Cable machines are great! They’re safe, effective, and versatile, which is why most gyms have several cable stations.
And yet, despite their obvious advantages and benefits, a lot of lifters only use cable exercises as finishers or as an afterthought. Instead, they build their workouts around compound free-weight exercises like barbell squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
While there is nothing wrong with heavy compound free-weight exercises, you can have too much of a good thing. Do the same movements and the same workout over and over and eventually it will stop producing results.
So, if you are stuck in a training rut or just want to try something new, take our upper body cable workout for a spin. Not only will it increase your muscle mass, but it will also improve functionality, so you’ll look AND perform better.
- Cable Training Advantages and Benefits
- Upper Body Cable Workout for Functional Strength and Mass
- Exercise Instructions
- Upper Body Cable Workout FAQ
- Closing Thoughts
Cable Training Advantages and Benefits
Before we reveal our upper body cable workout, let’s take a look at what makes cable training so darn effective!
The advantages and benefits of cable training include the following:
Target your muscles more precisely
Most freeweight exercises spread their effect across several muscle groups. While this is a great way to overload multiple groups of muscles, it’s less effective for targeting specific body parts.
Cables allow you to work your muscles more precisely, so you can develop localized hypertrophy and sculpt a more aesthetically pleasing physique.
A safer workout
Exercises like freeweight bench presses and squats can be risky, especially when training to failure. A missed rep can result in serious injury, and getting pinned under a heavy bar can even be fatal.
There is no such risk with cable exercises, and a failed rep should result in nothing more dangerous than a loud but harmless crash. This means that cable exercises are ideal for training to failure.
Perfect for drop sets
Most cable machines have selectorized weight stacks, making them ideal for muscle-building, pump-inducing drop sets. Do your chosen exercise to failure, reduce (or drop) the weight by 10-20%, and then rep out again. Repeat for 2-4 drops.
This popular bodybuilding strategy is an excellent way to take your muscles beyond failure, providing an increased stimulus for muscle growth.
A more joint-friendly workout
Compared to many freeweight exercises, cable machines are much easier on your joints. When you lift heavy barbells and dumbbells, the ends of your bones are often pressed together, resulting in a lot of compressive force.
This does not tend to happen so much with the same exercises performed using cables. As such, cable workouts are often more joint-friendly than some freeweight workouts.
More consistent muscle tension
Because you aren’t working directly against gravity, cable exercises tend to involve more consistent muscle tension than their freeweight counterparts. For example, when you do dumbbell flies, muscle tension peaks when your arms are extended but then decreases as you bring the weights over your chest.
In contrast, doing cable flies keep your muscles loaded through the entire range of motion, which may make them more effective for hypertrophy.
Change angles quickly and easily
When it comes to building muscle mass, bodybuilders know that angles matter. They adjust their limbs to hit specific parts of the muscles they want to develop, e.g., incline presses for the upper chest or wide-grip pulldowns to work their upper lats.
Unlike many freeweight exercises, changing the angle of your limbs during cable workouts is very easy. You can often do this mid-set simply by pushing or pulling in a slightly different direction.
All of this saves you from having to use angled benches, which is the norm when training with freeweights.
A more functional workout
Most cable exercises are performed while standing, which makes them more functional than many of the freeweight equivalents. For example, when was the last time you had to lay on your back and press a heavy weight upward? The barbell bench press is undeniably a good exercise. Still, it won’t necessarily improve your ability to push an opponent in football or increase the power of your throws or punches.
Cable exercises improve functional strength, which will enhance your ability to perform movements and activities outside of the gym. Cable exercises are especially useful for athletes, regardless of your chosen sport.
Upper Body Cable Workout for Functional Strength and Mass
This cable workout is designed to build upper body muscle while enhancing functionality. As such, it’s ideal for exercisers training for improved aesthetics who also care about their athletic performance.
Do this program 1-2 times per week in conjunction with a couple of lower-body workouts. After all, friends don’t let friends skip leg day!
But, before you begin, prepare your muscles and joints by warming up thoroughly. Begin with 5-10 minutes of progressive cardio followed by a few minutes of dynamic mobility and flexibility training for the body parts you’re about to train.
All set? Then let’s go!
|1||Cable crossover||3-4||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|2||Supine cable incline chest press||3-4||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|3||Straight arm pulldown||3-4||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|4||Cable Y pulldown||3-4||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|5||Cable lateral raise||3-4||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|6||Cable Cuban press||3-4||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|7a||Cable Bayesian curl||2-3||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|7a||Cable overhead triceps extension|
|8a||Cable rope curl||2-3||12-20||60-90 seconds|
|8b||Cable rope pushdown|
Exercises 7a and 7b and 8a and 8b are to be performed as supersets. Do the first exercise (a) and immediately do the second (b). Rest for the prescribed time and then repeat the pairing. Use the same pattern for the second superset.
There are two ways to do most exercises – the right way and the wrong way. The right way keeps the tension on your workout muscles and away from your joints. In contrast, the wrong way makes your workout less effective and more likely to cause injury.
Use these step-by-step guidelines to ensure that you perform each exercise as correctly as possible. If any of the exercises are unfamiliar to you, do a few light sets to get a feel for the movement, and only increase the load when you’ve got your technique dialed in.
1. Cable crossover
Your first cable upper body exercise is a classic! Cable crossovers work all three pectoral heads, emphasizing the costal or lower head. It’s also an excellent exercise for isolating and firing up your chest before moving on to another chest exercise.
- Attach D-shaped handles to the high pulleys on a cable crossover machine.
- Hold a handle in each hand and stand in the middle of the two weight stacks.
- Adopt a staggered stance and stand with your arms stretched out to the side, hands about shoulder level.
- With your elbows slightly bent but rigid, sweep your arms forward and down so your hands meet in front of your hips.
- Slowly raise your arms, get a mild stretch in your chest, and repeat.
- Primary: Pectoralis major.
- Secondary: Anterior deltoids.
- A very shoulder-friendly chest exercise.
- An effective way to target the lower/inner pecs.
- A great way to prep your pecs for subsequent chest exercises.
- Keep your core braced and your torso upright to avoid turning this move into a pressing exercise.
- Pause with your pecs contracted for 1-2 seconds at the midpoint of each rep to maximize muscle engagement.
- For variety, you can also do this exercise with horizontal arms or moving from low to high.
2. Supine cable incline chest press
Supine cable incline chest presses are a uniquely effective upper and inner chest exercise. They feel very different from doing incline dumbbell presses, which is the nearest freeweight equivalent. However, make no mistake, this is a bonafide pec-builder that’s hard to beat!
- Place an incline bench in the center of a cable crossover machine. Adjust the backrest to around 30 degrees.
- Attach D-shaped handles to the low pulleys.
- Sit on the bench and hold a handle in each hand. Lie back and pull the handles into your shoulders. Rotate your wrists so your palms face down your body.
- Press your hands up and together so they meet above your chest. Pause for 1-2 seconds.
- Return your hands to your shoulders, stretch your pecs, and continue for the prescribed reps.
- Primary: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids.
- Secondary: Triceps.
- A very effective upper/inner chest exercise.
- Keeps your muscles under near-constant tension.
- Very safe, as no bar or weights can drop on your chest.
- Adjust the angle of your bench to see what feels and works best for you.
- You can also do this exercise with a neutral or hands facing inward grip.
- Push your hands inward as much as upward up to maximally engage your chest.
3. Straight arm pulldown
Straight arm pulldowns are one of a small handful of exercises that isolate your lats. That means they don’t involve your biceps, and movement only occurs at one joint. Like cable crossovers, this exercise provides a great way to wake up the target muscles before moving on to your next back movement.
- Attach a straight bar to a high cable machine.
- Grab the handle with an overhand, shoulder-width grip.
- Brace your abs and set your shoulders down and back.
- With your elbows slightly bent but rigid, push the bar down to your upper thighs. Flex your lats at the bottom of each rep.
- Raise your arms, feel the stretch in your lats, and repeat.
- Primary: Latissimus dorsi, triceps.
- Secondary: Rectus abdominis.
- An excellent preparatory exercise for the lats.
- An effective way to target the long head of the triceps.
- A great move for building a stronger mind-muscle connection with your lats.
- Drive your elbows back and down to maximize lat engagement.
- You can also do this exercise with a rope handle.
- Do this exercise while kneeling to make the movement stricter and more demanding.
4. Cable Y pulldown
Most lat pulldown variations involve pulling your arms more-or-less straight down. This unique variation is more of a pull-in than a pulldown, hitting your lats from a very unusual angle. This exercise is guaranteed to give you are wider upper back.
- Attach D-shaped handles to the high pulleys of a cable crossover machine.
- Grip a handle in each hand and kneel in the middle of the pulleys, arms raised to make a Y-shape.
- Bend your arms and pull your elbows down and into your sides, squeezing your shoulders down and back.
- Reach up and out and repeat.
- Primary: latissimus dorsi, biceps.
- Secondary: Trapezius, rhomboids.
- An effective alternative to traditional lat pulldowns.
- A unique lat exercise that will develop your lat width.
- A great way to train your lats unilaterally.
- Kneel on a foam pad or folded mat for comfort.
- Lead with your elbows and keep your wrists straight to fully engage your lats.
- Think about tucking your elbows into your ribs to make this exercise as effective as possible.
5. Cable lateral raise
Cable lateral raises are a much better exercise than the same move done with dumbbells. With regular dumbbell lateral raises, all the tension comes on at the end of the movement, and the start is almost too easy to have much of an effect. Using cables means your muscles are under tension from start to finish, making this a far superior exercise.
