Wood Chop Exercise Alternatives: How to Target the Obliques

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 2, 2022

An isolation exercise that specifically targets the obliques portion of the core musculature, the wood chop exercise or woodchopper exercise holds a place in many training programs as an accessory movement performed to strengthen side-flexion of the torso and improve overall abdominal appearance.

However, due to certain issues relating to the exercise itself, many lifters may choose to substitute the wood chop with another exercise of similar training stimulus and muscle group activation.

For the most part, the best possible alternative to the wood chop exercise in one’s training routine is a similar oblique isolation exercise that makes allowances for the needs of the exerciser and their training routine.

Why Should the Wood Chop Exercise Be Substituted?

Functionally, substitution of the wood chop exercise has to do with the relative motion of the exercise itself, wherein its wide arc against a level of resistance is either too uncontrolled and therefore unspecific for higher level athletes or otherwise places the exerciser at risk of injury due to their own poor form.

wood chop

While this reason constitutes the majority of cases behind the substitution of the wood chop exercise, certain other reasons such as simple preference, incompatible bodily proportions or a history of injury that is further aggregated by the torsion of the movement are also frequently cited.

Can the Wood Chop Exercise be Performed With Different Equipment?

One reason why a lack of available equipment is not among the list of reasons behind the substitution of the wood chop exercise is due to the fact that it may be performed with practically every kind of resistance equipment, from kettlebells or dumbbells to cable machines or resistance bands.

The sole case wherein the wood chop exercise is substituted for a similar movement in relation to equipment is if the lifter has access to literally no equipment whatsoever, requiring that a bodyweight or calisthenic alternative exercise be performed in its place.

Mechanics and Muscle Activation of a Wood Chop Alternative Exercise

The wood chop exercise - and by extension, any possible alternative - is an isolation movement that solely contracts the oblique muscle group along both sides of the waist, alongside a secondary activation of the transverse abdominis in a synergistic capacity.

As such, while it is entirely possible for an alternative exercise to be of a compound nature and thus train more than just the oblique muscles, it is still a hard-set requirement that said alternative trains the obliques as a primary mover muscle.

Other Aspects of a Wood Chop Alternative Exercise

Other aspects that a potential alternative exercise should share with the wood chop is that of similar levels of intensity, a closed kinetic chain nature and a unilateral activation of the oblique muscles.

Unlike the activation of the oblique muscle groups, these characteristics of the alternative exercise are not an absolute requirement - allowing the exerciser some leeway in terms of what sort of exercises they may select to use as a wood chop substitute, especially if one of these characteristics is the reason behind such a substitution in the first place.

Ideal Wood Chop Alternative for Oblique Training: Landmine Oblique Twists

While a large number of oblique isolation exercises feature rotation of the waist or hips in order to achieve oblique muscle group activation, the landmine oblique twist is the perfect alternative to the wood chop exercise because of their shared use of a twisting motion, thereby recruiting the oblique muscles to a far greater extent.

landmine twist

In addition to this, both exercises share much the same biomechanics, relative intensity and angle of resistance - with practically no difference in muscle activation save for a secondary involvement of the deltoids due to the bar’s positioning relative to the landmine attachment.

If these factors still aren't enough to make the landmine oblique twist one of the best possible alternatives to the wood chop exercise, there is also the fact that it is nearly a perfect translation in terms of relative amount of weight and volume of repetitions, allowing the exerciser to directly substitute one exercise for the other without need for any further alteration of the workout program.

Ideal Wood Chop Alternative for Athletic Training: Climbers 

For athletes seeking to substitute the wood chop exercise with a more active and dynamic drill, the climbers or mountain climber exercise is one of the best possible candidates for such purposes.

A compound exercise that combines facets of both cardiovascular and bodyweight resistance exercise to produce a highly athletic training stimulus, mountain climbers activate not only the obliques but also the calves, certain portions of the quadriceps muscle group and the glutes muscles in a movement that requires no additional space or equipment.

mountain climbers

Though the wood chop exercise is usually performed with a slow tempo and is primarily meant for oblique and transverse abdominis muscular hypertrophy, its purpose in athletic training routines are somewhat different; wherein it is more meant to reinforce proper torso rotation and force transference through the thorax.

Substitution with the climbers exercise not only aids in developing these particular dynamic actions, but also retains the original purpose of the wood chop exercise wherein the obliques and transversus abdominis muscles are developed both in terms of function and in mass.

