Woodchop and Reverse Woodchop

A while back I got the following email:

“I’ve seen so many f-ed up ways of people doing Woodchops/Reverse Woodchop movement for trunk/abs/core muscles that I dont even know if Im doing it right. I cant seem to find a single video of someone doing it with a cable x-over or similar cable apparatus, mostly some sort of medicine ball lunge-twist. Can you do a “Exercise of the Newsletter” type thing (like you did w/Split-Squats a few weeks ago) with Woodchops/Reverse Woodchops?” – Paul

Well, I finally got a chance to shoot some video and want to take a day’s break from the steady state versus interval cardio series to address it.

The woodchop and reverse woodchop actually exist in two very distinct forms; perhaps more interestingly they do basically opposite things. This is probably some of the source of the confusion. That’s in addition to the fact that most people seem compelled on this exercise to use wayyyyy too much weight which makes their form awful. They end up making it sort of this weird pseudo-rotational bench press with a lot of upper body and arm to move the weight.

The original forms of the woodchop and reverse woodchop were aimed at training the core muscles (rectus adbominus/obliques for woodchop, low back muscles for the reverse woodchop) dynamically in a rotational pattern. Such movements tend to be important for any athlete who has a lot of rotational motion in their sport. Think a baseball pitcher, a batter, tennis player, that sort of thing.

And yes, while most of the power for these movements comes from the legs, the woodchop/reverse woodchop patterns help to couple the leg drive with what happens in the upper body to finish the movements. It doesn’t matter how much power your legs can produce if you lose it all because of a weak torso.

However, in recent years, there’s been a shift away from a lot of dynamic rotational motions due to the fact that rotation and the lumbar spine is not a good combination. A focus on stability in that area along with the ability to stabilize against rotation has become more important for a lot of coaches and a lot of sports.

In the videos below, I’ve shown both the dynamic and anti-rotation woodchop in one video and the same for reverse woodchop in the second.

Woodchop: Note that the cable stack starts high and off to the side and there is basically a full body rotation going on from start to finish (my feet pivot and hips rotate along with the torso movement).

Let me note that there are actually many more ways to do woodchops than this depending on what muscles or patterns you want to train or eliminate. They can be done seated to take the legs out of the movement and isolate the rotational core muscles, they can be done kneeling for similar reasons, on one knee, on both feet without the lower body/hip movement, or done in the fashion I’ve shown them which is basically a full body ‘integration’ exercise.

Note that the arms stay mostly straight (I cheated a bit in the video) and the movement is coming from my legs, hips and torso. I’m not using a bunch of arm to press or push the weight across. The arms are just hooks and the movement is coming from the torso and lower body.

Now, the second movement is the stability anti-rotation version. Note on this that my torso stays completely still (facing directly forwards) while I use my arms to pull the handle down and across my body. Since the cable stack is trying to pull my torso out of alignment, this is training stability and anti-rotation. Does that make sense?

I’d note that, in the anti-rotation version, often what fatigues is the upper body and shoulder musculature from pulling the weight across.

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Now, the reverse woodchop is basically the opposite. Now the cable starts down and to the side and I am going from torso flexion/rotation to full extension. This is also a nice way to get some extension in the thoracic spine (upper back area), make sure and reach tall at the end of the movement to achieve this.

As with the woodchop, this one can also be done seated, kneeling, on one knee, etc. depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

Again, the second movement is the anti-rotation version, the torso stays straight and I pull the handle across my body, fighting against the cable’s trying to pull me towards it.

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A few programming comments

1. I think it’s important to include both movements in training to avoid creating any kind of imbalance front to back. Of course, the exception would be an athlete who already has an imbalance that you’re trying to correct. Woodchops/reverse woodchops would generally be done at the end of the workout but they wouldn’t necessarily be the only movements done for abs. Dynamic abdominal/low back work (weighted crunches, back extension), along with other stability work (side and front planks) might also be done depending on the athlete and the sport.

2. Like all movements, these can be done for high reps for muscular endurance, low reps for strength, or explosively for either dynamic rotation or anti-rotational stability. Generally speaking, start from the muscular endurance end and work towards the explosive end of things depending on the goal/needs.

3. I’ve generally found that strength on the reverse woodchop movement is a bit lower than on the normal woodchop. You’ll need to drop the weight slightly under most circumstances.