The Best Cable Back Workouts: 7 Cable Machine Back Exercises To Target Back Strength

Exploring the benefits of the cable machine for hypertrophy and providing a detailed guide on effective exercises.

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Although there are a variety of different ways to train your back, including free weights such as barbells and dumbbells, you can also get great cable back workouts with access to a cable machine.

But what exercises can you include in back workouts with cables? How do you structure cable machine back workouts? What are the best cable back exercises for mass and strength?

In this article, we will explain how to structure your cable back workouts and provide step-by-step instructions for the following best cable back exercises that you can incorporate into a cable back workout for improving back strength and size:

Let’s dive in! 

Cable shrugs.

How to Do a Back Workout With Cables

In terms of how to structure the best back workout with a cable machine for increasing mass and strength, the number of reps and sets you should do per exercise will depend on your fitness level, the number of workouts you are doing per week, and your primary strength training goals.

For strength gains, build up to 4 to 6 sets of 1 to 6 reps per exercise with a weight that is at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM). The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should strive for.

If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 10 reps or 12 reps.

Are cable machine back exercises good for building muscle? Unlike classical compound exercises like deadlifts or bent-over-rows, cable exercises allow lifters to target specific muscles with different cable attachments and isolation exercises.

The Best Exercises For A Complete Cable Back Workouts

#1: Lat Pulldowns

What are the best cable exercises for targeting the latissimus dorsi? Look no further.

Lat cable pulldowns are a staple exercise in any good back cable workout. They primarily target the latissimus dorsi and are great for building muscle.

The ability to perform the cable machine lat pulldown is often the reason that home gym users purchased a cable pulley attachment for their squat rack or consider a multi-purpose functional trainer or wall-mounted cable machine.

The lat pulldown is one of the best exercises for strengthening and activating the lats1Sperandei, S., Barros, M. A. P., Silveira-Júnior, P. C. S., & Oliveira, C. G. (2009). Electromyographic Analysis of Three Different Types of Lat Pull-Down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research23(7), 2033–2038. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b8d30a, and if you are unable to do pull-ups, it is a fantastic cable back exercise to incorporate into your cable back workouts to develop the necessary strength to master the bodyweight pull-up.

You should also play around with different hand spacing to target different sections of your lats2Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of Grip Width on Muscle Strength and Activation in the Lat Pull-Down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research28(4), 1135–1142. https://doi.org/10.1097/jsc.0000000000000232

A wide-grip lat pulldown will help target the lateral portions of your lats, whereas a narrow-grip lat pulldown will involve more of your biceps and shoulders alongside your lats.

A lat pulldown.

Here are the steps to perform this back exercise with cables:

  1. Sit down with a good, upright posture at the lat pulldown station with your thighs secured under the pads and feet on the floor.
  2. Reach up and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart (or use a different hand placement as described above) and your palms facing away from your body.
  3. Keep your core tight as you pull the bar down towards your collarbones, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end range of motion. 
  4. Slowly return the weight to the starting position, resisting the momentum of the weight stack so that you maintain tension in your muscles throughout the duration of the movement.

#2: Seated Cable Rows

This is an excellent exercise to add to cable machine back workouts for hypertrophy3Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise51(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001764.

The constant time under tension afforded by the cables and the path of motion of your arms allow you to load up the cables with a lot of weight to help maximize your mass and strength gains.

Here are the steps to perform this cable machine back exercise:

  1. Sit at the cable row machine with your feet on the platforms and your palms gripping the cable row attachment with a neutral grip (palms facing one another).
  2. Hinge ever so slightly forward at your torso so that you are leaning a bit into the machine while keeping your core tight and your back completely straight.
  3. Pull the cable row attachment towards your waist by bending your elbows and squeezing your lats. Your shoulder joint can roll forward somewhat during the motion. 
  4. When you get to the end range where your hands are at the sides of your body, slowly resist the weight stack to return to the starting position.

You can also try a single-arm cable row

#3: Seated Upper Back Cable Rows

It is equally important to target your upper back muscles, such as your trapezius and rhomboid, in your back cable workouts.

This variation on the cable back row helps with the activation of the traps, rhomboids, rear delts, and teres major in the rotator cuff muscle groups.

