Most resistance trainees immediately gravitate toward free weights for their resistance training.
Free weights are, without a doubt, among the most effective options for serious muscle-building. By the simple fact that they are “free” and not on a track (like so many machines), your secondary muscles have to engage to keep the weights stable and balanced while you lift.
The result: more growth due to higher muscle recruitment.
But not all gym machines are built equal. In fact, there’s one machine that may even deliver a better workout than free weights.
That’s right, we’re talking about the cable machine!
Are Cable Machines Better than Free Weights?
Honestly, comparing the cable machine and free weights is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are awesome, both deliver the desired results, but they have some pretty important differences.
Free Weights Pros and Cons
Free weights are more versatile, and can be used literally anywhere at the gym or at home. You just need a few dumbbells, a barbell with weight discs, or a kettlebell, and you can work out pretty much anywhere.
Free weights are superior to many weight machines because of one key difference; the instability that forces you to engage your secondary muscles to keep the weight stable during any movement. This is advantageous for maximizing muscle, strength, and overall functional fitness, and the strength you develop is more well-rounded.
With free weights, it’s easier to work on muscular imbalances. Simply switch your exercises from a barbell to a dumbbell, with different weights for each hand, and you’ve got a way to train the weaker muscles on your non-dominant side.
Cable Machine Pros and Cons
Probably the biggest “con” of cable machines is that they’re large machines that do not move. Seriously, you’ve got hundreds of pounds combined—between the frame, the weight plates, etc.—so once the cable machine is set up, it’s going nowhere.
Cable machines are also often too pricey for people who want to train at home. Thanks to their popularity, they’re typically the machine most commonly occupied at the gym.
But there’s one crucial factor about cable machines that make them a truly amazing addition to your workout: the continuous muscle tension.
When you perform an exercise using a free weight—let’s use Bicep Curl as an example—the weight provides resistance from the bottom of the movement to the top. You start feeling the weight as you curl the weight upward, and it’s only when you reach the very top of that concentric (curling) phase that your arms get a break.
But with cable machines, there is no break. Even when you’re at the top of that curl, your forearm and bicep muscles are still engaged in order to keep the cable from pulling the bar back down to resting position. This continuous tension means that a cable workout delivers a fractionally better workout, leading to faster muscle fatigue and greater micro-damage to the muscle fibers that contribute to growth.
If your gym has a cable machine, it’s one of the best options to help you get an amazing workout, no matter what muscle group you’re working.
It’s particularly effective for your back muscles! You’ll find that the versatility of the cable machine makes it an excellent option for a varied upper and lower back workout. Because you can adjust the height and angle of the cable pull, you can hit all of the important upper and lower back muscles in a number of different ways.
Below, we’ve listed our nine favorite cable back exercises to help you improve the quality of your workout and benefit from that continuous tension that makes cable machines so effective!
[Related: Best Cable Exercises for Abs]
Best 9 Cable Back Exercises:
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
Let’s start with the best of the best: the Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown.
What makes this the best? Simple: it’s as close to a Pull-Up as you can get, meaning it’s the best exercise to help train all the muscles involved in Pull-Ups. Pull-Ups are a pretty standard metric to measure fitness and functional strength, so they definitely deserve a place in your weekly training sessions.
If you’re not capable of doing a lot of Pull-Ups (and, let’s be honest, many of us are still struggling to knock out a complete set), Wide-Grip Lat Pulldowns give you the same exact workout, but instead of pulling your body weight up toward the bar, you pull the bar down toward your body.
The Wide Grip focuses on your lats, but also gives your posterior deltoids, traps, and rhomboids an amazing workout. It also encourages better upper back breadth. This should be the “opener”, the first exercise you do and with the most weight you can handle. Spending more time on this exercise will help you develop the strength needed to improve your Pull-Up performance.
Close-Grip Lat Pulldown
Shifting your hands closer together for the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown changes the angle of the exercise, moving the focus toward the upper lats and building better overall upper back strength. It’s a bit harder on your wrists, but it increases the range of motion for your elbows.
For the Close Grip, your hands should be narrower than shoulder width apart, but if the angle is too painful on your wrists (for those recovering from wrist strains or sprains), you can slide them slightly outward to shoulder width.
Your core muscles will do more work here because you’ll be pulling the weight downward across the anterior (front) plane of your body. But going through the full motion of pulling the bar down to your chest and slowly raising it back up to “resting” position will put some serious tension on your upper back muscles and build excellent strength.
