Strong and defined back muscles can take your physique to another level and give you the stability you need for day-to-day activities. But, many of you are probably wondering how exactly you can get your back to the next level. Well, wonder no more because we’ve got your back, pardon the pun! It’s a matter of choosing the right tools and one such tool is the cable machine.
The only question that remains is how to use the cable machine to train your back. Don’t worry, this guide will be your gym buddy and walk you through the 9 best cable back exercises. Once you’ve read this, every pull will take you a step closer to your back-building goals.
Table of Contents
- 1 The 9 Best Back Cable Exercises
- 2 Benefits of Using Cable Machines for Back
- 3 Anatomy of the Back
- 4 FAQs About Back Cable Machine Exercises
The 9 Best Back Cable Exercises
- Seated cable row
- Single-arm cable row
- Lat pulldown
- Cable face pull
- Incline cable pullover
- Straight arm pulldown
- Cable pull through
- Cable shrug
- Cable incline bench row
Seated cable row
Benefits of seated cable rows
- Enhances upper body strength
- Improves posture
- Engages core muscles
- Versatile grip options
Enhances upper body strength
Although cable rows mainly target your back muscles, they’re still a compound exercise. This means that they engage multiple muscle groups at the same time. So, they’re effective for enhancing your overall upper body strength.
Doing cable rows regularly can strengthen the muscles responsible for maintaining good posture, potentially leading to better posture.
Engages core muscles
Your body relies slightly on your core to stabilize itself during cable rows. This means that your core muscles are being worked and subsequently developed.
Versatile grip options
You can attach various types of handles to either make the exercise more comfortable or challenging. You have the option of a rope attachment, a straight bar, or a v-bar, all of which can target the back differently.
How to perform seated cable rows
- Start by selecting an appropriate weight on the weight stack.
- Attach your attachment of choice (rope, straight bar, v-bar).
- Get into the starting position by sitting on the machine with your legs slightly bent and your back straight.
- Grasp the attachment. If using a straight bar, you can use either an underhand or overhand grip.
- Pull the weight up slightly off the stack to start. Keep your body steady and pull the handle into your stomach.
- Focus on pulling your shoulder blades as you row and squeeze your back muscles at the end of the movement.
- Slowly return to the starting position. Be sure to maintain control while doing this.
- Repeat for the target number of reps and sets.
Pro tip: If you’re ever confused about which weight level to select, go for one that challenges you without you having to sacrifice form. You could also gauge an appropriate weight by how easily you can get to or past 10 reps. If you get to 10 reps too easily (feeling like you could’ve done more reps) then the weight is likely too light. Bear in mind that this could vary depending on your goals.
Master the seated row for a stronger back. This video breaks down the technique step-by-step, ensuring you get the most out of this crucial exercise:
Single-arm cable row
Benefits of single-arm cable rows
- Fixes muscles imbalances
- Increases range of motion
- Targeted muscle engagement
Fixes muscles imbalances
This is one of the best cable back workouts for fixing any muscle imbalances that you may have in your back, as it targets one muscle at a time.
Increases range of motion
Range of motion is particularly important when it comes to getting a good stretch of your muscles, which can enhance flexibility and strength. This exercise is incredibly popular as it allows for a greater range of motion compared to bilateral exercises.
Targeted muscle engagement
Single-arm rows focus intensely on one side of the back at a time. This ensures that each muscle receives adequate attention.
How to perform single-arm cable rows
- Attach a single d-handle to one of the pulleys on a low pulley cable station.
- Sit facing the machine with your feet braced.
- Grab the handle with one hand using a neutral grip.
- Keep your back straight and your core tight.
- Pull the handle towards your waist. While doing this, focus on moving the weight with your back muscles.
- Squeeze your back muscles at the peak of the movement.
- Slowly return to the starting position by extending your arm.
- Complete all reps on one side before switching to your other arm. Repeat for the desired number of sets.
Pro tip: To fix a muscle imbalance with a single-arm exercise, start with your weaker side. Do as many reps as you can on your weaker side then do the same amount on your stronger side. Don’t exceed the initial amount. Do this consistently for some time and your muscular imbalance should start to correct itself.
The single-arm cable row can be a game-changer for your back workout. Watch this detailed tutorial from Mountain Dog to perfect your form and maximize muscle engagement:
Benefits of lat pulldowns
- Develops upper back muscles
- Enhances shoulder and arm strength
- Improves athleticism
Develops upper back muscles
This exercise mainly targets the lats, which are the largest muscles in the upper back. The lats are essential for upper body strength and back width.
Enhances shoulder and arm strength
In addition to the lats, this exercise also works on the rear delts, biceps, and forearms, contributing to overall arm and shoulder development. This makes it one of the best compound back exercises as well as rear delt exercises.
The lats play a key role in lots of arm movements, so developing them effectively can enhance your overall athletic performance.
How to perform lat pulldown
- If using a dedicated cable lat pulldown machine, adjust the knee pad so it fits snugly against your thighs. If using a standard cable machine, place a seat facing the pulley, adjust the pulley to the highest height, and attach a t-bar.
- Select an appropriate weight that you can do around 10 good reps with.
- Stand up and grasp the handle with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Get into the starting position by sitting down on the bench/chair. Secure your legs under the knee pad if using a lat pulldown machine.
- Pull the weight down through your elbows, thinking of your hands as hooks to bridge the mind-muscle connection.
- Keep your elbows tucked in and aligned with your torso.
- Pull the weight to your upper chest, pause for a moment, then extend your arms fully.
- Repeat for the target number of reps and sets.
Lat pulldowns are essential for back development but the problem is that a lot of people tend to get them wrong. Thankfully, the video below can guide you through the correct posture and movement for effective results:
Cable face pull
Benefits of face pulls
- Strengthens the rear deltoids
- Improves posture
- Enhances rotator cuff muscles
- Balances upper body muscles
Strengthens the rear deltoids
This is one of the most effective cable back exercises for targeting the rear delts, a muscle that’s often neglected in standard workouts.
This exercise strengthens the upper back muscles and shoulders, which can help a lot in terms of correcting posture.
Enhances rotator cuff muscles
These muscles are very important for shoulder health and stability. Cable face pulls do a good job of working these crucial muscles.
Balances upper body muscles
By doing cable face pulls regularly, you can balance the muscle development between the front and back of the shoulder.
How to perform face pulls
- Set the machine to shoulder height and hook up a rope attachment.
- Stand a few feet away from the machine, grasping the rope with both hands at shoulder-width grip.
- Pull the rope towards your face while keeping your elbows high. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together as you pull.
- Slowly return to the starting position, maintaining control.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Pro tip: If you’re struggling with stability during this exercise, try performing it on the floor with a manageable weight. This switch can also work for many other cable back exercises.
Trust us, if want to step on the Olympia stage or simply strengthen supporting structures like the rotator cuff muscles, you’re going to want to do face pulls. But, you have to ensure you’re doing them properly. To help you along, here’s a video demonstrating the way to do it for optimal results:
Incline cable pullover
Benefits of incline cable pullovers
- Strengthens core stability
- Improves flexibility
- Targets multiple muscle groups
Strengthens core stability
This, like a lot of other cable exercises, relies slightly on the abdominal muscles to provide stability during the movement, meaning that your core is also being strengthened at the same time.
Incline cable pullovers can improve the flexibility in your shoulders and upper body.
Targets multiple muscle groups
The chest, arms, and back are all simultaneously engaged during this exercise.
How to perform incline cable pullovers
- Set up an incline bench in front of a cable machine, facing away from it.
- Attach a bar or rope to the cable machine and select the desired weight on the weight stack.
- Lie back on the bench in the starting position with your feet flat on the floor.
- Grab the rope or bar with both hands and extend your arms overhead.
- Keeping your arms straight, pull the bar or rope over your head and down towards your hips.
- Slowly return to the starting position, maintaining control throughout the movement.
- Repeat for the goal number of reps and sets.
Incline cable pullovers target those hard-to-reach muscles. So, check out this video to learn the proper form techniques to target those muscles, while avoiding common mistakes:
Straight arm pulldown
Benefits of straight arm pulldowns
- Activates the biceps and middle back
- Mimics the dumbbell pullover
Activates the biceps and middle back
While targeting the lats, this exercise also engages the biceps and middle back.
Mimics the dumbbell pullover
The straight-arm pulldown offers a similar range of motion to a dumbbell pullover, enhancing muscle stretch and engagement. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a lot safer to perform compared to the dumbbell variation.
How to perform straight arm pulldowns
- Stand in front of the cable machine with the pulley set above head height. Set the weight to the desired amount.
- Attach a bar to the cable and grab it with an overhand grip. Lean forward slightly, keeping your back straight and core engaged.
- With your arms straight, pull the bar down towards your thighs. Focus on using your lats to perform the movement, keeping your arms as straight as possible.
- Slowly return to the starting position in a controlled manner to keep tension on the lats.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Get the straight-arm pulldown right with this instructional video. We’ve found it to be a great resource for understanding the ins and outs of this back exercise:
Cable pull through
Benefits of cable pull-throughs
- Hones hip hinge mechanics
- Introductory deadlift variation
- Strengthens the posterior chain
Hones hip hinge mechanics
This exercise helps in mastering the form of a hip hinge which is crucial for many compound movements.
Introductory deadlift variation
Cable pull-throughs serve as a great introduction to deadlift mechanics, especially for beginners, due to the similar motions of this exercise.
Strengthens the posterior chain
While cable pull-throughs are a great exercise for the lower back, they also help train the hamstrings and glutes.
How to perform cable pull-throughs
- Lower the cable machine’s pulley to the lowest setting and put a rope attachment on.
- Stand with your back to the cable machine with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Bend over and reach through your legs to grab the rope with both hands.
- With a moderate bend in your knees, hinge at your hips so that your torso moves forward.
- Drive your hips forward, pulling the rope through your legs and straightening your body. Keep your back straight and core engaged during the entire movement. Inhale as you hinge at the hips; exhale as you pull through.
- Do the desired number of reps and sets.
The lower back can be a super sensitive area, so whenever you’re working it, you have to do so correctly. Let’s avoid aging ourselves before our time – take a look at how it’s done properly in this video:
Benefits of cable shrugs
- Targets the traps
- Improves neck strength
Targets the traps
This is one of the better cable back exercises for targeting the trapezius muscles.
Improves neck strength
Cable shrugs strengthen the neck muscles which can be beneficial for posture and overall upper body strength.
How to perform cable shrugs
- Stand in front of the cable machine with the pulley set at the lowest level and a rope or straight bar attached.
- Grab the attachment with both hands and stand upright.
- Lift your shoulders towards your ears with a shrugging motion.
- Squeeze your traps at the top of the movement.
- Lower your shoulders back to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
Pro tip: This exercise can also be performed single-handed using a d-handle to fix muscular imbalances.
Think you’ve got the gist of cable shrugs? Well, maybe you do but it can never hurt to make certain that you’re doing it the right way. This handy video will guide you through the exercise so you can make those traps pop:
Cable incline bench row
Benefits of cable incline bench rows
- Engages stabilizer muscles
- Stable upper back targeting
Engages stabilizer muscles
Because of the inclined position, this exercise gets the stabilizer muscles involved, enhancing your overall strength.
Stable upper back targeting
The use of a bench during this exercise makes it a much stabler way to perform rows. This, in turn, can work your middle back more effectively.
How to perform cable incline bench rows
- Set up an incline bench in front of a cable machine with the underside of the backrest facing the machine.
- Attach a rope or bar to the cable.
- Lie face down on the bench, grabbing the cable attachment with both hands.
- Pull the cable towards your chest, focusing on squeezing your back muscles.
- Slowly extend your arms back to the start position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
Never rush into a new exercise, even cable back exercises. Trust us, you’ll get that IFBB Pro Card soon enough. Rushing in could just get you injured or slow your progress. Instead, take some time to watch this great video from James Harrison that explains exactly how this exercise should be done:
Benefits of Using Cable Machines for Back
The cable machine has become a staple in gyms for a good reason. They offer loads of benefits, making it one of the top gym machines for the back. Here are five key advantages:
Easier to grasp
Unlike free weights, cable machines move on a fixed path. This makes them more intuitive and easier to use, especially for newbies. This reduces the risk of injury and helps users focus on their form and muscle engagement. Plus, you don’t have the same worry about dropping the weights.
Focus on the targeted muscle group
A cable machine can serve you incredibly well when you’re trying to isolate specific muscle groups. For example, cable back exercises, like single-arm cable rows, precisely target your back muscles. This allows for focused training and muscle development, which could be critical for professional bodybuilding.
According to research, the longer a muscle spends under tension, the higher the levels of muscle protein synthesis. One of the greatest benefits of cable machines is that they provide constant tension during the lifting and lowering phase of the workout. This could lead to more effective muscle growth.
Less joint stress
Free weights and compound barbell movements put a lot more stress on your joints. Luckily, cable machine exercises are lower impact and take the stress off the joints and muscles used to stabilize movements. This is why a lot of people with joint-related problems prefer them.
You’ll quickly discover that you can do a lot with cable machines, as they’re very customizable. They offer a whole bunch of attachments and settings to target various muscles with precision. This is why they make great tools for back exercises, as well as the rest of your body.
Anatomy of the Back
This is about to get super technical, so bear with us. The back is a complex network of muscles and a powerhouse for the upper body. It plays a huge role in movement and stability, so let’s take a look at its anatomy…
These are the muscles that you see and feel just below the skin. They include:
- Latissimus dorsi (lats): These are the largest muscles in the upper body. They fan across the back, from the shoulder blades to the lower spine.
- Trapezius (traps): The traps start at the neck and span the shoulders, before forming a “V” into the lower back. They’re key for shoulder and neck movement.
- Levator scapulae: You’ll find these at the side of the neck, extending to the shoulder blades. They help with neck and shoulder movement.
- Rhomboids: The rhomboids connect the scapula to the spine to facilitate shoulder blade movement.
This consists of muscles like the serratus posterior inferior and superior. They sit in the shoulder girdle to help with rib movement and breathing.
These muscles are found deep under the skin and are vital for spine stability and movement. They include:
- Erector spinae: This is a group of muscles that runs along the spine. They’re important for keeping us upright and enabling spine extension and rotation.
- Transversospinalis: This group, which includes the semispinalis, multifidus, and rotatores, runs along the spine, helping with back bending and rotation.
Get to know all of these muscles as best you can to enhance your back training.
FAQs About Back Cable Machine Exercises
Even if you like doing so, training your back every day generally isn’t recommended. Muscles need time to recover, with the back muscles being no exception. Overtraining can result in muscle fatigue, injury, and even hindered muscle growth. Ideally, include rest days or train different muscle groups on alternate days for optimal muscle recovery and growth.
The latissimus dorsi or “lats” are the muscles you want to train for back width. They extend from under the arms to the lower spine. When developed, they can create that sought-after “V” taper or wings that contribute significantly to back width. Training the rear delts, although not necessarily part of the back, can also help give the back a wider, more complete look.
This will always vary depending on your individual goals. For muscle growth (hypertrophy), 8-12 reps per set might do you justice. But for strength, lower reps of around 4-6 reps per set with heavier weights could work better. Do your best to incorporate a variety of rep ranges to see what works best for you.
To maximize engagement, focus on proper form and building a mind-muscle connection. Try to perform each exercise with controlled movement, targeting the specific muscles without relying too much on arm or shoulder strength. Also, be sure to engage your core for stability and to vary your choice of back exercises.
Both wide-grip and narrow-grip lat pulldowns are effective but target the muscles slightly differently. The wide-grip pulldown can be a great exercise for increasing lat size and strength whereas the narrow grip variation may work better for targeting the upper and mid-back muscles.