September 14, 2021
Cable machines are perfect for shoulder exercises because just like the shoulder joint it has an astounding range of motion. If you want to strengthen and sculpt your shoulders then you need to start doing some cable exercises. Read on for reasons why the cable machine is a great tool to target the shoulders, plus we cover 16 of the best cable shoulder exercises that you can start mixing into your workout program.
The shoulder is made up of three muscles; the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid and posterior deltoid. We also included the rotator cuff muscles and the traps as they often work in unison with the deltoids.
The anterior deltoid also referred to as the front delt or front deltoid is a muscle that sits at the front of the shoulder. It starts along the lateral third of the clavicle and inserts on the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus. The anterior deltoid is involved in abduction, flexion and internal rotation of the arm. An easy way to think of the function of the anterior deltoid is that it enables you to raise your arm in front of your body and also helps to turn your shoulders inwards. Both of these movements are rather common in every day life.
The main action of the front delt is to raise the arm up overhead and is the primary mover in vertical pushing movements like overhead press. The anterior deltoid is also involved in many horizontal pushing exercises that work the chest like bench presses. Therefore, the front delt is often the most worked of the three deltoids. A strong anterior deltoid is essential if you want to lift heavy weight over your head, like exercises found in Crossfit, traditional bodybuilding and Olympic lifting. Besides being an important muscle to push weights away and over head, a well built front delt creates those rocky looking shoulders.
The lateral deltoid is also called the side delt, middle deltoid and medial deltoid. This muscle sits on the side of the shoulder between the anterior deltoid and the posterior deltoid. The lateral delt starts at the acromion process and the superior surface of the humerus and then inserts into the deltoid tuberosity on the humerus. The side delt is responsible for abduction of the arm.
The middle delt also plays a part in vertical pressing movements like dumbbell shoulder press but if you want to specifically target it then an exercise like lateral raises would do the trick. Well build side delts can contribute to a strong looking upper body. With big side delts your shoulders will look wider and your waist thinner.
The last of the deltoid muscles, the posterior deltoid sits on the back of the shoulder opposite of the front delt. The posterior deltoid is often called the rear delt and it begins at the inferior border of the scapula and spine then inserts in the deltoid tuberosity of the lateral humerus. The rear delt is responsible for moving the shoulder in horizontal abduction when the shoulder is internally rotated. Is also plays a part in shoulder extension when the arms are extended behind you as well as the external rotation of the shoulder.
Unfortunately, many people skimp out on working the rear delts partly because they’re located in the back so they’re out of sight. It’s important to supplement your workouts with some rear delt exercises to have well rounded shoulder strength. A strong rear delt acts a stabilizer in some movements such as the overhead press, so if you want to hit it directly, you’ll have to do exercises like rear delt flys. In some pulling exercises the rear delt will be engaged.
Rotator Cuff Muscles & Trapezius
We wanted to add the four rotator cuff muscles in this post even though they aren’t technically shoulder muscles they are vitally important to have strong well-functioning shoulders.
This broad triangular muscle covers almost the entire dorsal surface of the scapula. It begins at the medial 2/3 of the infraspinous fossa (part of the dorsal surface of the scapula below the spine of the scapula) and inserts into the greater tubercle of the humerus. The main function of the infraspinatus is external rotation of the humerus and the stabilization of the glenohumeral joint.
This is strongest and largest muscle of all the rotator cuff muscles, as the name suggests, it is found under the scapula. The subscapularis begins at the medial 2/3 subscapular fossa and inserts into the lesser tuberosity of the humerus in front of the shoulder joint capsule.
The main function of the subscapularis is the internal rotation of the humerus. It also helps with shoulder extension and adduction in certain positions. If the arm is raised then the subscapularis pulls the humerus forward and downward. If the humerus is in a fixed position the subscapularis can support abduction of the inferior border of the scapula. Overall, this muscle plays a vital role in stabilizing the shoulder.
This is the smallest of the rotator cuff muscles that is located along the supraspinous fossa superior portion off the scapula extending to the greater tubercle of the humerus. The supraspinatus plays a role in abduction of the arm and pulls the humerus internally towards the glenoid cavity. It also prevents the head of the humerus to slip inferiorly. This small muscle is the primary mover in abduction of the arm in the first 15 degrees, then the side delt picks up the load to do the remainder of the heavy lifting.
