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April 01, 2023
You've knocked out your bench press sets and are looking to finish off your chest workout with a serious burn. Cable crossovers are always a great option, but what are the alternatives?
Don’t get us wrong, crossovers are a fantastic exercise with tons of benefits for building slabs of chest muscle, but there are certainly other options that produce similar effects on the pecs (rhyme intended).
So, whether the cable machine is being hogged by somebody else taking Instagram videos or you don’t have access to one at your gym, we’ve got you covered.
Here is what we will cover in today’s article about alternatives to cable crossovers:
The cable crossover is a chest isolation exercise that uses a cable crossover machine to target the pectoral muscles. What’s great about the crossover is the versatility to change the cable height to target different portions of the chest. The most common variation will be the high-to-low crossover, but you can do this exercise low-to-high and at a middle angle as well.
The cable crossover mainly targets the pec major, with emphasis on the lower and inner fibers of the muscle. And while you cannot completely isolate one muscle, the cable crossover is considered more of an isolation chest exercise due to it being a single joint movement (your elbows should remain pinned in position, so just your shoulder joint is moving).
Because it is an "isolation exercise", the cable crossover makes for a great warmup or finisher for the chest muscle group. What's more, the movement allows the pecs to stretch deeply before contracting, which is great for eccentric contraction and it helps build a great mind-muscle connection that can be challenging to replicate on a bench press since many other muscle groups are hard at work.
This answer can be confusing, but yes and no. These two exercises are the same up until the final portion of the range of motion. A cable fly will stop with the hands or even just the pinkies touching to finish the chest contraction. The crossover will allow the hands to cross over one another and take the arms ever so slightly past the midline of the body, allowing the pecs to get an even greater contraction.
Now some of this is apples to apples and will come down to your preference, but if you follow the science of what the chest does, it functions to adduct your arms (hugging motion), so bringing them slightly farther across is likely to increase pec activation.
The crossover has many variations, some of which are performed in more of a pressing fashion with palms down, and that can be a great exercise as well, but the cable crossover variation we are referring to in this article is with palms facing each other in a neutral grip position similar to the cable fly. Either way, both of these movements maximize the benefits of the cable stack’s versatility to create maximum and consistent tension on the chest muscles throughout the exercise, which will help them grow.
The beauty of the cable machine and the crossover chest exercise is you can move the pulley height up or down to better target the upper, middle, or lower chest.
All variations will do well to carve out the inner area of the pecs.
The variation we will describe below is the high-to-low crossover with palms in a neutral grip. The good news is, it's essentially the same movement no matter what height you choose, you'll just be bringing your arms in at a different angle.
Here is how to perform the high-to-low cable crossover:
Remember, your elbows should keep the same bend throughout the entire movement. Also, try to keep your shoulder blades retracted at all times.
Pectoralis major: This is the biggest chest muscle in your body, and it’s your main focus on what you are trying to grow with the cable crossover exercise. These large fan-shaped muscles have two distinct heads, the sternocostal and clavicular.
The sternocostal is the lower head and starts at the sternum before inserting into the humerus. While some refer to this head as the "lower chest", it actually accounts for around 80% of the size of your pec major. The clavicular head begins at the collar bone, inserts into the humerus, and is commonly known as the "upper chest".
During the cable crossover, the pec major's primary function is adducting your arms towards the centerline of your body and internally rotating the upper arm. This is why the extra range of motion when you cross the cables over each other provides additional pec contraction. It’s important to remember that the cable can be adjusted to any position to change what part of the pec major it’s emphasizing.
Pectoralis minor: The smaller chest muscle is triangular in shape and lies beneath the pec major. It starts from your ribs and inserts into the coracoid process on your scapular. Although it cannot be seen, it is still essential for stabilizing the scapula during movements. When you lean your upper body forward to begin the cable crossover, the pec minor plays a huge role in stabilizing everything.
Serratus anterior: The serratus anterior may not be one of your chest muscles, but it still has a vital role during chest exercises, especially the cable crossover. This is the muscle under your armpit at the bottom of your chest that, when visible, looks like feathers. It is often called the boxer's muscle because it brings your arms forward. It pulls the scapular forward around your thorax, which is precisely what it does during the cable crossover. Controlled protraction of the scapula is very important during chest exercises.
Anterior deltoid: The deltoid is the muscle of your shoulder that sits on top of your upper arm and has three heads. The head that is active during the crossover is the anterior deltoid. This head is responsible for shoulder flexion and works with the upper chest during this movement. It also assists with internal rotation and adduction of the humerus.
Biceps brachii: This muscle bulges out of the front of your arm and has two heads. It attaches to your upper arm and then to your scapula. The biceps work to stabilize during the crossover as they help bend your arms. The biceps work in a static hold to maintain position during the crossover, so you likely won’t grow massive arms from this exercise. Still, they do play a pivotal role and have to be strong enough to keep your arm and elbow in position so you can target your chest.
