By Damon Leedale-Brown, Sports Scientist & Conditioning Specialist
In the last article we looked at variations of two classic exercises—the push-up and the pull-up—as effective ways of developing lower back and torso strength, while also providing balanced upper body strength and stability which is crucial to racket sport athletes.
Another great piece of equipment that can be found in most modern gyms, and can be used creatively to help develop lower back stability and torso strength, is a cable machine. Cable machines provide the freedom for many torso training exercises to be done as standing exercises which is an important element of any balanced core strength training program for squash and, indeed, most sports. Consider reaching out at full stretch on the volley yet still having the ability to control the racket head onto the ball—this is made possible by having a strong base provided by the legs and the core. If the legs and core are weak and not able to hold the player in a strong balanced position on the ball, it clearly becomes much tougher for the player to execute the shot with full control and accuracy.
Let’s consider some cable exercises that are helpful in developing these qualities in a squash player:
Cable Chops & Lifts
I frequently use variations of the Chop and Lift in strength training programs I develop for squash players. These exercises were first introduced by nationally recognized physical therapist Gray Cook. Initially these exercises can be taught in kneeling lunge positions (see figures 1-4) which is a good place to start as it takes any leg dominance out of the movement and really helps to highlight where an athlete is relying on leg strength to compensate for a weak torso. In the kneeling position, the focus of the Chop & Lift exercises should be on a strong erect spine, with no movement through the hips and torso which should be braced and stabilized. The movement should come from the arms with minimal shoulder movement. Once you feel competent performing the Chop & Lift in a kneeling position, you can progress to standing variations which could be performed in a squat stance position (see figures 5-8) or a split stance (i.e., lunge position) (see figures 9-12). While standing, the focus should be on bracing and stabilizing the spine, allowing no shifting of the hips, and focusing on the movement coming from the arms and upper back/shoulders.
Whichever position you choose to use, I initially recommend being conservative with the resistance on the cable machine and performing sets of 8-12 reps, and remember to alternate positions so you work the cable left to right, and right to left across the body.
Single Arm Cable Press in Lunge Position
This is another great exercise using the cable machine to help develop strength and stability through the entire torso area. Stand in a lunge position facing away from the machine (see figure 13) and hold the cable in the opposite hand to the leading leg (i.e., Left leg forward? Cable in right hand). From a starting position with the hand close to the chest, press the cable out smoothly ahead of the body while maintaining a perfectly erect, strong and stable spine with the shoulders remaining directly above the hips (see figure 14). There should be no movement of the hips and no rotation of the spine. Again I recommend starting with a low to moderate cable resistance until you are technically proficient with the exercise, and perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps each side.
Lateral Cable Hold/Bracing
This is a really simple exercise that provides a great twisting or rotational challenge to the core. Stand a yard or so away from the cable machine with the cable held in both hands at around the height of your navel (tummy button!). There should already be tension on the cable (figure 15). As you move your hands further away from your body it will increase the level of twisting torque or force that the torso has to control (see figure 16). Focus on bracing the abdominals and allowing no twisting movement towards the machine as you extend the hands further from the body. Typically I have the athletes I work with take their hands away from their body until they reach a position where the level of torque is becoming challenging—they would then hold this position for 2-3 seconds before bringing the hands back in towards the navel. This could be repeated for 6-8 reps on each side, and a total of 2-3 sets.
These cable exercises will provide a great addition to any core and back health training program for a squash player. Start chopping, lifting, pressing and bracing!