A good bodybuilder uses every tool at their disposal to build muscle: Barbells for maximal loading, dumbbells to identify and attack muscular imbalances, and, especially, cables. The cable tree is, in many ways, your best friend in the weight room.
By freeing yourself from the constraints of gravity, you open up a wide array of new exercises and techniques for building muscle. Think of the cable lateral raise, which applies tension to your shoulder from top to bottom. Or perhaps the tried-and-true chest flye; few exercises help you squeeze your pecs better.
You can train basically every muscle in your body with cables, sure, but for maximal muscle growth, context and application reign supreme. Some cable exercises are simply better for bodybuilding than others. These 10 movements stand above the rest.
Best Bodybuilding Cable Exercises
- Cable Lateral Raise
- Cable Kickback
- Cable Press-Around
- Cable Flye
- Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Face Pull
- Close-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Rope Hammer Curl
- Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Cable Crunch
Big, three-dimensional delts elevate your entire physique. That said, your medial deltoids aren’t really stimulated “for free” in the same way that your front delts can grow from heavy chest pressing. Lateral raises are a must-do movement if you want to grow all parts of your shoulders.
Dumbbells tend to be the go-to here, and they’re perfectly fine most of the time. However, the nature of the dumbbell lateral raise makes them extremely inconsistent — the first half of the range of motion is too easy, while the top half is too hard. Head to the cable tree and do the cable lateral raise to smooth things over.
How to Do the Cable Lateral Raise
- Set a cable attachment around knee height and stand next to it with your non-working arm closest to the fixture.
- Reach across your body and grab the handle with your working arm, pulling the weight off the stack to apply tension to your shoulder.
- From here, raise your arm up and out to the side as you would for a standard lateral raise.
Coach’s Tip: You can stagger your feet and place the cable itself between your legs for a better line of pull.
Benefits of the Cable Lateral Raise
- Encourages you to work your deltoids individually, which can help remedy muscular imbalances.
- Provides constant tension to your shoulder throughout the entire range of motion of the lateral raise.
- Highly stimulating even with very light weights.
You don’t have to compete in the Bikini or Wellness divisions to train your glutes directly. Strong, powerful gluteal muscles benefit your performance in the weight room and your appearance on the stage, no matter what division you compete in.
That said, your glutes aren’t particularly easy to isolate. They’re the primary muscle responsible for flexing and extending your hips, one of your most fundamental movement patterns. This means most good glute exercises are large, heavy, compound exercises; think squats, hinges, or thrusts.
How to Do the Cable Kickback
- You’ll need an ankle strap for this one. Fix your ankle to a cable attachment set very low to the ground.
- Take a step away from the cable station and brace yourself against it with your arms. Lean forward slightly and pull the weight off the stack with your leg.
- From here, maintain a slightly-bent knee and kick your leg out behind you by squeezing your glute.
- Lift your leg until it is roughly parallel with your torso, hold for a moment at the top, and then lower it back down.
Coach’s Tip: You can place your non-working leg on an elevated surface like a weight plate to improve your range of motion.
Benefits of the Cable Kickback
- Allows you to isolate your glutes without performing a compound exercise.
- Trains your glutes in the lengthened position.
- Lets you work each glute isometrically to even out imbalances if needed.
A good cable bodybuilding exercise should stimulate all of a muscle’s anatomical functions. Your pecs have two — they draw your arm horizontally across toward your midline, like in a flye, and they flex your shoulder forward, which happens during every pressing movement.
These two actions are, for the most part, distinct. Until you start performing cable press-arounds, that is. This unique chest exercise combines the two primary anatomical functions of your pecs and then loads that motion; a sure-fire way to grow muscle.
How to Do the Cable Press-Around
- Set a cable attachment between waist and shoulder height. Stand adjacent to it and grab the handle with your working arm.
- Step forward and away from the stack with the handle and bend your elbow slightly. The starting position should resemble the bottom of a flye exercise, but with your arm drawn behind your torso.
- From here, draw your arm forward and in. Go past the point where your arm is perpendicular to your shoulder and press the handle toward your opposite side.
Coach’s Tip: Think about pushing your upper arm against your torso during the cable press-around.
Benefits of the Cable Press-Around
- Combines the stimulation of a press and a flye for maximal pec growth.
