After my article on Why The Term Core Training Is Getting Old was released a lot of you razzed me about it and all in good humor. But it made me realize that whereas it is helpful to understand the theory behind a concept like the "core" (what it actually is), having practical solutions are also important. Progressing in exercises that enable your spine to stabilize better not only makes you more resilient but there can be other "vanity benefits" like tightening up the midsection. One exercise that can help is the Chop!
(Note: Spot reduction does not exist. When I talk about tightening the midsection I don't mean shedding the fat that sits around your middle - only nutritional intervention can help you with that. What happens is the series of superficial muscles that form a "surface girdle" around your midsection [rectus abdominis, external obliques, erector spinae] get stronger and build tone which makes them firmer and holds your posture better. Your middle will feel tighter and attaining a lower percentage of bodyfat will help those muscles be more visible and sleek-looking)
The Chop requires a cable apparatus with either a rope or handle attachment at the top (just above head height is ideal). If you're starting with the kneeling version you may want a pad to place under the knees for comfort. Whether you're doing this kneeling, half-kneeling, or standing the form is the same: while keeping the hips and torso square with the cable above and to the side of you, pull it down and across your body until it is level with the top of the other hip. Did I mention to keep your hips and torso square? No matter the variation of this exercise that you use, the key element is to make sure you do not turn the body or crank your shoulders forward. Absolutely no part of you should be moving except your arms. This is what is known as an "anti-rotation" movement where the idea is to resist rotation - this fires all the muscles around your pelvis and spine to help keep it neutral.
The classic way of teaching this movement is to start doing it kneeling, then half-kneeling and finally standing in order to progress through increasingly difficult positions. However I usually start teaching the standing version just because I have many years of constant experience coaching this movement and know what to look for & correct as we go. If you're trying this on your own I would suggest beginning with kneeling on both knees so you can practice in a more stable position. While kneeling the best way to ensure that you don't wiggle around is to have your knees about shoulder-width apart with your toes curled under and heels pressed together - this forms a kind of triangle of stability with your lower half. When you're half-kneeling the front foot will always be on the same side as the cable attachment.
Besides the lower body position another variation involves the upper body - pulling the handle or rope to the sternum (level with the solar plexus) and then pushing away and down at a diagonal is a good way to begin feeling what it is like to tense those muscles. As you get proficient with it you can advance the difficulty by keeping the arms straight as you pull down in a diagonal line. I usually begin someone with a weight light enough where they can do 2 sets of 12-15 repetitions; over time that will vary as their workout phases change.
There are many variations to this exercise and a whole lot going on in the body while chopping with a load (more than I could cover in this short article), so please direct any questions to me or the staff here. Chop away!
This article is dedicated to Ashley and she knows why ;)