September 09, 2021
It goes without saying that the cable crossover machine is a go-to for chest exercises, but a lot of people don’t realize just how many great cable chest exercises there are. Most lifters just do standing cable flys, which are great, but they are missing out on some other highly effective exercises for their chest, which include other variations of flys. In this post, we are going to explain why the cable machine is so great for chest exercises and then we are going to show you 15 of the best cable chest presses and chest flys to add to your workouts.
Your chest is made up of two muscles, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor.
The pectoralis major, or pec major for short, is a large fan-shaped slab of muscle. It is the larger of the two pectoral muscles, making up the vast majority of your chest.
Your pec major, of which you have two (one on each side of your chest), runs from your sternum (breastbone) up to your clavicle (collarbone), and to the side to your humerus (upper arm bone).
While the pec major is one muscle, anatomically speaking it has two distinct sets of muscle fibers. You have the upper head and lower head of the pec major. This is why you will often hear people saying “this exercise is good for the upper chest”.
Let us explain the function of each head, as this will help you understand how it is emphasized during workouts.
Sternocostal head: The sternocostal head, which is commonly called the lower head, arises from the sternum and inserts into the humerus. It accounts for 80% of the total size of your pec major, so it really makes up the lower and middle portion of your chest. Its main responsibility is bringing your arms closer to your body's midline (shoulder adduction) and internal rotation of your humerus.
Exercises that emphasize the sternocostal head - flat presses & flys and decline presses & flys.
Clavicular head: The clavicular head, which is commonly called the upper head, arrises from the clavicle (collar bone) and inserts into the humerus. It assists in the same actions as the sternocostal head, but it’s main function is shoulder flexion (lifting the arm up).
Exercises that emphasize the clavicular head - incline press, low to high cable fly, front raises.
Your pec minor is a small triangular muscle, of which you have one on each side, that lies under your pec major. It arrises from your rib cage (3-5th ribs) and inserts into your coracoid (a small hook-like profusion at the top of your scapular).
While the pec minor sits on your anterior side, due to its attachment point, its main function is controlling structures on your backside. Specifically, it helps with stabilization, depression, protraction, internal rotation and downward rotation of the scapula.
As your scapular (shoulder blades) plays an important role in stabilizing your shoulders when performing chest exercises, your pec minor is working as a stabilizer for any exercise that targets your pec major. It is not a primary mover kind of muscle, it's a stabilizer muscle.
That said, certain exercises bring the pec minor into a more significant role, which can help to further strengthen it. For example, with chest exercise that involve leaning your upper body forward or drawing your shoulder blades down, such as split stance cable flys or cable decline presses, your pec minor will become more activated. We have included a few exercises like this in our best cable chest exercises, as having a strong pectoralis minor means you have greater shoulder and scapular stability, and thus are more injury resilient when performing any pushing exercise.
Serratus Anterior: While your serratus anterior is not part of your chest, it plays an important role in chest exercises, especially cable chest exercises as your shoulder blades will not always be set to a bench, therefore allowing you to have more scapular movement. Your serratus anterior is the saw like muscle under your armpit and near the bottom side of your chest. If you have low body fat, it will show. The serratus anterior is responsible for pulling the scapular forward around your thorax, which means it is active anytime you bring your arms forward. It is also activated during overhead movements. If you want to learn more, check out our favorite serratus anterior exercises, but we won’t go in-depth here, just note that many cable chest exercises will also target this muscle because they involve scapula protraction.
Front Delt: Your front delt is responsible for shoulder flexion, just like the upper head of your chest. So, anytime your upper chest is working, your front delt is too. Essentially, all chest exercises work the front delt to some degree. The more shoulder flexion, the higher your front delt (and upper chest) activation will be. The point is, your front delt will also be working during the upcoming cable chest exercises.
Related: 19 Best Front Delt Exercises
All in all, this should give you a good idea of how chest exercises work your pecs and the surrounding muscles and why changing angles and body positioning is important for full development and strength of your chest.
A cable machine is a type of equipment that attaches some form of a handle to a cable pulley system, which connects to a weight stack. There are various kinds of cable machines, but for the purpose of this article, we are referring to a cable crossover machine, which is the most versatile cable machine and the one used for chest exercises.
With a cable crossover machine, you will have two towers. Each tower works independently of each other. So you will have two cable pulleys and two weight stacks. For most chest exercises, you will attach a stirrup handle to each cable pulley and perform the exercise at the center of the cable crossover machine. That way you are at an even distance from each tower so each side is working equally in terms of range of motion.