- It’s a unique pec exercise that doesn’t quite feel like any other.
- Takes your chest through its full contractile range of motion.
Leaving the gym with a skin-tearing pec pump is the hallmark of a good chest workout. Dumbbell flyes are all well and good as a chest-day capstone, but nothing beats the cable station for putting together a big pump.
The cable flye fits nicely at the end of your chest workout for a few reasons. It’s easy to perform, you can get high-quality reps in while fatigued from previous exercises, and the pump is unparalleled.
How to Do the Cable Flye
- Set dual cable attachments around shoulder height and stand between them, facing away from the weights.
- Grab each cable in the corresponding hand and take a step forward to establish tension.
- From here and with a very slight bend in your elbow, draw your arms together in front of your body until they’re parallel with each other.
Coach’s Tip: You can play with the angle of your arms during the cable flye to find the optimal line of pull for your own body.
Benefits of the Cable Flye
- Provides an unparalleled “squeeze” on your pecs.
- Easy to set up and perform.
- Makes for a great finisher to torch your chest at the end of your workout.
Rows and pull-ups are all well and good for building your back, but you should have at least one exercise in your repertoire that isolates your lats specifically. Some direct attention can do wonders for muscle growth, after all.
The straight-arm pulldown can help you cultivate a solid mind-muscle connection with a part of your back that is often difficult to flex.
How to Do the Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Set a cable attachment with a straight-bar or V-bar handle around eye-level.
- Grab the attachment with both hands and a close grip and step backward from the cable.
- With the handle held at arm’s length, unlock your elbows slightly, take a shoulder-width stance, and lean forward a little bit.
- From here, sweep the handle downward to your thighs without bending your elbows.
Coach’s Tip: Think about tucking your elbows into your back pockets during the straight-arm pulldown.
Benefits of the Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Stimulates your lats similarly to the dumbbell pullover without requiring as much shoulder mobility.
- Applies tension to your lats in the lengthened position.
- The motion of the straight-arm pulldown also stimulates the long head of your triceps.
Stable, healthy shoulders are important for competitive strength athletes and career bodybuilders alike. The right upper back exercises can both bulletproof your shoulders and build a sick yoke at the same time.
The face pull hits both marks with room to spare. It offers a unique movement pattern you won’t get from most other upper back movements, is easy to perform, and works as both a primer and a finisher.
How to Do the Face Pull
- Fix a rope attachment to a cable set around shoulder height or slightly higher.
- Grab the heads of the rope with your hands and step backward so the weights come off the stack and your arms are held slack in front of you.
- From here, pull the center of the rope toward your forehead.
- As you pull, externally rotate your shoulder; think about opening up your arms to reveal the insides of your biceps.
- Pull until your upper arms are parallel to each other and pause for a moment.
Coach’s Tip: Externally rotating your shoulders is critical if you want to engage your rear deltoids and lower trapezius muscles.
Benefits of the Face Pull
- Works well as both a warm-up exercise on chest day or a finisher on back day.
- A stellar option for shoulder prehab.
- Great for developing your rear delts with cables.
The lat pulldown station is prime real estate in most gyms — and for good reason. Pull-ups are certainly a rewarding back exercise, but heavier gymgoers may find them difficult to perform. If you’re skilled enough to do weighted pull-ups, you may find them unnecessarily taxing, even though they feel great on your back.
The tried-and-true lat pulldown sidesteps these issues while still allowing you to train the movement pattern. Specifically, the close-grip lat pulldown will emphasize your lats more than your upper back or arms due to the tucked-arm posture.
How to Do the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Set a parallel bar attachment into the hook of the lat pulldown station.
- Grab each handle with your hands and pull it off the stack as you sit down into the seat with your knees under the pads.
- Allow the cable to pull your arms loose and elevate your shoulders up toward your ears.
- Lean back slightly and initiate the pulldown by depressing your shoulders away from your ears, and then following through by pulling your elbows down into your sides.
- Pull the handle down until your upper arms are tucked against your torso.
Coach’s Tip: Master the shoulders-then-elbows sequencing during the close-grip pulldown for maximum lat activation.
Benefits of the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Lets you load up your back with heavy weight while still benefiting from the constant tension of a cable machine.
