Cable machines, and why you should incorporate them into your training and why so many of us shy away from using them 

When you picture the number of things that could go horribly wrong at the gym, you might think of flying off a treadmill, dropping a weight on your foot, or getting crushed under a barbell.

While you’re probably safe from these there's a solid chance of goofing up when using complicated pieces of equipment. (We've all done it….) And the machine I see people struggle with the most is the cable crossover or cable pulley machine. Why? “It’s a very complex and versatile piece of gym equipment," “There are a lot of stations and a range of handles available to enhance its versatility, but this also causes a lot of confusion.” Plus, the machine makes it easy to isolate individual muscle groups, but that also means it's easier for users to load on way too much weight. "If the weight is too heavy, that compromises your technique". And that’s a shame, because the cable crossover machine is the perfect one-stop shop for a killer total-body workout. 

But Why?

It’s time to get to grips with the cable machine. With its adjustable origin point the cable machine allows you to work muscles from different angles and, multiple planes of motion.

“The constant resistance of a cable means you’re under tension on the way forward, as well as on the way back, much like lowering a bicep curl under control, the cable teaches you to work your muscles throughout the lift. Being able to perform an exercise under control, from any angle, is a great way to isolate muscles like your triceps that contribute to bigger lifts.

Trying to avoid injury? “Cables protect you from injuries that can be caused by free weights,” “By the time you find out a barbell is too heavy for you, it's too late.” 90% of gym injuries come from dumbbells and barbells, according to a study published in Journal of Sports Medicine.

Piling too many plates onto a barbell is risky, especially without a spotter, whereas releasing a cable results in no more than the crash of heavy metal. “Improper form is also more common with weights. Where there is no directed plane of motion this can cause imbalances and injury.” Instability forces your muscles to work overtime, but too much imbalance can lead to bad form, which causes injuries. Working on a ‘directed plane of motion' cables allow you to build up to big weights safely.

There’s a cable rig and a selection of handles in almost every gym. The versatility of the rig (bicep curls, flys, reverse flys, triceps pushdowns and woodchoppers, to name a few) means you can park yourself in a cable bay and get a full-body workout in 30 minutes.

Most rigs even incorporate overhead pull-up bars, meaning you can go to exhaustion with your hanging bodyweight before taking on lat pulldowns, bicep curls and reverse flys for a back-and-biceps blitz as good as any free weight workout.

Exercises to Try

Before you jump into a cable routine, realize that you might need to adapt your process if you’ve been focusing on high-intensity, low-rep exercises. “I would say for exercises like this, you’re better off using a weight [that] you can do for eight reps or more.

My 5 favourite cable pulley machine exercises:

Cable Pec Fly

The key to positioning yourself for a cable pec fly is achieving a 45-degree force vector, or line of pull. You want the cables at a 45-degree angle relative to the torso. “Adjust the pulleys so [that] they’re at shoulder height and walk out in front of the machine [one-and-a-half] big steps,” To see if you’ve got the positioning right, set the weight as light as possible and pull the cables together. The goal is to have your wrists directly in front of your shoulders. Think of where you’d be at the top of a push-up.

The movement might aggravate your shoulder if you have poor mobility. So, start with a lower weight for the first set. Assume an athletic stance with one foot in front of the other. Bend your elbows slightly and pull the cables together.

Standing Single Arm Cable Row

This back-strengthening movement only requires one cable, which you’ll set to mid-torso height. Stand a few feet back from the cable. “If you hold your cable in your right hand, stand with your right foot behind you, almost how you would walk,”. Firm up your core and pull the cable back, trying not to use the rest of your body to compensate.

“The benefit of a cable here is that if you use a row machine with a chest or back platform, you don’t have to use your torso to hold yourself up,”. “The cable makes it a more integrated type of activity.”

Standing Single Arm Press

The standing single-arm press is similar to the cable row. You just press rather than pull the cable toward you. This time, you’re facing away from the cable column, with your cable-holding arm cocked back and your entire body leaning forward over your toes. Engage the core and punch the arm forward in front of your shoulder.

“If you’re more interested in athletics—baseball, golf, boxing, those rotational movements that demand the hips and torso and shoulder all work together—doing the standing one-arm cable press demands a tremendous amount of torso strength to maintain the position, activating that core and engaging that chest. ”.

Triceps Extension

There are two ways to do this one: standing facing the cable and standing facing away from it. “Facing away from the cable, it’s like throwing a football overhead,”. “It stretches the triceps a little bit more; both are great, and you can use them in the same workout.” (I often superset them for an extra triceps finisher) 

These exercises work well with the cable rope attachment. When facing the rope, start with your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Keep your arms close to your side and push the rope down. Flare your wrists outward at the bottom of the movement to maximize triceps engagement. For overhead triceps extensions, assume a position similar to the standing single arm cable row. Start with your elbows in line with your forehead and push forward in front of your head. Really important with any arms exercise biceps or triceps to minimise any momentum elbows must stay strict to the side of the body and maintain full range of motion so a full extension in the elbow. 

Diagonal Wood Chops

This movement owes its name to the diagonal movement of a lumberjack chopping wood. So, imagine the axe is the cable and you’re nearly there. You can pull the cable across your body from low-right to high-left, or you can set it up high and pull from high-right to low-left.

The twisting motion will engage the torso and rotate the hips; Think swinging a golf club or a baseball bat. The hips continue swinging to finish out the movement. Whether you’re pulling high or low, gradually shift the weight away from the origin of the movement.

Grab the cable with both hands and keep your arms mostly straight, while pulling the weight across your body, great for firing up the transverse abdominis and increasing core control. 

Don’t be scared of using the cable machine, they are such an underrated versatile piece of equipment, approach it with a plan pick two exercises and practice, practice practice.