Every gym has a cable machine so use yours the smarter way to add lean muscle mass and build a bigger, stronger and more athletic physique
Cable machines can be found in any decent gym, but they’re among the least appreciated piece of equipment on the gym floor, often tucked away in a corner and only called into action for a few lazy sets of triceps pressdowns or biceps curls at the tail-end of a workout. But these clever machines are one of the most valuable body-transforming training tools at your disposal if you’re serious about adding lean muscle mass fast – it’s why cable moves play a major part in all our New Body Plan gym-based training programmes.
In this Complete Guide to Cable Machines we’ll reveal everything you need to do so you can quickly and effortlessly incorporate more cable moves into your workout routine so you can start sculpting the bigger, stronger and more defined physique you want. We kick off with the big benefits of the cable machine, then go into more detail about what they are, how to use them, and then some of our favourite – and influential – cable machine exercises to transform your body.
The big benefits of using a cable machine
Here are some of the main reasons why cable machine moves should feature in your gym training plan if you want to build bigger, stronger and more defined muscles
• they place constant tension on your muscles through both the lifting and lowering phase of each rep, unlike dumbbells, barbells and other gym machines, to work your muscles both smarter and harder
• you can change the handle attachment to use multiple grips and hand positions to work the target muscle or muscles is slightly different ways to maximise muscle growth
• you can quickly and easily adjust the weight you’re lifting, making them perfect for drop sets and other muscle-building set-extending strategies
• you can work all the major muscle groups of your body using just this one bit of gym kit
• they allow you to train your muscles, especially those of your upper body and abs, through unique movement patterns, ranges of motion, and planes of direction that’s not possible to replicate with free weights or machines, to force your muscles to grow bigger and stronger
• they are great for beginners to safely learn how to perform key exercises before using dumbbells, barbells and more complex equipment
• they can be used post-injury to slowly and safely strengthen and improve weakened muscles or joints
• they work the small but crucial stabilising muscles of your joints for stronger and more robust joints and connective tissues, unlike fixed-path resistance machines which don’t
• they are great for experienced lifters to truly isolate one specific muscle group to provide the stimulus for greater muscle mass gains
Cable machine FAQs
Here are the answers to the most common training questions we get about cable machines and some of its key exercises
What is a cable machine?
A cable machine, like every other piece of weight-training equipment, has one simple purpose: to help you build bigger and stronger muscles. The big difference between cable machines and the other main weight-training kit in gyms (free weights and resistance machines) is that the weight you lift is positioned in a stack inside the machine, and is attached to a wire that runs through a pulley system.
Using a carabiner you clip different handles and attachments to the other end of the wire to allow a variety of grips and hand positions to work your muscles in different ways and through different movement patterns. To adjust the amount of weight you lift you place a pin into the stack at the required resistance level.
Are there different types of cable machine?
Cable machines come in a few varieties, but the most common type is a machine with two stacks of weight plates, each with its own wire-and-pulley system, that stand side-by-side and are joined together by an overhead connecting bar (which often has chin-up or pull-up handles built in to it). You can use one weight stack by itself (typically to do isolation, or single-joint, exercises such as cable rope triceps press-downs), or you can stand in the middle of the machine and use both weight stacks at the same time (typically for compound, or multi-joint, exercises such as cable crossovers).
Some cable machines have the pulley at the top of the machine; some have the pulley at the bottom of the machine, whilst the best machines have an adjustable pulley that can be moved and fixed at various slots up and down the bar. Some smaller gyms might only have single-stack cable machines, which are cheaper and take up less space, but are still very useful training tools.
How does a cable machine work?
You attach a handle to the wire loop on one or both sides of the machine, stick the pin the weight stack to select your level of resistance, get into position then start lifting! But there’s more to them than simply being just another option to work your muscles because unlike free weights (dumbbells, barbells, EZ-bars, kettlebells, or weight plates) and fixed-path resistance machines (which includes the lat pulldown, leg press, chest press, Smith machine and many others), the cable machine works your muscles in a different way to promote hypertrophy (muscle growth).
