Exercise sensations like Crossfit have us looking back to a simpler time. When weights were weights and men got strong by flipping tires. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the basics of body resistance and free weights – at HTBM, those are some of our favorite ways to work out. However, if you never open your eyes, you miss a lot of opportunity.
In this article, we’ll be exploring how cable machines work your muscles, how they work in a home gym or fitness center, and some of the most common exercises that you can do with them.
Cable machines are of a class of workout called “resistance training.” Technically, there’s not a difference between “resistance training” and “strength training.” Any time that your muscles overcome an opposing force, they are developing strength by working against “resistance.”
When you lift weights, that resistance comes from the force of gravity. When you swim, that resistance is the drag force of the water. In all cases, your muscles overcome these forces through extending and contracting, which in turn makes them stronger (Abernathy et al, p 40,79).
When people talk about resistance training or resistance exercises, they are often talking about a specific type of exercise in which the resistance being overcome originates from the tensile strength of a component like a band or cable. Or at least, that’s where the resistance comes from in older models.
Even since the late 1980s, innovative cable machines have relied on tensile resistance – your muscles are working to bend a stiff but still elastic cable or band that provides resistance. These days, more and more companies are turning to “digital weight” (also called “magnetic resistance”) which use magnets to adjust the force that your muscles have to overcome.
Classes of Cable Machines
We took a bit of a shortcut above saying that cable machines didn’t pit your muscles against weight. Some models do, they just aren’t likely to be found in your home.
These are probably the machines that are still prevalent at your local gym. The resistance in these machines does come from weights, usually metal plates stacked in the back of the machine. The weight is selected by inserting a pin into the desired plate – the further down you put the pin, the more weight you’re working against.
A cable then runs from the weighted plates in a carriage in the back of the machine through a pulley or system of pulleys to a handle. Pulling or pushing this handle works against the weight.
Through a creative application of pulleys and multiple attachment points for the handle, some of these machines manage more versatility than others. However, most are single use.
While they do what they do well, they are bulky, expensive, and limited in terms of the exercises that they allow.
Companies like Bowflex pioneered weight machines that don’t use weight by developing “Power Rod technology.” This system pits your muscles against tensile resistance in firm but flexible rods. Bowflex says that this is safer and easier on your joints than lifting actual weights – a claim which is true of all cable machines, and which we will examine in greater depth below.
Users adjust the weight on these machines by passing the cable through varying numbers of rods, each with its own resistance. Machines of this class also went crazy with multiple access points resulting in versatile and affordable home gyms.
While they don’t weigh nearly as much as pin-and-plate machines, they require a great deal of space as the rods bend out from the machine during workouts. The initial resistance capacity of these machines was originally very limited but they now offer over 400lbs of resistance.
The Humble Band
Not all systems that use resistance from tensile strength are rod machines that bend an element. Some stretch an element. Some bargain and space saving machines do this by having the user pull on what are essentially bungee cords of various resistance. Like Rod machines, users can adjust the resistance by adjusting the number of cords.
Resistance bands can also be purchased independently of machines and can be surprisingly versatile.
The current trend in next-generation cable machines has a couple of names, the most useful of which being “magnetic resistance.” This is the power behind exercise machines of the future, including NordicTrack’s CST Series. This approach uses electromagnets, the strength of which is adjusted through varying electric currents within the magnets.
This is controlled by computer chips within the machine allowing for fast and easy weight adjustments as well as “dynamic resistance” – the machine automatically adjusting resistance to provide the best workout. In live-lesson applications, trainers can even adjust the difficulty of machines being used by people remotely attending the class. More on this later.
This technology is relatively new to strength training but has long been employed in exercise bikes and rowing machines. It allows low-weight, versatile machines that don’t take up a great deal of space in the home.
The only real drawback is that magnetic resistance machines have yet to match the maximum resistance levels of other styles of machine – about half that of the most industrious rod machines. Still, clocking in at around 200lbs, that’s plenty of resistance for most users.
Advantages Over Other Workout Systems
Whether your cable machine uses tensile resistance or magnetic resistance, this kind of exercise has practical advantages over older models. It is also interesting from a biomechanical and performance perspective.
Saving Space and Money
Resistance equipment and cable machines are, first and foremost, incredibly efficient in just about every way. For one thing, because they don’t use heavy weighted plates to provide resistance, they are easier to buy, ship or carry, and set up than older machines or even free weights.
These machines don’t only weigh a lot less than other workout equipment, they also take up less space, despite being infinitely more versatile in terms of the workouts that you can get out of them. This makes them ideal for home gym setups. It also compounds value. A well-designed home cable machine can take the place of any number of single-exercise machines in the gym.
Biomechanics and Performance
Saving space and money is great, but only if it provides a good workout. And cable machines do just that.
If you think about how muscles actually work, they are essentially a series of cables themselves. As a result, using your muscles against cable machines – specifically those that use tensile resistance – is as close to pitting your muscles against another organism as you can get with a machine.
Perhaps of less academic interest but greater performance value, machines that use magnetic resistance are far less limited in terms of the resistance that they provide. They can offer resistance between the conventional 5 pound intervals. They can also adjust resistance based on your performance so that you get the best possible workout.
Further, regular readers of HTBM will recall that we often point out that because of antagonistic muscle action, you can double the impact of a workout by not only focusing on the lift but also the return (ibid, p. 202). However, the magnetic resistance in today’s cutting edge cable machines provide resistance on the return so you’re getting that double-ended workout.
Another benefit of cable machines that also has to do with biomechanics has to do with safety. Gone are the days of worrying about dropping weights and hurting yourself – or your floor. Not that you should aspire to suddenly let go of the handlebar on your cable machine mid-exercise.
Dropping weights isn’t the only concern with free weights. Doing an exercise with the wrong form with free weights is much more likely to damage your muscles than it is doing an exercise in the wrong form with cable machines. Further, the cables have a way of “guiding” the exercise such that users are less likely to use the wrong form in the first place.
The Live Class Advantage
Most cable machines these days come with an onboard computer and mounted display. Some also offer live fitness classes that you can follow along with.
Until recently, this was hardly an advantage considering you could easily find free asynchronous classes on YouTube that you could follow along with using other machines or freeweights. However, as the technology behind these live fitness classes has become more robust, the benefits of participating in the classes has become much more real.
For example, Nordic Track’s magnetic resistance system can be controlled by the instructor of a remote class.
Some of the Best and Most Common Cable Machine Workouts
As we’ve seen, the kinds of exercises that can be done on a cable machine vary greatly by the type and model. However, there are a few exercises that can be done on virtually any cable machine – and some that can’t be done any other way.
The Lat Pull-Down is a classic exercise for the arms and upper back.
The user sits or stands, arms extended to grasp a bar overhead. By bringing the elbows down in line with the shoulders, the user works the muscles of the upper back and arms (Caciolo, p. 21).
Your gym probably has a dedicated (pin-and-plate) lat pull-down machine and it’s probably one of the only ways that you know of to work out these muscle groups. Fortunately, most cable machines can also offer this classic back-buster.
Cable French Press
The classic “French Press” is a fairly basic triceps exercise. In the free weight version, you start out holding a dumbbell in both hands behind your head with your arms bent. You lift the weight by extending your arms so that the weight is above your head. While an effective exercise, you can understand why it might be a little scary.
The Cable French Press works in exactly the same way, except instead of a weight you’re holding the handle of a cable machine (ibid, p. 7).
Cable Grip Extensions
Cable Grip Extensions are something of a cable machine exclusive. You start with your hands bent out in front of you holding the overhead handle of a machine about waist height. You extend your arms down to pull the weight up (ibid).
Fancy machines and pulleys redirecting force can make this exercise sound and feel pretty unusual, but if you think about it it’s really just a backwards tricep curl.
Standing Leg Curl
For a standing leg curl, you support a modified low handlebar behind one ankle on or just above the floor. You then flex the leg at the knee, bringing the handlebar up, working out the muscles of the upper leg (ibid, p. 26).
This can be replicated with weights worn around the ankles, but if you have a cable machine that will do it – and many will – that’s much easier.
Row, Row, Row Your Body
Seated curls, standing curls, reverse curls, whatever. There are any number of ways to replicate this classic exercise, all without using a boat. And, just a friendly reminder, a good row is essentially a full body exercise – though it doesn’t often get that much credit.
If you really love this exercise, once again, there are dedicated rowing machines in most gyms with home-models widely available.
This list of cable machine exercises has focused on those exercises that are either solely associated with machines, only possible with machines, or that are just exponentially better on machines than through other approaches.
There are any number of exercises that can be done on a good machine. Just about any exercise that you like to do with free weights or body resistance probably has a cable version.
Are You Sold Yet?
It’s true, cable machines can be a little intimidating if you aren’t used to using them. Different models work in different ways and work with different exercises, and setting the machine up for different exercises can feel like a skilled occupation.
However, by getting the hang of a few basic setups or getting one machine for yourself and sticking with it, cable machines can revolutionize how you workout.
Abernathy, Bruce; Hanrahan, Stephanie J; Kippers, Vaughan; Mackinnon, Laurel; McManus, Alison M; Pandy, Marcus G. “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement” 3rd ed. Human Kinetics. Champaign IL, U.S. 2013.
Caciolo, C (ed.). “Men’s Health Total Body Workout.” Rodale. Emmaus, PA, U.S. 2007.