If you’re new to the gym the cable machine can seem like a daunting piece of equipment. There are a lot of different settings, and usually only a couple of machines available, and the last thing you want to do is mess up using one while a queue forms behind you, right?
Well, we reckon that’s the wrong attitude to have, and so does Andy McLelland, co-founder of new London gym Body Society, who says the machine is a great way for gym beginners to build muscle.
“All the exercises usually done with free weights can be replicated on the cables,” says McLelland. “The cable machine is a great way to build muscle, especially if you’re a gym novice or are carrying an injury.”
It’s also simple to operate. There will be a carabiner that allows you to swap attachments in and out. The three main attachments you’ll find are a bar, a split rope with two ends and a D-shaped handle. Then there’s the pulley to which the carabiner is attached. Remove the pin, move it up or down as required, then put the pin back in. And of course there’s the weight stack, which also uses a pin like all the other weights machines in the gym.
Below you’ll find McLelland’s top cable machine exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced gym-goers. If you’re keen to do a full workout on the cable machine – which may be particularly appealing as gyms reopen because you can do your entire session in one place, minimising your touchpoints in a gym – we also have a beginner-friendly session from Jack Young, who is a PT at PureGym Bristol. You can also run through McLelland’s exercises, doing each for four sets of eight to 12 reps with a moderate weight.
Beginner Cable Machine Workout
1 Romanian deadlift
Sets 3 Reps 12 Rest 60sec
Use a rope handle connected to the lowest pulley and, to begin with, choose a moderate weight. Face away from the machine and pick up the handle so the cable runs between your legs. Maintain a straight back then take two steps forwards. Keeping your shoulders retracted and your back straight, slowly hinge forwards at the hips, allowing the handle to lower. Then push your hips forwards quickly as you come up, while engaging your glutes and hamstrings.
2 Cable chest press
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 60sec
You will need both handles for this movement. Set a moderate weight, hold the
handles by your chest and retract your shoulders. From here press directly forwards, squeezing your pecs together and keeping a slight bend in your elbows, and then return to the starting position.
3 Standing cable row
Sets 3 Reps 15 Rest 60sec
Attach the straight bar handle to the lowest pulley. Hold it in an overhand grip and stand two steps away from the machine. In a half-squat position, with your back straight and shoulders back, pull the handle in towards your abdominals, keeping your elbows tight to your body.
Sets 3 Reps 12 Rest 45sec
Attach the rope handle to the highest pulley and hold it in a neutral grip with your palms facing. Take two steps back and stand in a split stance. Pull the rope directly towards your forehead, keeping your back straight and elbows flared.
Set up the EZ-bar on the bottom pulley and the straight bar on the top pulley so you can move between these two arm exercises without resting. Do a set of both moves, rest, then do another set of both. For both exercises keep your shoulders retracted and elbows tight to your body.
5A EZ-bar curl
Sets 2 Reps 12 Rest 0sec
Hold the EZ-bar with an underhand grip in front of your hips. Keeping your upper arms tight to your body, bend at the elbows to lift the bar to your shoulders. Squeeze your biceps then lower the bar under control.
5B Straight bar push-down
Sets 2 Reps 12 Rest 60sec
Hold the straight bar in an overhand grip, in front of your chest. Keeping your arms pinned to your body, push down until the bar is by your hips. Allow it to rise back to the start slowly.
Sets 3 Reps 12 Rest 45sec
Attach the rope attachment to the top pulley. Kneel and hold the rope attachment close to your forehead. Keep your upper arms tight to your body and hinge forwards at your hips to lower your forehead and the attachment, keeping a slight curve in your back. Squeeze your abs, then slowly come back up.
Beginner Cable Machine Exercises
Cable biceps curl
Adjust the pulley on the tower to the lowest setting and attach the small bar tool. Hold the bar by your thighs with your palms facing away from you and your elbows by your sides. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and contract your biceps to bend at the elbow and raise the bar to shoulder height. Then slowly lower the bar back down to your thighs. The slower this exercise is done, the more muscle mass you’ll build because you’ll be putting the muscle under tension for longer.
Cable triceps pull-down
This exercise is fantastic because it isolates the triceps effectively and doesn’t allow you to cheat as much as you can with many free-weight exercises. Move the pulley on the tower to the top and attach the rope handle. The bar tool can be used for this, but the rope results in a far deeper contraction in the muscle.
Keeping your elbows locked to your sides and holding the handles, contract your core and then bring your hands down towards the hips until your arms are fully extended. Then slowly return them to their starting position. Again, the slower this is done, the greater the hypertrophy effect on your triceps.
Pairing the biceps and triceps exercises is a great arms finisher that is perfect for building size and strength in the upper arm.
This exercise is a great way to supplement the deadlift, an exercise that is difficult to master. Attach the rope handle to the pulley and adjust it to the lowest position. Standing at least half a metre away from the machine, facing away from it with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold the rope between your legs with both hands and bend forwards, hinging at the hips. Then, keeping your chest up and shoulders down, squeeze your glutes and drive your hips forwards so you return to a standing position. Slowly return to the start position.
Intermediate Cable Machine Exercises
Cable lateral raise
Lateral raises are a great way to strengthen your shoulders and increase the range of motion in the shoulder joint – and building up the lateral deltoid muscles can also give you a desirable broad-shouldered look. Set the machine to the lowest level and attach a handle. Facing away from the machine, use your right hand to hold the tower and your left to hold the handle. Tense your core, slightly bend your elbow and raise your left arm laterally until your elbow gets to shoulder height. Slowly lower your arm.
Single-arm cable row
This is one of our favourite exercises to teach because we see lots of people with tight chest muscles and weak back and postural muscles as a result of spending large amounts of their day sitting behind a desk. This exercise is great for strengthening your back muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, traps and rhomboids.
Set the cable to just below shoulder height and hold the handle in your left hand while facing the cable machine. Stand a metre or so away from the machine and bend your knees slightly. Pull the handle towards your body in a rowing action while contracting the muscles around your spine until your elbow is at a 90° angle and next to your body. Slowly return the arm to full extension and repeat.
- How To Do The Cable Cross-Over
- How To Do The Cable Row
- The Cable Flye Is Our Go-To Chest Building Move
- Pump Up Your Pecs With This Cable And Dumbbell Chest Workout
- A Straightforward Gym Machine Workout Plan For Beginners
Advanced Cable Machine Exercises
Weighted abs curl
Weighted abs curls are far more effective than non-weighted abdominal exercises such as sit-ups and planks. Set the pulley to a high number such as eight and attach the rope tool to the carabiner. Kneel down facing the tower with the rope handles either side of your head. Contract your core to bring your elbows to your thighs, ensuring your hips are locked and do not move. Pause briefly at the bottom, then return to the starting position.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.