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5 Ways to Improve Core Strength & Rotational Power with the Woodchop

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 11 September 2020
Hits: 5225

The wood-chop is an amazing exercise for improving athletic performance, core strength and rotational power as seen in sports like golf and tennis.  However, its value is not limited to those who play sports, for rotational movement is a critical part of daily life and something we should be trying to maintain and improve. Learning rotational exercises can be difficult for it is one of the movements that must be trained at a relatively high speed in order to get it right, and with so many moving parts it is easy to make a real mess of it. In this article I show you how to break this down with very easy exercises and gradually build up to the more complex and functional exercises that produce great results.

Why Is Rotational Movement So Important?

Exercises and movements that emphasise rotational movement are some of the best ways to strengthen the core muscles and utilise the myofacial slings. Without rotation we would all move like robots! Even the simple task of walking requires some degree of rotation at the hips and thoracic spine to create a spring like effect to propel us forwards. Unfortunately for a large percentage of the population they do move like robots as their hips and thoracic spine has stiffened due to sitting for long periods, lack of exercise, and ignorance to moving correctly. 

This is seen very clearly with anyone who suffers with back pain. In order to protect their lower back they stiffen their body right up and avoid rotational movement altogether which seems like a good strategy at first, but in the long term sets them up for more pain.

Some doctors and therapists tell people rotational and twisting exercises are bad for your back. This is absolute rubbish and the first thing I would say to that is show me how to walk without rotation. And secondly why are all the professional golfers and tennis players not crippled with back pain? This is where a bit of information is taken out of context and explained by a person who does not understand human movement at all.

What they should say is POOR rotational exercises are bad for your back. This is why it is so important to learn good technique so you can avoid doing damage to the spine and the discs. You can read more about this in more detail in our article – Are Twisting exercises dangerous to your spine?

Poor technique of rotation exercises like the wood-chop is very common as it is not taught very well and many people have a poor understanding of its purpose. Technique is everything!

The first mistake I often see people make is to excessively load the exercise in the belief it will make their abs stronger. Instead all that happens is they load their spine and risk tearing their discs.

The second mistake is they perform the exercise too slowly. I often see this in Pilates and this completely ruins the timing of the movement. If you move too slowly, you will disrupt the workload of the muscles and the sequence they are meant to fire in. Almost every rotational movement we make is quite fast, and in particular the sporting movements such as a golf swing, a tennis forehand or throwing a ball. The timing is everything for executing perfect timing.

Two great videos to watch about technique and timing are shown below.

  

Work on Your Mobility First

Before jumping right into the exercises it is important to address any mobility restrictions first. Often the wood-chop exercise is compromised due to stiffness in two critical areas that are primarily responsible for providing rotational movement. And they are:

  1. The thoracic spine
  2. The hips

There are many ways you can improve the mobility at these joints and below I have provided two videos with several exercise examples that will help.

  

It is very important to work on mobility first for any restriction will prevent you from achieving optimal position to execute the exercises correctly. I will often use some of the key exercises between sets of the strengthening movements I am about to show you. This way it fully prepares the body to execute the movement as close to perfect as possible.

Great articles to read with additional information on this are shown in the links below.

Now we are finally ready to get stuck into the exercises. These are in order of easiest to hardest. 

1: Half Kneeling Wood-chop

This is the easiest place to start for it removes the complexity of the legs. This allows the person to focus completely on the arm action and the breathing required. It is very important to learn in the early stages to keep the load away from the body. A big mistake is to keep it close to you for this will reduce the lever and allow you to “cheat” on the movement by using your arms instead of your torso and eventually your legs when you get to the standing exercises.

This particular exercise is also a great one for the person with hip and pelvic alignment problems for it helps them to work on correcting the lateral hip sway. This is a great exercise for people suffering with SIJ back pain.

 

2: Cable Wood-chop with Weight Shift

This is the exercise you really want to master for this is where it becomes fully integrated and functional. Once again there is a few versions of this as well as you can go from high to low or low to high. I like to start with the high to low with beginners as it is easier to control and you do not need a lot of leg strength as your body has good leverage over the weight. The low to high version is much more difficult as you need significant more strength and power to execute it perfectly.

This exercise is regularly performed poorly. The biggest mistake made is a lack of leg movement and this comes from the bodybuilding world who love to target muscles with slow time under tension. They think that the wood-chop will “rip up” the oblique muscles. While it does work the obliques they are not designed to do movements like this with too much load or slowly. This is where a good exercise becomes a bad one and will ruin your back. The core muscles are not designed the same way as a bicep or a quadriceps and as a result should not be trained the same way. You must understand that this part of the body is more concerned with stability of joints and is incapable of moving you.

You can read more about this in the article – To strengthen the obliques you must understand their purpose

Watch the video below of how to execute perfect technique with the cable wood-chop.

 

Instructions For The Cable Wood-chop

  1. Standing with feet a comfortable distance apart with 70% of your weight on the foot closest to the cable and that knee slightly bent.
  2. Hold the cable handle with the hand furthest away from the cable column and the other hand over the top.
  3. Drawing your belly button inwards rotate your torso away from the cable while simultaneously pulling the handle down across your body and shifting your weight to the opposite foot lunging laterally as you move.
  4. Slowly return to the start

3: Medicine Ball Throw

This is an exact replica of the cable exercise but now it can be performed much faster which is perfect for developing the exact timing that is so important for getting it right. This is the most common form of medicine ball exercises but again I often see poor form used where people are trying to isolate the oblique muscles too much.

The weight shift we used in the cable exercise is even more important in this one to ensure the force is produced from the legs and not the spine. The leg drive and hip rotation is the secret to getting this right and you will not feel your abs burn. This does not mean they are not working, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

 

4: Tornado Ball Wood-chop

Another version of the medicine ball exercises and this takes the movement to another more explosive level. If you are too slow or try to cheat on this by using your arms you will feel the exercise does not work very well. This relies entirely on speed and power and once again this is created by the legs, not the abdominal muscles.

I try not to do this exercise longer than 15 seconds per set. If you go too long you will fatigue and slow down and as a result ruin the timing needed to do it right.

 

5: Battling Ropes Wood-chop

Battling ropes are great fun and very exhausting to use. Just like the medicine ball exercises this requires explosive speed and power in order for the exercise to work correctly. Most people are familiar with the wave exercises with the ropes but not many are familiar with this wood-chop variation.

I find this the most challenging of all the battling rope exercises as it requires a 100% commitment of every muscle to get it right. This is much harder than it looks and trust me you will know why I rate it so highly once you try it out for yourself.

 

Obviously there is many other exercises and there were a few extras I show in the video at the beginning. However, these 5 versions would be my “go-to” wood-chop exercises for most people. All of these exercises are great for beginners, athletes, and even older adults looking to preserve their speed and power in their senior years.

Additional Resources To Help You

For more help with your strength training programs and workouts make sure you grab a copy of the functional training free report below. And the Little Black Book of Training Secrets will provide you with a 101 different workouts to fully challenge your body like never before.

  

Summary

The wood-chop is an amazing exercise and it definitely is a great way to improve your functional movement and build some incredible core strength. However, it is also a very misunderstood and abused exercise that can cause a lot of problems to the lower back if not executed perfectly. I hope this article has given you a better appreciation and understanding of what the true purpose of this exercise is and the technique you need to use to get the most out of it. If you spend the time get it right your athletic power will reach levels you have never seen before. And I don't know anyone who does not want that.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you live in Melbourne and feel you need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • 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
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek