Almost every modern-era bodybuilder has used the lat pulldowns and seated rows to build a muscular back. Purists may say that deadlifts and pull-ups/chin-ups are the best back builders, but that’s not always the case.
Lat pulldowns and seated rows allow you to use a range of rep schemes and intensity levels to annihilate every muscle fiber and trigger optimal hypertrophy. Combined with different handles and hand positions, you can focus on the exact part of your back you want to develop. Cable machines are like a sniper’s rifle – very precise!
But there is no reason to limit your workouts to just cable pulldowns and rows; there are plenty more cable back exercises to try.
So, expand your exercise toolbox with the 13 best cable exercises for a bigger back!
Back Anatomy 101
You don’t need a degree in functional anatomy to build a bigger back with cables. But, knowing a little about how your lats and their associated muscles work may help you choose the best exercises for your goals.
The main muscles that make up your back are:
Known as the lats for short, this is the muscle that gives your upper back its width. When well-developed, the lats look like wings and are visible from the front and the back of your body. The functions of the lats are adduction, extension, and internal rotation of the shoulder joint.
The traps are the large diamond or trapezoid-shaped muscle that lies across your shoulder blades and upper back. There are three sets of trapezius fibers, and each one has a different function.
- Upper trapezius – elevation of the shoulder girdle
- Middle trapezius – retraction of the shoulder girdle
- Lower trapezius – depression of the shoulder girdle
The rhomboid muscles are located between your shoulder blades and beneath the middle fibers of the trapezius. They work with the mid-traps to retract your shoulder girdle.
Teres major and minor
Erector spinae is the collective term for the three muscles that run up your spine from your lower back to the base of your skull. These muscles are the spinalis, longissimus, and Iliocostalis. The erector spinae extend and laterally flex your spine and work isometrically (statically) to keep your spine upright or prevent it from rounding.
While not strictly a back muscle, the posterior or rear deltoids work with your lats during shoulder extension. They also add a lot to the shape and function of your upper back and are involved in most back exercises.
The Best Cable Machine Exercises for A Bigger Back
Not sure how to go about building your best back using a cable machine? Here are 13 of the most essential cable back exercises!
1. Lat Pulldown
No discussion of cable back exercises would be complete without mentioning lat pulldowns. They’re a popular exercise for one simple reason; they work! There are several lat pulldown variations, and it’s worth using them all to keep your back workouts fresh and productive.
Lat pulldown variations include:
- Wide, overhand grip to the front
- Wide, overhand grip to the back*
- Medium, overhand grip
- Medium, neutral grip
- Close, neutral grip
- Medium, underhand grip
*Yes – behind the neck pulldowns are often frowned upon as they can be hard on the shoulder joints. However, people still do them, so they’re a valid pulldown variation. But that doesn’t mean you need to do them!
Each hand position affects slightly different parts of your back, so rotate these exercises to develop your back from all the angles.
2. Seated Cable Row
Like lat pulldowns, seated cable rows are also very popular. But where pulldowns give your upper back its width, seated rows mostly build back thickness. Also, like lat pulldowns, there are several ways to do seated cable rows, including:
- Wide, overhand grip
- Medium, underhand grip
- Medium, neutral grip
- Narrow, neutral grip
Pulling the bar into your abdomen focuses the tension onto your lats while pulling it into your sternum/chest increases mid-trap and rhomboid engagement.
3. Straight Arm Pulldown
The lats are a hard muscle to isolate. However, straight arm pulldowns do a pretty good job of working your lats on their own. This is not an exercise for heavy weights. Instead, use light to moderate weights and medium to high reps. Focus on engaging and squeezing your lats, keeping them under constant tension. You can also do this exercise with a resistance band.
4. Cable Incline Straight Arm Pulldown
While straight arm pulldowns are a decent lat isolation exercise, they require very strong abs to do correctly. In fact, you may even feel that exercise more in your abs than your lats. This incline variation takes the load off your abs and increases your range of motion, potentially leading to a better workout.
5. Single-arm Lat Pulldowns
Training one side of your body at a time can be very advantageous. For starters, it means you can really focus on the muscle you’re trying to work, strengthening that all-important mind/muscle connection. It also means you can identify and fix left to right strength imbalances. Finally, it could provide the variation you need to get your muscle-building progress back on track.
6. Single-Arm Seated Cable Rows
While regular seated rows are a great back builder, they also put a lot of stress on your lower back. Using one arm at a time means you won’t be able to lift as much weight, reducing the strain on your lower back. If regular seated rows cause lower back pain, the single-arm variation could provide some welcome relief.
