Cable Machine Workouts: The 10 Best Cable Exercises For Effective Gains    

The cable machine is an often-underutilized piece of strength training equipment in the gym. 

It can be intimidating for beginners who are not sure how to properly use the cable machine or what types of cable machine exercises to do.

However, once you become familiar with how to use the cable machine, you will likely find that your cable machine workouts are among the most effective in your strength training program.

So, what are the best cable exercises to perform in your workouts? How do you structure cable machine workouts for strength and mass?

In this article, we will discuss how to program cable machine workouts and provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best cable machine exercises for mass and strength:

Let’s dive in! 

A face pull exercise for cable machine workout.

How to Do Cable Machine Workouts For Mass and Strength

Most cable machines, also called functional trainers, are selectorized machines, which means that there is a weight stack with weight bricks that are lifted based on where you place the pin.

Various handles and attachments can be used to change the grip and the types of cable exercises you can perform. This makes the cable machine an extremely versatile piece of strength training equipment.

With cable workouts to increase strength, work up to performing 2-6 sets of each exercise, 3-5 reps per set, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. 

The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should aim for with your weights.

If your goal is hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

The Ultimate Cable Machine Workout For Strength and Mass

Here are some of the best cable machine exercises:

#1: Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are a staple exercise in most of the best full-body cable workouts. 

This cable machine exercise is one of the best exercises for strengthening the lats, and if you are unable to do pull-ups, you can add this move to your cable workouts to help build the necessary strength to master pull-ups.

You can play around with different hand spacing to target different sections of your lats

For example, 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 along with your lats.

Here are the steps to perform this cable machine exercise:

  1. Sit upright at the lat pulldown machine with your thighs anchored under the pads with your feet on the floor.
  2. Reach up and grip the bar with your palms facing away from your body.
  3. Lean back slightly as you tighten your core while you pull the bar down towards your collarbones. Make sure to squeeze 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. 
  5. Do not let the weights totally touch down so that you maintain tension in your muscles throughout the duration of the movement.

#2: EZ Bar Cable Machine Bicep Curls

You can use any attachment handle that you prefer, but most people find the EZ-curl bar attachment to be the most comfortable for cable machine biceps curls.

The EZ-bar cable curls offer a good modification of standard cable curls because turning your wrists inward using the grip pattern on the EZ-bar targets different muscle fibers in your biceps to maximize your gains.

Moreover, the EZ bar is more ergonomic for your wrists and elbows.

Here are the steps to perform this exercise in your cable machine workouts:

  1. Set the cable pulley at the lowest setting and attach the EZ bar or your favorite cable curl attachment. 
  2. Face the cable machine with good posture, standing about one to two feet back from the anchor point.
  3. Grip the EZ bar using the inner angled grips so that your hands are turned inward, partially facing one another, and are positioned slightly closer than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Slowly curl the bar up all the way and then back down, making sure to use control so that gravity is not doing the work on the eccentric (lowering) portion with the weight stack.
  5. Lower the weight all the way back down to the straightened position to maximize the full range of motion and not “cheat “ by only going 95% of the way down before beginning your next rep.

#3: Seated Cable Rows

This is one of the best cable back exercises for hypertrophy because the constant time under tension and the path of motion afforded by the cables allows you to load your lats, traps, deltoids, and rhomboids with a lot of weight to maximize your gains.

Here are the steps to perform this cable machine exercise:

  1. Sit at the cable row station with your feet on the footplates and your hands gripping the cable row attachment with a neutral grip (palms facing one another).
  2. Press your torso into the machine. 
  3. Bend your elbows and squeeze your lats to pull the cable row attachment towards your waist.
  4. Hold the end range of motion for 2 to 3 seconds.
  5. Slowly extend your arms to return the weight stack to the starting position. 

#4: Straight-Arm Pulldowns

The straight-arm pulldown cable exercise is an effective way to strengthen your lats, especially at the end range of motion.

You will also work your shoulders and triceps.

Here are the steps to perform this cable workout exercise:

  1. Set the pulley at the highest setting and clip in the rope attachment or straight bar attachment.
  2. Stand facing the cable attachment about three to four feet back.
  3. Grip the attachment with straight arms overhead.
  4. Tighten your core as you hinge at your hips and lean your torso to a 45° angle. There should be tension on the cable so that the weight stack is lifted for the entire duration of your set.
  5. Keeping your arms straight (elbows can be unlocked but still extended), pull the rope straight down towards the top of your thighs.
  6. Slowly return to the starting position, beginning the next rep before the weight stack can completely touch down.

