A lot of focus in the gym is put on arms, legs, and core. While these are important areas to work out, you can't overlook your back health.

Your back is full of primary and secondary muscles that work together to keep you strong, upright, and able to use your shoulders and arms with a full range of motion.

If you want balanced strength, explosive power, and balance, you need to work out your back evenly. The cable machine is a great tool to achieve this.

In this article, I'm covering the 10 best cable back exercises for muscle development to give you the most out of your next workout.

The cable machine can look intimidating to beginners with the countless number of exercises, variations and attachments.

It's an incredibly versatile machine and ideal for building muscle mass due to the time under tension.

Cable machines typically come with two weight stacks on opposite sides and space for you to train in the centre. Some cables are very wide with lots of space and others are a smaller version but they both do the exact same thing. 

The important thing to remember with cables is that heavier weight is not better. At no point should you be using momentum to lift the weights. A common mistake I often see is people going far too heavy and risking injury. Lighter weight and control is the way to go with cables. 

It's also important to not allow the weights to crash down between the reps, stand back enough so that the weights remain elevated until you complete the set. 

Always ensure you have plenty of space when training with the cables and you're not going to hit anyone whilst performing the exercise.

Finally, familiarise yourself with the set up of the exercises you're doing. Knowing the right height and handle to use is important for getting the exercise right and keeping yourself safe.

10 Best Cable Back Exercises For Muscle Development

There are literally thousands of exercises you can perform, and new styles or methods are being developed every day.

Using cable exercises in the gym to develop your back will make all those other movements easier and allow you to lift heavier.

Ready to get bigger, stronger back muscles? Here are my 10 best cable back exercises!

1. Seated Cable Row

man with no shirt doing seated cable rows

The seated cable row is one of the favorite cable exercises out there. Those attending smaller gyms may find long wait lines for this machine due to its popularity.

The seated cable row can eliminate the need for the dumbbell row or the bent-over row.

It focuses on the lats, middle back, and trapezius muscles with some secondary resistance for the deltoids and biceps.[1]

How To Perform:

  1. Sit on the bench facing the weight stack, put your feet in the hold and lean forwards to grab the bar and pull back so your torso is upright. 
  2. There should be tension on the cable, your feet firmly in the holds, and your knees slightly bent, similar to a rowing machine, this it the starting position.
  3. Pull the cable to your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together at the end of the pull. Hold this for a second, and then control the handle back in front of you, keeping your torso stationary at all time. 
  4. Repeat for 10-12 reps, for 3-5 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

I always remind my clients to keep their shoulders down and keep the spine straight throughout the exercise. A slight bend in the hamstrings will avoid them feeling too tight.

Related Article - Best Smith Machine Exercises

2. Single-Arm Cable Row

man in all black clothes doing a standing single arm cable row

The single-arm cable row, also called the one-arm seated cable row, is almost identical to the seated cable movement above, but is a unilateral movement instead of a bilateral one.

This can significantly help you even out your lats since you only use one side of your body at a time to pull the weight.

The main difference with the single arm cable row is that you will use a single grip attachment instead of a double grip.

When performing the single-arm cable row compared to a standard version, you might want to start with a lower weight.

Ensure you engage the upper back muscles and rotator cuff muscles.

How To Perform:

  1. Start with your knees slightly bent and one arm extended with resistance on the cable. Your back should be straight and you want to maintain forward facing position throughout the movement.
  2. Pull the handle towards you and as you bring the cable to your side, keep your elbow tight against your body and rotate the wrist at the end movement.
  3. Slowly return the handle to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for 10-12 reps, for 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

I often see people rushing this exercise. It's a great idea to slow it down and really focusing on your back doing the pulling, not your arms.  

3. Cable Straight-Arm Pulldown

steve cook doing cable straight arm pulldowns with rope attachment

The straight arm pulldown is a popular exercise because it focuses on isolating the lats. When done properly, this bilateral movement will add strength and size to your body.

As the name implies, it is crucial to keep your elbows locked and rotator cuff engaged.

With your core engaged, feet flat on the ground and elbows tighter to your body, the correct form will help you build muscle mass, even in your middle traps.

