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Single Cable Push - why it is so much more than a simple strength exercise

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 02 July 2019
Hits: 10699

Of all the exercises used in the gym the single cable push is right up the top in our rankings of movements to master. Many people think of this as an exercise to increase strength in the chest and shoulders as it shares the timing of the push-up and bench press exercises. However it is very unique in that it has so many moving parts with multiple joints and muscles all demanding perfect positioning and timing in order to execute the movement effectively. Many of these joints and muscles are also the common weak areas in many people, making it a perfect choice for improving stability, strength, and importantly their movement. This particular exercise is used extensively in our programs for rehabilitation with shoulder and back pain, along with foundation training for older adults wanting to improve quality of movement and strength. But it also is a key component of our training with elite sporting athletes for athletic success as this exercise shares the key attributes needed in running and throwing! This article we are going to explain exactly what this exercise does, how to complete it perfectly, various progressions to use, and most importantly why we rate it so highly. Enjoy.

What Joints & Muscles Are Used In The Single Cable Push?

To fully explain how much the single cable push does we are going to look at each area of the body that is involved in completing this movement to give you a clearer understanding. As I mentioned in the intro many people think of this exercise as just an upper body movement that improves strength in the chest and shoulders for that it is what it looks like it is meant to do. And while it does achieve that goal, and does it well mind you, it provides numerous benefits that not many other exercises can. I have seen many strong guys who can bench well over 100kg struggle to execute this movement well. The reason for this is not a lack of strength but poor positioning, timing, stability and coordination. The quote above sums this up perfectly.

We prefer to think of this in the same way as the squat and deadlift, in that it is a "movement first and exercise second". This makes up 1 of our 7 fundamental movement patterns and is an assessment we use with all clients on their first day. The common theme to ALL of these fundamental patterns is that they are all movement performed standing up.

While the push up and bench press can increase the strength with the upper body they are not as functional compared to the single cable push for they do not require the use of the legs and core in a standing position to provide adequate stability to move. The push-up at least demands some core strength, but the bench press requires none. Neither require a great deal of brain involvement to complete, and for this reason provide little carryover to improving how we move. 

Let's begin to unravel the secrets behind this awesome movement and provide you with the secrets to incredible strength.

What Is Perfect Technique?

I think it is important before we move on to firstly show what good technique is and the common mistakes to avoid.

1. Brain & Coordination

When we first meet a new client and perform an assessment their biggest obstacle is coordination. Every movement they do is awkward and feels uncomfortable and they look like they are trying to exercise while standing on roller-skates. This compromises their strength immensely and forces their body to slow things down to try and make sense of what is going on. This is a disaster for certain movements like the single cable push that require a faster timing in order to move efficiently and is the main reason why their performance suffers at first. This also explains why they are very exposed to injury.

We see this same problem with people recovering from injury and also with older adults who have lost muscle mass and stability. Instinctively the brain senses a stability problem and in an attempt to protect itself it slows things down, stiffens joints up to prevent damage and ultimately ruins how you move. Trying to restore optimal movement to a person using an isolated approach is pointless for their problem is more to do with their positioning and timing.

In the book Movement by Gray Cook he says, "movement patterns are destroyed by reductionism." We have become so good at looking at things in such great detail we lose sight of how we really move. Focusing on single muscles and areas of weakness will do little to improve the ability to walk. I am not saying it is a waste of time, just that we must move to integrated complicated patterns of movement to make any significant change. Again Gray Cook says it best,

"Patterns are groups of singular movements linked in the brain like a single chunk of information. This chunk essentially resembles a mental motor program, the software that controls movement patterns. A pattern represents multiple single movements used together for a specific function."

We must always remember that the brain is the boss. It controls everything, the muscles and bones are slaves and do what they are told. The fastest way to change a movement or make someone stronger is to improve how they move by forcing their brain to learn.

How does the single cable push improve this?

Firstly this movement utilises both the left and right side of the brain as it requires you to use opposite sides of the body at the same time. For example if you push with the left arm your right leg is the main stabilizing leg. This mimics the exact action we use when we throw a ball, and also when we walk and run. As you will see shortly this has other great benefits. We use this exercise a lot with people suffering with walking impairments from brain or spinal cord injuries, people recovering from a stroke and even with people diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This exercise can help to reprogram their lost movement and improve how they function.

