The Best Cable Shoulder Workouts

6 exercises to target your shoulders for size and strength

There are many different ways to train your shoulders, and most people focus on shoulder workouts using free weight such as dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or weight machines.

An often overlooked piece of equipment to work your shoulder muscles is the cable machine.

In this guide, we will discuss how and why you should be performing cable shoulder workouts and provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best cable shoulder exercises for strength and hypertrophy to add to your upper body workout.

A cable press.

What Makes Cable Shoulder Workouts Beneficial And Effective?

While a well-rounded shoulder workout routine can involve shoulder exercises with all types of weights, adding shoulder cable workouts to your strength training program can also be extremely beneficial.

The primary benefit of cable machine shoulder workouts is that the cable machine enables you to move through an extensive range of motion while experiencing constant tension throughout this movement range.

Therefore, cable shoulder workouts can help maximize your time under tension for each exercise and strengthen the shoulder muscles at all angles and positions throughout.1Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine51(10), 2079–2095.

This helps target all of the muscle fibers and portions of the deltoids and supportive shoulder muscles and maximizes your increases in functional strength and muscle growth.

A cable row.

The shoulders are primarily composed of the deltoid muscles.

The delts are a three-headed muscle group with an anterior, middle, and posterior head, often referred to as the anterior, middle, and posterior deltoid, respectively.

The rotator cuff muscles also play an important role in shoulder mobility.

The best cable machine shoulder workouts target all three portions of the deltoids and the rotator cuffs. They will also include cable shoulder exercises that work the muscles that stabilize the scapula, such as the rhomboids, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, and upper traps.

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

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

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

What Are The Best Cable Exercises For A Complete Shoulder Workout?

#1: Cable Shoulder Overhead Press

The shoulder press is the classic shoulder strengthening exercise for the delts, and though it’s usually performed with a barbell, dumbbells, or even a weight machine, you can also do this shoulder exercise with the cable machine

In fact, adding the cable shoulder press can effectively target different muscle fibers in the deltoids because the force is more posterior to your body. This makes this move one of the best middle and rear delts cable shoulder exercises.

Alternatively, you can step further away from the machine, which causes the range of motion to have more of a horizontal component. This, in turn, hits the anterior or front delts more.

Here are the steps for this cable machine shoulder exercise:

  1. Move two pulleys next to each other at the lowest setting and attach a single-grip handle to each. 
  2. Grip a handle in each hand and then turn around facing away from the pulleys, making sure not to cross the cables, bringing the handles up to shoulder height. This is the starting position. There should already be tension on the cables in the starting position.
  3. Hinge slightly forward, but keep your back straight and core tight.
  4. Press the cables all the way up until your arms are fully extended.
  5. Slowly lower back down to shoulder height.2Hedayatpour, N., & Falla, D. (2015). Physiological and Neural Adaptations to Eccentric Exercise: Mechanisms and Considerations for Training. BioMed Research International2015, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/193741

#2: Cable Single-Arm Cable Shoulder Press

If you only have one cable pulley to work with, you can do the single-arm shoulder press in your shoulder training workouts.

Perform the same steps as above, and use a staggered stance if you want more stability.

#3: Kneeling Cable Shoulder Press

This variation on the cable shoulder press is more difficult for the shoulders because the kneeling position makes it impossible to inadvertently “cheat” by adding the movement with your legs (like a push-press).

As such, there is core activation, as you need to work to stabilize your trunk, especially if you opt for the single-arm modification.

Plus, you will face the machine, which will activate more of the anterior deltoids and pecs than the standing cable shoulder press described.

Here are the steps for this cable shoulder exercise:

  1. Move two pulleys next to each other at the lowest setting and attach a single-grip handle to each. 
  2. Kneel down with an upright torso and good posture (tight core, straight back, chest up, and shoulders down) in front of the cable machine.
  3. Grip a handle in each hand with a neutral grip and bring the handles up to shoulder height. This is the starting position.
  4. Press the cables straight up until your arms are fully extended.
  5. Slowly lower back down to shoulder height.

#4: Single Arm Lateral Raises

The best cable shoulder workouts for broad shoulders incorporate numerous exercises that target the middle portion of the deltoid, often called the lateral deltoid, due to the positioning of the attachment on the lateral portion of the humerus or upper arm bone.

By building muscle in the lateral fibers of the deltoid, your shoulders will become broader and appear more massive with this isolation exercise.

There are a number of cable exercises for broader shoulders, but the cable machine lateral raise is one of the best cable machine exercises for this training goal.

Here are the steps:

  1. Move the pulley to the lowest setting and attach the stirrup or D handle at the lowest point.
  2. Stand to the side (90 degrees) from the machine and grip the handle with your outside hand, palm facing down. 
  3. Lift your arm up and out to the side until your arm is at shoulder level. Try to keep your elbow straight but unlocked.
  4. Pause for 3 seconds.
  5. Slowly lower your arm back to your side. 

#5: Cable Upright Rows

Along with the cable lateral raise, one of the best cable shoulder exercises for broader shoulders is the cable machine upright row.

You can even modify the positioning and angle of pull with the upright row to get even better shoulder hypertrophy.

For example, one study3ACE – ProSourceTM: September 2014 – Dynamite Delts: ACE Research Identifies Top Shoulder Exercises. (n.d.). Www.acefitness.org. https://www.acefitness.org/continuing-education/prosource/september-2014/4972/dynamite-delts-ace-research-identifies-top-shoulder-exercises/ found that the incline upright row is the most effective shoulder exercise for activating the lateral deltoids when compared with 11 other shoulder strengthening exercises.

The upright motion may also help strengthen the shoulders and movement pattern for deadlifts.

Here are the steps for this cable shoulder workout exercise:

  1. Move the pulley to the lowest point, then attach the EZ curl bar. If this isn’t available, use the straight bar, but the EZ curl bar may be more ergonomic for your wrists and elbows.
  2. Stand about one foot back from the pulley, feet hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Grip the ends of the straight bar or the inner facing grips on the EZ bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing down. Your arms should be extended down in front of your body.
  4. Pull the bar up towards your chin by bending your elbows and flaring them out to the sides until they are parallel to the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and feel your shoulders and upper back muscles working.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position.

#6: Kneeling Cable High Rows

One of the best cable machine traps exercises is the cable high row, but it also works your rear deltoids. It is similar to a cable face pull, but the rope is pulled to your chest.

Here are the steps:

  1. Clip the rope attachment onto the cable machine and set the pulley near the top of the machine.
  2. Grab the rope with an overhand grip, with your palms facing the floor.
  3. Kneel down a few feet back from the machine facing the cable.
  4. Pull the cable down to the starting position, which should have your arms fully extended up and out in front of your body so that your biceps are near your ears.
  5. Then, squeeze your traps, shoulders, and other upper back muscles to pull your elbows back and down until your hands are just in front of your shoulders. Make sure that you are not leaning your body back to assist in pulling the weight towards your body.
  6. Pause and hold the squeeze for 3 seconds.
  7. Slowly extend your elbows and shoulders back to the starting position.

Check out some of our other exercise guides before your next trip to the gym:

Great Triceps Workouts With Dumbbells To Gain Strength And Size

The Best Lats Exercises For A Robust Back

4 Common Signs Of Weak Glutes + How To Strengthen Them

Reverse fly.


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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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