This exercise is also a great alternative to dumbbell pullovers if you only have a functional trainer available at home.

How To Perform:

  1. Stand in front of the cable machine and weight stack, with a straight bar attached to a high pulley. 
  2. Grab the bar with an overhand grip and shoulder width, and step back a few feet from the machine.
  3. Your back should be straight in line with your body, feet shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and your lats, and with your hands at chin level. 
  4. Exhale while bringing your hands to the sides of your thighs, pause for a second then control the handle back to the starting position while you inhale. 
  5. Repeat for 10-12 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

For the most emphasis on the lats, really focus on squeezing at the end position.  

4. Wide-Grip Lat Pulldowns

woman in black tank top doing a wide grip lat pulldown

The lat pulldown is one of the most popular back-building exercises ever used. It also has three main variations to get the most from a single-machine setup.

Focusing on the lats, the wide grip lat pulldown variation also adds focus to the rhomboids, traps, and delts.

How To Perform:

  1. Attach the overhead standard long curved bar and sit down, locking your knees under the thigh pads.
  2. Reach up and hold onto the handle in a wide, overhand grip with your arms straight.
  3. Depress the shoulders and pull your lats down, lean back slightly and pull the handle until it reaches the top of your chest. 
  4. Pause for a second and with control, release the weight up to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for 10-15 reps, 3-4 sets. 

Tips From A Trainer!

As with all lat pulldown variations, maintaining posture and constant tension is key to proper form. Your back muscles, shoulders, and even lower body should all be engaged through the full lat pulldown machine exercise. 

5. Close-Grip Lat Pulldown

man in blue doing close grip lat pulldowns

The close-grip lat pulldown variation uses the same movements and upper body form. It also targets the same muscle groups with an additional focus on the triceps.

With the close grip, you want your hands together (thumb width apart) on the curve bar.

Alternatively, you can use a v-bar if it feels more comfortable. Some also use the rope attachment to force more muscle engagement to maintain posture and position of the upper back muscles.

You should still feel your shoulder blades push out instead of together; this will ensure the secondary muscles stay engaged as well.

This move keeps everything tight inside, and your elbows should remain close to the body. The main form issue here is to grab the bar with an overhand grip or palms away from you.

How To Perform:

  1. Attach the overhead standard long curved bar and sit down, locking your knees under the thigh pads.
  2. Reach up and hold onto the handle with your hands at shoulder-width apart and an overhand grip in the bar. 
  3. Depress the shoulders and pull your lats down, lean back slightly and pull the handle until it reaches the top of your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together
  4. Pause for a second and with control, release the weight up to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for 10-15 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

If you're feeling this exercise working your biceps more than your back and lats then try performing this with your thumbs on the same side as your fingers, rather than wrapping them.  

6. Reverse Lat Pulldowns

man in blue tank top doing reverse grip lat pulldowns

The final variation is the reverse-pull which adds more focus to the biceps. Like the close-grip variation above, the reverse grip is completed using a reverse grip on the bar, or palms facing you.

You still need to keep firmly planted on the bench and only use your arms and shoulders for movement.

As with the other two variations, exhale on the contraction, hold in place for a second and inhale as you control the handle back to the starting position.

When done correctly, you will also feel the lower lats and posterior delts engage. Make sure they stay tight throughout the movement.

This is one of my favorite compound pull exercises for arms and back as it can really give your biceps a pump while working your lats as well.

How To Perform:

  1. Attach the overhead standard long curved bar and sit down, locking your knees under the thigh pads.
  2. Reach up and hold onto the handle with your hands at shoulder-width apart and an underhand grip on the bar.
  3. Depress the shoulders and pull your lats down, lean back slightly and pull the handle until it reaches the top of your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together
  4. Pause for a second and with control, release the weight up to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for 10-15 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

This is one of my favorite exercises to improve exercises such as chin ups. If you want a challenge, try adding a pause or a 1 1/4 rep for more time under tension.  

7. Cable Reverse Fly

man looking in mirror and doing reverse cable flys

Reverse cable flys are a standing cable crossover move that puts the most focus on delts, triceps, and most importantly, the rhomboids.

