Using a cable machine for back exercises can give you some amazing gains in building a stronger, thicker and wider back. Performing back exercises with cable machines can also help to boost your other larger compound lifts such as deadlifts or overhead press. By using different attachments, angles and weights, the cable machine can target all the major and smaller muscles of your back.
Cable exercises for the back enable you to move your arms freely thus reducing possible stress on your joints plus they provide constant tension on your muscles, something that dumbbells can’t do. In this post we go over the 21 best cable machine back exercises to build a back that you will be proud of. We also have a cable machine only back workout...What I’m trying to say is that we got your back with this one!
Yes, cable exercises for the back are great to build muscle and strength in back muscles. The cables promote smooth movement when executing a variety of back exercises with multiple combinations of angles, weights, attachments and body positions.
Walk into any gym and you will see both the biggest guys and girls using the cable machine for back exercises as well as newcomers who aren't so familiar with the world of weightlifting. This is because cable machines are super versatile, offering something for everyone.
Perhaps the number one reason why cable machines are a great tool for back exercises is that they provide continuous tension similar to resistance bands. One of the key components of building muscle is time under tension. Using cable machines means there is tension being applied to your muscles on both the eccentric and concentric portions of each exercise.
Briefly mentioned above there are numerous benefits of using a cable machines for multiple bodyparts but this rings especially true for back exercises. Check out some more benefits of cable back exercises below.
Builds Strength & Muscle: If done right and with intensity back exercises with a cable machine can generate some serious muscle strength and size gains. There’s a reason why every serious gym in the world has cable machines; they work. Great for hypertrophy rep ranges of 6-20, the cable machines allow you to squeeze out that last rep or two that’s needed to stimulate muscle growth.
Suited for All Fitness Levels: Both advanced lifters and novices can get a lot of out doing back exercises with a cable. Advanced lifters might want to target a specific smaller supporting muscle such as the teres major/minor or the infraspinatus. Beginner lifters can use the cable machine to do back exercises as the cable helps to keep movements consistent in the right range of motion compared with free weights that are less forgiving. Also, some cable machines might even have pictures or labels with a description of how to do the exercise.
Helps Maintain Proper Form: The cable machine can help prevent injuries by aiding in ensuring proper lifting technique and form. When using barbells or dumbbells form is paramount because you have to control the weight the entire time. Back exercises with a cable machine will help you move through a full range of motion without vying off the intentional path.
Controlled Range of Motion: One primary difference between doing back exercises with free weights and a cable machine is that you’re able to change up angles and positions. Gravity is always fighting against free weight whereas cable machines make it possible to approach the same exercise at a different angle such as lat rows which you can do by pulling down from the weight above or at an angle like in bent over rows. Cable back exercises can be done easier without jerky movements.
Constant Tension on Muscles: Cable pulley machines apply constant tension on your muscles. You will have to work on both sides of a movement i.e lat pulldowns you engage your back and arm muscles to pull the weight down but you also activate the muscles by controlling the weight on the way back up. This leads to increased time under tension (TUT) which is a necessary component of building strong lean muscles.
Extremely Versatile: You can move your arms in many directions when using the cable machine to do back exercises, this means you can target the muscles from multiple angles easily. You can also switch up your grip of the attachment on the cable machine with ease to perform a multitude of exercises effectively and safely.
Great for Isolation: The combination using the cable machine with multiple attachments, body positions, angles and other equipment like a workout bench make it easy to isolate specific muscles compared with free weights. This is important when doing back exercises because people often have trouble with targeting muscles like the teres major/minor or the rhomboids.
We won’t go into depth here on the anatomy and function of each muscle in the back as there are 40 of them (20 on each side). However, it is important we at least gloss over some of the larger superficial muscles in your back that these cable back exercises will hit starting at the upper back and working our way down.
Trapezius: A.K.A the traps, this triangular broad shaped muscle stretches from the occipital bone (base of skull) to the lower thoracic vertebrae to the scapula. Its main function is to support the arm and move the scapula. One of the most noticeable and prominent muscles of the back; if you want a good looking, strong back you need to build these bad boys.
