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8 Best Cable Workouts For Bigger Back (From A Trainer)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: February 22, 2022

Developing more muscle strength in your back is just as achievable with cable back exercises as it is with using free weights. With small adjustments to the cable machine and your grip you can easily switch between compound and isolation exercises.

But for some reason, many bodybuilders shy away from cable exercises.

As a personal trainer, I have helped many clients shape their lower and upper back with a set of cable exercises that are suitable for beginners and pros.

Let me show what's involved.

Quick Summary

  • Your upper back muscles make up most of the muscle mass in the upper part of your body and you can target them with compound cable workouts.
  • Building up more strength in your back can support better workouts for other body parts, including your arm, shoulder, and core muscles.
  • A cable workout allows you to do both isolation and compound exercises with minor adjustments to cable machines.

8 Cable Back Workout Exercises

Here are my tried and tested exercises for your lower and upper back muscles.

1. Seated Cable Row

woman in a seated cable row position

Most gyms will have a seated cable machine, and the setup is simple. 

  • Get into a seated position with your knees bent at about a right angle.
  • Grip the handles and get some tension on the cable.
  • Start the seated cable row with a slow movement, pulling your hands to your chest.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and then release them going back to the starting point.

2. Face Pulls

Set up the machine with a cable rope attachment at head height.

  • Your starting position is with your arms straight in front of your face and some tension on the cable.
  • Slowly pull the ropes towards your face until they almost touch your nose.
  • You'll feel the tension in your upper back and rotator cuff muscles.
  • Slowly release your hands back to the starting point.

3. Close Grip Lat Pulldown

man in a gym

The close grip lat pulldown is my personal favorite, and I recommend going slow rather than heavy. 

  • Set the cable machine up so that your hands can just about reach the pulldown bar.
  • Keep your hands close together with palms facing away from you.
  • Pull the bar down as far as your chest and release it back slowly.
  • If you do a reverse grip lat pulldown, you can target secondary muscles like your biceps.

4. Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown

Wide grip lat pulldowns are what most people do because they tend to be a great compound exercise [1].

  • Set up the machine so your hands can reach the lat pulldown bar.
  • Grip the bar with your hands more than shoulder-width apart.
  • Slowly pull the bar down to your chest and release it back up again.
  • Make sure your thighs are secure under the seat frame as heavy loads approaching your body weight could lift you off the seat.

5. Reverse Cable Flyes

man doing reverse cable flyes

This is another excellent compound exercise where cable machines can create excellent tension on the primary muscles. 

  • Your starting position is with the cables set up at chest height and both hands gripping a handle.
  • With your hands straight in front of you, step back a bit to add some tension.
  • Slowly pull each hand back while keeping your arms straight.
  • Release back to the starting point slowly.

6. One-Arm Cable Pulls

I recommend not doing this as a seated cable row and opt for the standing setup instead. 

  • Set yourself up with the cable at about chest level and bend your body forward.
  • Reach for the cable and make sure there is tension on it with your arm fully extended.
  • Start the movement slowly and pull the handle all the way to your chest.
  • Release back slowly to keep more continuous tension.

7. Cable Twisting Rows

man using a cable machine

This is a variation of the single-arm cable row above. 

  • Set up for a standing cable row with the handle chest high.
  • Take a runner's stance with your left foot forward and grip the handle with your left hand.
  • Pull the handle towards your chest and rotate your torso to activate secondary muscles in your arms and pecs.

8. Straight Arm Pulldowns

And finally, here's another one of my compound cable back exercises. 

  • Stand at the cable machine with the lat pulldown bar set up to the highest levels.
  • Grip it with your hands shoulder-width apart and above your head.
  • Slowly pull it down while keeping your arms perfectly straight.
  • Once you get to just below your pecs, release the bar back up again.

Is The Cable Machine Good For Back Workouts?

Yes, it is an excellent way to work on the primary and secondary muscles in your back, shoulders and upper body.

With some simple variations in the machine set up, and by slightly changing your grip and body position, you can easily switch between isolation and compound exercises [2].

The other advantage is that cable exercises allow you to keep constant tension with more control than you would have with weights. This means there is less risk of injury with cable machines while still being able to get the same results for your muscles [3].

"The machines typically take your body through the range of motion—from the starting point through to the endpoint, a machine will take you through the same line of motion with each and every repetition." - Rachel Lapidos, Beauty and Fitness Editor at WellAndGood.com.

Other Cable Back Workout Tips

shirtless man flexing his back muscles

In addition to choosing the right cable back exercises, you also need to consider these tips.

1. Reps And Sets

I generally suggest you do three sets of each workout, no matter whether you're toning, bulking, or trying to lose weight. It's the weight load and reps that then dictate your results.

For bulking, I suggest picking a weight that will make you struggle after 6 to 8 reps, and for weight loss and toning, aim for 10 to 15 reps [4].

2. Training Frequency

This will depend on how much attention you need to pay on your back. If the rest of your body has grown out of proportion, then aim for twice a week back muscle days [5]. This is enough to add the right amount of strain while still giving your muscles time to recover and rebuild.

3. Training Variation

This is a very important part of what I recommend to readers and clients. Don't fall into the trap of doing the same exercises every week. Instead, pick 3 of the above and add them to your back and shoulder days, and switch them around to not get bored with them.

This will also help to avoid muscle adaptation, which can happen when you always do the same routine [6]. The result is that your muscles get used to the same movements and don’t respond with the same level of recovery and rebuilding.

FAQs

Can You Do All Your Back Workouts with a Cable Machine?

Yes, you can do all your back workouts with a cable machine. These machines have hundreds of different configurations to choose from that allow you to either isolate muscles or focus on compound exercises.

Are Cable Machines Safe for Back Workouts?

Yes, cable machines are safe for back workouts. In many ways, you could argue that they are safer than free weights and lead to fewer injuries [7]. With the weight safely contained in the frame, you won't have to worry about dropping a heavy load.

Are You Going To Try A New Approach To Back Exercises?

Most people can gain a significant improvement in upper and lower body strength by using a cable machine with more than just the standard setup.

By understanding how your grip and body position impact the muscles you target, you can gain some serious bulk in your back.

There's also the advantage of fewer injuries and a guided movement that is particularly relevant for beginners.

And if you want to make these cable workouts even more effective, then you should consider taking some pre-workout supplements.

These are based on natural ingredients that help to provide more strength and endurance to get you through a tough training session.


References:

  1. https://blog.nasm.org/biomechanics-of-the-lat-pulldown
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592763/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7662789/
  4. https://blog.nasm.org/toning-vs-bulking-up
  5. https://www.self.com/story/heres-what-a-perfect-week-of-working-out-looks-like
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12436270/
  7. https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2019/weight-machines-vs-free-weights-which-is-better

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