The cable machine is one of the most popular pieces of equipment in the gym. There always seems to be a wait for it, and you’re just as likely to see a meathead pumping out reps as you are a soccer mom.
The versatility of the cable machine is one reason why it’s so popular. The flexibility and freedom it allows means you can use it for an almost endless array of exercises. Charts and diagrams adorn the wall of nearly every gym, showcasing the countless exercises you can perform with the cable machine.
However, just because you can do an exercise with a cable machine doesn’t mean you should. The most effective and efficient cable exercises are those that can be done only on a cable machine. The worst cable exercises are ones that have unnecessarily shoehorned the use of a cable into a movement where it doesn’t make sense. To help you know how to best use the cable machine in your gym, here are the best and worst cable-based exercises.
Best Cable Machine Exercises
1. Standing Cable Chest Press
You can use the Standing Cable Chest Press to supplement the traditional Bench Press. The Standing Cable Chest Press might even translate better to your sport, since you’re far more likely to be pushing from a standing stance than a prone position during games. Pushing from a standing position also more heavily recruits your core muscles.
How to: Adjust the cable level to shoulder height and hold the handles in front of you. Set your feet in a staggered stance, and switch the stance halfway through each set. Extend your arms until they’re straight. Bend your elbows and pull the handles back to your chest. Keep your core tight throughout the exercise. To increase core engagement, do the Presses one arm at a time.
2. Standing Cable Pull-Throughs
Standing Cable Pull-Throughs are an awesome exercise you can use in place of (or to supplement) traditional Deadlifts. Deadlifts require a lot of space, a barbell and a padded surface. Plus, loading plates on and off the bar is a hassle. Standing Cable Pull-Throughs require nothing more than a cable machine, and they’re great for strengthening your posterior chain without putting too much stress on your lower back. The ability to explosively extend your hips will make you a better all-around athlete.
How to: Begin with your back to a cable machine and your feet hip-width apart. Hold the rope attachment in front of your hips so the cable travels between your legs. Bend at the waist and push your hips back until your torso reaches a 45-degree angle. Extend your hips explosively to pull the cable through and return to the starting position.
3. Cable Low-to-High Chop
The Cable Low-to-High Chop is a terrific exercises to perform on a cable machine, because the movement is difficult to replicate with free weights. The exercise builds rotational core strength, which is crucial to many sport-specific movements. Hockey, baseball, golf and tennis are just a few sports in which your performance depends on your rotational core strength and power.
How To: Position the cable with handle attachment at its lowest position. Assume a quarter-squat stance with the cable next to your foot. Grasp the handle with both hands. Keep your chest up and your back flat. Rotate your hips and explode up, pulling the cable diagonally up and across your body. Keep your arms straight throughout the movement. Lower the cable in a controlled manner to return to starting position.
4. Single-Arm Single-Leg Row
The Single-Arm Single-Leg Row is another exercise that’s possible to perform only on a cable machine. It challenges your entire body, forcing you to stay balanced throughout a variety of movements. That makes it a great exercise to perform at the beginning of your workout when you need to get several muscle groups firing and ready for action.
How To: Adjust the cable to a low position. Grab the cable with your right hand and back 3 to 5 yards away from the cable machine. Stand up straight and lift your right leg off the ground. Lean forward at the waist, keeping your back straight as you slowly elevate it behind you. This movement is similar to a Single-Leg RDL. Return your right foot to the floor, explosively pull your right hand to your chest and drive your left knee to the sky. Return to the starting position. The Single-Arm Single-Leg Row is easier to understand when you actually see it, so check out this video to view it in action.
Worst Cable Machine Exercises
1. Cable Squats
Using a cable machine to do Squats is an ineffective and inefficient approach to a great exercise. One reason Squats are so effective is because they challenge your body to stabilize a load in space. Cable Squats reduce instability and are difficult to perform with proper form. They don’t allow your body to move as naturally as it would when performing a barbell Squat, and they don’t load your lower-body as effectively.
Do This Instead:
Old-fashioned barbell Back Squats are the best lower-body exercise you can do. If you cannot do them for some reason, Goblet Squats or Rear Foot-Elevated Split Squats are superior to Cable Squats.
2. Cable Side Bends
Side Bends are a crummy exercise regardless of equipment. They aren’t functional, they aren’t effective and they require lateral spinal flexion, which puts your back into a vulnerable position. Cable Side Bends make a bad exercise worse, since they further restrict the already limited amount of movement the exercise calls for.
Do This Instead:
If you want to tone your obliques and build a stronger core, try Dumbbell Suitcase Carries.
3. Standing Cable Hamstring Curls/Leg Extensions
These are simply not worth your time. Isolation exercises do little to strengthen your stabilizer muscles, and they improve your appearance more than your athletic performance. There are many more effective ways to work these muscle groups.
Do This Instead:
Stick with major movements like Squats and Deadlifts to strengthen your lower half and become a more explosive athlete.
4. Incline-Decline Cable Press
This exercise has you standing up and using one hand to perform a Standing Incline Press while simultaneously performing a Standing Decline Press with the other hand. This is a case where two exercises have been unnecessarily combined, and the quality of movement suffers as a result.
Do This Instead:
Either perform an Incline Bench Press or a Decline Bench Press. No need to combine them. If you like performing Single-Arm Presses, try a Single-Arm Standing Cable Chest Press or a Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press.