You can absolutely get similar benefits with alternatives. The real benefit of beginning to understand these movements and how they work is that you can know what movements are activating what muscle groups based on what actions those muscles perform. If you are using a cable crossover to build your upper chest, plenty of other movements also target that area, like an incline bench press or reverse grip bench press. However, as always, certain people will respond better to specific exercises, so it will take some trial and error to figure out what works best for your body.
To find a suitable alternative, you must decipher what the crossover is doing in your program. Most people do this as a finisher to cook the chest as much as possible at the end of their workout. This means you aren’t going to be doing a crossover as your strength-building compound exercise in your program. Let’s say you are doing low-to-high crossovers for the lower chest. A decline dumbbell bench press would provide a similar stimulus for those chest fibers. Vice versa, if you performed a high-to-low crossover for the upper chest, an incline bench press would provide a similar stimulus for those fibers.
Most gyms don’t have multiple cable machines, and some sad ones don’t have one at all. So whether the gym is busy and it’s difficult to get onto the machine, or you simply don’t have access to it, you always need a plan B for some movements. These alternatives in your back pocket will ensure that you aren’t leaving gains on the table and skipping exercises that would help carve out the muscle you are focusing on for the day.
While the cable crossover is an effective exercise for the pecs, it's by no means the only option. If you don't have access to a cable machine, the following exercises are the best alternatives to the cable crossover.
This fly variation is a great crossover alternative as it does a fantastic job of targeting the upper chest fibers. The bench allows you to use more weight than a cable crossover since your body is supported, providing more stimulus to the pecs.
Similar to the incline dumbbell fly, this variation allows you to use more weight than the cable crossover. If you are not trying to hit as much of your upper chest, this is another excellent option to target the middle portion of the chest fibers.
This unilateral variation gets the nod over the standard dumbbell bench press (also a great exercise) because of its ability to fix imbalances and increase the mind-muscle connection. While doing one side at a time, you can feel the chest contract and anti-rotation benefits for the core.
This bodyweight exercise is fantastic for building the upper chest and can be regressed using the assisted machine if necessary. This dip variation has a forward lean to emphasize the pecs and should be distinct from the more vertical tricep dip variation.
The push-up is a timeless bodyweight exercise for training the chest. There are countless push up variations that you can progress toward as you get stronger. This can act as a great finisher or warmup exercise.
The pullover is terrific as it teaches the chest and lats to work together. With your elbows bent, this variation will be done, so the emphasis is placed more on the chest as the shoulders flex and extend.
No cables? No worries! This exercise is the most directly linked to the cable crossover. You will perform the same exercise using a resistance band instead of cables.
This exercise is great because it builds the upper chest and creates functional solid shoulders for all your pressing movements. Even if you don’t have a landmine attachment, you can simply place the barbell in a corner to do the exercise.
This is the most unique exercise on the list. As you squeeze the plates and press away from your body you will create a massive chest contraction as your pecs try to push together.
This machine variation is a stellar option to finish off the chest, as the machine takes any extra stability out of the equation. Its main job is to isolate the chest as much as possible, and it does just that in a movement similar to the crossover.
This is a different pressing exercise that does a great job of targeting the upper chest. It does require a steeper learning curve so be careful if you are a newer lifter. It can be performed with dumbbells if the barbell is too challenging for your wrists.
Where the push-up acts as your bodyweight pressing movement, this movement allows you to perform a bodyweight fly similar to the cable crossover exercise. Not only does this provide a great stretch and contraction of your chest, but it will also be fantastic for your core.
This is the same exercise as the cable crossover, except you use your body weight as the resistance via a suspension trainer. It will hit the chest the same way and target your core as you move.
The key to programming these alternatives is to know what they are doing in your chest program. You wouldn’t substitute a bench press with a cable crossover. You’ll need to look and see if you have exercises hitting each part of your chest. A movement like a crossover or push-ups can be a great warmup exercise to get a pump and blood flowing to the chest before starting your bigger compound movements like a bench press. Then you can use a crossover or alternative to isolate the muscle afterward.
For hypertrophy, stick to around 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions. For muscular endurance or a high rep finisher, try 2-3 sets of 15-20 repetitions. These movements are generally not done in a strength rep range lower than 8 reps. However, some bodyweight exercises may be challenging at first if you haven’t done them. You can progress the reps each week as you get stronger. Moreover, strength is built in the "hypertrophy" rep range, and hypertrophy (muscle growth) can occur in any rep range.
By now, you should have different options to carve out your pec muscles for chest day. Just remember the functions of the chest and which portion you are trying to hit, and these alternatives should provide plenty of tools to help sculpt those muscles. Remember the mind-muscle connection!
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