Rhomboids: Getting its name from the rhombus (quadrilateral shape) the rhomboids are comprised two muscles; the rhomboid major and minor. The main function of the rhomboids is to aid in the movement of the scapula. Located under the traps they stretch from the spine to the medial region of the scapula. This muscle doesn’t get a lot of love so it’s important that you focus on targeting this muscle using various back exercises and angles found below.
Teres Major: The larger of the teres muscles, the teres major attaches to the scapula and the humerus and is located above the latissimus dorsi. The main function of the teres major is to assist in the extension and medial rotation of the humerus. Building a strong teres major will add to the top part of the coveted "V" shaped back.
Teres Minor: The other smaller teres muscle, this narrow-rounded muscle is part of the rotator cuff. It starts at the scapula and inserts into the humerus and the joint capsule. The main function is to control the deltoid action and prevent the humeral head from moving upward when the arm is abducted.
Latissimus Dorsi: The latissimus dorsi is the largest and widest muscle in the back and the largest muscle in the entire upper body. Also called the “lats” this muscle wraps around our back from our sides to our midback where it is partly covered by the trapezius. The main function of the lats is extension, adduction, horizontal abduction, medial rotation of the shoulder joint, flexion from an extended position and more. The lats are the showstoppers of the back as this muscle is the one that gets the most attention.
Erector Spinae: Starting from your lower spine stretching up to your neck. This muscle is responsible for straightening and rotating the spine. The corner stone of your lower back, a strong erector spinae is necessary to keep our body functioning at its best.
Invented by Jack LaLanne, one of the most prominent names in fitness history; the cable machine was then improved upon by Harold Zinkin in the 1950’s with the creation of the Universal Gym Equipment, a home workout machine that notably featured the cable or pulley system.
The cable machine or sometimes called the pulley machine is made of a steel frame that has stacks of weight plates that are attached to a cable system. Cable machines can be in single stacks like a Lat pulldown machine or double stacks that allow for exercises where the user can grab one pulley with each hand. You can attach various pieces to the cables including pull up bars, stirrups(handle) V bars, ropes, straps and more. The cable can be adjusted at various height levels. The combination of various height levels, attachments and weight adjustments provide a plethora of exercises that can be done, including upper body, core and lower body.
You simply select the amount of weight, usually in increments of 5-10 pounds, select attachment then adjust the height of the cable. Cable machines enable both advanced lifters and complete novices many benefits.
We put together 21 of the best cable back exercises will hit all the major muscles in your back. Let's jump into them now...
One of the most common cable back exercises; the lat pulldown is a fantastic exercise to add strength and muscle to your lats. This movement might not be as effective as a pullups in terms of building muscle but you can easily change the weight and grip placement so you can isolate certain areas of the back better. The lat pulldown is a great exercise because it puts constant tension on your muscles.
Note: Pull bar with elbows, try not to rock much during movement. You can also use a wide grip too. This will engage the lats to a higher degree but the amount of weight you’ll lift will be less than medium or close grip pulldowns as your arm muscles aren’t activated as much.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Traps, Biceps, Rear Delts, Teres Major/Minor
The cable incline pushdown is a great movement to improve scapular stability and strength. The lats are heavily engaged in this exercise but also hits other muscles such as shoulders, pecs and teres major. This is a good exercise to do before deadlifts as it enforces proper scapular positioning that is crucial for a proper deadlift form.
Note: This exercise can also be done with EZ bar attachment or rope. Make sure you can get full extension of the arms and don’t go too heavy where you jeopardize form.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Pec Major, Rear Delts, Teres Major
The single arm bent over row might be even better for your back than a regular barbell row because this is unilateral where you can focus on the working muscles, one side at a time. You will be able to highlight muscle imbalances by doing this movement while also getting a greater range of motion. This is a challenging movement that will work your core and stabilizing muscles to execute properly.
Note: Keep your core engaged throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Traps, Rear Delt, Teres Minor/Major, Biceps, Pec Major, Obliques, Hamstrings, Glutes
This exercise is perfect for a deep stretch of the shoulders and lats which can expose any lack in range of motion. The cable pullover can help to increase the back, chest and serratus anterior strength and size. Arnold Schwarzenegger swore by this exercise, that should give you an idea of how effective this exercise is. You should focus on really letting your back and chest muscles do the work here with moderate to high rep range so that you can get a great stretch to stimulate growth while making sure your form is on point.
