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Diakadi Fitness Tips: Why the Cable Machine Is King

By Mike Clausen

What is the single best piece of equipment in the gym? And, if you were to put together a home gym, what would be the one thing I'd suggest you buy? No doubt about it: the cable machine.

More specifically, the newer, more advanced functional trainer cable machines. But most cable machines are great. Cable machines come in several varieties, and almost any gym will have at least one type. For starters you have the single cable machine, which has one adjustable arm that allows you to do a variety of exercises. Stepping it up one notch are dual-arm machines like the one pictured at right, which allow you to work both sides of your body at once, or do cross-over exercises. And the king of them all is the functional trainer, the machine you see used in RealJock's standing cable chest fly video demonstration. This deluxe machine has two arms that adjust both vertically and horizontally. By now, many gyms have one, and you can also buy home models (though they're pricey—about $2,000 to start). Whichever type of cable machine you use, the versatility of this piece of equipment allows for a full range of exercises that cannot be done using other machines throughout the gym.

Cable machines are so good for one reason: because they're functional. Used properly, they allow you to do exercises that you could mimic in everyday life, such as twisting, lifting, bending, and reaching. Much like the movements of life, exercises done with a cable machine require more core stability than do traditional weightlifting routines. These more complex movements will force your body to recruit other muscle groups to distribute the stress of the weight as it moves. This leads to greater overall strength in addition to seriously thorough strength training for individual muscle groups.

These benefits are true of all cable machines—but the possibilities increase as you get into the two-armed machines or functional trainers, and many exercises are crafted for the more elaborate machines. If your gym doesn't have these, you can still use the standard cable machines and get many of the same effects. To do this, you'll either need to find two machines close enough together that they can be used in tandem for exercises that use both arms, or modify the exercises by working one side at a time. Also, no matter which machine you use, think strategically across exercises. One advantage of cables is that you can easily do a circuit that trains all of your muscle groups and gets you in and out of the gym efficiently.

Strengths of the Cable Machine
What's so great about cables? A lot:

  1. Unlike other weight-lifting machines, cable machines allow for multi-planar movements. These are exercises that allow the body to move as a unit, through multiple planes of motion. Multi-planar movements require that you use all your stabilizer muscle groups to keep your body under control. That means more muscle training per exercise.
  2. If you are using a machine, such as a hammer strength machine, your body will be locked into a position and unable to deviate from the path of the machine. This leads to two problems. First, the machine's path may not be your natural range of motion. This forces your body to work in ways that are not best suited to it. With the cable machines, however, the cable tracks along your natural range of motion. And, because the path of the cable is not fixed, your stabilizer muscles again have to work to control the freer range of motion that the machine allows. Again, you get more muscle training per exercise.
  3. While machines can help you to push more weight than using dumbbells or the cable system, they are not ideal pieces equipment to use, especially if you have any muscle imbalances or injuries. The versatility of the cable system allows you to track along with your imbalances and gradually address them, rather than being locked into the machine—which can be dangerous.
  4. The eccentric, or lengthening, phase of your muscle contraction experiences more resistance with cable exercises than with other forms of strength training. Basically, you have to keep the cable under control when returning the weight to the weight stack. This adds some resistance to the basic amount you get with other machines or even dumbbells—the gravity plus the weight stack are both pulling on your muscles during your lengthening movement.
I use cables every time I strength train, and I make sure my clients do the same. You will find that you will get a much better workout because you are using each muscle group to effectively help you push or pull the weight. Here's a sampling of exercises you can use to integrate the cable machines into your workouts:

Muscle Group Exercises
Chest Standing Power Cable Chest Press
Standing Power Cable Chest Press with Alternate Front Lunge
Super Chests
Shoulders Cable Reverse Raises
Cable Chops
Speed Cable Cross-Backs
Back Cable Seated Rows Drop Set
Single-Leg Single-Cable Swim Strokes
Power Cable Ski Poles
Arms Flat Bench Rope Curl Drop Set
Standing Cable Curls
Single-Leg Cable Curls
Devil's Triceps Press-Downs
Cable Rope Power Overhead Skull Crushers
Cable Triceps Bar Press-downs
Cable Bar Tricep Pulls and Tricep Press
Cable Triceps Bar Pull-downs
Legs Cable Squats
Low Single Cable Power Squat Cross Punch
Hold Squat Power Single-Cable Wide Pull-downs
Core Cable Russian Twists

About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to