The main feature of this exercise is that you should use lighter weights instead of heavier ones to get more control and a more comprehensive range of motion.

How To Perform:

  1. Stand with you feet shoulder-width apart in front of a double-weight cable machine and remove any handles that are attached and set the pulleys up high.
  2. Position yourself in the centre of the machine and cross your arms to hold onto each cable.
  3. Start with your arms straight, chest up and your core braced. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows and pull backwards until your arms are in line with your body. 
  4. With control, release the weight back to the staring position without allowing the weights to rest.
  5. Repeat for 12-15 reps, 3-4 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

Avoid pushing your head forwards once your arms are fully extended, and don't rely on any momentum. This exercise is training a small muscle group and heavy weight isn't required.  

Related Article - HIIT Battle Rope Workouts

8. Standing Cable Row

man in all black clothes doing standing cable rows

This exercise mimics the exact movements of the seated cable row, but provides an added benefit of more core engagement. With a standing cable row you target the lats, rhomboids, and delts.

You also engage the secondary groups of the biceps and core. Because of the half squat position, you also engage the hamstrings and glutes.

How To Perform:

  1. Attach two handles to the cable pulley machine and set to around waist height. 
  2. Grab onto each handle and walk back a couple of steps so the cable is taut and your arms are straight.
  3. Bend your knees slightly and brace your core.
  4. Keep your elbows close to your body and pull each handle to your lower abdomen. 
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your shoulders down. 
  6. Return weight back to the starting position with control.
  7. Repeat for 10-12 reps, 3 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

For best management, you want to maximize your weight and strive for the 8 to 12 rep range with a cable row exercise for back. This is one back exercise you want to run to exhaustion on the final set. It is a fairly simple exercise that you can add heavier weight to mimic a bench press. 

9. Face Pull

man in gray t-shirt doing face pulls with rope attachments

Face pulls are a cable exercise that engages posterior delts, rhomboids, traps, and rotator cuff muscles.

The beauty of this exercise is that it works for both shoulder workout days and back workout days.

How To Perform:

  1. Set the cable machine to above head height and add the rope attachment. 
  2. Hold the rope in each hand with palms facing inwards and take a step back. 
  3. With your shoulders down, pull the rope towards your face, keeping your elbows high and pointed outwards as your pull. 
  4. Hold for a second and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  5. Return to the start position with control.
  6. Repeat for 12 reps, 3 sets.

Tips From A Trainer!

This is a difficult exercise, but once you have proper form and technique, you can start to add weight and grow defined, balanced shoulders with an increased range of motion.[2

Related Article - Best EZ Curl Bar Exercises

10. Half-Kneeling Cable Row

man in black tank top doing half-kneeling single arm cable rows

Another variation of the cable row is also done without a bench. It targets the same muscle groups and can even engage the core, lower back, and glutes.

How To Perform:

  1. Attach a handle to one side of the cable machine and set the pulley slightly lower than waist height.
  2. Pull the handle back and get down on one knee, facing towards the cable machine. Hold the handle in your opposite arm.
  3. Start with your arm straight in front of you and your core braced.
  4. Pull your shoulder back and then continue to row the handle towards you, keeping your elbow tight with your ribs. Hold for a second in the end position.
  5. Return the weight with control and straighten the arm completely.
  6. Repeat for 10-12 reps, 3-4 sets on each side.

Tips From A Trainer!

You can include a more isolation technique and perform these back workouts one-handed. You will want to pull with the hand opposite your raised knee and swap both legs and arms on subsequent reps. 

Benefits of training with cables 

Constant tension

The cable machine is extremely effective for muscle building due to the constant tension it creates throughout the exercise. Free weights such as dumbbells or barbells will provide less tension, usually at the top and bottom of the exercise. 

When the muscle is put under tension for longer, it put the muscle fibres under stress for more time, creating more growth. 

Versatile

Versatility is one of the biggest benefits to training using a cable machine. You can train every muscle in your body. The height, handles and directions are all changeable meaning you can alter the exercises to change the target muscle, angle and stimulus. 

Safer and ideal for injuries

Cable machine are much safer than free weights as there is no risk of dropping the weight and injuring yourself. 