Note: This exercise can also be done with a straight bar in the same manner using an overhand grip. This variation will slightly alter how the back muscles are targeted.
Muscle Worked: Lats, Triceps, Chest, Shoulders
Related: 15 Best Cable Chest Exercises
This cable back exercise is perfect for building the width of the lats. The neutral grip lat pulldown promotes full range of motion of the lats. Concentrate on squeezing your back muscles at the bottom of the movement.
Note: Squeeze your shoulder blades together and try to not to rock too much, focus on using your back muscles to pull the cables down.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Rear Delts, Biceps
This lat pulldown variation uses a neutral grip that enables a wide range of motion. You should be able to lift a heavier weight using this exercise compared with regular lat pulldowns. You should be able to pack on some serious muscle with this cable back exercise.
Note: Make sure to keep your back straight and chest up throughout the movement. You can also do this exercise from a kneeling/sitting position if your gym doesn’t have a seated cable machine.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Shoulders, Biceps
This variation of the row can help to isolate the upper back. By lying face down on the bench, you won’t be able to cheat and use momentum to pull the cable back. Focus on pulling back through your elbows to lessen the engagement of your biceps.
Note: Allow your arms to fully extend at the beginning and make sure to contract your shoulder blades at the top of the movement.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Teres Major/Minor, Biceps
A perfect exercise to develop unilateral strength while also getting a deep stretch. Your core will be challenged in this exercise as it is a unilateral back exercise where core engagement is vital to keep proper form.
Note: Brace yourself with your inactive arm and focus on only having your arm move throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Teres Major, Pecs, Obliques, Biceps
This compound exercise is great for building muscle and burning calories. It is a combination of a squat and a row so you’ll be working the largest muscles in both your upper and lower body within one exercise. Maximize your workout in a short amount of time using the cable squat row.
Note: Keep your core engaged throughout movement, make sure you’re far enough from the machine so your arms can be fully extended. Choose a weight that allows you to stay leaning back on your heels.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Quads, Glutes, Biceps
Related: Front squats vs Back Squats
The cable shrug is an excellent exercise to target the trapezius muscle on the upper back. You can isolate the traps to further activate the muscle, stimulating growth. Doing shrugs with a cable machine gives you the ability to perform multiple variations with different body angles to vary the degree of contraction in the traps.
Note: If you’re not able to squeeze at the top, lower the weight a bit so that you can get maximum contraction.
Muscles worked: Traps, Forearms
This is a great exercise that can really help you widen your upper back. The cable crossover lat pulldown is a back exercise that you shouldn't fixate on moving heavy weights. Really concentrate on squeezing your shoulder blades together at the bottom of the movement.
Note: If you’re too tall you can do this exercise kneeling in the center of the cables.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Rear Delts, Teres Major/Minor, Biceps
Single-arm cable rows is a great exercise because it is unilateral where you will work one side of your body at a time. Unilateral exercises like this can help to pinpoint muscle imbalances and then correct them. This movement will also engage your core and stabilizing muscles which can help prevent injuries in the future.
Note: Try to keep your back straight throughout the movement, you can place your inactive hand on your hip for extra stability.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Traps, Rhomboids, Rear Delts, Biceps
The cable back exercise involves numerous muscles as it requires you to slightly rotate at the waist. Because this is a unilateral exercise you will have to engage your core throughout the movement. Besides being a great back exercise, this movement also works your hips, glutes and other lower body muscles.
Note: Make sure the rotation is in your waist not hips. You can place your inactive hand on your other hip for added stability.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Teres Major/minor, Rhomboids, Rear Delts, Pec Major, Biceps, Obliques
This is a great exercise to strengthen the posterior chain which can translate to better deadlift performance. The muscles targeted in cable pull throughs are mainly responsible for propelling you forward so it’s important that they function flawlessly.
Note: Don’t overextend your lower back at the top of the movement, pull the rope using your lower back, glutes and hamstrings; not your arms.
Muscles Worked: Erector Spinae, Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings, Soleus
A variation of the seated row, the close grip row shifts the focus to the mid back. With this exercise you should be able to do lift heavier weight compared with the wide grip row because your lats are doing most of the work here. This exercise can pack on some serious muscle if done right.