What makes cable machines so good for building muscle?
Firstly, using cables places constant tension on your muscles during the lifting and lowering phase of every rep, so there is constant muscular tension for the duration of your entire set, unlike when you use free weights and there’s only tension during the lifting stage of each rep. And in contrast to fixed-path resistance machines, where the movement pattern is completed locked so your smaller stabilising muscles aren’t required to offer support to main movement, they are needed with cable machine moves to provide injury-preventing support and stability.
Second, the cable machine allows you to perform certain moves in a very specific way to work your muscles through ranges of motion you simply can’t replicate with other equipment.
Examples include: working your chest and shoulders through the cable crossover; hitting your shoulders, chest and back in one move, as with the cable-arm straight-arm pulldown; training the middle of your back, rear shoulders, and rotator cuff when doing cable face-pulls; or helping to build bigger and more defined arms through the cable rope triceps pressdown and cable rope biceps curl. Therefore, cable machines moves offer unique advantages – and results – and so should be included in any quality gym-based training programme.
Why should I use a cable machine?
Whether you’re new to the gym, or only just beginning to lift weights, or coming back from an injury, cable machines are a fantastic way to learn (or remaster) the key movement patterns of all the major pushing, pulling and rotational exercises is a safe and controlled way. You can use the machine to build muscular size and strength, a better mind-to-muscle connection for faster progress, and greater confidence on the gym floor to advance to more complicated equipment and exercises.
Cable machines can also be used in other important ways, such as to strengthen your small but crucial stabilising and muscles, and improving muscle flexibility and range of motion, because they can be used in stretching routines, unlike most other weight-lifting equipment.
What are the other advantages of using a cable machine?
There are plenty of pros to incorporating more cable machines into your weight-training programme. One is that they place equal tension on the working muscle or muscles during the entire lifting and lowering phase of each rep in a way that free weights and other machines don’t, which forces your muscles to work harder during every reps to stimulate a greater muscle growth response.
The ability to attach many different types of handle means you can use it for a wide variety of pushing and pulling exercises to work the muscles of your upper body and legs in unique ways, and they’re also very good for direct abs works, specifically rotational movements to work your deep underlying core muscles and obliques.
The weight stack and pin also makes it incredibly easy to quickly adjust how much weight you lift, making cable machine moves fantastic for drop sets and other set-extending strategies to build muscle faster.
Are there any disadvantages of using a cable machine?
Most gyms might only have one cable machine, so you might not always be guaranteed the chance to use it, or at least have to wait for your turn.
A lot of upper-body cable machine exercises involve a significant range of motion of the shoulder joint, which is the most delicate and complex joint in the body, so you should always start with a light weight and prioritise perfect form and moving through a full range of motion to work the muscles effectively and safely.
The best cable machine exercises
Here’s our list of some of the very best cable machine moves for building a broader chest, a stronger back, a wider set of shoulders, bigger and more defined arms, and a rock-hard six pack
The best cable machine chest moves
Read our complete guide to the best cable machine chest exercises!
The best cable machine back moves
Cable straight-arm pulldown
Cable lat pulldown
Cable seated row
Cable reverse flye
Low-cable rear delt flye
Read our complete guide to the best cable machine back exercises!
The best cable machine shoulder moves
Cable lat raise
Cable front raise
Cable external rotation
Cable internal rotation
Read our complete guide to the best cable machine shoulder exercises!
The best cable machine triceps moves
Cable rope pressdown
Cable EZ-bar pressdown
Cable overhead triceps extension
Single-arm cable triceps press down
Read our complete guide to the best cable machine triceps exercises!
The best cable machine biceps moves
Cable EZ-bar bar biceps curl
Cable rope hammer curl
Double-cable biceps curl
High-cable biceps curl
Read our complete guide to the best cable machine biceps exercises!
The best cable machine abs moves
Cable reverse crunch
Cable Russian twist
Low cable woodchop
High cable woodchop
Read our complete guide to the best cable machine abs exercises!