How To Use A Cable Machine
When it comes to strength training in the gym, figuring out how to use a cable machine can be quite daunting. With all its pins, weights, numbers, clips and attachments, even Head Trainer Kayla Itsines understands why people feel intimidated by it. Rest-assured, it's not as complicated as it looks!
A cable machine is an incredibly useful piece of equipment that you can use to train SO many different parts of your body and build your strength, and it’s easy to change the difficulty or adjust it for different exercises once you know how.
“I 100% encourage you to get comfortable using it next time you’re in the gym,” says Kayla. Other Sweat Trainers like Chontel Duncan, Kelsey Wells and Steph Sanzo are big fans of these machines too, and cable machine exercises feature in several gym-based Sweat programs.
Kayla recently shared a video on Instagram breaking down all of the different attachments and explaining how to set up the machine, as well as a few of her go-to upper and lower-body exercises. Here’s some extra info, tips and tricks to help you get started.
Why are cable machines so great?
Free weights such as dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and medicine balls are all amazing pieces of equipment to add extra resistance and build your strength, but the versatility of a cable machine is what makes it so unique.
You can quickly and easily change the resistance and the attachments, and there are SO many effective and fun exercises you can do to work your entire body. See ya later, workout boredom!
A cable machine will put your muscles under constant tension throughout the movement, unlike exercises with free weights where there is often reduced resistance at the top or bottom of the movement. This constant tension is great for building your strength and helping you to achieve your fitness goals!
With the labelled weight stack, it’s super easy to track your improvements and progressively overload your muscles. Simply make a note of where the pin was for each exercise, and it won’t be long before you’re ready to increase the weight! You can also use the Sweat in-app weight tracking tool
Because most cable machine exercises are done in a standing position, it’s also a great way to build core strength and stability without needing to add any specific “ab exercises” to your routine.
A cable machine is generally very safe for all fitness levels, too, as you don’t have the risk of dropping the weight, you don’t have to bend over to pick the weight up, the movement is very controlled, and you can easily reduce the resistance if it’s too hard.
How do you use a cable machine?
On to the nitty gritty! Hopefully, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy a cable machine is to set up and use.
With free weights, you select your preferred weight in the form of dumbbells, medicine balls, kettlebells or a barbell, and then lift it with your hands.
With a cable machine, you select your preferred weight by placing a pin in a stack of weights, and lift the stack using a cable pulley system, sort of like you’re lifting a bucket out of a well!
It’s easy to adjust the weight by pulling the pin in and out, with the top of the stack being the lightest weight and the bottom being the heaviest.
There will also be an adjustable pulley attached to a pole, which you can move up or down to suit your height and the exercise you’re doing. You might have it set high on the pole for overhead tricep extensions, in the middle for cable rows, and at the bottom for glute kickbacks.
For most machines, this can be adjusted by pulling a lever to release it, moving it to your preferred height, and then releasing the lever to lock it in place on the pole. It should be straightforward, but never be afraid to ask for assistance if you need some help!
You’ll then need to make sure there is a clip hooked onto the pulley system, as you’ll need this to add your attachments. Check out Kayla’s video for a demo and to see what each part looks like.
Common attachments include handled ropes and bands, velcro ankle straps, or a metal rowing attachment. If you can’t find the attachment you need, ask the gym staff and they should be happy to help.
So there’s a weight stack with a pin, an adjustable pulley system, and different attachments to choose from… Makes sense! So why are there sometimes TWO weight stacks and attachment clips on one machine?
This can be for two reasons. One; so that multiple people can use the machine, or two; for exercises where you stand in the middle and make use of both pulleys and weight stacks at once, such as a cable chest press or crossovers.
Cable machine quick tips
- Know what attachments you need for your exercises and have them ready and near you before you start your workout.
- Make sure you have enough room for your movements and always look around you before you start your first rep. The last thing you want is to knock someone over with your glute kickback!
- Start with a weight that feels comfortable and allows you to perform the exercise with good form. After your first set, you can decide if you’re happy or want to adjust the pin to make it lighter or heavier.
- For safety reasons, don’t try and move the pin in the middle of a rep. Finish your rep with control so the weight stack comes to a complete stop, let go of the handles, move the pin, and then return to your workout.
What are some good cable machine exercises?
If you type “cable” into the search bar of the Sweat blog, you’ll find a huge catalogue of cable machine exercises you can try with helpful demonstrations and step-by-step instructions, including what height to set the pulley and which attachment you’ll need. Here are a few upper and lower-body moves to get you started!
- Connect the small bar attachment and set the cable pulley at the top of the pole. Turn to face the cable pulley. Standing a half-step away, plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Place both hands on the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing down) and hold the bar directly in front of your body with arms extended. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Bend your elbows to allow the bar to come up towards your chest, ensuring that your elbows remain in close contact with the sides of your body.
- Exhale. Using your triceps, extend your elbows and push the bar downwards to return to the starting position, once again, ensuring that your elbows remain in close contact with the sides of your body. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.
Overhead tricep extension
- Connect the rope attachment and set the cable pulley at the top of the pole. Turn to face away from the cable pulley. Standing a half-step away, plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Place both hands on the rope with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards). Bend at both the hips and knees and press your glutes into the pole. Lean forward slightly and extend your elbows to bring the rope in front of your face. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. While keeping your shoulders as still as possible, bend your elbows to bring the ends of the rope back behind your head.
- Exhale. Using your triceps, extend your elbows and pull the rope forwards to return to the starting position, ensuring that you maintain the same bent-over position and that your shoulders, elbows and wrists remain in line with one another at all times. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.
Cable cross over
- Connect the handle attachments and set the cable pulleys to head height. Stand in the centre between the cables, turn to face away from the cable pulleys and grasp one handle in each hand in a neutral grip (palms facing inwards). Take two steps forward and plant your feet in a split stance with your left foot forward and right foot back (or the other way around if this is more comfortable), ensuring that your feet are slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms directly in front of you so that your hands are touching at hip height. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. While maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms outwards and backwards until they are in line with your chest.
- Exhale. Using the muscles in your chest, pull the handles forward to return to the starting position. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions.
- Connect the ankle wrap attachment and set the cable pulley at the bottom of the pole. Wrap the attachment around your left ankle. Turn to face the cable pulley. Standing one step away, plant both feet on the floor slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Hinge forward from your hips so that your chest is parallel to (in line with) the floor and rest both hands on the pole at head height. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Exhale. Keeping your right leg firmly planted, extend your left leg backwards and upwards to hip height, ensuring that your foot remains flexed and your toes point down towards the floor.
- Inhale. Slowly lower your left leg to return to the starting position. Complete half of the specified number of repetitions on the same side before completing the remaining repetitions on the other side.
What is YOUR favourite cable machine exercise? Let us know in the comments!
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.