I highly suggest to read our article - 6 Ways To Improve Your Ability To Walk to see examples of clients where we have used successfully used this approach.

Secondly the multiple joints being used heightens your awareness as to what is going on as we are terrible at multi-tasking. Your brain is trying to process several pieces of information at once to all parts of the body and in order to do this needs your complete focus. TIMING is everything for it helps to keep everything in sync and is how our body learns to maintain stability during moving.

2. Shoulder

The next thing we need to look at is the most obvious part used in the movement being the chest, arms, and shoulders. Obviously this exercise will develop strength into many muscles around the chest and shoulder like the pecs, deltoids, and triceps, but there is one muscle in particular that this movement does an exceptional job at strengthening. And that muscle is Serratus anterior.

With almost every shoulder and neck injury you will find there is a significant weakness with serratus anterior. This muscle along with the lower traps are such important muscles to healthy shoulder function because they are what helps to keep the scapula attached to to the thorax and in optimal alignment. The problem many people face is finding a way to strengthen the serratus anterior for it is very difficult to do. Often the dominating pecs, in particular pec minor steal the workload further exacerbating the shoulder dysfunction. The greater the imbalance becomes the worse the injury gets.

For more information of how this works read the article - 3 key factors needed for healthy shoulder function

The single cable press is one of the best exercises to develop the strength with the serratus anterior for several reasons.

  1. It allows full protraction of the shoulder which is the key in activating this muscle.
  2. It demands good thoracic mobility with rotation. Thoracic stiffness is a known problem with instability of the scapula and shoulder. See article - Why Thoracic stiffness is a hidden cause of pain for more on this.
  3. It demands perfect core control. In the next section we will go into more detail on this.

As mentioned earlier this is one of our most important exercises to use in our shoulder/neck rehabilitation programs for we know how many things we can restore in one movement. Often we have had to regress with mobility drills and stretches for the tight areas and isolated stability and strength exercises for weak areas. This one movement does all of these things at the same time! And when performed perfectly it changes muscle imbalance and dysfunction faster than any of the isolated approaches.

If you have a shoulder injury now then make sure you get a copy of the shoulder pain report pictured below that explains exactly how to do this. Click here to see more.

One thing that many people believe regarding this exercise is that you cannot derive much strength for it is so complex. People are so used to feeling the burning sensation from bench press type exercises that if the exercise does not feel the same it must not be doing anything to add muscle. When in reality the exact opposite is the case. You will be much stronger doing single arm exercises than dual arm movements. This is known as the bilateral limb deficit and you can read more about this in the article - Why Unilateral Exercises Provide The Greatest Strength Gains

3. Core

In addition to the serratus anterior the activation of the abdominal muscles is substantial during the single cable push. The core receives a lot of attention these days when it comes to injury prevention and usually the first exercises that come to people's minds are planks and crunches. Unfortunately these exercises do very little to improve how we move, and they do very little to improve how the core really works. See article - Why most core exercises are over-rated

What most people fail to understand is that our core is made up a combination of deep abdominal stabilizers (inner unit) that are tiny and not able to do much, and our large global muscles (outer unit) that are more concerned with movement. The inner unit's main role is to provide joint stiffness and segmental stability. They cannot provide movement for these muscles do not attach to bones that move you. They need the outer unit muscles to do this.

The outer unit or large prime mover global muscles are more designed to move the body, and what you would classify as high level activity needed in short bursts. They do not have the capacity to provide joint stiffness like the inner unit, however they are unique in that they are also designed to provide stability via use of what are called myofascial slings.

The single cable push is one of the best exercises for developing what is known as the Anterior Sling.

This system tells us that the obliques help provide stability and mobility in the action of walking or running. They are both important in providing that initial stability during the stance phase of gait and then contribute to pulling the leg through during the swing phase. In this movement the obliques and the contra-lateral adductors work in perfect sync to create movement. Many people will find this movement really trains the oblique muscles more than their arms for the rotation element is significant.

Training this system is essential for the sporting player who use multi-directional movements as it enhances stability as speed increases in activities such as sprinting, and also when needing to brake or change direction.

Watch the video below for examples of this sling and also the other three slings.

4. Leg Strength & The Lunge

The next part of the body to play a key role is the legs. As mentioned earlier the standing movements are of much more importance to the brain for improving movement. If there is any weakness in the base the entire structure will suffer and this movement requires great stability and positioning to be able to execute the exercise efficiently.