There are two teres muscles, the teres major and teres minor; the teres minor is the one that makes up part of the rotator cuff. The teres minor is a small narrow muscle located below the infraspinatus and above the triceps brachii and teres major. It begins at the upper 2/3 of the lateral border of the scapula and inserts into the greater tuberosity of the humerus.
The teres minor helps with adduction and extension of the shoulder. It also works in concert with the infraspinatus to externally rotate the shoulder joint. Lastly, it helps to abduct the scapula when the humerus is stabilized. The teres minor is essential in providing stability to the shoulder joint while also assisting in keeping the humeral head in the glenoid cavity of the scapula in place.
The trapezius is often called the traps, this is a large triangular shaped upper back muscle that extends from the bottom of your skull to the lower thoracic vertebrae of the the spine and laterally to the spine of the scapula.
The main function of the traps is to support head movement, stabilize certain arm motions and provide stability in pushing and pulling movements. The traps play an integral part in many shoulder exercises including the king of them all, the overhead press.
If you’ve stepped foot in a decent gym you will have seen a cable machine. A cable machine can come in various shapes and sizes, some will even have a specific usage for a particular exercise such as the lat pull down machine. In this article we are referring to the type of cable machine that is the big behemoth with two pillars or towers that have stacks of weights with cables running through them which are moved via a pulley system. You can use various attachments with the cable, this type of cable machine is sometimes called the cable crossover machine. This type of cable machine is the most versatile of all the cable machines as you can hit pretty much every muscle group one way or another.
Each pillar or tower is independent of each other so you could set various weights, attachments and different height levels. To adjust the weight, you’ll simply pull out the pin then insert into the weight amount you desire. All the weights will be labeled, with the weight getting heavier as you move down the stack. The cable is itself is usually attached to a vertical track where you can lower or raise the height. At the end of the cable, you’ll be able to affix numerous attachments via a carabiner. The most common attachment is the stirrup or handle but you should have a range of options from straps to bars to ropes, you shouldn’t get bored with the cable machine.
Overall, cable machines are a great tool to use in your training program for certain exercises. Cable machines provide constant tension on the muscles throughout the range of motion in the lift. The cable machine flattens the strength curve providing the same amount of tension throughout the movement so if you’re doing cable lateral raises with 10 lbs then it will be applying 10 lbs from the start to the end of the movement. In this case cable machines are a good option for increasing the much-needed time under tension.
If you're thinking about purchasing one for your home gym, check out the Best Cable Machines For Your Home Gym where we selected the top options on the market.
Yes, cable exercises for shoulders are a great way to build strong powerful shoulders. Using the cable machine, you’ll be able to hit all three deltoids from different angles and through a range of motions. You can also change body positioning, weight load and attachments used, which can alter your grip thus targeting your muscles differently. The cable machine will provide smooth constant tension on your muscles which leads to more time under tension and in turn more potential for muscle growth.
The cable machine offers an effective way to train the shoulders, let’s have a look at some other benefits of shoulder exercises with a cable machine.
Versatile: We touched on this briefly above but the cable machine offers almost unmatched versatility because you can change up the load, angle, grip positioning and body positioning easily. With the ability to change all these variables it’s less likely you’ll get bored of using the cable machine as you’re mostly limited by your imagination on how you can use it.
Let’s inspect some of the main variables for shoulder cable exercises so that you have a better understanding of the possibilities surrounding the cable machine.
Body positioning: Body positioning simply refers to how you will position your body during the exercise. You can combine the cable machine with the following body positions:
We will cover some shoulder cable exercises below that demonstrate how these various body positions can come into play. You’re also able to switch up where you’re standing in regards to the cable machine which can change the way certain exercises work. For example, you could perform lateral raises with the cable in front of you which with hit the side and front delts mostly or you can move the cable behind you where you’ll shift some tension to the side and rear delts.
In essence you will be able to hit all aspects of the shoulder so that you don’t create any muscle imbalances.
