The cable pulley machine

That towering mass of steel and cables is one of the hidden gems of resistance training. These, usually 3m x 2m machines, bridge the gap between fully free weights exercises, using dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls and fixed weight machines, such as bench press and leg curl stations.

Because of their position between fully free and fixed, these machines enable you to recruit your muscles in very functional ways using the adjustable pulleys and a myriad of bar attachments. Trouble is many people are often unsure how to use them. But worry no more as I show you! Although there is evidence of rudimentary cable and pulley gym machines existing as far back as the late 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1950’s when training this way became more mainstream.


Fitness icon Jack LaLanne is credited with creating the first pulley-based commercially orientated gym machine in the 1950’s.

However, it’s possible to look slightly further back to Joseph Pilates and his Reformer machine as a forerunner of cable-based exercise machines. Pilates developed his machines and pulley concepts during World War II.

How to adjust the machines

Cable Pulley machines enable you to adjust the pulley-height vertically by removing a selector pin and sliding the pulley fixture up and down. Releasing the pin locks it in place at the appropriate height for the exercise you are going to perform. The actual pulley sits on a fixture, which enables it to rotate relatively freely, this enables you to pull the cable/cables and therefore the weight you are lifting with a degree of flexibility. This contrasts to fixed weights machines, which follow a fixed path – usually straight up and straight down.

The flexibility and the design of the pulley machine enables multi-planar exercises to be performed (as well as more fixed plane ones – see exercises below).

The key additional movement option that is available when training with cable pulley machines, when compared to fixed weight machines, is rotation. For example, the cable wood-chop enables you to pull against resistance from above your shoulders, down and across your body to outside your opposite hip. To do this your core must be braced to control the pulley and contribute to the movement.

You also have to be better prepared to control the return of the weight in the weights stack when training with pulleys, compared to fixed weights machines. If you don’t supply the control needed you can be pulled off balance. It’s this full body connection that makes cable training a great option and their ability to recruit both your prime mover muscles and a myriad of smaller stabilising muscles.

The benefits

And the benefits just keep coming – You can be very specific in how you target your muscles with these machines as they enable more muscle symmetry in terms of strength and size development than fixed weights machines, as you can easily exercise one arm/leg at a time. And drilling down even further you can, for example, perform exercises such as the standing row at different angles and can therefore tweak the areas of your muscles being targeted.

Pulley machines come with a number of attachments, these place different emphasis on an exercise, for example the cable woodchop can be performed with a stirrup attachment and a two-handed interlocking grip or with a straight bar, with an over-grasp grip, with hands placed at the ends of the bar. You slip the different attachments onto and off of the pulleys using the carabina clip. Short, two-stranded ropes with knots at their ends are another attachment, which can be used to perform exercises such as the face pull.

It is possible to exercise your legs using cable machines using the stirrup attachment, for instance you can perform hip extension exercises, which target the glutes and hamstrings and hip flexors (muscles to the top front of your thighs).

1. Cable Woodchop

Targets: external obliques, pectorals, upper back and arms

How to perform: Position the pulley above shoulder-height, having selected the required weight. Grasp the stirrup attachment in both hands, standing sideways onto the pulley. Pull the handle down and across your body toward your hips, rotating your body as you do so and pivoting on the balls of your feet. Keep your arms straight and your shoulders in line with your hips. You should finish the movement with your back to the pulley. Reverse the movement as you return the weights.

Cable Woodchop 1 Cable Woodchop 2

2. Face Pull

Targets: rear deltoids, upper back

Despite the humorous-sounding name, face pulls are a serious exercise that can help correct or prevent postural problems, re-balance shoulder muscles and alleviate shoulder pain. If you want your shoulder joints to function well and remain pain free in the coming years, face pulls are a must. Perform a set for every set of chest or anterior (front) deltoid exercises that you perform to make sure that your upper back muscles are as well developed as those on your front.

How to perform: Using a rope handle, set the pulley to shoulder-height. Grasp one end of the handles in each hand and take a large step backward with your arms extended and palms facing inward. Bend your arms and pull your hands in to either side of your head. Make sure you lead with your elbows and keep your wrists straight and chest up. This is not an exercise for maximal weights – so use lighter weights, higher repetitions and a slow, deliberate tempo. By the end of each set you should really be able to feel the backs of your shoulders and muscles in between your shoulder blades working hard.

Face Pull 1 Face Pull 2

3. Standing Low Pulley Row

Targets: upper back and wings of back and biceps

How to perform: Set the low pulley and select the weight to lift. Grasp the bar with a shoulder-width over-grasp grip. Start standing and then move into a three-quarter squat position. Fix this position and your core and pull the bar in toward your mid-chest. Pause and then return the weights to the start position under control.

Standing Low Pulley Row 1 Standing Low Pulley Row 2

4. Chest Cable Flies

Targets: chest and front deltoids

How to perform: Position the cables at shoulder-height, using stirrup grips. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart between the machine’s towers. Maintain a strong split-stance. With your core braced and with a slight bend at your elbows, pull the weights in until your hands are in front of your shoulders. Control the weights on their return.

Chest Cable Flies 1 Chest Cable Flies 2


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