Chopping and lifting is based on proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) patterns that are spiral and diagonal. When two hands are involved together on a stick, bar or rope in the same direction, crossing the mid line of the body in a downward or upward movement, it is called a chop or lift. The independent hand exercise is simply called D1 or D2 patterning. The direction of movement is named by flexion (upward) or extension (downward). These are advanced movements based on patterns used in the physical therapy profession. This can all be referenced in any PNF text book.
There is little research on the proper use of the chop and lift for strengthening in swinging or rotation based sports as well as a more realistic way to develop functional core strength. Chopping and lifting can be used as corrective exercise, core conditioning or generalized strengthening. Many use the chop and lift as a complete upper body program while others use it to complement the big pushing, pulling and pressing lifts and sports performance conditioning. The moves are often hard to classify because they incorporate both pushing and pulling in one move. However, there is much more going on in the chop or lift than pushing and pulling. For the purposes of this article, I would like to discuss chopping and lifting as a way to both assess and improve core stabilization with respect to functional training and sports conditioning.
Chopping is the downward movement across the body from a high position to a low position, and lifting is the upward movement from a low position to a high position (see Figures 1 and 2). They are essentially mirror images of each other. Each of these movements can be done in various positions. Some favorite choices of fitness and rehabilitation professionals who perform the chop and lift are kneeling (which includes both half kneeling with only one knee down and tall kneeling with both knees down), seated on a stability ball and standing. My favorite of all of these positions are the tall and half kneeling positions. When we find squatting or forward bending patterns to be faulty, the position of tall kneeling is used as a corrective exercise for trunk stability. Exercise in this posture will promote core static stability when the hips are in the same position. This creates a base for dynamic stability when the hips are allowed to move, but the core must remain stable. Stability work with both hips in a symmetrical stance will coordinate the basic spine stability for squatting, dead lifting, jumping, swinging or any activity on the similar stance base.
Tall kneeling (see Figure 3) is the most favorable position because it takes away all compensations that usually occur at the foot, knee and ankle joints when hip mobility and stability are not optimum. Think of all of the compensations that occur in sports and exercise when individuals do not have correct body mechanics. We see a loss of a stable foot position, excessive out turning of the feet, rolling of the ankles, caving inward of the knees, loss of hip extension and unsafe spine flexion – all to compensate for a lack of range of motion or stability within the hips and core. By utilizing the tall kneeling position, we take away these potential compensations, forcing the body to deal with the load and work out the problem. We also take the quad dominant, hip flexor dominant individual into a position where he or she cannot use anything but appropriate core stability for both the chop and lift movement.
Figure 4 & Figure 5
Half kneeling chopping and lifting, on the other hand, is usually done when a single leg discrepancy is identified. This can be seen when an individual has an appropriate lunge that is both stable and mobile on one side and a deficient lunge on the other side. We have also demonstrated how a single leg discrepancy affects whole movement by showing how the single leg toe touch can greatly differ between one leg or the other. This example is actually very common. An individual is unable to touch his toes or has severe forward bending tightness (see Figure 4), but when the same movement is performed with one leg on a platform, there is a noticeable difference between the sides (see Figure 5). Any time that a single leg problem shows a limitation, the half kneeling position or lunge on that side will show you how the core has had to compensate in many of the mobility and stability problems.
You should be able to note the compensation if you compare the move to the other side. Adding the chop or lift to the position will magnify the left to right difference in mobility and stability, so keep your eyes open and use your video camera. Setting a video base line on the first day of chopping and lifting is a great way to show progress. You will not necessarily always see that the chop and lift has the greatest difficulty when the faulty leg is in the down knee position. You will sometimes, but not as often, see it when the faulty leg is in the up position. So before you get started, pick your position. Choose tall kneeling for symmetrical problems (squatting, deadlifting and forward bending) and problems involving the back and hips equally. Choose half kneeling for asymmetrical problems (half kneeling, lunging and single leg stance) problems involving one hip to a greater extent than the other.
Tips to test and develop a chop and lift program
Once you have done a full functional movement screen or at least a quick movement pattern check, take note as to whether you have symmetrical or asymmetrical problems. If your client has both symmetrical and asymmetrical problems, always focus on the asymmetry first. If he has symmetrical problems, perform a chop to the right and to the left with the exact same amount of weight for each direction in a tall kneeling position. Then perform a lift with the exact same amount of weight for each direction in a tall kneeling position, both to the left and to the right. Usually, the chop is always done first at approximately twice the weight compared to the lift (this is due to gravity, leverage and center of mass). We want to choose a weight or resistance that the individual can perform for six to 12 repetitions and then look for discrepancies in quality and the ability to hit maximum repetitions. This does not mean to pick a weight and have him do it for a set number of repetitions. It should be a mild struggle.
