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Killer Back Workouts With Cables [For a Massive Upper Body]

10 min read
back workouts with cables, a man performs cable pull downs
Jonathan Valdez post Reviewer Jonathan Valdez post Reviewer
Verified by Jonathan Valdez
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Dietitian/Nutritionist in NYC, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist

Build a colossal upper body using only a cable machine! Add these explosive back workouts with cables to your routine.

Table of Contents

A cable machine is an excellent piece of gym equipment that offer various uses, but theyโ€™re especially effective for building a solid and muscular back. This is primarily due to the directed plane of motion, progressive loading, and safety. 

Dedicating sufficient time to training back muscles can do wonders for posture, performance, and aesthetics

A balanced approach to building a strong and resilient body should include an adequate volume of upper body pulling exercises to offset pushing movements. 

This article overviews the benefits of training back muscles using the cable machine, highlighting the exercises and back workouts with cables best programmed for back-building.

Benefits of working out your back with a cable machine

Cable machines are incredibly versatile and might just be perfect for building a strong and muscular back. The natural design of the cable machine creates constant tension on the way in and out. If youโ€™re an avid user of free weights, integrating the cable machine into your workouts will be a breath of fresh air and it will create an entirely new training challenge. 

Benefits of cable machine training

  • Build muscle safely
  • Constant tension for each arm during exercises
  • Quickly switch between various cable exercises
  • Improve athleticism from multiple angles
  • Effective use of time under tension
  • Many exercise variations

Cable machines vs. free weights for back workouts

Cable machine training offers a challenging stimulus while minimizing the risks associated with traditional free weights, like improper technique, strains, dropping, etc.

Using free weights is more associated with muscle hypertrophy as they require more than one muscle group while performing an exercise. To put it simply, free weights engage more muscles than machines, meaning they do allow building muscle faster.

However, it’s not that simple. Here is why:

  • Cables allow creating resistance in any direction which helps engage muscles free weights can’t.
  • Free weights allow for more wholesome, ’rounded’ movement that strengthens many muscle groups at once.
  • You can find a ‘dupe’ for almost every free weights exercise on a cable machine.
  • Cable machines usually target specific muscles (unlike free weight exercises).
  • Cables provide the directed plane of motion that limits instability while allowing you to gradually add weight to exercises.
  • Free weights are still much better at developing greater power than cable machines.

So, what’s the final point?

You can build a massive back and gain serious muscle mass using both free weights and cables. There is no single piece of equipment that fits everyone and gives noticeably better results than others.

Do you have to choose one, cables or free weights? โ€” No

Actually, it’s better to mix them in one workout routine. For example, do your dumbbell rows, then pulldowns with cables.

If you are not sure how to incorporate back workouts into your training program, use a workout planner app like Muscle Booster to get a personal workout plan. 

7 Back exercises with cables: beginner to advanced

Below is a curated list of the best back cable exercises and they are ranked from beginner to advanced. Take notice of the recommended exercise technique, sets/reps, and pro tips to help you get the most from each movement. 

The number of sets and reps we offer in the following exercises and workouts are meant to help you reach hypertrophy, i.e., building muscle. If you have a different goal, use the table below to adjust your sets and reps.

table with sets and reps for different fitness goals, strength, hypertrophy, endurance, power

Seated Cable Row

Seated Cable Row

A seated cable row is one of the most basic cable exercises for the back and arms using a weighted horizontal cable row machine.

Technique

  • Sit down on the machine and place your feet on the front platform. 
  • With your knees flexed and natural alignment of your back, lean forward and grab the handles. 
  • Pull the handles toward the abdominals with the torso at 90 degrees to the legs, while engaging your core for stability. 
  • Keep the torso stationary and squeeze the shoulder blades.
  • Slowly bring the handle back toward the machine. 

Sets/Reps

3-5 sets of 8 repetitions

Pro Tips

  • Avoid flexing at the waist to gain momentum.
  • Keep elbows tight to the rib cage.
  • Return the handle to the start position SLOWLY.

Seated Single-Arm Row

back cable workout, man performing seated single arm row using gym equipment

The seated single-arm row resembles the two-arm variation, except that the work is performed one side at a time. This exercise can be helpful in situations where adequate loading is not available or you’re looking for an indirect core training stimulus.

Technique

  • Sit down on the machine and place your feet on the front platform. 
  • With your knees flexed and natural alignment of your back, lean forward and grab the handle with one hand. 
  • Pull the handle toward one side of the torso at 90 degrees to the legs, while engaging your core to keep your back stabilized, especially at higher weights. 
  • Keep the torso stationary (avoid rotation) and squeeze the working side shoulder blade.
  • Slowly bring the handle back toward the machine. 

Sets/Reps

3 sets of 8 repetitions

Pro Tips

  • Do not allow the pull of the cable to alter body position.
  • Use a weight that allows for a full range of motion pull.

Single-Arm Row with Rotation

back cable workout, a man performs Single-Arm Row with Rotation in the gym using ropes

Adding rotation to the rowing exercise creates a natural feel. As effective as the isolated rowing technique can be for building a strong and muscular back, the reality is human movement rarely happens in an isolated fashion. Rotation is a critical component of various athletic movements and daily tasks. 

Technique

  • Sit down on the machine and place your feet on the front platform. 
  • With your knees flexed and natural alignment of your back, lean forward and grab the handle with one hand. 
  • With the torso at 90 degrees to the legs, lean forward and allow the torso to rotate slightly while keeping the core engaged to assist stability. 
  • Reverse the rotation as you pull the handle toward the side of the rib cage. 
  • Hold the contraction before allowing the cable to pull you back in.

