How to do cable woodchoppers and the muscles worked

Developing a strong core is just as vital as strengthening any other muscle group in the body. But more often than not, when people think of a strong core, the immediate assumption is having a six-pack. While aiming for a six-pack is not necessarily a bad thing, there is more to a strong core than just solid, well-defined abs.

The rectus abdominis, the muscle responsible for the six-pack, is just one of the muscles in the abdominal region. The transverse abdominis, more commonly known as the lower abs, and the obliques are the other major muscles of the core.

But unlike the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis, there aren’t that many exercises specifically targeting the obliques. Good thing cable woodchoppers are a thing. Now you can include an oblique-focused core exercise for a more dynamic core strengthening routine.

What is a cable woodchopper?

The cable woodchopper, also known as the cable chop, is a core strengthening exercise that requires rotational movement of the core to particularly target the obliques.

The movement can be performed in a kneeling or standing position and from a high-to-low, low-to-high, or a straight-across direction. This exercise utilizes weighted resistance from a cable machine since cables provide more constant tension, but other variations use a medicine ball or a dumbbell as well.

As you perform the exercise, your movement should be like you are chopping wood, hence the name.

How to cable chop

Before you begin, make sure that the correct handgrip is attached to the cable at one end of the cable machine frame, and that the machine is loaded with enough weight to provide resistance.

The weight should not be too light that rotating and lifting will be too easy, nor should it be too heavy that you end up struggling to barely move the handle.

Now that the cable machine is all set, read on to proceed with the actual exercise.

  1. To start, position your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart and your body in a way that the cable movement will be downward and across your torso to mimic a tree-chopping motion.
  2. Hold on to the cable handle with both hands above one shoulder. You may intertwine your fingers or put one hand over the other, whichever is more comfortable for you.
  3. Bring down the clasped handle diagonally and across the body until it reaches the opposite thigh. Slightly rotate your hips and knees together with your torso, and pivot from your ankle as you do this.
  4. Once the cable is fully pulled down, briefly pause in that position then let the cable weight retract the handle while you still engage your obliques as you rotate your torso to return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat. Do at least 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions each then switch your stance by facing the other way to do the exercise on the other side.

The muscles at work during a cable woodchopper

While it mainly focuses on the core muscles specifically the obliques, the cable woodchopper also recruits the shoulders, back, glutes, and the majority of the muscles in the upper body to assist in achieving the position of strength necessary to perform the movement.

And the best thing about the cable woodchopper? It is not just a core strengthening exercise, but also a total body workout.   

Internal and external obliques

The external obliques are on the sides of the abdomen, while the internal obliques run diagonally opposite the external obliques. Both assist the rectus abdominis in core movements, so when you “chop” from the right to the left, your right external oblique and your left internal oblique contract.

The obliques, which run down from the ribs to the hip bone, are the primary movers during the cable woodchopper. These muscles are mainly responsible for spinal rotation, or the twisting of the torso while the hips remain stationary. While the rectus abdominis is also involved in the “chopping” motion, it does not work as much as the obliques.

Rectus and transverse abdominis

Even though the obliques are the main focus of the cable woodchopper, the abdominal muscles are also targeted in this exercise. The transverse abdominis, which is wrapped around like a corset inside the abdomen, contracts when you flatten your stomach at the beginning of the exercise. It is also the deepest layer of muscle tissue underneath the rectus abdominis.

Meanwhile, the rectus abdominis is positioned between the ribs and the pelvis and contracts whenever you shorten the distance between the ribs and the hips, and in the case of the cable woodchopper, this happens when you rotate and pull down the cable towards your hip.

Stabilizing muscles

To effectively perform the cable woodchopper, your body recruits other muscles to stabilize your position.

The shoulder muscles, specifically the deltoids, work to keep the weight lifted; the back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi, contract as you lower the weight; lastly, the glutes and hamstrings also contract to prevent the hips from rotating as you twist to the side.

Benefits of the cable woodchopper

Aside from improved core strength, what else is good about cable woodchoppers?

Ease of rotational movement

Rotational training exercises such as the cable woodchopper develop necessary muscle mass and coordination that improve movements such as throwing, punching, and kicking which could be relevant to people who engage in several sports that require such skills.

Improved spinal strength

Lack of muscle coordination, core strength, and anti-rotational strength may result in injuries to the lumbar spine, hips, knees, and shoulders. But with proper rotational training exercises such as cable woodchoppers, such injuries could be avoided.

Core to die for

If you incorporate cable woodchoppers into your core routine, you will not only achieve a six-pack but also the shredded V-cut that is just as coveted as the six-pack. And while it is true that a big part of achieving both is still highly dependent on nutrition, you will also need to perform exercises like the cable woodchopper to improve strength, enhance muscle hypertrophy, and develop the core as a whole.

Cable woodchopper variations and alternatives

Are the regular cable woodchoppers not challenging enough for you? Try these cable chop variations and alternatives that put a different spin to the traditional.

Kneeling cable chop

This variation is done the same way as the regular cable chop except for the position in which you are doing the exercise. In a kneeling cable chop, you are on your knees. Such position minimizes the use of your legs and hips to help establish rotational force, making your abdominal muscles, especially the obliques, work double time.

Dead bug cable chop

This variation requires you to lie on your back in a dead bug position perpendicular to the cable stack. Such position promotes core stability as you simultaneously perform the chopping movement in a limited range of motion.

High-to-low cable chop

In this variation, the movement should start from a high position. As you perform the exercise, your hands and torso rotate and drop to a 45-degree angle, with your ending position at knee height as you bend your knee. This provides a wider range of motion that reinforces stronger movement which hits the obliques slightly harder than a regular cable woodchopper.

Low-to-high cable chop

This is obviously the opposite of the high-to-low cable chop since in this variation, the starting position should be at the bottom. As you perform the exercise, the hands and torso rotate and are raised to a 45-degree angle, with the ending position at shoulder height or above.

Dumbbell wood chops

This variation is performed the same way as the low-to-high cable chop but by substituting a dumbbell for a cable machine.

But while using a dumbbell makes the woodchopper exercise much more convenient as it removes the need for expensive cables, it also significantly reduces the amount of tension throughout the range of motion. This means that the work of the abdominal muscles, especially the obliques, is also reduced because of gravity and the line of pull.

Medicine ball throws

The medicine ball throw, also called the medicine ball slam, is an explosive rotational training exercise for the core that can help bridge the gap between strength training and real-world movement application. Performing lateral throws and slams, such as the movements done in this exercise, hits your obliques harder and further enhances core rotation power and coordination.

Pallof press

As an alternative to the cable woodchopper that utilizes the same equipment but is slightly more beginner-friendly, the Pallof press is a less dynamic core exercise that can be used to train beginners and long-time fitness enthusiasts alike on how to properly stabilize the spine under low-velocity movements. Simply perform isometric holds, presses, and pulls to do this exercise.