This is a test, and you are investigating posture, control, stability, strength, body awareness, symmetry and mobility. You want him to do a complete rep-out within six to 12 repetitions, so pick a weight that will get you close. You will get better picking the weight with time. Take the test to the point of fatigue, loss of appropriate posture, absence of smooth movement or to the point where a struggle is demonstrated. If you use video, you can compare both sides and be more precise. A great low tech way to mark a loss of appropriate posture is to have the individual get into the tallest position possible in the tall or half kneeling posture. Have him press upward into your hand with his head. This is not extension or leaning back. It is a transverse abdominus (deep abdominal musculature) and hip stabilizer contraction, with a reduction in overactive hip flexor activity. The shoulders are back, shoulder blades pulled inward and down and the eyes looking straightforward while the body is squeezed in the middle. The top of the head should be as tall as it can possibly be with the hips at full extension (zero degrees only, not hyper extension).
A neutral pelvic tilt and neutral lumbar spine should be noted. Many will not feel balanced in this position, and that is part of the test. If you have limited mobility or use the wrong stabilizers, then you will not be able to handle much load in this posture. Explain to the individual that this is a test for strength and control, and each is equally important and dependent on the other. One without the other usually yields a problem. The tall posture should not change throughout the chopping pattern, and when it does, he should be cued that it is occurring. If he cannot keep it from occurring, call the repetitions at that point. If he can correct, continue going until the flaw occurs again and cue him again. When he can no longer correct and start to compensate to the point he is unable to correct, call the repetitions. If posture and alignment remain good throughout the test, then count the maximum number of repetitions until fatigue is present or until the chop is no longer a smooth and fluid movement. The more strict you are on posture and movement, the more sensitive the test will be. This is important because you are looking for left to right differences.
For the lift, take approximately half or even two thirds less weight and execute the same point of posture and repetitions with the lift pattern, both to the left and to the right. Make adjustments with the weight until you feel it is appropriate. If you happen to miscalculate the weight and the client exceeds 12 repetitions, keep going and look for the flaws because they will still occur. The test is best done when the individual is fresh. The six to 12 repetitions is only a range to shoot for because I find most don’t use heavy enough weight in the chop and lift. When the test is complete, you should have drawn an assessment of both quality and quantity in four quadrants – the right and left chop and the right and left lift in the tall kneeling position. Find the weakest quadrant, and work there until symmetry is present. You will be amazed at how many other core issues clean themselves up by simply finding this weak quadrant.
Figure 6 & Figure 7
When an asymmetrical problem is present (single leg stance or lunge), perform the exact same chop and lift test sequence but only in the half kneeling position. You will always chop toward the downward knee, and you will always lift toward the upward knee. The same amount of moves are still performed, but we are just alternating that up knee, down knee position. Follow the same rules for posture of the spine. The up leg should have a 90 degree position both at the hip and knee and neutral position at the ankle. Ask the client to maintain both the down knee and up foot on the same four inch line (see Figures 6 and 7). A strip of tape usually works really well here, or a functional grid that has lines could also be appropriate. The chop and lift should always be done with a cable bar because we do not want to collect data or information about shoulder weakness or asymmetry during this test. Both arms working together on the same implement (cable bar) will negate any subtle differences in the shoulder and focus most of the stress on the core.
You can use chopping and lifting to assess wrist strength and shoulder stability as well as posture and symmetry of the upper core stabilizers, but that is for another article. Simply following this simple, functional diagnostic process will help you test and train individuals in an asymmetrical fashion to achieve and restore symmetry. The chop and lift are fundamental building blocks for hip and trunk stability, and simply exercising individual muscles in these areas will not get your muscles to support you. You need to coordinate muscle activity with functional movement patterns.
Working muscles in isolation will change individual muscles but will not likely change movement patterns. Working movement patterns will change patterns as well as muscles. I think Dr. Shirley Sahrmann supports this very well with her statement: “There are numerous ways in which slight subtleties in movement patterns contribute to specific muscle weaknesses. The relationship between altered movement patterns and specific muscle weaknesses requires that re-mediation addresses the changes to the movement pattern. The performance of strengthening exercises alone will not likely affect the timing and manner of recruitment during functional performance.”
You must get specific in three categories:
- Posture - Tall spine with good extension though the hip/s
- Position - Tall or half kneeling
- Pattern - Chop or lift
Finding the weakest core quadrant is a completely different way to look at core issues in a client. It is basically removing the negative before you add a positive, which is the most common mistake in exercise and the primary reason for movement screens. I have used these techniques both in rehabilitation, fitness and performance enhancement across many sports with many different age groups and have found a common theme: human movement is human movement, and the fundamentals always come first.