As for the weight load, you can easily change the weight by pulling and plugging the pin into the weight stack’s designed hole. Each plate in the weight stack will be labeled to tell you how much weight you are using. The further down you go, the more weight it will be.
The last thing to note is about the way the resistance works with cable machines. Unlike free weights which have an ascending or descending strength curve, cable machines have a flat resistance, meaning you will get the same, constant tension at all points in the movement. So, 10lbs will feel like 10lbs at all ranges of motion. This is great for the purpose of consistent, continuous time under tension.
Absolutely! Cable exercises are great for building and strengthening your pectoralis major, which is the muscle that makes up the majority of your chest. The cable crossover machine allows for a wide variety of chest exercises thanks to its ability to manipulate angles and change attachments. You can also easily alter your body positioning or even bring benches and seats into the mix when using cables. From a standing, sitting, or lying position, you can do all of the variations of free weight chest presses and flys with a cable machine, plus more. And, of course, you can change the weight load in seconds. Not only is changing the weight easy, but the cable machine provides constant tension unlike free weights, which have strength curves due to tension being gravitational. This means when you are performing a cable chest exercise, your time under tension is maximized, which is fantastic for hypertrophy.
All in all, the cable machine is certainly a stellar choice for chest exercises, especially if your main goal is to build muscle. It doesn’t have to be the only equipment you use, but some of the exercises below should definitely find their way into your workout routine on chest days.
Although we briefly covered the main benefits of using a cable machine for chest exercises above, let’s dig in a little deeper...
Here are the main benefits of using cables for chest work:
1. Extremely Versatile
With the cable crossover machine, you can easily play around with training variables like angles (load positioning) and body positioning. This allows you to target each area of your chest effectively (it’s a big muscle), stress your muscles differently, and build strength through all planes of motion. Not to mention, you can keep workouts fresh, fun and challenging.
Let’s go over the two main variables for cable chest exercises so you will see why we have so many cable exercises for chest...
The cable towers enable you to set the angle at any point from the top to bottom. With that, you are changing the direction of the load and can alter your path of motion. This means you can hit your muscles differently even with the same type of movement.
For example, you could do a cable fly with the cable angled from above (a high to low fly) to hit your lower chest or angled below (a low to high fly) to hit your upper chest.
The ability to change the angles alone gives you so much to play with, but you also have other training variables that you can alter and further increase variety.
You can easily alter your body positioning when using cables as well:
With standing positions and an adjustable bench, you can also change things up further, such as bent over flys, incline press/fly, decline press/fly.
Moreover, you can change where your body is in relation to the cable machine. Standing directly in the center versus out in front of the machine will also change up the dynamics.
Altogether, you can target your chest in so many different ways to ensure each and every muscle fiber of your pec major (upper, lower, middle, inner) is activated adequately. With the combinations of all these variables, you can see why there are so many different cable chest exercises and how you can get a very well-rounded chest workout and chest development with just cables alone.
2. Weight Load & Tension
In regards to the actual load, the cable machine is unique in two ways.
First of all, it’s super easy to change up the weight. All you have to do is pull and plug a pin into the appropriate weight stack for the exercise at hand.
Secondly, the tension is different from that of a dumbbell, barbell or any other free weight. This is because cable machines provide a flat resistance curve, rather than an ascending or descending strength curve. In other words, with cable exercises, there is constant tension. So, a cable fly or press will be equally as hard at the top of the range as it is in the bottom of the range, whereas with dumbbells, it is hardest in the stretched position.
Overall, this is ideal for hypertrophy goals, as it provides your muscles with more time under tension, which fatigues the muscles faster. This is why the cable machine is so popular among bodybuilders when doing isolation work.
3. Independent Arm Movement
Cable chest exercises will have your arms working independently of each other. This ensures that you are not favoring one side more than the other, which ultimately helps you iron out any muscle imbalances and asymmetries.
4. Controlled Range of motion
By changing where your body is positioned and where the cable is angled, you can control the range of motion to be less or more. This is ideal if you want to work on certain ranges of motion or if you have some limitations.
Another point to controlled range of motion is the way you move with cables. Cables promote smooth, controlled movements. It’s not like a barbell or dumbbell where you can get sloppy with jerky movements.
Cable machines make workouts more efficient. You can go from one chest exercise to the next, quickly alter training variables, and change the weight load in a matter of seconds.
