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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
January 24, 2022
There's a reason why you walk into a gym and the cable machines are all taken like the benches on a Monday. Because the cable machine gives you great options to train your whole body. Plus, the variety of attachments from ropes, d-handles, and straight bars allows you to change grips and angles for better muscle development.
When it comes to training biceps and triceps, the cable machine has a prominent place right along side dumbbells and barbells. What makes the cable machine really special compared to free weights is the flat resistance. There is no strength curve, the resistance never changes throughout the range of motion. This means more hypertrophy for you.
In this post, our focus is using the cable machine to hit the arms. We put together the 11 best cable exercises for the biceps and triceps that you should add to your arm workout. We also go over things like the anatomy and function of the bi's and tri's, as well as the benefits of using the cable machine. Not only will this give you a deeper understanding of the implement and your muscles, but it will also become clear why we chose these particular arm exercises.
The biceps brachii (biceps for short) is made up of two muscle heads, the short head and long head, located on the front side of the upper arm. The long head of the biceps originates on the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and inserts on the radius bone near the elbow. The short head also originates on the scapula, near the A/C joint, and inserts radius bone (which is one of your forearm bones). Put simply, both heads have different origin points but they converge to form the same muscle belly (that bicep ball when you flex) and insert into the same place.
The biceps muscles cross the elbow and shoulder joint, so it acts on both joints. When both biceps heads shorten it leads to elbow flexion, which is the main movement of the biceps (i.e. a curl). The other main elbow movement is rotating the forearm outwards known as supination. This movement is more effective when the elbow is flexed. As the biceps cross the shoulder joint, they also assist in shoulder abduction, which is when the arm pulls away from the torso. Plus, it assists in shoulder adduction (coming back to the torso) and inward rotation of the arm.
Moreover, the biceps and triceps muscles work together to support the humeral head in the shoulder joint otherwise known as shoulder stability.
The triceps is Latin for three and the triceps is a three-headed muscle that sits on the edge of the arm. This muscle makes up 60% of the upper arm. The medial head, lateral head, and long head come together at the same insertion point across the elbow at the humerus, but each has different origin points.
While the three heads have some individual functions, together the triceps primary movement is that of an elbow extensor (extending the arm at the elbow) because it crosses the elbow joint.
Now, to get specific, the medial head originates from the inferior two-thirds of the humerus (middle of the arm) and is between and underneath the other two heads. It is used for low force extension (which means it is activated any time your extend your elbow).
The long head originates from infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (shoulder joint), which is near the glenoid fossa. Because it crosses the shoulder and elbows joint it functions as elbow and shoulder extension.
The lateral head originates from a narrow, linear ridge on the back of the humerus, above the radial groove. Its function is opposite of the medial head because it’s responsible for high force power production (really only activated when acting against resistance). It’s located on the outside of the arm hence the word lateral and it is the largest of the three heads.
If you haven’t guessed by now the number one job of the triceps is to extend the elbow. Having strong triceps is important for a strong lockout for pressing exercises such as the bench, overhead presses, and push-ups. And because the long head crosses the shoulder joint its secondary job is to assist with shoulder extension and shoulder stability.
FOREARMS: Your arms also include your forearms, which consists of several major muscles that we will group together for the sake of simplicity and call them your forearm extensors and flexors. The forearms play an important role in the movement of your elbow, wrists and fingers. Weak forearms, mean weak grip strength, which can cause a kinetic chain effect up your elbow to your shoulder. In other words, you can NOT forget about the forearms. The cable exercises in the guide will also work your forearms.
Long Head Biceps Activation (Biceps Peak):
Short Head Biceps Activation (Biceps Width):
Medial Head Triceps Activation:
Lateral Head Triceps Activation:
Long Head Triceps Activation:
Besides the perfectly acceptable vanity reason of having some impressive guns, there are important reasons why you should include biceps and triceps exercises in your accessory routine:
Here are 11 cable triceps and biceps exercises that will train the gun show to maximum capacity. Are you ready to flex? Then let’s go.
Using a straight bar attachment with an overhand grip the reverse biceps curl trains the smaller forearm extensor muscles that can get overpowered by the larger forearm flexor muscles. Although the extensor muscles are small, training them will go a long way to keeping your elbows healthy. This exercise will of course also work your biceps. The reverse grip curl best activates the long head of the biceps due to the pronated grip.
How to do the Reverse Cable Biceps Curl:
Form tips: The reverse overhand grip is your weakest grip for curls and for this reason, you will use less weight than other variations. It is imperative to keep the wrists in neutral through this exercise.
Best rep range: 8-15
The underhanded grip biceps curl trains both heads of the biceps and the biggest forearm muscles and is by far your strongest grip. This allows you to load up more than any other variation. When using the straight bar, you can vary your grip in and out to train the short and long head of the biceps (more wide = more short head).
How to do the Underhand Cable Biceps Curl:
Form tips: Keep your upper back tight to prevent leaning too far forward. Vary the width of your grip from set to set to train both the short and long heads of the biceps.
Best rep range: 8-20
For this you can pull the preacher bench to the cable machine or simply set up an incline bench some distance away from the cable machine which simulates an effective bicep curl variation of the preacher's biceps curl. The preacher curl is a great exercise for the short head as it involves elbow flexion with your elbows out in front of you. If done unilaterally with a stirrup handle, you can strengthen imbalances between biceps while taking the biceps through a large range of motion.
How to do the Unilateral Cable Preacher Biceps Curl:
Best rep range: 8-12
Form tips: Keep your posterior upper arm glued to the bench at all times. This will put the focus entirely on the biceps.