Loading Angle: The cable machine has pulleys that are affixed to vertical tracks so that you can easily raise or lower the starting point. This capability results in you being able to target your muscles in a slightly different manner within the same movement. For instance, you could do bent over rear delt flys where the cable is set towards the ground. In this position you will be using more muscles overall to complete the movement because you’re bent over in a hinged position. You could do this same exercise standing up with the cable at shoulder level where the rear delt will be a tad more isolated because you only have to focus on the main movement of the reverse fly.
Grip: You can switch up your grip on the cable machine by using different attachments such as the stirrup or ropes. You could change from an overhand to underhand to neutral grip rather easily with the cable machine. By switching up the grip you can make small alterations in how you’re targeting the muscles you’re working.
Load & Tension: With a cable machine you can easily and quickly change the load you’re working with by pulling the pin then reinserting into a different weight in the stack. This ease of changing the load comes into play if you’re doing any drop sets, pyramids or supersets.
The next amazing feature of the cable machine is that it puts constant tension on the muscles throughout a range of motion. This flat strength curve can work your muscles throughout the entire movement at the same rate which allows for more time under tension. This is one of the main reasons why the cable machine is favored amongst bodybuilders and advanced trainees with the goal of hypertrophy when doing isolation exercises.
Unilateral Movement: Performing shoulder exercises on a cable machine can highlight any weaknesses or shortcomings you may have on one side versus the other. Like dumbbells you can work one shoulder at a time but with the cables, the tension is in a smooth flat strength curve so it’s easier to identify if you’re weak in a particular exercise. Iron out any muscle imbalances with the cable machine before they become a bigger issue.
Smooth Motion: The cable machine offers a smooth, controlled motion that can be manipulated by the variables above to deliver the exact resistance you’re looking for. This smooth motion is great to keep exercises on the correct path to maximize the time under tension.
Safe & Efficient: Cable machines are a safe and efficient tool to incorporate into your normal workout program. The smooth flat resistance results in less wear and tear on the joints, especially the wrists, elbows and shoulders.
You can efficiently change the load, angle and attachment which makes it easy if you want to change up the exercise and other variables without having to move to another area of the gym to use other equipment.
Training to failure might be dangerous on barbell or dumbbell exercises but with the cable machine you’re rather safe to push yourself to the absolute limits without fear of dropping a weight on yourself or injuring yourself in other ways.
Great For Isolation: We generally recommend free weights for the large compound lifts to get the biggest bang for your buck but when it comes to isolation exercises the cable machine can be a perfect choice. As we mentioned before with the cable machine you target muscles precisely how you want to and train them to failure which is great for hypertrophy.
Beginner Friendly: There’s often a learning curve to using barbells and dumbbells safely and effectively. Therefore, beginners can get the gist of movements on a cable machine without the fear of hurting themselves while still getting a good workout in.
The best exercises for broad shoulders are ones that work the side delts. Well-built side delts can add broadness to the shoulders. Lateral raises are a great exercise to hit the side delts which can be done in multiple variations and angles. Upright rows are another awesome exercise to add some size to the side delts. This study actually showed that the incline upright row activated the lateral deltoids the most when compared with 11 other shoulder exercises.
Just remember to train both the side and rear delts adequately in your workouts to develop full shoulders all-around. The front delts usually are the most developed because they're involved in many horizontal pressing movements.
Note: We’d be remised if we didn’t mention the fact that your genetics play a part in how broad your shoulders can become. You can definitely put on some size by building up the side delts but if you have shorter clavicle bones then you might not be able to get shoulders as broad as desired.
The cable machine is best used for hypertrophy rather than strength and power so you won’t be trying to lift as heavy as possible but rather hone in on specific exercises with mid to high rep range. If you need a refresher regarding rep ranges and desired outcome you can follow these guidelines:
You should try to have a good mix of these reps ranges in your workout programming. The key point is no matter what rep range you go with you should always be working with a weight that is hard to finish off the last 1-2 reps in the set. In the case of the cable machine, you can actually work to failure without fear of dropping the weights or not being able to control the weight if you can’t complete the rep properly.
These 16 shoulder cable exercises will hit all three deltoids plus rotator cuff and upper back muscles.
