One Weird Trick – Installment 13: Adjusting Grip Intensity on Cable Exercises

Grip work is something that is talked about quite a lot no matter what circle of athletes you surround yourself with – basketball players need it for ball handling, baseball players for everything they do on the field from swinging to throwing, football players for constantly using their hands, and hockey/field hockey/lacrosse players for the obvious reason that they use their hands to hold onto their sticks to play their respective games.

So whenever an athlete comes into the gym, it is often understood right away that our modus operandi (M.O.) is to grip the crap out of whatever we are using in order to develop more musculature, and to not drop the weight in deadlifts, farmer walks, DB lunges, etc – and the list goes on.

In fact, grip work is so important that one of our past interns at Cressey Sports Performance inspired several of the staff through his grip work and forearm routine after every lift, that we bought extra equipment in order to identify the best methods possible for improving our grip. It was a lot of fun for a few months.

However, when it comes time to do some accessory work and use the cable machines, what should the approach be? Is there an optimal amount of tension necessary when working with cable machines with all the various attachments and handles?

One thing I find with any client is that they are often unsure of the technique to use with any cable machine – sometimes they grip way too tight, and not enough motion occurs, or they don’t grip at all, and they leave weight that they could have rowed, chopped, and lifted on the machine because they lacked the intensity to get the point across.

Enter the Goldilocks Principle…

When Dealing With Cable Machines:

  1. It’s gripped too hard – so compensatory motions will occur, or simply the arms take over for a job the core should be tasked for
  2. It’s gripped too light – so there is not enough tension in the body to get the job done.
  3. It’s just right – just enough tension, but not so much the purpose of the exercise is all in the arms, and not so light that it can’t be completed.

With this in mind, I’ve made a video describing these items in a little more detail.


The cool thing about this “trick” is that it can be applied to any cable exercise in a multitude of positions:

  • Standing / Half Kneeling / Tall Kneeling Cable Lifts
  • Standing / Half Kneeling / Tall Kneeling Cable Chops
  • Standing / Half Kneeling / Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Presses
  • Standing / Half Kneeling / Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Chops

The long story short of why this happens involves understanding the concept of compensatory movement of the distal appendages sans proximal activation…

Or, you are too tense through your hands and feet, instead of your hips and/or abdominals.

Essentially, if your body is being tasked with the movement of performing a chopping or lifting motion (also D1 and D2 flexion/extension patterns) then your torso will need to stay “still” while your arms and appendages that are further away from the middle of your body will need to move about the axis of rotation.

Half Kneeling MB Scoop Toss – a great display of D2 extension into D1 flexion.

Now, take what happens if you were to do a half kneeling med ball scoop toss, for example.

  • What happens if your arms are so stiff, but your torso is so gumby and unable to apply the correct timing and sequencing of the desired movement?
    • Well some movement may occur – it might not be the correct one your coach (or yourself) desires.
  • On the other hand, what occurs if you have super relaxed and whippy arms, and a stiff torso that doesn’t rotate?
    • I’ll let you know that the bolded and italicized words are a hint that this is also not desirable from a movement perspective.

You need both stiff and relaxed qualities – in fact you just need to own the timing mechanisms of how certain athletic movements occur, which is not as easy as it sounds!

This “one weird trick” of squeezing the rope or handle on a cable machine will allow you to regulate and understand what is too much tension or what is not enough tension for the desired movement. For the purposes of owning that a cable chop or a cable lift in the gym, this will create a better feedback loop for you to recognize what it feels like to “feel your abdominals” without having someone tell you to “engage your core.”

Now if you are moving with a bit more speed and athleticism, then as always, the answer to the question of what is right (for this movement) is … it depends!

Side Note: I love using this cue of “squeezing” the handle, and then relaxing, as a way to “subconsciously” get someone to use their abdominals.

As always,

Keep it funky.

One Weird Trick: Installment 1 – Half Kneeling

You ever see those ads online, talking about trying one weird trick to lose weight, or to gain muscle, or to attain anything instantaneously? I hate those ads, as most things worth sacrificing for involve zero tricks and lots of foundational work.

However, I’ve come to the realization that many of the things that I’ve come across in the fitness, strength and conditioning industry, and rehabilitation world are often thought of as “one trick that changed it all” for a few often commonplace items that begin with foundational knowledge. 

This series won’t have some scam – in fact it will legitimately give you a weird trick that will actually work, as there are tons of them that I have accumulated over the years of training pro athletes, weekend warriors, and everyday folk who wants to lose weight.

Legit Tricks of the Trade

One position I utilize quite a bit with many of our athletes and clients involve a half kneeling position.

Half Kneeling Med Ball Scoop Toss

Well, fact of the matter is that sometimes people don’t set up correctly. When they don’t set up correctly, an incorrect movement strategy may be setting up with knee valgus on the front leg (or knee caving in towards the midline), or the back leg pushing the lower back into lumbar hyperextension.

This problem is easily resolved – provide better cuing in whatever capacity to achieve a 90/90 position, with the top leg’s knee being directly over the ankle, and the knee from caving in.

Half Kneeling Exercises

The back side will have a dorsiflexed ankle (or sometimes, plantar flexed in order to avoid certain issues at the ankle joint), and the down knee will be directly underneath the hips in order to facilitate a better position overall.