- Attach D-shaped handles to the low pulleys of a cable crossover machine.
- Hold the left handle in your right hand and the right handle in your left hand so the cables cross in front of your hips.
- Stand in the center of the pulleys. Bend your arms slightly, but then keep them rigid. Brace your core and set your shoulders down and back.
- Raise your arms up and out so they’re parallel to the floor.
- Lower your arms back to your sides and repeat.
- Primary: Medial deltoids, upper trapezius.
- Secondary: N/A.
- A very effective exercise for the medial or side deltoids.
- Keeps your shoulders under near-constant tension.
- A perfect exercise for intensity-boosting drop sets.
- Lead with your elbows (and not your hands) to maximize deltoid engagement.
- Keep your shoulders down and back to avoid overusing your upper traps.
- You can also do this exercise with a single cable, like this:
6. Cable Cuban press
The Cuban press is beloved by weightlifters, bodybuilders, and functional exercisers. It’s one of a few exercises that manages to work all three deltoid heads at once. It’s also a revered pre/rehab exercise. So, better looking, more muscular, healthier shoulders? We’re in!
- Attach your D-shaped handles to a low cable machine. Hold a handle in each hand and step back to tension the cables.
- Brace your core and set your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your elbows and row the handles up to your lower chest.
- Next, rotate your forearms forward and up to vertical.
- Press the handles up and overhead.
- Reverse the movement and then repeat.
- Primary: Deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids, rotator cuff.
- Secondary: Biceps, triceps.
- A total deltoid exercise.
- Good for developing shoulder mobility and stability.
- An all-in-one solution for bigger, stronger, healthier shoulders.
- You can also do this exercise with a single handle/bar.
- Go light and focus on using a controlled, smooth movement. This is not an exercise for heavy weights!
- Skip the overhead press is you want to emphasize your rotator cuff.
7a. Cable Bayesian curl
Bayesian curls work your biceps like incline dumbbell curls. They start with your shoulder in an extended position, so your biceps are stretched. This provides an excellent workout for the long head of your biceps, which gives your biceps their peak.
- Attach a D-handle to a low pulley machine.
- Grab the handle and adopt a split stance with your back to the weight stack. Extend your arm behind you and brace your core.
- Bend your elbow and curl the handle forward and up to your shoulder.
- Extend your arm, getting a good mid-rep biceps stretch.
- Continue for the prescribed number of reps.
- Do the same number of reps on each side.
- Primary: Biceps.
- Secondary: Brachialis, brachioradialis.
- One of the best biceps peaking exercises around.
- Keeps your muscles under more constant tension than incline dumbbell curls.
- Ideal for sleeve-splitting pump-inducing drop sets.
- Push your arm forward at the top of each rep to fully engage your biceps.
- Keep your wrists straight and hips and shoulders squared and level throughout.
- You can also do this exercise with a hammer or neutral grip.
7b. Cable overhead triceps extension
If you want bigger arms, this exercise needs to be part of your workouts. By raising your arms overhead, you put the long head of your triceps into a stretched position, forcing them to work harder. This ensures all three triceps heads get a great workout, maximizing muscle growth and size.
- Attach a rope handle to a low pulley machine.
- Grab the handles and straighten your arms above your head so the cable is behind you.
- Pull your upper arms into the side of your head, brace your core, and set your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your elbows and lower your hands behind your head. Get a good stretch in your triceps.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- Primary: Triceps.
- Secondary: N/A.
- A proven triceps builder.
- One of the best exercises for targeting the long head of the triceps.
- An effective shoulder and thoracic spine mobilizer.
- Do this exercise while kneeling or sitting if preferred.
- You can also do this exercise with a straight or EZ bar.
- Keep your chest up and shoulders back and down to make this exercise as safe and effective as possible. Try not to lean back, as doing so could cause injury.
8a. Cable rope curl
Dumbbell hammer curls are excellent for building thicker biceps and more domineering forearms. However, like so many dumbbell exercises, the tension doesn’t really kick in until the midpoint of each rep. Cable rope curls work the exact same muscles, but there is tension from the very start of each rep.
- Attach a rope handle to a low pulley machine. Hold one end of the rope in each hand and stand with your arms straight, core braced, and shoulders back and down.
- Keeping your upper arms close to your sides, bend your elbows and curl your hands up to your shoulders. Keep your hands neutral, i.e., palms facing inward.
- Extend your arms, pause, and repeat.
- Primary: Biceps.
- Secondary: Brachialis, brachioradialis.
- A better exercise than dumbbell hammer curls.
- A total biceps and forearm exercise.
- More elbow-friendly than straight bar curls.
- Bend your knees slightly for balance and stability.
- Keep your wrists straight throughout.
