Sophie Butler wearing blue activewear pulling the cable machine handle above her head.

Strength training: how to use a cable machine to get stronger

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If you’re looking for a new way to train, add these six cable exercises to your strength training routine. 

Are you one of the many looking to experiment with new types of kit that you didn’t have access to during your home workouts? Perhaps that means using a treadmill so you can run even on rainy days, or hitting a workout class to box at a punch bag

One piece of equipment you shouldn’t overlook is the cable machine. They’re commonly found in gyms and are a great way to add resistance to your workouts in addition to your free-weight-based training

“Cable machines have always fitted into my workout, but I have definitely started to utilise them a lot more now that I use a wheelchair,” says Sophie Butler, qualified PT and fitness influencer. “It’s the most accessible piece of kit in my gym, and is good to use for those who are seated or have limited mobility. But generally, cables offer a great form of resistance training for anyone looking to build muscle and strength.”

The benefits of using cable machines

The cable machine is a versatile piece of kit that comes with different attachments, weights and heights that you can simply adjust depending on your exercise. “I used to use them mainly for my accessory work, to ‘burn out’ the muscle at the end of my training. Now, I also use the cable for my main lifts,” says Sophie. “Pre-pandemic, I was able to do a 90kg lat pulldown on the cable machine – so you can use them to lift heavy as well as to isolate individual muscles.” 

The cable machine is predominately used for working muscles in your posterior chain – the back of your body. This is because most of the moves are pulling motions, dragging the cable from the fixed base out towards you. “I find the cable machine is often easier to use than free weights or machines for pull workouts, and are my main piece of kit when I’m training my back,” says Sophie. 

“I think that is the best thing about the cable machine – it’s a very easy piece of kit to use. If you wanted to, say, rack up a deadlift bar or prepare your weights for a military press, it can often be difficult or intimidating. The cable machine requires just a pin to move between weights which is great for building confidence.”

5 of the best cable exercises

Lat pulldown 

This mainly uses the muscles in your lats (the side of your back), but also engages your biceps and shoulders

  1. Clip the wide bar onto the cable machine and place it above your head, so you can reach it with your finger tips.
  2. Place the pin on your desired weight for the exercise. 
  3. From a sitting, kneeling or standing position, facing the machine, place your hands wide on the bar. Your pinky finger should sit around where the curve begins, with an overhand grip. 
  4. Roll your shoulders back and down to engage your lats. 
  5. Pull the bar down towards your chest, squeezing your lats as it lowers in front of your face.
  6. Slowly extend your arms back up. 

Bicep curls

If arm day is boring, mix up your dumbbell curls with this cable variation. 

  1. Clip the short bar onto the cable machine and place it at the lowest point. 
  2. Place the pin on your desired weight for the exercise. 
  3. Stand or sit facing the cable machine, a foot or so away from it. 
  4. Place your hands onto the bar with an overhand grip and pull it to hip height. 
  5. Curl your hands up to your shoulders, keeping your elbows still.
  6. Slowly lower your hands back to your hips. 

Lat raises 

Targeting the entire delt for stronger shoulders, these are a great alternative to dumbbell raises. 

  1. Clip the handle onto the cable machine and place it at the lowest point. 
  2. Place the pin on your desired weight for the exercise. 
  3. Take the handle in your right hand and turn 90 degrees so your left arm is closest to the machine, right hand side furthest away. 
  4. Pull the cable to the right, keeping your arm straight, until your hand is parallel with your shoulder.
  5. Slowly lower back down.

Face pulls 

These target the rear delts (the back of your shoulders) to strengthen those muscles that can be weakened from sitting at a desk. 

  1. Clip the rope onto the cable machine and place it in line with your eyes. 
  2. Place the pin on your desired weight for the exercise. 
  3. Take either end of the rope in each hand and move a couple of feet backwards, away from the cable machine. 
  4. Roll your shoulders back and down and begin to pull your hands towards your face by squeezing your shoulder blades together. 
  5. Allow your elbows to move out wide while keeping them high, in line with your shoulders. 
  6. Slowly lower back to the starting position. 
Sophie Butler wearing blue activewear pulling the cable machine handle above her head.
Strength training: Sophie Butler likes using a cable machine for compound and accessory exercises.

Pull throughs

This is predominantly a glute and hamstring exercise. As with a kettlebell swing, the movement should come from your hips hinging, not your back arching or your knees bending. 

  1. Clip the rope onto the cable machine and place it at the lowest point. 
  2. Place the pin on your desired weight for the exercise.
  3. Stand with your back to the cable machine and your legs either side of the rope. 
  4. Take the rope between your hands and take a few steps forwards until the cable is taught. 
  5. Hinge at the hips to send your glutes back towards the cable machine as your chest comes down. Allow your hands to move through your legs as the rope pulls backwards.
  6. Squeeze your glutes to push your hips forwards to stand straight, pulling the rope back through your legs. 

Hip abductors 

This exercise works the outside of the hip, the glute med, for a variation on the abductor machine. 

  1. Clip the ankle strap or fabric handle onto the cable machine and place it at the lowest point. 
  2. Place the pin on your desired weight for the exercise. 
  3. Place your right foot into the handle so it sits across the ball of your foot, or tighten the ankle strap around your right leg. 
  4. Turn 90 degrees so your left side is closest to the machine. Slightly bend your left leg to stabilise while you rest your right toes on the floor. 
  5. Lift your right ankle to the side to lift the leg while keeping it straight, squeezing your right glute as you do so. You may want to hold onto the machine with your left hand. 
  6. Slowly lower back down to the starting point. 

Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts, led by our very own trainers.

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Sophie Butler 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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