However, this isn’t where the “one weird trick” comes into play. What happens if you achieve that coaching strategy flawlessly – everything looks good, but then when you ask them to row, press, chop, or lift from a half kneeling position, they lose position right away!

By applying a mini-band on the front leg’s ankle, and the back leg’s knee, you can achieve a co-contraction of sorts, that reinforces stability for someone who cannot control their single leg pattern.

In fact, this can be introduced into many other half kneeling exercise variations:

Now, utilizing the mini-band to stabilize is not something that you need to do for weeks on end. Instead, aim to recreate a feeling, and improve spatial awareness. After you’ve solidified this feeling, remove the band and request your athletes and clients to own that position as you continue through your half kneeling exercises by feeling those same muscle groups as a reference center.

Happy lifting!

As always,

Keep it funky.


My Favorite Exercise Combinations: Installment 7

Many trainers and coaches follow the thought process that unilateral work is a quality that is necessary for functional transfer. This idea holds true, whether you are simply looking to start running to lose weight, or whether you are aiming to sprint for performance (both exercises that necessitate having one leg in contact with the ground for a given distance).

However, one aspect that I find difficult to follow through with is the concept of giving an athlete or client an exercise that he or she may not be ready for on a coordination level.

With this in mind, my progression for single leg hip hinge exercises in a given exercise program may start like this:

Single Leg Hip Hinge Progression

  1. Single Leg Glute Bridge
  2. Elevated Single Leg Hip Thrust
  3. Bowler Squat / Bodyweight Single Leg Deadlift
  4. DB Single Leg Stiff Legged Deadlift
  5. Barbell Single Leg Stiff Legged Deadlift

This is not an all encompassing progression, as plyometrics such as bounds, lateral bounds, and hops (or one leg jumps) aren’t included.

There seems to be a difficult transition for those individuals who can perform single leg movements in a supine (or on your back) position, versus a standing position. For athletes, my goal is to get these individuals standing with load as quickly as possible.

Barring SHELCs (Supine Hip Extension Leg Curls), or Slideboard Leg Curls, I’m finding it more and more difficult to give supine single leg exercises to athletes that are more than capable of starting from the 3rd exercise on this progression list.

Never say never, however. If an athlete simply cannot perform a standing single leg hip hinge variation, the first question I will ask involves what is limiting your ability to do so?

  1. Soft Tissue Problem
  2. Joint Problems (Retroversion of the Hips and/or Femurs, for example)
  3. Motoric Control

If we follow a 4×4 Matrix from the SFMA, along with understanding that as a strength coach, many of my “solutions” can be derived from improving the control a given athlete has over their movements, the thought process will follow as such:

  1. Supine Hip Hinge
  2. Quadruped Hip Hinge
  3. Half Kneeling Hip Hinge
  4. Standing Hip Hinge

SFMA 4x4 Matrix

To give these variations a name…

  1. Single Leg Glute Bridge (or Band Resisted Single Leg Glute Bridge)
  2. Quadruped Posterior Rocking (or Quadruped Posterior Rocking with Stability Ball)
  3. Turkish Get Up
  4. DB Single Leg Stiff Legged Deadlift

If getting to the 4th variation is a goal, the first three steps should ideally be completed as quickly as possible.

Today’s exercise combination goes over all three of these components fairly quickly.

Band Resisted Elevated Single Leg Hip Thrust

In the first exercise, we are loading a supine hip hinge variation that aims to add resistance. In essence, the hip thrust is a very far origin from many sport specific movements. However, in this case I am promoting its use to dial into a movement pattern that will be integrated into a larger, more transferable pattern.

Also, a hidden benefit here is you get a self-mobilization of sorts from the band distracting the hip muscles/joint helping to relax tight hip musculature, which can be a limiting factor in many single leg patterns.


Half Kneeling Band Pallof Alphabet

In the second exercise, the half kneeling pallof press variation works on multiple items – breathing, external cuing (write the alphabet!), along with stretching a hip flexor. Interestingly, your obliques on either side are being tested because the handle will want to pull you back towards the machine, so it is mainly up to the abdominals in order to keep appropriate position!

Turkish Get Up

In the third exercise, the half kneeling hip hinge occurs after sweeping the leg, and before the transition into standing.

Half Kneeling Hip Hinge
Sitting into the hip in a unilateral fashion.

To demonstrate the application of these exercises with a given set and rep scheme:

A1. Band Resisted Elevated Single Leg Hip Thrust – 3 sets of 8 reps per side
A2. Half Kneeling Band Pallof Press – 3 sets of (4x5sec) per side
A3. Bodyweight Turkish Get Up – 3 sets of 2 per side

You get the whole kit and caboodle with this combination – motoric control of the ankle while in dorsiflexion, resisted hip flexion/extension, upper body stabilization (if you lose position in the neck or shoulder girdle, you will lose centration down the line). Finally, you can integrate all of the above with the Turkish Get Up – doubly so if you load it with a kettlebell.

I will ideally groove these patterns in a very quick manner – sometimes this whole combination may only need to be performed once in order to retain what these feelings that the exercises gives. On the other hand, a longer 2 to 3 week exercise program involving this (and other variations) may be necessary in order to reinforce appropriate single leg patterning.

As always,

Keep it funky.