4 Best Cable Chest Exercises (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 2, 2022

Cable chest exercises provide better muscle activation at a greater range of motion and effectively hit different areas of the pecs, whether it's the inner or outer chest. 

Cable chest exercises also allow a lifter to get stronger and work up to more challenging loads safely compared to barbell and dumbbell bench pressing, which often have stops or collars that limit the amount of weight an individual can lift. In addition, the constant tension throughout the range of motion provided by cable machines, such as cable crossovers, offers a more significant stimulus for overall muscle growth. 

One can do cable chest exercises in a variety of ways. Still, the basics include either single-joint or multi-joint movements that target the different areas of the chest. Cables are attached to two ends of a long handle and allow the lifter to change the angle of the tension during a movement.

The idea behind single-joint chest exercises is to use lighter weights to work on perfecting techniques rather than simply hoisting heavier weights or for better isolation of the pecs.'

Benefits of Cable Machines

Free weights are regarded as the king of resistance training devices, particularly in exercises requiring pushing motions such as the bench press, where the body strains to maintain the balance of the weight being pushed overhead, resulting in more stabilizer muscles being recruited. However, cable machines offer benefits that free weights can't match.

cable machine

Although free weights pressing could be the absolute best for gaining mass and targeting many muscle groups, cable machines offer some unique advantages over free weights. There are several key differences between chest pressing exercises performed on a cable machine versus with free weights.

Allows for More Exercise Variation

When doing chest presses with free weights, whether flat, inclined, or declined, the movement path is limited to only one direction (vertical). While a cable machine usually has multiple pulley stations to which a cable can be attached, allowing the lifter to perform exercises with tensions of different points of origin.

Because of the limitations of free weights in a single-plane movement path, cable machine chest exercises offer more different training goals and allow for more variations through other planes of movement.

Constant Tension from Every Angle Possible

The primary difference between cable machines and free weights is that the former offers constant tension at all angles of the exercise's range of motion, resulting in muscle activation consistency from the bottom to the top of the movement.

This differs greatly from using free weights for chest exercises, where muscle activation is always most significant at the bottom of a movement and progressively diminishes as the weight is lifted. 

Greater Range of Motion and Muscular Activation

A cable machine offers a greater range of motion than a comparable exercise performed with free weights. Take, for example, the cable crossover, which is similar to doing a dumbbell fly. 

However, when performing a dumbbell fly, the top range of the movement is limited with the dumbbell directly over the shoulder, which is considered to have little to no effect on the chest muscles at that position.

Unlike with a dumbbell fly, by performing the cable crossover, one can take the arms further away from the shoulder, letting them cross over each other and thus increase the range of motion but still with the same tension from the bottom resulting in greater muscular activation. These attributes of the cable machine let an individual hit every angle possible for training the chest.

Better for Breaking Plateaus and Reduced Risk of Injury

Lifting heavier weights to break plateaus with cable machines is much safer than free weights. With the latter, the joints are in a precarious position for trying to break plateaus, especially if without a spotter. We have all heard of people getting crushed by dumbbells or barbells while performing a bench press routine.

Working out with cable machines using heavier weights than previously accustomed to avoids putting you in situations that may cause pain and injury compared to utilizing free weights. It is never advisable to bench press weights near an individual's one-repetition maximum (1RM) without a spotter. 

When one is without a spotter for a bench press routine, it would be wise not to perform strength and hypertrophy training for the chest that require loads more significant than 70% 1RM. Better to commit that day to endurance and power training that usually involves way less resistance. 

Cable Chest Exercises are More Functional

When executing a chest press with free weights, the bench provides stability for the body. Although one can use a flat or inclined bench, most cable chest exercises are performed standing up if the resistance is light enough for the body to support.

 A standing cable chest exercise requires the individual to engage the core and legs to provide a platform for the arms to move the weights resulting in more muscle recruitment. However, a stabilizing platform, like a flat or inclined bench, is recommended for weights equal to or greater than 70% of body weight.

Cable Chest Exercises

All of the exercises below can be performed standing, seated, kneeling, or on a flat bench.

Standing or kneeling is recommended when doing lighter weights to give the core a workout. However, for resistance greater than 70% of body weight, an inclined or flat bench is recommended for better stability.

1. Cable Crossover

Attach single handles to the highest point of each cable tower. Grasping a handle in each hand, take a step or two forward, spreading the arms wide behind the body, just far enough to feel a stretch in the pecs. '

cable cross over

Take a split stance, put the body's weight on the front foot, and bend the body forward through the hip of the front foot. The body and the other leg must be straight, providing a sturdy platform to move the weight.

With a slight bend in the elbows, pull the cables down in front of the body, crossing one arm over the other until the forearms meet at the middle of their length. Return to the starting point slowly. Crossovers should be performed with the arms alternating on top of each other.

2. Cable Bench Press - Flat, Inclined, or Declined

This cable chest exercise is best when trying to break a plateau for the bench press as it allows lifting heavier weights without the fear of getting crushed underneath. The benefit of bench pressing with cables is that one gets a greater range of motion and better muscle engagement throughout the entire range of motion. 

cable bench press

There is also no resistance break between the concentric and eccentric stages of the cable bench press. Resistance would be more significant at the top of the motion as the cables pull the expanding arms outward due to their consequent length at the end of the movement.

Position a flat bench between two cable machines and attach single handles to each cable of the lowest possible pulley placement. Lie flat with the back on the bench and grab the handles, one in each hand. Position the arms like doing a shoulder-width grip bench press but starting from the bottom with a 90-degree bend in the elbows.

Extend the arms upward until the hands are side by side at the top. Reverse the action and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

3. Cable Fly

Attach single handles on the cables of two machines with the pulleys adjusted above shoulder height. Stand in the middle of the machines, holding a handle in each hand, step forward, and take a split stance. Bend the front knee and shift the body's weight to the front foot. 

cable machine fly

Begin by spreading your arms wide at shoulder height and feeling a slight stretch through your chest and shoulders. Next, pull the handles together in a sweeping motion, keeping the elbows bent slightly and the torso upright so that the hands meet in front of the body about the height of the chest, palms facing each other. Hold for a second to feel the contraction of the pecs, then return to the starting position.

The high-to-low variation of the cable fly has the pulleys at the top of the machines. The starting position for the arms is the same as the standard cable fly. However, the direction of the pull is towards the front of the hips. While the low-to-high variation has the pulleys at the bottom of the machines and arms away from the sides of the body at a 45-degree angle. The direction of the pull is upwards and ends about chin height.

4. Cable Pullover

Set the pulley to the lowest placement available on the machine. Position a bench about two to three feet in front of the device. Lie on the bench with the cable at the top of your head.

cable lying pullover

Grab the rope handle and fully extend the arms overhead. Bring the arms up and over to the chest, keeping them straight. Repeat in reverse.

Final Thoughts

One should incorporate the cable machine and free weights into their chest-training regimen. There's no reason an individual has to choose between them; they each have unique advantages.

Utilizing cables and free weights in succession will help target different muscle groups that one might miss out on using only one type of equipment. This strategy largely contributes to avoiding plateaus. However, when performing presses with free weights, always keep a spotter close by at all times. When exercising alone, stick with cables for safety.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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