13 of the Best Exercises You Can Do With a Cable Machine

13 of the Best Exercises You Can Do With a Cable Machine
Photo: bunyarit klinsukhon, Shutterstock

Curious about those cable machines in your gym? Just as we guided you through some of the best beginner-friendly exercises to do with kettlebells and with TRX style suspension trainers, today we’re taking a look at some of the best exercises you can do with a cable machine.

These are the machines with a handle of some sort that attaches to a pulley with a stack of weights at the other end. Many gym machines are set up this way, but today, we’re looking at the ones that are multi-purpose. You can do anything with these cables, and aren’t locked into one specific exercise. You may have a single cable, or more often, two cables, one for each hand. And you may have the choice of moving the pulley to the top, bottom, or anywhere in the middle of a vertical track. Ready to see what they can do? Let’s dive in!

Single arm row

Cable machines are great for all sorts of rowing and pulling exercises, and one of the best is a single arm row to work your lats and biceps. You’ll need to stabilise your body with your core and legs as you pull your arm back, so take a half-kneeling position. Set up the cable so that your hand comes to the side of your ribcage each time you pull the cable back.

Attachment: handle

Cable position: middle or bottom (roughly even with your hand)

Overhead tricep extension

This one works your triceps (the pushing muscles of your arms) and is a nice alternative to a skullcrusher or French press.

Attachment: rope or straight bar

Cable position: top

Pallof press

In the world of core exercises, the pallof press is a perfect example of an anti-rotational movement. It’s not really a press, because you’re not pushing the cable away from you. Instead, you move your hands in front of you while the cable tries to pull you to the side.

Attachment: handle

Cable position: middle

Cable pull-through

This is a hinge motion, making it a great accessory (or alternative) to movements like deadlifts and hip thrusts. The movement is a lot like a Romanian deadlift; you use your glutes and hamstrings to stand up and pull the cable through your legs as you do so.

Attachment: rope

Cable position: bottom

Woodchoppers

Another great core exercise, woodchoppers allow your obliques to pull down and sideways in a way that dumbbells or medicine balls can’t quite replicate (it’s supposed to be an exaggerated version of the motion of chopping wood with an axe). You can do these with the cable at the top, pulling down — or do a “reverse woodchopper” with the cable at the bottom, so you pull up.

Attachment: handle

Cable position: top (or bottom)

Cable curl

What’s a day in the gym without a bicep curl? For a great superset, get one of the machines that has two cable pulleys next to each other. Set one cable at the top with a rope for overhead tricep extensions, and the other with the EZ bar at the bottom (the wiggly one) for curls. Alternate between them.

Attachment: EZ-curl bar, straight bar, or rope

Cable position: bottom

Crossover or chest press

If your gym has a setups with two cable machines facing each other, crossovers are a great way to take advantage of it. (You just have to wait for them both to be free at the same time. Good luck.) Pull both cable handles toward each other for an exercise that’s a bit like a dumbbell fly. Usually the pulleys are at the top for these movements, but they also work with low or middle placement.

Attachment: handles

Cable position: top

Standing or squatting row

Seated cable rows are one of my personal favourite gym machines, but they work best when they’ve got a dedicated bench and footrest attached. To do a two-handed row on a regular cable machine, you can either stand with your hips set slightly back, or go all the way into a squat.

Attachment: v-handle, rope, or straight bar

Cable position: middle

Face pulls

Many lifters swear by this pulling exercise for keeping their shoulders and elbows healthy, and it’s also a good one if you want to work on your posture. They get their name because — get this — you’re pulling the cable straight toward your face.

Attachment: rope

Cable position: top

Tricep pushdown

We already saw a way of working the triceps with your arms overhead, but you can also do a similar exercise by pushing your arms down (hence the name).

Attachment: rope or straight bar

Cable position: top

Zerchers

Some cable machines come with a long, straight bar with holes at both ends. You can attach this to both cables in a paired cable machine. The first time I saw one I tried to do back squats with it, but the cables pulled on the bar in a way that’s hard to stabilise, and I hated it. More recently I tried zerchers instead, and these I love. Get the bar in the crooks of your elbows, squat down, and stand up.

You can do these with a single cable as well, but unless you’re very small, you may find the full stack isn’t enough weight.

Attachment: double-ended straight bar

Cable position: both cables at the bottom

Straight arm lat pulldown

Most pulling exercises work the biceps in addition to the lats, but here’s one that works the triceps instead. It’s just like a regular lat pulldown (and you can use a lat pulldown machine if you like) but you keep your arms straight.

Attachment: straight bar

Cable position: top

Cable crunch

Sick of doing unweighted crunches by the dozens? Do them with a cable machine and you can add weight for low-rep sets. To set this up, kneel on the ground and hold the cable with your hands against the top of your head. Crunch down, and you’ll find it activates the same muscles as those floor crunches.

Attachment: rope

Cable position: top

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