Comparing to barbells, cable machines are a safer option. Not only are they easier on the joints (shoulders, elbows and wrists), for the most part, you can also easily bail from any exercise. With that, you can train to failure with cable machines and really get the most hypertrophy and strength benefits possible.
All in all, cable machines are a versatile, effective, and efficient option for training the chest. We highly recommend that you incorporate some cable chest exercises into your routine. It’s a fantastic way to isolate the pecs for size and strength.
Note: Cable exercises are also great for beginners as it requires less technique on form than a bench press with a barbell or even dumbbells. This makes cable chest exercises great for beginners who have trouble with conventional barbell lift form, as well as more advanced athletes who simply want to really hone in on pec isolation.
The two main chest exercises you are going to do with cables are presses and flys. However, there are many variations for both cable presses and cable flys.
Cable Press Variations:
Cable Fly Variations:
Then you also have exercises like pullovers that work the lats and upper chest.
We will demonstrate most of these exercises below, but first, let’s talk about rep ranges and weight load for cable chest exercises...
Since the cable crossover machine is more about hypertrophy than strength, as the best strength building chest exercises will be done with heavy loads using a barbell or dumbbells, the ideal rep range for cable chest exercises will be 6-15. However, in some cases as many as 20-25. So, actually, 6-25 reps. But let us break it down more clearly.
We recommend that you work through all of these rep ranges.
It should be noted that strength, hypertrophy, and endurance will be gained in each of these rep ranges, it’s just the emphasis is as listed above.
In terms of load, you want to choose a weight stack that challenges you in these rep ranges. Essentially, you should be choosing a weight that brings you to failure (or near failure) in the rep range you are working.
For example, if you are working 3 sets in the hypertrophy range:
Rest time about 45-60 seconds between sets.
Progression will occur just like free weight equipment. Let’s say your goal is to do 3 sets with 45-60 seconds rest between sets, then you will increase the weight once you max out in your rep range. So, if you can do 3 sets for 15 reps with 45 seconds rest in-between sets, it’s time to move up a weight notch.
The best way to progress is to stick to one variable for a given period of time. i.e. you keep your rest time the same, but you increase weight load. Reps will be increased as well, but only until you reach the max in your rep range, so really the focus is weight load.
By doing this, you will ensure your muscles are overloaded each session, and thus they will continue adapting (getting strong and bigger).
Beginners can stick to a simple progressive overload plan like this, but more advanced athletes will need to use a more complex plan.
Related: How to Progressive Overload
While all of the aforementioned cable chest exercises are effective, we have chosen the 15 best exercises for you to do. These exercises will hit your pecs with the highest activation and together they will allow you to do presses and flys that target each and every muscle fiber in your chest (with optimal stretching and contraction tension) so that you can have the best and fullest pectoral development.
We are going to kick this off with the cable presses. After we run through all the cable presses, we will get into the flys and pullovers.
While horizontal presses from a lying position (supine or pushup) are great for strength, when you think about it, the standing chest press is the most functional type of horizontal press you can do. The standing chest press (as well as kneeling chest press) requires more core strength and rotary stability because the trainee can’t rely on the bench or a rigid structure to lock them into position. Moreover, since your shoulder blades are free, more protraction can occur, allowing you to get a greater contraction of your pecs and more activation in your serratus anterior.
Muscle Emphasized: Pec Major, Front Delt, Triceps, Serratus Anterior, Core
Set Up: Set the pulleys up so that the handles are chest to shoulder height.
Note: Altering the angle of the pulley height will change the emphasis on the muscles targeted. When pressing through the middle, it will provide you more even engagement of your pec major. If pressing up at an angle, you will get more upper chest engagement, and if pressing down at an angle, you will get more lower chest engagement.
The seated cable press is a good option if you want to really hone in on your pec major as the back rest will provide you with more stability. However, it will also slightly limit range of motion, albeit you’ll still have good enough range of motion specifically for your pec major. All in all, it is a good pec isolation exercise.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major, Front Delt, Triceps
Set Up: This exercise is performed from a seated position, so you will need a bench with back rest at 90˚. Place the bench in the middle of the two pulleys with the height of the handles set to about chest level when seated.
The one arm rotational press provides a few unique benefits. It allows for full protraction of the shoulder, which allows you to fully activate your serratus anterior and maximize contraction of your pec major. Furthermore, it brings your core into play to a higher degree as it moves you through the transverse plane, challenging you for both rotational stabilization and strength and giving your obliques and transversus abdominis some special attention. Overall, it’s a multiplanar exercise that turns the cable chest press into a bigger compound movement.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major, Front delt, Serratus Anterior, Obliques, Triceps.