It's also a great machine to use if your coming back from injury as it places you in safer positions than free weights.

Increases demands on core and stability

Many of the exercises performed on a cable machine are done in a standing position placing more demand on your core. 

A strong core will improve your other lifts plus it's important for our daily movement and keeping our spine supported.  

Cable Machines Vs Free Weights (Compared For Back Training)

When training your back, you may be tempted to use free weights. As this is an option, it should be covered and compared to using the cable machine exercises listed in this review.

The primary difference is that weights don't offer the stability of a cable machine.

They are also more varied in their weights and limits as you can work out with whatever you can lift and not what is present on the weight stack.

Moves like a barbell bent over row are now done upright, giving you more stability and upper back focus.

Cable machines keep you engaged, though, as once you pull the weight stack to the starting position, you are under resistance.[3]

Unlike weights that are put down, the pull cable rope attachment stays taught throughout the movement and between reps.

Both options are great for a back workout and offer a wide variety of movements. Cable machines are best for those with form issues or that need extra stability.

Weights are good for those with higher weight limits or who are working out in a home gym without a cable machine.

Example Cable Workout (Target Your Upper & Lower Back)

The key to the best cable workout for your back is to engage and stress the most muscle groups possible.

With both primary and secondary muscles engaged, you can get a full workout for your back and shoulders with a few simple cable machine exercises.

Primary lifts in your workout routines will help you with muscle growth along your fitness journey.

In addition, variations like using an underhand grip, wide grip, reverse grip variation, and using a full range of motion will prevent plateauing.

Just remember to keep your elbow close and pull lighter weight until you have the form down.

Example Cable Back Workout To Try

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Rest
(between sets/ between exercises)

Cable Lat Pulldown

3

8

60/90 seconds

Seated Row

3

12

60/90 seconds

Standing Cable Row

3

12

90/120 seconds

Face Pull

3

Characteristic 4

60/90 seconds

Cable Straight-Arm Pulldown

3

8 - 12

90/120 seconds

Kneeling Cable Row

3 (final set to exhaustion)

8 -12 (final set to exhaustion)

60/90 seconds

Frequently Asked Cable Back Exercises Questions

What other muscle groups are cable exercises good for?

Cable exercises are good for more than just your back. You can work out your chest, hamstrings, glutes, biceps, triceps, and core and with the right setup and movements, a complete full-body workout with greater range is possible.

Can you build muscle with only cables?

With proper form, movement, and work, cable machines can help you develop posture, form, and, yes, muscle growth. Done correctly, you can eliminate the need for free weight exercises, bent-over rows, and even barbell bench presses.

In just a few weeks, you can incorporate a fantastic exercise routine using only cables for your upper back and other primary muscles. If you want to increase muscle mass, back exercises like a wide grip row, cable shrug and the best cable exercises will get you to your goals.

Can cables replace dumbbells?

If you are not fond of free or dumbbell weights, having loose weight overhead, or spending long times between sets racking and re-racking weights, cables can easily replace your dumbbells. However, for heavy lifters, powerlifters, and professional athletes, the weight stack on a cable machine may not be heavy enough for all exercises.

Why do cable weights feel heavier?

Every machine you use will feel different. How a weight feels to you is determined by many factors, including the maintenance of the machine, the angle and number of pulleys used, and which settings you have it on. Unlike a dumbbell or bar weight which is always at the same angle and without additional equipment, you can "feel" like you are lifting more weight on a cable machine.

Conclusion

Back workouts are more than just picking the right weight and lifting. You need form, control, discipline, and posture.

It also helps to understand how breathing affects your lifts and when to keep muscles tight.

Cable machines help make all of this easier, and with the right workout set, you can get a larger, stronger back without thinking much beyond your inhalations, weight selection, and form.

Try our back workouts above your next day at the gym!

Reference:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537074/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28910683/
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000368701730193X?via%3Dihub
Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor

Hi, I’m Jo. I love sunrise swims, cold water immersion and cats. I have been dedicated to strength training for the past 14 years. I became a qualified Personal Trainer in 2020, and am passionate about helping my clients get stronger. Visit Jo Taylors Website