A cable machine, also called a pulley machine, is an incredible tool for building muscle.
Not only does it allow you to challenge your body from angles that are difficult to replicate with free weights or traditional machines, but it’s an overwhelmingly safe way to train to failure (or close to it). This makes it especially effective for building muscle.
Yet the cable machine remains underutilized, in part because many people still don’t quite understand how to use it or what exercises they should be performing.
This article will equip you with the knowledge and confidence to effectively build muscle using a cable machine. We’ll go over proper set-up and programming plus nine fantastic cable machine movements to help you build muscle throughout your entire body.
The Cable Machine Commandments
There are three big keys to successfully setting up a cable machine.
One, you must select an appropriate cable machine attachment for the given exercise (this article explains all the major cable machine attachments). Attachments are affixed to the cable machine via a carabiner.
Two, you must ensure the handle is adjusted to the appropriate height:
Three, you must set an appropriate weight via the weight stack.
The standard lifting tempo for building muscle is a 3-count lower (or eccentric) followed by a 1-count lift (or concentric). Focus on fluid motion and feeling the exercise in the target muscle groups.
The ideal set/rep range for hypertrophy (a.k.a. building muscle) is ~6-15 reps per set for ~2-4 total sets.
Most importantly, you should take most sets to near failure — meaning you end the set feeling like you could have performed just 1-2 more reps with proper form.
The 9 Best Cable Exercises for Building Muscle
While several exercises can be done using a cable machine, there are nine key muscle-building movements everyone should be familiar with. These are:
- Cable Tricep Pushdowns
- Cable Face Pulls
- Cable Pull-Throughs
- Cable Bicep Curls
- Seated Cable Rows
- Pallof Press
- Cable Crossover
- Lat Pulldowns
- Single-Leg Cable Romanian Deadlift
The cable machine is frequently an accessory to some bizarre gym failures. If you’re not a cable machine expert, we recommend mainly sticking with these nine moves.
1. Cable Tricep Pushdowns
The Cable Tricep Pushdown is a fabulous isolation exercise. It can destroy flabby underarms and help you build that impressive tricep 'horseshoe'.
Use a V-bar or tricep rope hanging at neck height. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, facing the cable machine. Grab the bar or rope with your palms facing towards one another. Make sure your chest is high and you’re bent slightly forward.
With elbows tucked to your sides, straighten your elbows until your arms are fully extended. Maintain a neutral wrist position and add a one-second “squeeze” (flex your triceps at maximum contraction) at the bottom of each rep. Avoid common mistakes like flaring out the elbows, creating momentum with the torso, or moving the elbows up and down.
2. Cable Face Pulls
Cable Face Pulls work the rear deltoid muscles, the external rotators, and the rhomboids. As outlined in the above video, you can use one or two rope handle attachments for this move — two will offer a greater range of motion and is thus arguably preferable.
Approach the machine and set the handle to the level of your neck. Set the machine to the desired weight (start light!). Pull the rope toward your face while moving as if you’re trying to separate the rope until your arms are almost at a 90 degree angle. Lead with your hands, not your elbows, as you pull the rope back.
3. Cable Pull-Throughs
The Cable Pull-Through is a powerful lower-body exercise that targets your hamstrings, glutes, and your core. It’s also one of the best ways to learn a hip hinge, a crucial movement pattern that can be otherwise tough to get a hang of.
Use a tricep rope handle attachment and set it at the lowest setting. Stand with your back to the machine, handle between your legs, arms straight down. Hold the handle evenly and firmly. Take a step or two forward so your selected weight floats off the stack.
Keeping your spine neutral and head straight, hinge at the hips and push your butt back toward the machine. Hold for a second, then push your hips forward to return to standing. Squeeze the glutes at the top and pause before repeating your next rep. Cable Pull-Throughs are a great on-ramp or alternative to other hip hinge moves like Deadlifts and Kettlebell Swings.
4. Cable Bicep Curls
The Cable Bicep Curl uses a straight bar to build muscle in the biceps, deltoids, and muscles in the forearms.
According to research from the American Council on Exercise, it’s the second-most effective exercise you can do for your biceps, behind only Concentration Curls.
Position the handle on the lowest rung and grab it with an underhand (palms up) grip. Lean ever so slightly forward as you curl the weight up, keeping your elbows tucked close to your body. Pause at the top for a one-second squeeze at maximum contraction then lower the bar in a slow, controlled manner. Repeat until your biceps feel that deep, deep burn!
5. Seated Cable Rows
This cable machine exercise develop muscle in the lats, triceps, and biceps. It also works the glutes and hamstrings a bit in isometric fashion. It’s best done with a D-row handle. A pair of dedicated foot plates will help you pull heavier weight and use better technique.
Pull the handle toward your lower abdomen, keeping your back straight and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Think about initiating the movement by driving your elbows back. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears throughout the movement. Return the handle forward by allowing your arms to fully extend out. Repeat!
6. Pallof Press
The Pallof Press will help you build a stable, strong core using a cable machine. Attach a simple handle attachment at chest height. Stand a few steps away from the machine, facing parallel to the anchor point with both hands on the handle.
Keeping your core tight, extend your hands straight out in front of your body. Don’t let your body twist back toward the cable pulley -- resist the rotation. Hold for a second, then repeat. Boom, you’re now a Pallof Press pro!
7. Cable Crossover
The Cable Crossover is a classic move for building a toned, muscular chest. This exercise requires a dual cable machine set-up, meaning two cable machines in close proximity to one another.
You can utilize different handle heights to target your chest in different ways. A high handle height (at or about the highest pin setting) will hit your upper chest harder, a low handle height (at or about the lowest pin setting) will hit your lower chest harder, and a setting at mid-height will target the different parts of your chest about equally.
No matter what height you’re utilizing, you want to set up in the middle of the two cable machines. Grab each handle attachment and take a step or two forward. Bend slightly forward at the torso, spine neutral, and back straight. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, pull the handles towards one another. Squeeze your chest muscles as the handles come together right in front of you. Slowly reverse to the start position, repeat until your chest is on fire!
8. Lat Pulldowns
Lat Pulldowns are best done with a lat pulldown attachment. They effectively target the latissimus dorsi, or "lats", which are the broadest muscles in your back. Well-developed lats are a key component to an impressive physique.
A wide grip will force your lats to work a little harder. A reverse grip, alternatively, is done with the hands closer together and palms facing towards you. This grip will take some activation off your lats and put it onto your biceps. A medium grip, meanwhile, sees your hands face away from you at a width that’s somewhere between a wide and reverse grip.
Pro tip: loop your thumbs over the bar on any grip where your palms face away from you, and loop them under the bar on any grip where your palms face towards you.
9. Single-Leg Cable Romanian Deadlift
This popular exercise is best done with a simple handle attachment and is awesome for strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, and adductor magnus.
For the average Joe or Jane, these are some of the most neglected muscles there are!
Focus on really squeezing your glutes as you hinge up from the bottom position to standing. Be sure to keep your core tight and spine long throughout the movement — an extra couple inches of reach at the bottom isn’t worth rounding your back!