In my most recent post, I touched on the pros and cons (mostly cons) of taking your diet to the extreme and consuming all of your carbohydrates in either ice cream or vegetables. And just like diet, exercise has had it’s fair share of extremes as well.
I’ll be honest, I’m too young to remember bodybuilding culture. I never idolized Arnold. I’ve never had an interest in professional bodybuilding and have very little concern for my own aesthetics beyond not looking like a fat slob. It’s not to say that I don’t have my fair share of vain moments, but I don’t let it control my life in any way.
And to be honest again, my fitness career started after the “functional” exercise movement set itself in opposition to bodybuilding culture. I’ve been real lucky.
Some of the first things I ever read as a personal trainer were written by the likes of Cressey and Boyle. I’ve never felt compelled to split my training up by body part or use a Bosu ball. The “basics” as I consider them now are the FMS and a solid foundation of anatomy and physiology.
I have never eaten six times a day or consumed a gallon of milk at a time. I’ve never brought a container of brown rice, chicken, and broccoli to work with me and the only consistent steady-state cardio I ever did was my freshman and sophomore years of high school when I was competing in the mile.
But all of that aside, extremes are still here in the fitness industry. If you aren’t an Instagram Barbie, you must be fat. If you don’t program your training based on scientific principles, then your program is based on Bro Science and that’s just hogwash. For every idea out there, there will always be an opposite and equally extreme idea to counter it.
An exercise that really started to pop up (or so I’ve been told) around the time of the bodybuilder vs. functional training debate was woodchops. Woodchops and there variations are now a common site in gyms across the country and it’s wonderful to see people paying such attention to their rotational core.
But I hate woodchops.
Let me explain. I hate watching people perform chops with an element of torso rotation.
The problem is this: when someone performs a conventional chop with their feet on the floor and their arms stationary relative to their torso, the rotational movement comes from the spine.
If somebody releases their feet and moves the hips and spine together, then the rotational component comes from internal/external rotation of the legs. If the arms release while the rest of the body states stationary, then muscles of the back perform the movement while the core resists the urge to rotate. If you combine both of these, you get a baseball swing, a great test of your ability to transfer energy up the legs and through the core to the arms.
So what’s the big deal with rotational movement of the spine? Simply put, rotation = compression. Especially in a non-neutral state (i.e. extended or flexed), we want to avoid rotation at the lumbar spine. That is unless you want to go skeet shooting with your lumbar discs, in which case go ahead and flex and rotate that lumbar spine under load!
The common answer here is to focus on getting your rotation through the thoracic spine, which is much better equipped to handle the movement. But my guess is that most exercisers don’t even have the mobility to move through the t-spine, much less the awareness to focus on rotating through it.
Even as a coach/trainer, it would be tough for me to look at a client and differentiate between movement at the t-spine and lower back. So why even take the chance?
As always,is there a safer means to achieve the same result? Yes, so we should do that instead.
Like my example above, our “core” is there for two main reasons. To help us breath properly and to transfer power from the legs and hips to the arms. Also, the core helps us stand upright which technically makes us not apes, but whatever.
So our focus in training the core should be anti-rotation. And there are three main ways to do this. The most basic is done by holding legs and arms still. Think of your traditional Pallof press. You can perform this exercise in every position from standing to lying on your back, so you could conceivably create years of programming with different Pallof variations.
The next way is to perform a woodchop where the lower body is held still and the arms are performing the chopping movement. A good example would be a half-kneeling cable chop, like this one.
Lastly, you can perform a chop with your feet moving and your arms still. I couldn’t find a video I liked that demonstrated this so I’ll explain a bit. Make sure your abs/belly-button are facing the handle the entire way through the motion. This will cause you to change your foot position several times throughout a rep.
If you’re just starting out, begin with Pallof hold and press variations. If you consider presses, long holds, short holds, different set and rep schemes, 1.5 reps, tempo training, different implements, and all of the different ways you can stand/kneel/lie supine, there are probably hundreds of variations.
From here, you can take all of these factors and apply them to stiff-legged chops. And if you really need to keep your programming fresh, you can really load up stiff-arm chops, because your legs drive the movement.
Whether you’re training to improve your performance in a sport or improve your ability to perform your Activities of Daily Living, I guarantee there is a rotational component to almost every movement you perform. Beyond that, I guarantee that you need the ability to transfer power from your legs and hips to your arms. And if nothing else, you at least have to breath and your core is involved in that too.
This is where your core comes in. And it’s not enough to consider the squat as your only core training because it only relies on anti-flexion and can’t address left/right imbalances.
The basic idea is that it doesn’t make sense to risk the health of your spine in order to impress your friends by woodchopping the entire cable stack. The job of our core isn’t to rotate, it’s job is to resist rotation. Try sticking with Pallof and chop variations like I linked above and impress your friends with your ability to not be injured!
So yes, the conventional, functional way to perform a woodchop is dead! Now go to the gym and build that anti-rotation core!