#5: Cable Shrugs

Doing shrugs in your cable machine workouts is a great way to optimize the workload on the traps because the cable pulley path of motion matches the muscle fiber alignment in the traps.

This also helps reduce stress on the shoulders.

Here are the steps:

  1. Attach the single handles to set the pulleys to the lowest settings.
  2. Stand in the middle of the cable machine holding a handle in each hand.
  3. Keep your core tight and drive your shoulders up and inward towards your ears.
  4. Hold the top position, pulling your shoulders back as they are lifted.
  5. Slowly lower back down.

#6: Face Pulls

Your cable machine workouts can include this exercise for your posterior deltoids and traps in your upper back. 

This cable exercise is great for training to do deadlifts and overhead presses.

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

  1. Set the pulley to a height that is just above your face with the rope attachment clipped in.
  2. Grip one side of the rope in each hand and step back until there is tension in the cable and the weight stack lifts.
  3. Retract your shoulder blades and pull your shoulders down away from your ears as you pull the cable towards your face.
  4. Bring the ends of the rope in as close to your face as possible so that they 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 always be tension on the cable, so make sure you are standing far enough away from the anchor point.

#7: Cable Chops

The cable chop targets your obliques and is a great functional core exercise to add to full-body cable workouts.

Here are the steps:

  1. Attach the single handle and set the pulley at chest height.
  2. Stand with the cable attachment to the right so you are facing 90 degrees from the anchor. 
  3. Stand with good posture, knees slightly bent, chest up, shoulders back, and feet shoulder-width apart.
  4. Hold the handle in both hands with your arms fully extended.
  5. Take a few steps backward so that the cable is being pulled straight out in front of the machine when your arms are extended straight in front of your body. Also, take a few steps away from the anchor point so that when your arms are extended towards the handle in the starting position, there is already tension on the cable.
  6. Twist your torso towards the cable.
  7. Begin to chop by pulling the cable straight across towards the opposite wall, twisting your torso through the full range of motion.
  8. When you have twisted all the way to the outside, away from the weight stack, pause and hold the contraction for 3 to 5 seconds.
  9. Actively resist the weight stack pulling you back as you slowly return all the way back before beginning the next rep.
  10. Complete all of your reps and then face the other way.

#8: Triceps Pushdowns

The pushdown is a classic cable machine exercise to isolate the triceps.

Here is how to perform this exercise in your cable machine workouts:

  1. Face the cable pulley machine with the rope attachment clipped in and the pulley set at one of the highest positions. 
  2. Keep your feet together and squeeze your elbows in at your sides.
  3. Hinge forward with your torso at your hips while keeping your chest up and back straight.
  4. Pull down on the cable to fully extend your elbows, keeping your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders but glued to the sides of your ribs.
  5. Pause and then bend your elbows upward towards your face before beginning the next rep.

#9: Cable Iron Crosses

The large range of motion of this cable exercise gives you more time under tension to increase your gains in upper body strength.

Here are the steps:

  1. Set the pulleys to the highest hole and stand in the center of the cable machine gripping a handle in each hand with a staggered stance.
  2. Lean your torso forward about 20 degrees, keeping your back straight and chest up.
  3. Pull both handles from high to low down and across your body by squeezing your pecs, trying to keep your elbows nearly straight but unlocked.
  4. Hold the squeeze at the end position where your arms are crossed over one another in front of your body for 2 to 3 seconds.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position with your arms out to your sides.

#10: Cable Leg Extensions

Full-body cable machine workouts should include some lower-body exercises, and this is a great move for the posterior chain muscles, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and back extensors.

Here are the steps for this cable exercise:

  1. Attach the ankle cuff to a cable machine and drop the pulley to the lowest setting. 
  2. Face the post of the machine and hold on lightly for balance.
  3. Allow a slight bend in your stabilizing knee while lifting your leg with the ankle cuff.
  4. Extend the leg directly behind your body, reaching back as far as you can. Keep the leg straight.
  5. Squeeze your glutes in the end position for 3 seconds before returning back to the starting position.
  6. Complete all of your reps and then switch sides.

For more equipment-specific workout ideas, check out our guide to a complete Swiss bar workout here.

A lat pulldown.
Photo of author
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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