Even though you might not see many people using the cable machine for shoulder presses it is a fantastic exercise to mix in your shoulder workout for extra variety. The angle of the cable overhead press can help recruit new muscle fiber that’s not engaged much with other types of shoulder presses because the force is pulling down behind you. You can control the angle of the press, so if you step away from the cable machine you will be pushing through a more horizontal range of motion to hit the front delts more.
Note: Make sure to stand tall throughout the movement and refrain from using your leg power to help press the weight up.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Triceps, Traps, Serratus Anterior, Pec Major, Triceps
The alternating overhead press can be performed a number of ways, you could do on arm at a time if you only have one cable tower available or you can follow the method as seen in the image below where you’ll occupy two cables, pressing up with a neutral grip to target the front delts and triceps more.
Some cable machines will have a distance that is too far away from each other to perform this exercise properly, in that case just perform with one arm at a time. The single arm cable shoulder press not only works our delts but the core is also engaged to keep the body vertically aligned without leaning to one side.
Note: If you change your grip to overhand you will move more tension back to the side delts which is more simialr to the overhead press mechanics.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Triceps, Traps, Serratus anterior, Pec Major, Triceps
This is a great way to ensure you keep strict form while doing the overhead press. By changing your body position it’s not possible to use any leg drive to press the weight over head. Pressing up with such a close grip will focus the stress onto the front delts, pecs and triceps.
Note: Don't lean back too far, try to keep your chest up and back straight throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Triceps, Traps, Serratus Anterior, Pec Major, Triceps
This exercise mimics the dumbbell rear lateral raise but we like the cable version better. The cable machine provides constant tension on the muscles thus ensuring a smooth movement and more time under tension on the rear delts. Doing single arm cable bent over lateral raise enables you to hone in on one shoulder at a time while also allowing you to lift the hand higher, resulting in a longer stretch at the bottom of the movement. Get ready to blast the rear delts with this one.
Note: Move arm directly out to the side to hit the rear delt and keep elbow far from body to discourage lat use. Perform in a smooth continuous movement and avoid using your triceps to finish off the movement.
Muscles Worked: Rear Delt, Side Delt, Rhomboids, Traps, Teres Minor, Infraspinatus
The rear delts don’t get enough love but we’re here to change that with the cable cross over bent over reverse fly. This exercise is the same movement as the previous exercise except you'll be working both shoulders at the same time.
Note: Focus on the rear delts rather than the squeezing the shoulder blades. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement without rounding the back.
Muscles Worked: Rear Delt, Side Delt, Rhomboids, Traps, Teres Minor, Infraspinatus
The lying reverse fly is the perfect exercise to hit the rear delts. Completing this exercise in a supine position on your back allows you to purely focus on contracting your rear delts in order to pull the cables down to the sides. It’s important to keep your arms perpendicular to your trunk so that you reduce the chances of your lats helping to complete the exercise.
Note: Make sure your shoulders are lined up with the cables before starting the movement and perform with slow focused motion.
Muscles Worked: Rear Delt, Side Delt, Traps, Teres Minor, Infraspinatus
Related: Cable Rear Delt Fly Variations
The front raise is one of the most common shoulder exercises you'll see being done because it is effective in building the front delts. By performing this exercise unilaterally you'll be able to focus on one side at a time. You'll also be made aware of if you have any muscle imbalances that need attention.
Note: Pause at the bottom off the movement to avoid using momentum to lift weight on next rep. You can raise your arm out to an angle if you want to hit your side delt a little more.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Traps, Serratus Anterior, Pec Major
This variation of the front cable raise helps to engage your traps and side delt more by lifting up on one side of the bar at the top of the movement. This extra lift at the top of the movement makes it harder because of the short isometric hold. This is a good exercise to get those delts and traps burning.
Note: Pause at the top of the movement to get peak trap contraction. Move in a slow controlled manner throughout the exercise.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Traps, Serratus anterior, Pec Major
One of the best exercises that targets the side delts, the cable lateral raise is a great isolation exercise that can humble you. With this exercise you should start at a light weight to ensure you perform the exercise with proper form. There are multiple variations of the lateral raise but they all have the same common goal, to build the lateral delts. For maximum contraction pause at the top of the movement while turning your wrist, bringing your pinky towards the ceiling.