- Easy to perform and requires little setup.
- Develops carryover strength to other compound back exercises.
You could spend all day in the weight room working through various arm exercises and still not scratch the surface. Building beefy arms takes more than just biceps curls, though — you need to train your brachialis, brachioradialis, and the smaller muscles in your forearms as well.
Hammer curls are all well and good, but dumbbells don’t provide consistent tension. You probably find them to be too easy at the bottom and too difficult at the top. Performing the rope hammer curl instead alleviates this inconsistency and guarantees a smooth-as-butter set.
How to Do the Rope Hammer Curl
- Attach a rope handle to a cable fixture set at the lowest possible height.
- Grab the rope in your hands, relax your arms, and take a step backward to pull the cable taut.
- From here, tuck your upper arms tight to your sides.
- With your palms facing each other, bend your elbows, maintaining that neutral wrist position the entire time.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid supinating your wrists. Turning your palms up to the ceiling will apply more of the load to your biceps brachii at the expense of your brachialis and forearms.
Benefits of the Rope Hammer Curl
- Great for both elbow and wrist prehab.
- The hammer curl emphasizes your brachialis, which contributes to the appearance of thick arms.
- Works the musculature of your forearm as a bonus.
Few muscles are better suited to cable exercises than your triceps. Free weights are great, but many bodybuilders find too many skull crushers or kickbacks uncomfortable on their elbows. Cables provide a smoother stimulus and are more versatile.
Moreover, triceps training doesn’t have to mean thrashing your body with heavy presses, extensions, or weighted dips. By manipulating your posture and working with one arm, even a light weight will feel ultra-heavy during the single-arm overhead triceps extension.
How to Do the Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Set a cable fixture at waist height and grab it by the handle or the ball of the cable itself, then take a step back.
- Twist your body around; if you’re holding the cable in your right hand, turn to the left and allow the cable to pull your arm up until your upper arm is perpendicular to the ground.
- Stagger your stance for stability. You can hold your non-working arm out to the side or place it on your hip.
- Extend your elbow by flexing your triceps.
Coach’s Tip: The closer you can get your upper arm to perpendicular to the ground, the stronger of a stretch you’ll put on your triceps.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Lets you work your triceps individually to correct any potential imbalances.
- Even a light weight will be quite challenging with this exercise, so you can get a good workout in without going heavy.
- Extending your elbow with your shoulder fully flexed places an extreme stretch on the long head of your triceps.
Shredded abs aren’t optional if you want to succeed in bodybuilding: Abs may be revealed in the kitchen, but they’re built in the gym. More importantly, your core obeys all of the same hypertrophy rules as any other muscle group. You need proper loading, a full range of motion, and, of course, patience.
Endless sets of crunches on the floor won’t get you there, but the cable crunch will. You don’t need to wriggle yourself into an awkward position on an exercise machine or test your endurance on the floor. This movement hits all the benchmarks of a good hypertrophy exercise for your abs.
How to Do the Cable Crunch
- Set a cable around shoulder height. You can use a rope attachment or hold on to a straight bar for the cable crunch.
- Grab the attachment with both arms and bend your elbows to pull it close to your forehead.
- Drop down into a full kneeling position close to, but not directly underneath, the cable fixture.
- Intentionally arch your back to stretch out your abs, and then crunch down by rounding your spine. Avoid moving or bending your arms at any point.
Coach’s Tip: Think about using your abs to pull your forehead down to the ground.
Benefits of the Cable Crunch
- Helps you train your abs through flexion and extension, rather than the isometric contractions provided by an exercise like the plank.
- Easy to induce progressive overload onto your abs.
- A great way to progress from beginner core exercises into something more challenging.
Cable Training Tips for Bodybuilding
Cable stations are part of the “holy trinity” of gym equipment; think of them as the middle ground between free weights and exercise machines. While certain barbell or dumbbell movements have extremely steep learning curves, cables tend to be pretty intuitive.
That said, you can still make some small adjustments to your training to get even more value out of your cable-based bodybuilding exercises.
Slow and steady wins the race in the weight room. As a bodybuilder, you have no good reason to rush through your repetitions (unless you’re on the clock and need to crush a quick workout, of course).
