If you’ve ever been to a gym, you may already be familiar with the cable machine, whether you’ve used it yourself or watched everyone else line up to use it. This staple all-in-one gym equipment works great for numerous exercises because you can use it from a variety of angles and directions, allowing you to hit every muscle group either through isolated movements or compound movements. It also allows you to set your ideal weight so you can practice progressive overload.
The reason this versatile gym machine is so popular amongst lifters is because of the way it works… It does everything dumbbells can do, with the exception that they are more fluid and smooth. You’re not directly pushing or pulling against the force of gravity, you’re fighting against the resistance from the cables. This helps put less stress on your joints while really engaging the targeted muscles and giving you more stability and control throughout the whole range of movement of each exercise. Plus, the constant tension of the cables allows you to focus more on your form and posture. And the biggest benefit? Your muscles are in constant tension at all times, helping you greatly develop your strength and resistance over time.
So, if you’re ready to try this flexible machine or if you already use it but want some guidance on what to do on your next gym visit, here are a few of the best cable machine exercises that you can do at the gym to build bigger and stronger muscles!
Standing cable chest press
The standing cable chest press can be performed as a variation of the traditional bench press. The use of the cable machine offers stability throughout the whole range of movement, allowing you to work out your pecs, shoulders, triceps, and abs more comfortably.
How to do it: Set the pulley to chest-height level and attach two handles to it. Face away from the machine, grabbing both handles with each hand, and assume a split stance for stability, making sure to switch the position of your legs when you reach the middle of the exercise. Your arms should be to your sides and parallel to the floor, with your forearms pointing forward while grabbing the handles. Begin by extending your arms in front of you, pulling the handles forward until your arms are completely extended and you can feel the tension of the cables. Keeping your core tight, hold the position for a moment, then go back to the starting position and repeat. You can also try this exercise one arm at a time to increase core engagement.
Biceps cable curl
The biceps curl with a cable machine is an amazing isolated exercise to strengthen and give shape to your upper arms, particularly working your biceps muscles. When you perform this exercise, you also secondarily work out your shoulders, along with upper back muscles such as the deltoids and the traps.
How to do it: First, place the cable pulley at the lowest setting and attach a handle to the cable. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart while facing the machine and grab the cable handle with both hands with an underhand grip. Make sure that your elbows are close to your sides. Begin by curling the handle up, bending your elbows until the handle is close to your chest. Hold for a second, then release and repeat. Make sure not to drop the weights when going back to the starting position because you could injure yourself.
This movement is a variation of the stiff-legged deadlift (also known as Romanian deadlifts), but with the added stability of the cable machine. It’s a great exercise for strengthening your posterior chain without having to worry about the stress that deadlifts put on your lower back during the whole range of motion.
How to do it: Attach a rope handle to a low pulley and stand a few feet away, facing away from it. With your feet shoulder-width apart, grab the handle with both hands, making sure that the rope goes through your legs. Hinge forward at the hips at a 45-degree angle and bend your knees slightly for stability. Begin by driving your hips forward to stand straight up again, pulling the cable with your hands. Remember to keep your core tight and your back straight. Pause for a moment, then go back to the starting position and repeat.
As the name suggests, this exercise mainly works your triceps, hitting all three heads: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head, for a complete triceps workout. Because of this, make sure that you’re engaging your triceps fully instead of leaving all the work to your back!
How to do it: First, attach a straight bar to a high pulley. Grab the bar with both hands with an overhand grip at shoulder-width distance. Stand in front of the pulley with a slight inclination forward, keeping the torso straight and your arms close to your sides. Your forearms should be almost parallel to the floor while holding the bar in front of your chest. Start the movement by lowering down the bar using your triceps until your arms are fully extended perpendicular to the floor and your hands are almost touching your thighs. Hold this position and then slowly bring the bar up to the start position and repeat. Make sure to keep your upper arms stationary through the whole range of motion.
Single-arm cable row
The single-arm cable row is a great back exercise. It primarily works your middle and upper back muscles, with secondary support from your shoulders and triceps throughout the movement. You can also try this exercise with both arms at the same time, but one at a time is usually recommended for stability and coordination.
How to do it: First, set the cable pulley at a lower-chest level and attach a D-handle to it. Stand in front of the machine, facing it, and grab the handle with one hand. Take a few steps back until the cable is horizontal and parallel to the floor and assume a half-squat position by slightly bending your knees. Begin with your arm extended in front of you by rowing the cable back using only your arm, without moving your torso or hips. At the end of the movement, your elbow should be to your side, not far back, with your arm in line with your body and your forearm perpendicular to it. Pause for a second, then go back to the starting position and perform the rest of your reps before switching arms.
Cable lateral raise
Lateral raises on a cable machine work your deltoid muscles, mainly the anterior deltoid, along with your trap muscles. Just like the single-arm cable row, you can perform this exercise with both arms at the same time, but one arm at a time is preferred for stability and to stimulate gains.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart next to a cable machine with the pulley in the lowest setting. Slightly bend your knees for stability, and keep your core engaged. Reach across your body and grab the cable with your outside arm, making sure that it’s in line with your body. You can hold onto the machine with your free hand for additional stability. Begin by raising your arm outward to your side until it’s slightly past shoulder level, pulling the cable in the process. Make sure you don’t rotate your arm throughout the movement. Hold this position for a second, then go back to the start position and repeat.
Straight arm pulldowns
This exercise is a variation of the classic lat pulldown, with the difference that you perform the movement while standing up. Just like the lat pulldown, you mainly train your lat muscles with this movement, strengthening them with support from your middle back muscles and your biceps.
How to do it: First, attach a bar handle to a high pulley and stand straight facing the cable machine. With your feet shoulder-width apart, extend your arms upward to grab the handle. Hinge forward at the hips and slightly bend your knees for stability. Begin by lowering the bar toward your body until it’s almost touching your thighs, engaging your core, and keeping your arms straight throughout the whole range of movement without locking your elbows. Make sure to not arch your back and keep your shoulder blades back together and down. Pause for a moment, go back up, and repeat the movement.
This is a great exercise for growing stronger glutes! As the name indicates, the glute kickback primarily works your glutes as a whole, hitting the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. Other muscle groups that also participate in this movement are your hamstrings as well as your calves and quads for stability, and your abs for support.
How to do it: Start by setting the pulley to the lowest setting and hooking an ankle attachment to the pulley. Stand in front of the machine, facing it, and wrap the rope attachment around your ankle. Hold onto the machine with both hands for support and bend your right knee slightly for stability. Begin by raising your left foot off the floor, extending your left leg behind you as far as you can without struggling or compromising your form. Make sure you’re not arching your back throughout the movement. Hold the position for a second, then go back to the starting position and repeat.
And there you have it! As you now know, cable machines are extremely versatile and flexible, so these aren’t the only exercises that you can do, but they’re a good start for a great full-body workout. That said, always make sure to choose an appropriate weight for your fitness level! You should be able to complete your set without struggling, feeling the burn on the last rep. This will prevent any injuries and you’ll be able to make progress consistently. We hope you find this helpful so that you can crush your workout on your next gym visit!