Sets/Reps

3 sets of 8 repetitions

Pro Tips

  • Rotate from the waist up as the hand approaches the torso.
  • Use lighter weight to groove the mechanics.

Lat Pulldowns

back cable workout, man doing Lat Pulldowns using cable machine

Lat pulldown is one of the cable pulls for back variations that provide an effective stimulus for the latissimus dorsi muscle, the largest muscle in the back. The lat muscles are essential for good posture and creating spinal stability. As noted earlier in this article, lat pulldowns are a fantastic lead-in exercise for pull-ups.

Technique

  • Sit at the cable machine with the bar attached to the top pulley. 
  • The knee pad should be snug on the knees. 
  • With arms extended overhead, exhale and bring the bar down until it lightly touches your upper chest. 
  • Squeeze the shoulder blades back and down on each pull. 
  • Slowly return the bar to the starting position with arms straight overhead. 

Sets/Reps

3-5 sets of 8 repetitions 

Pro Tips

  • Keep the chest upright and avoid leaning during the pull. 
  • Pull down fast, raise slow. 
  • Use lighter weight for strict form and progress the loading over time. 

Straight Arm Pull Downs

back cable workout, a man is doing Straight Arm Pull Downs using cables

Straight arm pulldowns resemble triceps push-downs, except the elbows remain straight, and the movement is initiated from the shoulders. This is an example of an isolation exercise targeting the upper back, arms, and shoulders. 

Technique

  • Using a short straight bar, start from a high pulley position.
  • Step back a few feet.
  • Bend the torso forward about 30 degrees at the waist, and extend the arms at the elbow. 
  • Tighten the lats and pull the bar down until your hands are beside your thighs. 
  • Slowly return to the start position. 

Sets/Reps

3-5 sets of 12+ repetitions

Pro Tips

  • Avoid any change in posture. 
  • Use light weight and strict form. 

Face Pulls

back cable workouts, man in performing face pulls using cable machine

Many people encounter shoulder injuries throughout life and face pulls are excellent for improving shoulder health. This exercise targets the muscles surrounding the shoulder joints, which include your posterior deltoids and rotator cuff muscles. If you find yourself performing lots of pressing exercises such as push-ups and bench presses, adding a steady volume of face pulls could be a game changer.

Technique

  • Set the pulley to chin height. 
  • With arms at shoulder height and fully extended, pull the triceps rope toward the face.
  • Nearing the face, allow the hands to separate and make a “W.” 
  • Hold the midpoint of the exercise for 1-2 seconds before starting the next repetition. 

Sets/Reps

3 sets of 10 repetitions

Pro Tips

  • Tricep ropes are ideal for this exercise. 
  • You can perform face pulls 3-4 days per week.

Explosive Squat-to-Stand Row

man is doing Explosive Squat-to-Stand Row, back cable workout

Cable machines are excellent for training explosive pulling variations. The squat-to-stand row is a prime example of how you can combine two basic exercises to create a whole new training stimulus. 

Technique

  • Set the cable height low and the weight light.
  • Grab the handle and step back from the machine a few inches until the cable is under load. 
  • Squat down, reaching the arm to the pulley, and stand up with speed and row. 
  • Perform all repetitions with a fast cadence before changing sides. 

Sets/Reps

3 sets of 8 repetitions per side

Pro Tips

  • Stand up from the squat as you complete the row.
  • Use lighter weights to encourage speed.
  • Add in torso rotation to train the core. 

Examples of back workouts with cables

Designing a back workout with cables is simple. Back cable workouts can be only focused on back training or integrated with other exercises to create a whole-body training stimulus. The choice is yours and will depend on your preference.

Workout #1 – Back Focus

This workout is short and sweet yet delivers a potent training stimulus to the back muscles. Three exercises were selected: a rehabilitation movement, a horizontal row, and a vertical pulling pattern.

Warm-Up

Back Focused Tri-Set (5 sets)

  • Face Pulls x 8 reps
  • Seated Row x 8 reps
  • Lat Pulldown x 8 reps

Cardio or Cool-down

Workout #2 – Push/Pull

Alternating between pushing and pulling is a time-tested workout strategy. While the anterior muscles of the upper body work (pushing exercises), the posterior muscles can rest. While the posterior muscles of the upper body work (pulling exercises), the anterior muscles can relax.

Warm-Up

Push & Pull #1 (3 sets)

  • Bench Press x 8 reps
  • Lat Pulldowns x 8 reps

Push & Pull #2 (3 sets)

  • Overhead Press x 8 reps
  • Squat-to-Stand Explosive Rows x 6 reps on each side

Cardio or Cool-down

Related article: Back and Bicep Workout for Muscle Gain

Workout #3 – Total Body

By alternating upper and lower body exercises or pushing and pulling, you can give your muscles a break while still performing work. This is a great way to keep workouts time efficient. 

Warm-Up

Tri-Set #1 (3 sets)

  • Single-Leg Squats x 10 reps
  • Seated Single-Arm Row x 8 reps each side
  • Flexion/Extension Core Exercise

Tri-Set #2

  • Slow Eccentric Weighted Push-Ups x 8 reps
  • Lat Pulldowns x 8 reps
  • Rotational Core Exercise

Cardio or Cool-down

You may also like: Should you sauna before or after a workout?

Final words

Cable machine back workouts offer a wide array of benefits and complement free weight training extremely well. Transitioning entire workouts to training exclusively with cable machines is a valid tactic to acclimate to the demands and unique training stimulus.

Explore the benefits of cable training by substituting free weight drills for high-reward back-building exercises like seated cable rows, lat pulldowns, or postural restoration movements like face pulls. The unique design offers a directed plane of motion that can allow you to focus on technique and move to heavier weight while reducing the risk of injury. 

Disclaimer This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!



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