Cables are particularly well-suited to utilizing an extra-slow tempo. The consistent tension provided by the cable should create a smooth eccentric phase, encouraging you to really stretch out the target muscle.
Tweak Your Setup
The very nature of cables as a form of resistance training offers you more than you can get from free weights or machines. Barbells and dumbbells must obey gravity; if the exercise doesn’t involve moving something upward in some capacity, it won’t be very effective.
Machines are fantastic when used properly, but lock you into a pre-determined plane of motion that may not gel with your body. Cables dodge both issues; they apply resistance no matter the angle and you can move freely with them. Take advantage of this freedom and experiment with your exercises to find the exact right angle for your body.
Employ Drop Sets
Intensity techniques like supersets, clustered repetitions, or drop sets are fantastic for muscle growth — if you apply them properly. While research indicates that training to (or beyond) muscular failure isn’t strictly necessary to make gains, (1) doing so guarantees that you aren’t leaving gains on the table.
Cables and drop sets pair very well together. First, the inherent stability of the cable itself means that hitting failure is less risky than if you did so with a barbell or dumbbell. More importantly, it is extremely easy to adjust the resistance on a cable station. You don’t have to lug dumbbells around or replace the plates on your bar; simply adjust the pin and you’re back in action.
Benefits of Cables for Bodybuilding
In many ways, cables are to bodybuilding what the barbell is to the powerlifter or weightlifter. You’d be hard-pressed to find an IFBB Pro that doesn’t make very regular use of the cable station throughout their training week. Here’s what you stand to gain from incorporating some more cable training into your bodybuilding workout plan.
Consistent Mechanical Tension
The recipe for hypertrophy (that’s muscle growth if you aren’t scientifically inclined) is simple. You need mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and actual muscle damage. The first part is, by all available metrics, the most important of all. (2)
Any exercise that places high amounts of mechanical tension or torque on the muscle you’re working is bound to lead to gains if you’re patient and consistent. Cables shine here — they tax your muscles from start to finish and are easy to recover from on a session-to-session basis, meaning you can work with them regularly to build muscle over long periods.
Customizable to Your Body
There’s nothing better than the barbell for gaining strength. That said, barbells (along with many other types of free weights and exercise machines) aren’t exactly one-size-fits-all. It’s possible that certain mainstay bodybuilding moves don’t work for you because the equipment required doesn’t align with your bodily structure.
Cables, for the most part, don’t suffer from this issue. The ability to pull a cable attachment in just about any direction means you can tweak and tailor an exercise like the biceps curl, lateral raise, or triceps extension until it “feels right.”
There’s some interesting research backing this up, too. Some studies have shown that muscle activity can vary between cable exercises depending on the type of attachment you use or the technique you employ, (3) so be sure to take a bit of extra time to find the best possible version of whatever exercise you’re doing to gain muscle.
Versatile and Convenient
Unless you have your own home gym and a career centered around your physique, you probably aren’t having picture-perfect workouts on a weekly basis. Time constraints, facility access, and plenty of other logistical factors indirectly affect your ability to build muscle.
Say, for example, that it’s shoulder day and you’ve got overhead presses on the menu. You walk into the gym and find every squat rack taken and the dumbbell rack largely stripped bare. Do you throw in the towel on your workout?
You could, or you could find an open cable station and go to town. You can find a handful of exercises for every muscle on your body that work just fine with cables instead of free weights. More importantly, the cable station is easy to use and most gyms will have several of them. You can get one heck of a bodybuilding workout in without ever leaving the cable station if you really wanted to.
Plug In to Gains
As a bodybuilder, the equipment in your gym is nothing more than a collection of tools. What’re you building? Muscle, of course. The right cable exercises can elevate your entire workout, whether you’re using them as a warm-up for your bodybuilding session or to cap off your day in the gym.
- Nóbrega, S. R., & Libardi, C. A. (2016). Is Resistance Training to Muscular Failure Necessary?. Frontiers in physiology, 7, 10.
- Schoenfeld B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24(10), 2857–2872.
- Rendos, N. K., Heredia Vargas, H. M., Alipio, T. C., Regis, R. C., Romero, M. A., & Signorile, J. F. (2016). Differences in Muscle Activity During Cable Resistance Training Are Influenced by Variations in Handle Types. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 30(7), 2001–2009.
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