Note: Don't use your biceps to pull back and try to limit any rocking motion.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Traps, Teres Major/Minor, Rear Delts, Biceps
Wide grip rows can make your back thicker because the majority of the work is done by the muscles in the upper back. These upper back muscle will grow thicker rather than wider. The key here is to not put too much stress on the shoulders, instead focus on using your back muscles to pull the weight towards you.
Note: Don't rock back and forth and start with a lighter weight so you can focus on form. Keep your elbows out at 30 degrees, think of it like you're doing a bench press backwards.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Teres Major/Minor, Rhomboids, Traps, Erector Spinae, Infraspinatus, Pecs
The cable deadlift mimics free weight deadlifts and is a great compound exercise to strengthen the lower back, glutes and legs. This exercise can be done as pictured below or with a single weight stack with a bar attachment. Deadlifts on the cable machine can help you to improve your form as the weight is equally constant throughout the movement.
Note: Keep your core engaged throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Glutes, Erector Spinae, Traps
This is an amazing compound exercise that works the back muscles and core muscles like the rectus abdominis to keep you stable and upright. You can use this same exercise with different hand placements to target upper or lower back muscles. If you switch to a wide underhand grip you will emphasize your rear delts more.
Note: Try to not rock and use momentum to lift the bar. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Teres Major/Minor, Trap, Rear Delts, Biceps, Infraspinatus, Glutes, Hamstrings
This high row variation offers a wider range of motion due to using the rope attachment. The kneeling cable high row also works the upper back muscles form a different angle with can help support the growth of a wider back.
Note: Try not to lean too far back, instead focus on pulling the rope with your back muscles. The kneeling component makes it a little easier to improve your mind-body connection.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rear Delts, Teres Major/Minor, Rhomboids, Biceps
This back exercise includes some transverse plane action as you will be twisting at the waist as you pull the weight back. Working in multiple planes of motion is beneficial for daily life activities. All too often people tend to neglect the transverse plane so this is a great way to spice up your back workout a bit.
Note: Try to contract your obliques as you rotate at the waist not the hips.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rear Delts, Rhomboids, Teres Major/Minor, Pecs, Obliques
This back exercise provides a deep stretch in the lats and shoulders. The lat pushdown not only works your back and shoulders but also engages your chest and triceps. Don't go too heavy on this one to start, all too often people try to lift too much weight here and end up with bad form when their back rounds and they are only using arms and shoulders to pushdown.
Note: Keep your elbows locked throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Lats, Teres Minor, Rear Delts, Triceps, Pecs
**Most of these same exercises can be done with resistance bands! Check out our 17 Resistance Band Pull Exercises)**
As you saw above many exercises engage both primary and secondary muscles so in order to build an all-around strong back we will need to hit all areas.
Starting from the lower back you can do exercises like cable deadlifts or cable pull throughs to strengthen the posterior chain.
For mid back, focus on exercises where you hands are closer together like close grip rows.
For the upper back choose exercises like wide grip rows, single-arm bent over rows and cable shrugs.
Lastly, don't forget to mix in at least one of the cable back exercises with transverse plane motion like standing row with twist.
You can follow the sample back workout using a cable machine or you can mix and match a few of the cable back exercises above to create your own workout. Whatever you decide to do make sure you try to hit all major muscles of the back.
|Cable Lat Pulldown||3 sets x 8 reps|
|Cable Lying Pullover
||2 sets x 12 reps|
||3 sets x 6 reps|
|Seated Close Grip Row
||3 sets x 8-12 reps|
|Cable Shrug||4 sets x 6 reps|
|Standing Cable Twist Row
||3 sets x 10 reps (each side)|
Note: Take 60-90 seconds rest between sets and up to 2 mins between deadlift sets. This cable back workout should take around 60 mins assuming you're proper warmed up with some dynamic stretches.
We hope that we introduced you to some new cable back exercises that you haven't seen or tried before. The 21 best back exercises with cables can support you on your journey of building a stronger, healthier back. Remember to perform a variety of back exercises with the cables in conjunction with different attachements and from multiple angles. The same holds true for cable exercises and freeweights; make sure you're doing the exercise with proper form and intensity. Now we'll let you get back to it... see what we did there.
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