Reverse-Grip Lat Pulldown
Reversing your grip changes it from “Pull-Up Grip” to “Chin-Up” grip. There is greater focus on the biceps with this grip, which is good if you’re trying to develop better arm and shoulder strength in tandem with upper back strength. However, if the goal is to primarily focus on your upper back, the regular Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns reign supreme.
Reversing your grip also shifts the focus to your lower lats, and there is greater core engagement (similar to close grip lat pulldowns). You’ll have to make a conscious effort to keep your shoulders back and down, and to avoid using your momentum to pull the bar down. The more isolated and controlled the movement, the better!
Seated Cable Rows
Seated Cable Rows are excellent for anyone who wants to develop strength used for rowing—rowing machines, rowing boats, kayaks, canoes, etc. Instead of it being an “up and down pull”, it’s a “front and back pull” with the tension coming from directly in front of you rather than overhead.
Seated Cable Rows target your upper back, along with your mid-back and traps. Using different bars and handles can change up the focus of the exercise—i.e., a wide-grip bar can build breadth, while a close-grip Double-D handle will build strength along the spinal column.
This exercise engages your lower back more, which can be excellent if you’re trying to develop better core strength, but a negative if you’re recovering from lower back injuries. To reduce lower back strain, keep your upper body strictly motionless and use only your arms, shoulders, and back muscles to pull the cable with every repetition.
Read more: How To Do Seated Cable Row
Full Extension Seated Cable Rows
This is an excellent variation of the Seated Cable Row, one that places even more focus on the mid-back, particularly the lower lats and rhomboids.
With this movement, instead of isolating your torso, you allow your body to lean forward slightly as you return to “resting” position, and actually let your shoulders slide forward to full extension. This forces your back to engage earlier in the movement, and it concentrates the initial movement on your rhomboids for more effective targeting.
However, if you have lower back issues or are recovering from an injury in your shoulders, it’s better to avoid this exercise due to the higher range of motion—which gives more chances for injury.
The Face Pull is an excellent exercise to perform standing, thereby reducing the strain on your lower back. It also does an amazing job of highlighting the upper lats, traps, posterior deltoids, and rhomboids. It’s even effective to help you strengthen your rotator cuff muscles, but it’s much safer than Upright Barbell Rows because it only travels through one plane of motion (forward and backward) without straining the shoulder joint.
With the Face Pull, the cable machine is set to your eye level, and you use the rope handle to allow for greater range of motion. As you pull the handle toward you, your hands separate and pull to either side of your head.
There is amazing tension on your shoulders and upper back muscles at the end of this concentric pulling phase, and the tension is continuous during the eccentric phase as you return your hands to their starting position. The result is greater definition in all the back and shoulder muscles involved in the movement!
This is an interesting isolation exercise that helps you to develop better upper back strength across a broader range of motion than most other pull exercises. Instead of recruiting the arms or shoulders, it’s entirely focused on your lats.
With the Straight-Arm Pulldown, your arms are at full extension, you’re bent slightly forward at the waist, and your upper back muscles do all the work of pulling the weight down across the front of your body. It’s an exercise you definitely want to start light with, so you can focus on the specific, controlled movement, then slowly work your way up to heavier weights once you’re comfortable with the isolation.
One-Arm Seated Cable Rows
Any “one-arm” exercise increases engagement of all the core muscles (obliques, abs, and spinal erectors) in order to improve core strength and stability. This exercise isn’t ideal for those recovering from lower back injuries, but can be highly effective to help you build lower back and core strength to reduce injury risk down the road.
With the One-Arm Seated Cable Row, the form is the same as the Seated Cable Row, except that you’re gripping a D-handle in one hand rather than a wide-grip bar in two hands. To double down on the core-focused aspect of the workout, twist your torso slightly as you pull the weight to your abdomen. This trunk rotation will target the obliques, abs, and back, helping to strengthen these vital stabilizer muscles.
With the One-Arm Seated Cable Row, you can identify which of your arms is the stronger (it’s not always the dominant side), making it easier for you to give the weaker arm greater priority in your training.
These nine awesome exercises will amp up your upper back workout to eleven, and deliver serious results thanks to the continuous tension that makes cable machines so effective. They’re not necessarily a replacement for Pull-Ups or free weight exercises (like Rows, Bent-Over Rows, Dumbbell Rows, and so many others), but can be implemented in your workout as desired to achieve maximum results.
By incorporating the cable machine into your workout, you can enhance muscular strength through both the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercises, and see faster strength and size gains. You’ll love feeling the burn as you train using the exercises we’ve listed above!