Set Up: You will only be using one pulley and one arm at a time. Set the handle height to a little lower than shoulder height and stand in the center of the cable crossover machine.
The bench press using cables is a good way to target your chest with constant tension throughout the entire range of motion. It will definitely penetrate your pec major in a unique way, which can be a nice change if you always use barbell or dumbbells.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major, Triceps, Front Delts
Set Up: Place a flat bench right at the center of the cable machine and lower the handles all the way to the bottom.
Note: If you bring the bench forward or backward, you can change the angle of the load and your grip, which can allow you to alter how your pecs are being stressed.
Depending on the cable pulley machine, grip will vary as well, as some cable crossover machines have towers that are closer together and you can’t place the bench directly under at the center, so you will naturally be out forward with your hands in the standard overhand grip, as you will see with some other exercises to come.
Cable Stability Ball Chest Press
If you don’t have a bench, you can use a stability ball to a similar effect. The main difference with a stability ball is you will need more core stabilization and your shoulder blades will be free as the support is soft, which allows for a greater range of motion.
The incline cable bench press is the same concept as the flat bench press. You are just changing your body position, which alters the path of motion of your press. With the incline press, you are pressing up at an angle, so you get more shoulder flexion, and thus more upper chest and front delt emphasis.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major (Upper Head), Front Delt, Triceps, Serratus Anterior
Set Up: Place a bench with the back rest at 30-45˚ at the center of the cable machine. You’ll want the bench to be in front of the pulleys, so the cables are angled behind you. Lower the handles all the way to the bottom of the pulley towers.
Cable One Arm Incline Press
You can also do cable bench press exercises with one arm at a time, so that you can iron out muscle imbalances by placing focus on just one side at a time. Moreover, it is good for activating your core to a higher degree to resist rotation.
The cable decline press can be done standing/kneeling by simply setting the handles at the top (or near the top) of the towers and then pressing down and inward at an angle. OR, you can set up a bench in a decline position to mimic that of a decline dumbbell or barbell press. With the bench, you can really hone in on your pec major, and more specifically, the lower head, as decline presses do.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major (Lower Head), Pec Minor, Triceps
Set Up: Place a bench with a 15-30˚ decline at the center of the cable machine. You’ll want the bench to be in front of the pulleys, so the cables are angled behind you. Lower the handles all the way to the bottom of the pulley towers.
Cable Decline One Arm Press
This is the standard cable fly variation. The cable fly is an isolation exercise for the pecs and front deltoids, which are the same muscles activated with a flat bench dumbbell fly. The difference with cables is the resistance curve is flat with cables, so you get a constant load on your pecs throughout the whole range.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major, Front Delt
Set Up: Position the handles a little lower than shoulder height. You will need to stand directly in the middle of the crossover machine and step forward so that you can start from a position that is stretching your pecs and front delts.
With this cable fly variation, you are performing the fly motion from high to low. With that, you are emphasizing the lower head of your pec major, as well as your inner chest as with all flys.
Like any standing cable fly, you can either stand straight up in a bilateral stance or you can get into a staggered stance with your torso leaned slightly forward. Both are going to work your pecs in a similar manner, but the staggered stance is going to allow you to go heavier than the “T” form. We recommend trying both to see what feels best for you.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major (Lower Head), Front Delts, Pec Minor
Set Up: Position the handles at the top of the cable towers. Stand directly in the middle and step forward so that you can start from a position that is stretching your pecs and front delts.
Here is how it looks with the T form:
The same general form applies, but your arms will be straight rather than a slight bend in your elbow.
This is the same concept as the previous exercise, but you will be moving your arms from low to high. With that, the emphasis is placed on your upper chest and you’ll get even more front delt activation due to the movement being based on shoulder flexion (and adduction).
Muscles Emphasized: Front Delts, Pec Major (Upper Head)
Set Up: Position the handles at the bottom of the cable towers. Stand directly in the middle and step forward so that you can start from a position that is stretching your pecs and front delts.
If you want to change up angles to stress your pec major in a different manner, you can try the single arm bent over fly. It’s an interesting exercise as it allows you to really maximize contraction with a fly motion. Also, by honing in on just one side, you can iron out some asymmetries.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major, Pec Minor (Inner Chest)
Set Up: Position the handles at the top of the cable towers. You will be standing in the middle, but you are using just one arm at a time.