7. Standing Cable Rows
Functional training aficionados are quick to point out that most of life’s strenuous activities happen while you are standing and not seated or lying down. They have a point. After all, when was the last time you lifted a heavy object while sitting in a chair? And no, your workout doesn’t count!
Standing cable rows involve your upper and your lower body working together, just as they do in nature. That makes this exercise far more functional. You can also do standing cable rows using one arm at a time to ensure both sides of your body are developed equally.
8. Standing Single Arm Cable Row and Twist
This functional back exercise works your lats, rhomboids, middle trapezius, posterior deltoids, biceps, core, and legs all at the same time. Because it integrates your upper body with your lower body, it’s a highly functional exercise and ideal for athletes from all sports.
It’s especially good for MMA fighters and wrestlers as it uses many of the same muscles as pulling and throwing your opponent.
9. Bent Over Cable Row
Bent over rows with a barbell or dumbbells are a great way to build a more muscular back. However, that bent-over position puts a lot of stress on your lumbar spine. Using a cable machine takes pressure off your lower back, making this variation safer and more comfortable.
How to do it:
- Attach a V-bar or straight bar to a low pulley. Hold the bar with your chosen grip and, with straight arms, take 1-2 steps back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, core braced, shoulders down and back, knees slightly bent.
- Hinge forward from your hips until your upper body is inclined to around 45-degrees.
- Bend your arms and pull your handle up and into your abdomen.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- This exercise can also be done using a D-handle and one arm at a time. Adopt a split stance for added stability.
10. Cable Pull-through
The cable pull-through is not generally viewed as a back exercise. In fact, most people use it as a glute and hamstring movement. However, there is some tension on the erector spinae muscles, which is why it’s on our list of cable machine back exercises.
Think of this exercise as a cable version of Romanian deadlifts. Like its barbell equivalent, pull-throughs work the entire posterior chain, and that includes the lower back.
11. Cable Deadlift
Deadlifts are a highly effective back builder. They work every muscle on your back, as well as your glutes and hamstrings. Bodybuilders use deadlifts to build overall back mass, while powerlifters use them to build incredible back strength.
Barbell deadlifts are a great exercise, but you can also do them using a cable machine. This variation actually increases lat activation, making it a perfect exercise for bodybuilders.
How to do it:
- Attach a straight bar to a low pulley machine. Hold the bar using an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core.
- Stand up and take a step back. Pull the bar back and into your thighs to engage your lats. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees and lean forward from the hips, lowering the bar out and away to mid-shin level.
- Stand back up and pull the bar back to your thighs.
- Keep your arms straight throughout to maximize lat engagement.
12. Face Pulls
Face pulls target your upper back, i.e., the mid-traps, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids. They’re an excellent postural exercise and one that could add some thickness to your upper back muscles. Face pulls are also good for your shoulder health and could help ward off shoulder joint pain.
13. Reverse Cable Crossover
Like face pulls, this exercise targets the muscles between and across your shoulder blades. Also, like face pulls, this is a good exercise for improving posture. However, where face pulls are a multi-joint compound exercise, reverse cable crossovers are an isolation exercise. With no biceps involvement, you’re free to focus on working your upper back and rear delts.
How to do it:
- Stand in the middle of a cable crossover machine. Attach a D-handle to the high pulleys. Hold the left handle in your right hand and the right handle in your left hand. Raise your arms out in front of you.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms and extend them back to form a T-shape.
- Bring your hands back together and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise supine and lying on a flat bench.
More BACK Exercises and Workouts:
- Best Old-School Back Workouts
- Best Dumbbell Back Exercises + Workout
- The 7 Best Lower Back Exercises + Workout
- Nick Walker Shares His New Back And Bicep Workout
- Try This Back and Bicep Workout To Provoke New Growth
- Lower Back Pain: Common Causes and Prevention For Athletes
You’d soon get bored eating the same meal over and over again. Think how your muscles must feel if all you do for your back is lat pulldowns and seated rows. It’s no wonder it’s been so long since your back showed any signs of growth!
Breathe new life into your training with any of the 13 best cable machine exercises for a bigger back.
You don’t have to give up pulldowns or rows but, if you want to continue making progress and building bigger muscles, variety matters. Supplementing your usual back exercises with some new moves could be exactly what you need to get back on the gainz train!
Variety is, after all, the spice of life!