The cable rope curl needs to be a staple in your cable arm routine because it’s similar to dumbbell hammer curls. The neutral grip is easier on your elbows and shoulders because your shoulder is neither externally nor internally rotated. Hammer curls train the long head of the bicep and the brachioradialis which is an important and neglected forearm muscle.
How to do the Cable Rope Curl:
Best rep range: 12-20
Form tips: Spreading the rope apart at the end of the movement will give your biceps an extra contraction. If the end of the ropes handles bother you, hold it lower down.
The overhand cable biceps curl trains the biceps laterally instead of anteriorly. And this exercise great option to target the biceps (both heads, with emphasis on the short head) and grow your arms from a different angle. Depending on the cable machine you need to be able to fully flex and extend your elbow. If the cable machine is too small, do one arm at a time.
How to do the Overhead Cable Biceps Curl:
Best rep range: 12-15
Form tips: Fully flex and extend your elbows and perform the exercise with tempo to really feel the biceps muscles working.
When you’re looking to spice up your cable curl game, try supine cable curls. This variation gives you more stability which drives more action to your biceps. Plus, because you’re lying down, you cheat less, again putting more focus on the biceps. And you’re training them from a different angle for better muscle development. A standard grip with a straight bar attachment is great for both heads of the biceps, but you can play around with grip width and attachments if you want to emphasize the activation of a specific biceps head.
How to do the Supine Cable Biceps Curl:
Best rep range: 8-20
Form tips: Make sure you keep your back flat on the bench and only use your biceps to curl the weight. Start on the lighter side until you get the hang of it.
Similar setup to the supine cable bicep curl except the weight is behind you. Think of a triceps skull crusher but with a cable machine. Because you’re lying down it drives more engagement to the triceps, and you cannot use other parts of the body. The large range of motion and the pre-stretch before the contraction make this a solid option for building muscular triceps. As for triceps muscle head activation, since your arms will be out in front of you, it emphasizes the long head, but it is also great for the lateral head and medial head.
How to do The Supine Cable Triceps Extension:
Best rep range: 12-20
Form tips: Keep your body glued to the bench to only use your triceps.
Like with all unilateral exercises the unilateral triceps extension will strengthen muscle imbalances between sides if any exist. Using a d-handle attachment, you can perform triceps pushdown with an overhand or underhand grip. Changing your grip and position with the exercise will allow you to effectively train all 3 heads of the triceps.
A v-handle is also good if going overhand as it pronates your hands almost halfway between neutral and overhand, which is easy on the wrists and allows for greater loads.
How to do The Unilateral Cable Triceps Pushdowns.
Note: You can also use a straight bar attachment to do underhand (reverse grip) triceps pushdowns, which will better emphasize your medial triceps head.
Best rep range: 8-15
Form tips: Slight forward lean of the torso hits the triceps more effectively.
Try to hit it from a different angle too!
Overhead triceps extension hits all three triceps heads but with a focus on the long head. This is not the strongest triceps muscle (that’s the lateral head) but it is the biggest and adding muscle to this will make your arms look bigger for more flex appeal. This variation will improve your lockout strength, particularly with any overhead press variation.
How to do The Cable Overhead Triceps Extension:
Best rep range: 8-20
Form tips: While in the split stance lower your head and look at the ground. Spreading the rope apart at the end of the movement will add further tension to your triceps.
This is a difficult exercise to set up seeing you need an adjustable weight bench, but this variation really hits the triceps hard. Because you are angling your body, you’re increasing the ROM and your arms have further to travel to complete the rep, This means a greater stretch and more muscle-building potential for you.
How to do The Decline Bench Cable Triceps Extension:
Note: For a greater, allow your hands to come behind your head more, this is great for increasing muscle recruitment of the triceps, especially the long head.
Best rep range: 8-12
Form tips: This exercise puts a great stretch on the triceps for more hypertrophy gain, but it is tough on the elbows so let discomfort be your guide.
Unilateral cable triceps kickback is another solid option to further enhance your triceps game. Similar to the dumbbell version but only better because you have constant tensions throughout the ROM. You have the option not to use any attachment here, it’s a matter of personal preference.
How to do The Unilateral Cable Triceps Kickbacks:
Best rep range: 8-15
Form tip: If grip strength is an issue better to use an attachment. When you hinge, feel it in your hamstrings and not your back.
While we think it is best to use different training equipment for an arm workout, such as dumbbells, barbells, cable machines, and bodyweight exercises, here is a sample cable machine workout for your arms that will nevertheless be effective for size and strength of all the muscles heads of the biceps and triceps.
Superset #1 (3 sets x 8-15 reps each):
Superset #2 (3 sets x 8-12 reps each):
Superset #3 (3 sets x 10-15 reps each):
Superset #4 (3 sets x 8-12 reps each side):
Rest ~60 seconds between sets.
We chose these supersets specifically as the exercises will allow for quick transition between exercises within the supersets.
Want something more than just a cable machine arm workout? This is The Ultimate Arm Workout at the Gym.
When it comes to isolating muscle for strength and size having tension is your best bet. And the cable machine with its constant tension throughout the ROM is a great option to build a muscular set of arms. These 11 exercises combined with compound strength moves will give you all the flex appeal you need.
If you're looking for even more great cable exercises, be sure to check out this bicep cable workout, which focuses on building mass and strength in your upper arms.
And, just in case you're now more intrigued by the benefits of training arms on a cable machine and you have the resources, we put together a list of the Best Cable Machines on the market today.
More Arm Exercise Resources:
More Cable Machine Exercises:
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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