Here are the steps to perform this back exercise with cables:

  1. Follow the same steps for the standard cable machine row exercise but use an overhand grip so that your palms are facing the floor, and instead of pulling the attachment towards your waist level, pull upwards towards your nipple line at your chest or even as high as your collarbones.
  2. The higher angle of pull will activate your upper body and back muscles.

You can also perform this exercise with a close grip if you prefer.

#4: Cable Rope Pullovers

This is a great cable machine back exercise to isolate your lats.

The constant time under tension using cables helps maximize the effectiveness of this lat exercises versus performing the exercise with a dumbbell or kettlebell.

Here is how to perform this back exercise with a cable machine:

  1. Secure the rope or strap attachment onto a single cable at a high point of attachment.
  2. Stand facing a cable pulley gripping the ends of the rope attachment in each hand.
  3. Hinge at your hips to lean your torso slightly forward.
  4. Keep your back straight by engaging your core and glutes.
  5. Pull your arms down towards the top of your hip bones. Your inner arms should be pointing upwards somewhat, which requires some amount of external rotation of your shoulders.
  6. Slowly return the cable to the top position.

#5: Straight-Arm Pulldowns

This is another great cable machine back exercise to target your lats.

The body positioning during this exercise increases the range of motion, which maximizes your time under tension and helps strengthen the lats at the end ranges.

Here are the steps to perform this cable machine back exercise:

  1. Set the pulley at the highest setting and secure the rope or straight bar attachment.
  2. Step back away from the machine several feet. You need to be far enough away so that there is enough room to hinge at your hips, lean your torso at a 45° angle relative to the floor, and straighten your arms up without having any slack in the cable. You want there to be tension on the cable so that the weight stack is lifted for the entire duration of your set.
  3. Unlock your elbows, but keep your arms nearly straight as you pull the rope straight down towards the top of your thighs.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position, beginning the next rep before the weight stack can completely touch down.

#6: Cable Shrugs

Including the cable shrug into your cable back workout is one of the best ways to target your traps.

Although shrugs are typically performed with barbells or dumbbells, doing this back exercise with cables actually optimizes the workload on the traps because the cable pulley path of motion matches the muscle fiber alignment in the traps.

This also reduces stress on the shoulders4Signorile, J. F., Rendos, N. K., Heredia Vargas, H. H., Alipio, T. C., Regis, R. C., Eltoukhy, M. M., Nargund, R. S., & Romero, M. A. (2017). Differences in Muscle Activation and Kinematics Between Cable-Based and Selectorized Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research31(2), 313–322. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001493

Here are the steps to perform this cable machine back exercise:

  1. Stand in the middle of the cable machine with both pulleys on each side set at the lowest setting. Use the handle attachments.
  2. Keep your core tight and drive your shoulders up and inward towards your ears and a bit towards the back.
  3. Slowly lower back down.

If you only have one cable, use the rope or straight bar or rope attachment. 

#7: Face Pulls

This is a great cable back exercise for your posterior deltoids and traps in the upper back. 

For this reason, it is a great exercise to include in back workouts with cables when training for deadlifts and overhead presses.

Here are the steps for how to perform this back exercise with cables:

  1. Anchor the cable pulley to a height that is just above your face.
  2. Step back, holding one handle of the rope attachment in each hand until there is tension in the cable and the weight stack lifts.
  3. Retract your shoulder blades, squeezing them together and pulling your shoulders down away from your ears.
  4. Pull the cable towards your face, bringing the handles in as close to your face as possible so that the handles pass just by the side of your face as if grazing your temples.
  5. Hold the contraction, squeezing your shoulder blades together for at least 2 to 3 seconds.
  6. As slowly as possible, return the cable to the starting position. There should be tension on the cable at all times, so make sure you are standing far enough away from the anchor point.

The benefits of cable exercises are vast. They can be an essential part of a back workout routine. Throughout the exercises, try to ensure you maintain constant tension and proper form, going through the full range of motion.

That said, cable exercises are unlikely to target your lower body as deadlifts would and will instead predominantly target the mid back, lats, and erector spinae muscles.

If you are looking to correct muscle imbalances or gain muscle mass, consider working with a personal trainer. They can show you the correct cable-pulling exercises to help you with your goals.

Check out our muscle-building guide here:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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