed-loop drills can be integrated into metabolic conditioning schemes to enhance sport-specific conditioning.  We encounter both planned and unplanned movement challenges in athletics, so it is logical to prepare for both.  Examples of open-loop movement training are mirror drills, 5-10-5 drills where the athlete moves in the direction that the coach points, and tennis ball drills (where the athlete races to retrieve a tennis ball a coach has thrown in an unannounced direction).

Resistance training has traditionally been comprised of closed-loop challenges; this underscores the need for significant variety in exercise selection when programming for athletes.  For this reason – especially in the general off-season – coaches should use different bars, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, medicine balls, body weight exercises, grip widths, ranges of motion, points of stability (e.g., lunges vs. squats), and other varying stimuli to expand athletes’ overall motor pools through rich sensory environments.

Such variety is especially important when it comes to dealing with young athletes.  The richer their proprioceptive environments, the better their overall development, and the easier they’ll pick up complex challenges down the road.

Coaches should allow for enough repetition and frequency of a given drill to allow for adaptation, but at the same time look to insert variety to programming as often as possible.  Beyond simply improving overall afferent (sensory) function, variety in exercise selection will also markedly reduce the risk of injury due to pattern overload, muscular imbalance, and movement dysfunction.

What’s the take-home message from this length quote?  Never expect true carryover from your strength and conditioning programs to the “randomness” of your daily life unless you implement more unpredictable challenges in those strength and conditioning programs.  Conservatively, that might mean doing more strongman style training and utilizing more asymmetrical loading.

More assertively, it might mean getting out to play in a soccer, softball, or ultimate frisbee game to make sure you aren’t getting stagnant because of the predictability of your “workout routine.”

In other words, I’ll be getting out to simply golf more, as it’ll teach me how to swing under predictable conditions and make good decisions in those scenarios.  Likewise, in my practice sessions, I’ll be getting off the mats a bit more to golf on less-than-optimal terrain.

Maybe it’ll get me to a 58 next time.

To learn more about how open- and closed-loop drills are integrated in a comprehensive program, check out The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual.

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17 Responses to “Strength and Conditioning Programs: Open vs. Closed Loop Exercises”

  1. Jon Goodman Says:

    Something I’ve never thought about but it’s very true. I’m going to keep this concept in mind when training clients for goals like fat loss who also act as recreational athletes. Thanks

  2. Trip Says:


    Good post, but no good golfers use the term golf as a verb. No one footballs, no one goes to the gym to basketball and no teams last night baseballed. Start using golf in the right way and you’re sure to lose at least a stroke a hole the next time you go play golf.

  3. Arthur Says:

    This guy can help you with your golf swing-

  4. Kathy Ekdahl Says:

    Great point about open loop work. I run, I train with you, but my 45 minutes of playing lacrosse last week kicked my butt…. literally. I had fatigue and soreness in areas that normally never get tweeked… so your column was timely!It’s also a nice reminder of the necessity for random play and having fun while still getting a great workout.

  5. Paul Says:

    If you’re getting into golf, you should check out the writings of Kelvin Miyahira. He breaks down the golf swing like no one else.


  6. steve in charlotte Says:

    Great explaination of open and closed loop.

    So, for baseball, If you try to “open the loop” for off-season (or offer richer variety of stimulus with “closed loop” drills); Does that mean that you should conversely “close the loop” for in-season maintenance(since they are getting randomness at practice) to maintain general strength? (hopefully my question made sense)

    Hint: Watch out for those old duffers on the golf course. They’ll take your money.

  7. Carlo Says:

    Good post.

  8. Speed and Agility Says:

    I really enjoyed this post EC. The sports specific conditioning makes sense to me and so does having a some variety in the gym. Another benefit is that it makes for more enjoyable sessions for the athletes!!

  9. Kasey Says:

    Congrats, Eric, you’ve already figured out a key to golf that a lot of lifetime golfers still don’t implement… practicing from less than optimal conditions, like burried lies, sidehill lies, etc. I was good enough and fortunate enough to play college golf and it’s something I wish I had focused on. It’s definitely something I’d stress to younger golfers looking to improve. Quit hitting from perfect lies and practicing easy chip shots in practice.. Just like in weight training, it’s hard to have yourself do or practice what you aren’t good at, so hitting your favorite club from a perfect lie is the tendency of most.
    I actually work at a golf course and teach junior golfers. they love hitting driver off the tee, but it’ll never make them good golfers!
    Keep working at it!

  10. Antony Donskov Says:

    Excellent! Thanks for the great info!!!

  11. Ryan Says:

    Great article.

    Speaking of golf, Show and Go took my game to a whole new level! After working through the S&G this winter/spring, I have never felt more powerful. You may have to work the golf niche as I can attest that your programming works for the golf swing.

  12. Bill Says:

    Hey Eric,
    As a golf pro in a past life and now getting into strength training, I think you’ll really enjoy the game. You will see many golf analogies to use in your coaching – it’s pretty cool.

    Don’t listen to all the advice you get except from your pro. You wouldn’t want all the “Jillian Michaels” out there to give your clients advice. We only want one voice in our head at a time.

    Also, Trip is right. We don’t “go golfing” – we play golf.

    Good luck with your game.

  13. Mark Says:

    I’ve been going through your Show and Go training and I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my swing. I was a 12 handicap, now i’m down to an 8 in the 3 months of training. Pretty big change for a golfer. The changes in excersizes has added mobility to my swing in and improved strength. Good article.

  14. Andy Says:

    Any thoughts on Barbell Jump Split Squats as a lunge variation?

  15. Jeff Says:

    Great post. There’s a big debate with throwers (shot put/discus throwers) over whether doing the whole movement or drills are better. I advocate for using drills lightly but focusing on the full movement. It’s nice to not only have a good way of phrasing now that I know you’ve covered it, but also that someone with credibly is saying roughly the same thing.

  16. Rees Says:

    There are alot of great take away’s here, especially for anyone that works w/ athletes in highschool or younger.

  17. Chris Says:

    you need more of these and you’ll be shooting par in no time 😛

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