- Do not use your legs or back to help you swing the weight up, as doing so takes tension away from the target muscles.
8b. Cable rope pushdown
Triceps pushdowns are one of the most popular triceps exercises around. However, while the straight bar version is relatively effective, using a rope handle makes it even more do. That’s because the neutral grip afforded by the rope handle increases triceps long-head engagement, which can add a lot to your upper arm size.
- Attach a rope handle to a high pulley. Grab one end in each hand and pull your upper arms down to your sides. Brace your core and set your shoulders down and back.
- Extend your arms and press your hands down to the outside of your thighs. Spread your hands apart to maximize triceps engagement.
- Bend your arms and repeat.
- Primary: Triceps.
- Secondary: N/A.
- Targets the all-important long head of the triceps.
- Very elbow and wrist-friendly.
- An excellent exercise to superset with cable rope curls.
- Bend your elbows as far as possible without moving your arms away from your sides. There is no need to stop at 90 degrees.
- Keep your legs and torso stationary to avoid turning this into a decline chest press exercise.
- Use a towel instead of a rope handle to increase forearm engagement, like this:
Upper Body Cable Workout FAQ
Do you have a question about this workout or cable training in general? No sweat because we’ve got the answers you seek!
1. Is this workout for beginner, intermediate, or advanced exercisers?
The great thing about strength training is that people with vastly different fitness levels can often do the same workout. Beginners can use lighter loads and do fewer sets, while more experienced exercisers can load up the weights and do more sets. However, the exercises can remain unchanged.
So, with that in mind, this workout is suitable for all levels, but it’s probably best for beginners and intermediates. More advanced exercisers may find that doing two exercises per body part is not enough volume to build muscle and get stronger.
2. Is this a cutting or bulking workout?
Cutting and bulking have more to do with your diet than your workout. Cutting involves reducing your food intake to create a calorie deficit. This forces your body to burn more fat for fuel so that you get leaner and more defined.
In contrast, bulking involves eating more and creating a calorie surplus. This gives you more energy for training and promotes muscle growth and weight gain.
Providing you train hard enough, it doesn’t matter that much what workout you follow for cutting and bulking. So long as your diet is dialed in, you should be successful.
There ARE bulking and cutting workouts you can follow, but in reality, it’s more a question of diet.
3. Why do higher reps for cable exercises?
Most cable exercises do not lend themselves to heavy weights and low reps. Because many of the exercises are performed standing, using big loads makes it much harder to maintain good posture and even remain on your feet.
Use a massive weight with, e.g., cable crossovers, and you’ll probably end up moving backward instead of pushing the weight forward.
Using moderate weights and medium to high reps provides the best opportunity to stimulate your muscles while using the best possible form. While this training approach won’t build your maximal strength, it can be effective for hypertrophy, provided you take each set within a couple of reps of failure (1).
4. Can I change any of the exercises?
Feel free to change the exercises providing you choose movements that work the same muscles. For example, doing cable skull crushers instead of cable rope pushdowns is OK, while doing cable reverse curls instead of cable crossovers is not.
Changing exercise is an excellent way to start learning how to write your own workouts, and that’s something every exerciser should be able to do.
5. How long should I follow this program?
Even the best workouts start to lose their potency after 6-8 weeks. Because of something called the repeated bout effect, your muscles get used to the exercises in your program and become less responsive to them.
Avoid training plateaus by changing your workout whenever you feel your progress starting to stall. But, don’t change your workout so often that it doesn’t get a chance to work, e.g., every other week.
However, you can prolong the life of a program by a) increasing the weights week by week, b) using different set and rep schemes, and c) making minor changes to things like the exercise selection and order.
That said, it would be a mistake to keep on doing the same workout once it’s stopped working, as all you’ll do is maintain your current fitness rather than increase it.
More Cable Exercises:
- Cable Hypertrophy Workout Program
- Cable Chest Exercises to Develop Serious Pec Power
- Cable Glute Workouts and Exercises for a Better Butt
- Lower Back Exercises with Cables
- Cable Exercises for Your Arms and Bigger Biceps
- Cable Triceps Exercises
- Cable Ab Exercises For Ripped Core
Cable exercises are effective, functional, joint-friendly, and safe. And while there is nothing wrong with lifting heavy barbells and dumbbells, that doesn’t mean they’re the only way to build muscle and develop a high level of performance and conditioning.
If you are banged up or just bored of heavy bench presses and bent-over rows, give our upper-body cable workout a try. Do it 1-2 times a week for the next 6-8 weeks, and the results will speak for themselves.
- Lasevicius T, Ugrinowitsch C, Schoenfeld BJ, Roschel H, Tavares LD, De Souza EO, Laurentino G, Tricoli V. Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jul;18(6):772-780. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1450898. Epub 2018 Mar 22. PMID: 29564973. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29564973/