A lot of focus in the gym is put on arms, thighs, and the abdominals or core section. 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.

Targeting the upper back, lower back, shoulders, lats, and mid-back will give you size and strength and balance and form.

Let’s cover the 10 best cable back exercises for muscle development to give you the most out of your next workout.

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

Of all those exercises, very few do not involve your back in some way.

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 the 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. The seated cable row uses a flat bench with foot holds and a cable weight system attached to a low pulley and the weight stack. You sit on the bench facing the weight stack, put your feet in the hold and grab the bar.
  2. In this pre-start position, there should be tension on the cable, your feet firmly in the holds, and your knees slightly bent, similar to a rowing machine.
  3. Next, you want to pull back as you sit up straight, arching your back slightly, arms out straight in front with your chest out. Your legs should be straight as well.
  4. From the starting position, you pull the cable and handle to your chest and push your shoulders together at the end of the pull. Hold this for a second, and then control the hand back out in front of you. Keep your upper body stationary at all times. Repeat these reps for a full set with a small rest between sets.

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. The setup is the same, and at the starting position, your knees should be bent slightly, arm extended with resistance on the cable. Your back is straight, chest out, and you want to maintain forward facing position throughout the movement. You do not want to twist your waist or chest.
  2. As you bring the cable to your side, you want to keep your elbow tight against your body and rotate the wrist at the end movement.
  3. Return to the starting position for a rep and complete a full set before racking the weights.
  4. After the rack, swap hands and repeat the same motion on the other side.

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. You want to stand in front of the cable machine and weight stack, with a straight bar attached to a high pulley. Grab the bar with an overhand grip and shoulder width, and step back a few feet from the machine.
  2. Your back should be straight in line with your body, feet shoulder-width apart. Tighten your core and your lats, and with your hands at chin level, you are ready to begin.
  3. The movement is only in your arms, with your feet remaining flat on the ground. Exhale while bringing your hands to the sides of your thighs, and after a slight pause, control the bar back to the starting position while you inhale. Repeat for a full set.

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. To perform this move properly, you want to grab the overhead standard long curved bar and take your seat, locking your knees under the thigh pads.
  2. Your arms should be overhead, with your butt firmly in the seat and full tension on the cable. Obviously, as the wide grip lat pulldown name implies, you want to maintain a wide grip on the bar.
  3. Proper form is crucial here. You do not want to lift off the seat, lean back or forward or use body weight to lower the handle. Instead, in a smooth, controlled motion, bring the bar down to your chest while exhaling. Your hands should be out on the edge of the bar, wider than shoulder width.

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.

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.

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. Standing in front of a double-weight stack machine, you want to cross the cables and single grip attachments.
  2. With feet and hands shoulder-width apart, back straight and chest out, you start almost exactly as you do with the front pull down.
  3. The exception is that instead of pulling down, you open your arms, pressing your shoulder blades together. With a slight pause on the backstroke, you need full control to smoothly return your hands to the starting position, completing a rep.
  4. Continue the reps until you complete your set.

8. Standing Cable Row

man in all black clothes doing standing cable rows

With a standing cable row, you engage the primary muscles, which include the lats, rhomboids, and delts.

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

How To Perform:

  1. For this exercise, you will mimic the exact movements of the seated cable row. However, instead of sitting with bent knees, you will squat with bent knees. Your back and shoulders shouldn't move, and your shoulder blades should pinch at motion climax.
  2. Adjust your footing so that your arms are fully extended. Your hands should start at shoulder height, with palms on the same side, facing away from you.

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. Here, you want to use the rope handle attachment and keep your palms facing inward. In the same starting position as the standing cable row, you want to pull the rope towards your face instead of down to your thighs. This is why it is called a face pull, a great exercise with full range movement for the shoulders and upper lats.
  2. Your elbows need to remain parallel with the floor as you perform face pulls. With legs and back straight and chest out, you want to pause before returning to the start position. Focus on maximizing your range of motion.

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

If you can't do this movement, check out some face pull alternatives to help build up your strength before moving on to this exercise.

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. o get into the starting position, you will use a straight bar or V bar handle on a low pulley. Being a few feet back from the cable machine, kneel with your feet straight out behind you. Raise one foot on the floor in front of you, with a 90-degree angle on your knee, and stabilize your lower body.
  2. The back leg should have a pointed toe, with shoelaces touching the floor, not digging in with your toes. This half-squat position will isolate the back muscles on the side of the lowered knee.
  3. The motion is identical to the seated cable row, with the same focus on pinching the shoulder blades at the apex. When performing the back exercises, you want to minimize trunk rotation, too.

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. 

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




(between sets/ between exercises)

Cable Lat Pulldown



60/90 seconds

Seated Row



60/90 seconds

Standing Cable Row



90/120 seconds

Face Pull


Characteristic 4

60/90 seconds

Cable Straight-Arm Pulldown


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.


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!


  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

Last Updated on July 23, 2023

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Andrew White

Andrew White is the co-founder of Garage Gym Pro. As an expert fitness professional (gym building nerd) with over 10 years of industry experience, he enjoys writing about everything there is to do with modern fitness & the newest market innovations for garage gyms. When he isn’t testing out products for his readers, he’s usually out surfing or playing basketball.