However, programming of this alternation is somewhat more complicated, as mountain climbers are not measured in sets and repetitions as the wood chop exercise is, and as such it is up to the athlete and their coach to decide how best to switch from one exercise to the other.

Other Free Weight or Calisthenic Alternatives to the Wood Chop Exercise

If neither climbers nor landmine oblique twists are suitable for the needs of the exerciser, they may instead utilize other exercises such as side planks or russian twists - each of which serve their own purpose as a potential wood chop exercise alternative.

Like any other substitution of exercises however, it should be noted that the following alternatives are simply the closest approximation and will nonetheless still require some level of alteration be made to the exerciser’s training program unless otherwise specified.

For Isometric Contraction - Side Planks

In the case of exercisers wishing to further improve their oblique muscle group endurance through the use of isometric contraction, the side plank is one possible alternative that not only fulfills such a training goal but also aids in training the entirety of the core muscle group.

side plank

This is achieved by the exerciser maintaining a static position as they contract all the muscle groups in their core, with the obliques in particular being targeted due to the fact that the exerciser is balancing on their side - also creating the drawback of one oblique being activated to a greater extent than the other.

As such, while side planks are an excellent isometric alternative to the wood chop exercise, they are not of a unilateral activation capacity like the latter movement and will require greater lengths of time and an even number of sets when used as a substitute.

This caveat is in addition to the complex translation of programming between side planks and the wood chop exercise, where side planks are measured in length of time per set instead of repetitions, requiring the exerciser to “feel out” the proper translation in terms of intensity per set so as to program the side plank appropriately.

For a Lower Impact Movement - Side Crunches

In the case of a recovering athlete or novice exerciser finding the wood chop exercise to be far too intense for their liking, they may instead perform an exercise known as side crunches; a variation of the standard crunch wherein the obliques are focused instead of the main abdominal muscles by laying the exerciser on their side instead.

side crunch

This allows the exerciser to retain the original muscle group activation (isolation of the obliques) of the wood chop exercise while still lowering the impact and stress placed on their entire body - acting as an excellent active rehabilitation tool in certain instances.

As the side crunch is somewhat lower in terms of intensity and impact, the exerciser may wish to perform a higher number of repetitions per set when substituting the wood chop exercise with the former movement. Anywhere between fifteen and twenty repetitions should suffice, considering the fact that the exerciser is injured or of a novice level of training experience.

Russian Twists, a Direct Progression from Wood Choppers

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when an athlete or advanced lifter finds that the standard wood chop exercise is no longer sufficiently challenging their core musculature, they may instead opt to perform the far more difficult russian twist exercise.

the kettlebell russian twist

Unlike the wood chop exercise, this is performed on the ground, but otherwise utilizes much the same equipment (save for cable machines), allowing the exerciser to use the russian twist as a direct progression from the wood chopper exercise so as to continue progressive overload of the obliques and transversus abdominis muscles.

Whether or not to add additional resistance in the form of weight held between the hands or not will depend on what specific training stimulus the wood chop exercise originally served in the training program; with a more strength-focused routine benefiting from the addition of more weight and lower volume, for example.

As such, programming this particular alternative exercise is more a question of the extent to which the exerciser has surpassed the wood chopper in terms of athletic ability, with exercisers that derive little progressive overload from the exercise being better served with far more intense set programming instead.

In Conclusion - Which Wood Chop Alternative Should be Used?

Which particular alternative exercise to replace the wood chop with will depend on the exerciser’s own goals, and as such there is no one singular answer to this question. 

Though the landmine oblique twist is the ideal substitute exercise in terms of identical muscular activation and intensity, exercisers seeking a higher or lower level of intensity or a different form of muscular activation will be better served performing a different alternative instead.

If one is unsure of what their training needs are within the context of their workout program, they may wish to consult an athletic coach who may best assess and subsequently instruct them on such matters.

References

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2. Beimborn DS, Morrissey MC. A review of the literature related to trunk muscle performance. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1988 Jun;13(6):655-60. PMID: 3051439.

3. Huxel Bliven KC, Anderson BE. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports Health. 2013 Nov;5(6):514-22. doi: 10.1177/1941738113481200. PMID: 24427426; PMCID: PMC3806175.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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