Note: To avoid bouncing or using momentum pause briefly at the bottom before raising your arm again. You can also perform this lateral raise with the cable in front of your body if you want to hit the front deltoid a little more. To make this exercise more difficult you can hold a safe place on the cable tower then lean away from it so that there’s a larger range of motion to complete the exercise.
Muscles Worked: Side Delt, Front Delt, Serratus Anterior, Supraspinatus
This variation of the lateral raise creates extreme isolation due to your body position there’s no way to cheat with momentum. You can perform this side lying lateral raise on the floor or on a bench. This exercise helps build strength and stability in the side delt.
Note: You can also try to pull off this exercise while lying on an incline bench to change the ROM.
Muscles Worked: Side Delt, Front Delt, Serratus Anterior, Supraspinatus
The upright row is an excellent exercise to work the shoulders and upper back. The upright row can build some serious muscle in the front and side delts while also building the traps and rhomboids. This pulling exercise can help some of your other lifts like deadlifts. People with shoulder impingement issues might be prone to injuring themselves with this exercise so if that’s the case with you then it’s best to stick to some of the other cable shoulder exercises in this post.
Note: The EZ curl bar can make this exercise more comfortable on your wrists. Try switching up where you grip the bar if shoulder width is uncomfortable for you.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Supraspinatus, Traps, Serratus anterior, Biceps
This exercise is an amazing exercise to blast all three delts. The cable Y raise will strengthen the external rotators that help to stabilize the scapula. Don't chest with this exercise. Stand tall and avoid leaning back or rocking to help lift the weight. Start light with this one!
Note: Keep elbows slightly flexed and your body upright throughout the movement.
Muscles Worked: All Delts, Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres minor, Traps, Subscapularis
This is cool take on the overhead press that includes some movement in the transverse plane due to the twisting motion. This is a truly functional movement that imitates daily life movements. Reaching, twisting, pressing all wrapped up into one smooth motion. Give this exercise a try to work the shoulders, arms, core and legs.
Note: keep the rotation in the trunk of the body not at the hips.
Muscles Worked: Front Delt, Side Delt, Triceps, Traps, Serratus anterior, Pec Major, Obliques, Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Maximus, TFL, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Psoas, Gastrocnemius, Soleus
Face pulls sometimes get a bad rap but this exercise is perfect to strengthen the muscles that are strained in daily life activities such as looking down at your computer or driving your car. When done right this exercise strengthens the shoulders and upper back which can help straighten out a hunched over posture. Face pulls can help with shoulder dysfunction and strengthen the rotator cuff.
Note: Pay particular attention to elbow height and don’t allow to go higher than shoulder level.
Muscles Worked: Rear Delt, Side Delt, Teres Minor, Traps, Infraspinatus, Brachialis
Related: Best Face Pull Alternatives
This version of the row works the upper back and shoulders without having arms straight over head. Using this exercise give people with shoulder issues an exercise to get the benefits of rows. Being in a kneeling position will help to stabilize your body so that you’re not leaning too far forward or backwards.
Note: Don't lean backwards to pull the weight towards you, focus on the mind-muscle connectio to pull down by using your back muscles.
Muscles Worked: Rear Delts, Lats, Rhomboids, Traps, Teres Major, Teres Minor, Infraspinatus,
Even though the traps aren’t necessarily a shoulder muscle it is used in concert with many shoulder exercises so we decided that the cable shrug belongs in this list. With cable shrugs you’re able to change up multiple variables to hit the traps in different ways.
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
We put together a sample shoulder workout with cable shoulder exercises. This can be completed solely using the cable machine. Although we live and die by free weights, we also believe it’s necessary to switch up our training and the equipment we use to refrain from getting bored while stimulating our muscles in new ways.
Here’s a shoulder workout that you can do with cables, so if you feel like hogging the cable machine or the gym is empty give this workout a go if you want to crush those shoulders.
All in all, the cable machine provides tremendous value when it comes to building big well-defined shoulders. Shoulder exercises on a cable machine can hit your shoulders from all angles which will stimulate new muscle fibers to be activated for potential growth. Don’t just take our word for it, next time you’re in the gym try a few of these cable shoulder exercises. We’re sure you’ll be an advocate afterwards. Shoulder on!!
More Cable Machine Exercises:
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