The high fly is a cable fly variations that targets your upper chest. You will be using a slightly higher pulley anchor point than the middle fly and you will be keeping your arms up and raising them up similar to an incline bench.
Muscles Emphasized: Upper Chest, Front Delt
Set Up: Position the handles at about shoulder height. You will need to stand directly in the middle of the crossover machine and step forward so that you can start from a stretched position.
This exercise mimics the flat bench dumbbell fly, but again, it provides constant tension throughout. In regards to standing or kneeling cable flys, using a bench will allow you to pin your shoulders back, which can help take your front delts out of the equation so you can really focus on using your chest to power the movement.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major
Set Up: Place a flat bench right at the center of the cable machine and lower the handles all the way to the bottom. Your chest will be lined up with the cable pulleys when lying down.
With the incline bench cable fly, you are going to be emphasizing your upper chest. Your front delts will naturally have more activation than the flat bench due to the shoulder flexion.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major (Upper Head), Front Delt
Set Up: Place a bench with the back rest at 30-45˚ at the center of the cable machine. Your chest will be lined up with the cable pulleys when lying down.
Cable Stability Ball Fly
You can use a stability ball to do a cable fly as well. If you want the flat fly, then position yourself up higher on the stability ball so your upper body is parallel with the floor. If you want to do an incline fly, rest your back further down on the stability ball so your torso is angled up.
The decline bench fly is meant to target the lower head of your pec major. Also, do to this body positioning, your pec minor will be activated to a higher degree.
Muscles Emphasized: Pec Major (Lower Head), Pec Minor, Front Delt
Set Up: Place a bench with a 15-30˚ decline at the center of the cable machine. Your chest will be lined up with the cable pulleys when lying down.
Cable Single Arm Bench Fly
With the flat, incline, and decline fly, you can also try one arm flys. This will allow you to hone in on one side at a time and incorporate your core more.
You’ve probably seen this exercise done with dumbbells before. While it’s a good chest exercise, it is equally as good for your lats and abs. That said, this exercise is typically done on chest days (or if you do push-pull superset workouts), as it does a great job of activating the upper chest.
Muscles Emphasized: Upper Chest
Set Up: Position a flat bench in front of one cable tower. It should be directly in line with it. You can use a rope attachment or a straight bar. The rope will allow for a close grip, which is better for activating your chest, whereas the straight bar will place slightly more emphasis on your lats.
While not many people are likely to do a cable only chest workout, it can be done and in an effective manner no less. If all you have access to is a cable crossover machine, we promise you can get an exceptional chest workout in.
Here is an example of a kickass chest workout using just a cable machine:
For those of you who just want to incorporate some cable chest exercises into your regular routine, then all you have to do is pick a couple of your favorite ones (maybe one press and two flys and throw them into your workout). As these are more so accessory exercises, you can switch up your cable chest exercises weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or as you see fit.
Here is an example of a well-rounded chest workout that incorporates cables:
ARE CABLE CHEST FLYS BAD?
Quite the contrary. When comparing to dumbbell chest flys, cable chest flys are easier on your joints and are less likely to cause you to overextend your shoulder joint.
In terms of hypertrophy and strength, they are quite effective because they provide constant tension due to the flat resistance curve (dumbbells have a strength curve that makes the top easier than the bottom, whereas cables have even resistance throughout). This is why you see a lot of people use the cable crossover machine for flys more than dumbbells. That said, both are effective as long as your form is correct.
IS USING A BENCH OR STANDING FOR CABLE FLYS AND PRESSES BETTER?
Both are good options. They are just different. When standing (or kneeling), you have no back support, so more muscles will be involved for stability and you will have a greater range of motion. You will also be able to use slightly heavier loads when standing. With a bench, you can stabilize your body to isolate your pecs more. We recommend trying both and implementing both into your routine.
TIP FOR INCREASING WEIGHT LOAD FOR PRESSES:
When it comes to presses, you may find that you need a heavier load, in which case you can place a dumbbell of adequate weight over the top of the cable machines weight stack. This will increase the weight load by however much the dumbbell weighs.
Another interesting option is to combine cables with dumbbells. This can be done when using a bench as your body will be positioned against gravity. Basically you just hold the handles and dumbbells at the same time. This will provide you with more weight AND it gives you the benefits of both free weight and cable strength curves.
Add these cable chest exercise into your routine and let us know how it goes!
More Resources on Cable Exercises:
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