Having strong legs to do squats and deadlifts is one thing, but if your form and technique is not perfect in the lunge this movement will be difficult to master and your upper body strength will suffer. What is so unique about the lunge?

The split stance or lunge position is needed for us to create motion. While squats and deadlifts are great they are movements that are performed standing on the spot moving up and down. They do not have the ability to move us forward. The lunge however is much different in that it can be performed in multiple directions.

For example you can do this exercise:

  • Standing still
  • Moving forward
  • Moving backward
  • Moving lateral (sideways)
  • Multi-directional
  • Jumping

It is also the common position to every one of the slings in point three. Think of how you walk and run. When we move our left leg forward our right arm swings through, and vice versa for the other leg and arm. The lunge allows our body to store energy into the legs to generate momentum and power through the core and out the arms. 

Of all the leg exercises I really love the lunge the most for it has so many possibilities and endless progressions you can use to integrate with athletic movement. You can read more about lunges in this article - Why The Lunge Is Essential For Fitness Success

If you are having trouble mastering the lunge watch the video below for some great tips of how to correct the common mistakes.

There is one piece missing and this can be the catalyst behind poor lunge form that ruins the stability and strength in the single cable push, and that missing piece is the big toe!

5. Big Toe

Now I know what you are thinking, how can the big toe have anything to do with an upper body exercise? All I have to say is ask someone with limited toe dorsiflexion or someone with gout to do this exercise and see what happens. 

Take a look at the picture below to see how much pressure is being held in the toe of the back foot. The greater the load on the weight stack the more pressure being delivered by the back foot to prevent the body being flung back into the machine. You could have incredibly strong quads and glutes but they will have no ability to help you here. If you do not dig your big toe into the floor you will not be able to lower your centre of gravity allowing for more stability and strength. Your foot will be all twisted and the exercise will very quickly become awkward.

Our big toe is vital to the correct timing and stability of all joints when we move. It is the first joint to hit the ground when we walk or run and it is designed to withstand our entire body weight during gait. Since power during propulsion is dependent upon the foot’s ability to become a rigid lever, ensuring proper big toe dorsiflexion during the gait is vital to achieving full foot supination.

In our assessments of people with hip and knee pain we find that over 70% of people lack the necessary big toe dorsiflexion. Many people cannot lift their big toe off the floor on its own. It is almost as though the nerve to the big toe has been severed. The nerve has not been severed it is just the fact they have lost a significant amount of foot stability and strength in the small muscles of the foot.

Why is this so common?

There is many reasons for this that have been well documented in the books by Dr Emily Splichal and Katy Bowman (see references at the bottom of the page) but you will find most research concludes that the main reason for poor foot stability is due to the shoes we wear. Most shoes place us in elevated heels and create short tight calves with rigid ankles and weaken our feet. If we were to walk barefoot as nature intended you would not see the foot related problems we see today.

This can be quite hard for people to get their head around so I encourage to watch the video below that will give you a better understanding of the big toe and its link to stability and strength in all movements.

Progressions

The beauty of this exercise is that there is several very athletic progressions to use. These progressions are very exhausting and now you begin to incorporate other skills like rotary power and agility which are great for sports like tennis, hockey and baseball. If you are someone who does not play sport they can be a great way to expose your body to high intensity training that will dramatically improve your metabolic rate and fitness. As there is so many muscles on the go the heart has to pump blood to several areas of the body in an instant so it does not take long to wear you out.

Everything we have discussed in the previous points is magnified in these exercises so now you have an exercise that 

  • Improves coordination and athletic movement
  • Improves shoulder function and serratus anterior strength
  • Improves core strength
  • Improves leg drive and big toe function
  • Improves cardiovascular fitness and rotary power

For more ideas of how to use this exercise and the various progressions make sure you get a copy of our Functional Training Free Report below by clicking here.

Summary

Who would have thought that one exercise can achieve so much. The single cable push relates to so many things we do in life and the fact it applies to ALL age groups is why we rate it so highly. Improving the timing and strength in this one movement can have a dramatic affect on other things you may find difficult to do. Instead of using many individual exercises and corrective drills you can begin changing these dysfunctions and problems with one movement. I hope you have enjoyed this article and it has provided you with some great ideas on how to improve your training and movement for life.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Barefoot training - by Katy Bowman
  • Barefoot strong - by Dr Emily Spichal
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist