If you’ve spent any time in a gym, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the cable machine. This functional piece of exercise equipment, also referred to as a pulley machine, is a staple in many gyms and athletic training centers.

The cable machine is a large piece of gym equipment that has adjustable cable pulleys. The resistance of the cables allows you to perform numerous exercises in a variety of directions. Some machines have one or two cable stations, while others have multiple.

In this article we’ll look at the benefits of cable exercises, how to do them safely, and cable exercises that you can try the next time you’re at the gym.

Being able to perform exercises in different ranges of motion is one of the primary benefits of including cable machine exercises in your workout.

Also, the American Council on Exercise says that stepping away from barbells and dumbbells and using cables for a few weeks can help increase your strength and break a fitness plateau.

But, what exactly makes cable exercises such a great workout?

Well, for starters, it’s unlike a typical weightlifting machine that has a fixed path of movement.

Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, points out that a cable machine allows you the freedom to move the way you want to move, and choose the path and motion of the exercise or movement.

Additionally, “cable machines provide a smooth, non-jerky concentric and eccentric contraction while exercising,” he explains.

A cable machine also enables you to perform more exercise variations for multiple muscle groups and allows you to go light or heavy with resistance.

Plus, because this equipment is generally safe, beginners are less likely to get injured using a cable machine compared with free weights or traditional weight machines, Wickham explained.

Mecayla Froerer, BS, NASM, and iFit personal trainer, explains that because cable machines are easy to use, you can get set up quickly, allowing you to move quickly through your workout.

That said, it does take some time to get used to using the cable system and the variety of handles you can use for different types of exercises. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll likely enjoy the efficiency and intensity of this total-body trainer.

In general, the cable machine is considered a safe piece of exercise equipment for all levels. However, there are steps you can take to enhance your safety while working out.

  • Give yourself enough room. The cable machine takes up a lot of floor space, and you need to be able to move freely while doing the exercises.
  • Ask for assistance. If you’re not sure what height to set the cables at, or how to do a move, always ask a certified personal trainer for assistance. Performing an exercise at the wrong height not only decreases the effectiveness, but it also increases your chance for injury.
  • Don’t overexert yourself. Just like free weights and other resistance machines, choose a weight that’s comfortable and allows you to use proper form. “If at any point you find it hard to perform an exercise with correct form, decrease the resistance in order to prevent injury,” says Froerer.
  • Check for damage. Check the cables and attachments before you use them and alert a staff member if you see fraying or splitting on the cables.
  • Don’t modify the equipment. To stay safe, only use the handles and attachments designed for the cable machine. Also, don’t modify the equipment by adding plates or other resistance to the weight stacks.

There are many exercises you can do on the cable machine that target the muscles in your upper body. Two of the more popular exercises that target the chest, shoulders, and triceps are the standing shoulder press and the cable chest fly.

Standing shoulder press

  1. Stand between two low- to medium-height cables with handles.
  2. Squat down, grab each handle, and stand up with your elbows bent and in the starting position for a shoulder press. The handles should be slightly higher than your shoulders.
  3. Step back with one foot so you have more stability. Engage your core and push the cables upward until your arms are extended overhead.
  4. Reverse the move until the handles are even with your shoulders.
  5. Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.

Cable chest fly

  1. Stand between two cables with handles slightly higher than your shoulders.
  2. Grip a handle in each hand and step forward with one foot. Your arms should be outstretched to the sides.
  3. Slightly bend your elbows and use your chest muscles to bring the handles together to meet in the center.
  4. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position.
  5. Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.

Training your abdominal muscles with constant tension is a quick way to strengthen and tone your midsection. For a great stability and core workout, try the wood chop exercise.

Wood chop

  1. Stand to the side of the cable machine with your feet shoulder-width apart. The pulley should be on the highest setting.
  2. Attach a handle to the cable hook.
  3. Grab the handle with both hands above one shoulder. Your arms will be fully extended and you’ll be looking at the pulley.
  4. Pull the handle down and across your body while your torso and hips rotate. You’ll end on the opposite side. Keep your abs engaged the entire time.
  5. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position.
  6. Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.

Your lower body can benefit from performing a variety of cable exercises that target your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. To train the glutes, try these two lower-body cable exercises.

Glute kickback

  1. Stand facing the cable machine with the pulley on the lowest setting.
  2. Hook an ankle attachment to the cable hook and wrap the attachment around your left ankle. Make sure it’s secure.
  3. Gently hold onto the machine to support your upper body. Bend your right knee slightly, raise your left foot off the floor, and extend the left leg behind you. Don’t arch your back. Go back only as far as you can without compromising your form.
  4. Squeeze at the end of the movement and return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat 10 times before changing to the other leg. Do 2–3 sets of 10 repetitions on each leg.

Romanian deadlift

  1. Stand facing the cable machine with the pulley on the lowest setting.
  2. Hook two handles or a rope to the cable hook. If using handles, grab a handle in each hand and stand up. Feet should be shoulder-width apart. Make sure you’re standing far enough away from the machine so you have enough room to bend at the hips.
  3. Slightly bend your knees and bend forward at the hips while the resistance pulls your hands towards your feet. Keep your core engaged and back straight the entire time.
  4. Pause, and extend from the hips to stand up.
  5. Do 2–3 sets of 10–12 repetitions.

Including cable exercises in your fitness routine is an excellent way to add variety to your workout, while building strength and training your muscles from different angles.

If you’re new to exercise or you aren’t sure how to use the cable machine, make sure to ask a certified personal trainer for assistance.