How do cable machines work?
Free weights are considered the kings of resistance training, but as any PT worth their salt will tell you, switching up your training is never a bad thing. Adding a new move, routine or piece of equipment forces your body to adapt, move and grow in new ways. It’s time to get to grips with the cable machine.
One way cables beat the humble dumbbell for resistance training lies in its adjustable origin point, allowing you to work muscles from different angles. “Cables allow you to move through multiple planes of motion,” says celebrity PT Scott Laidler. Can’t yet hoist your bodyweight? Lat pull-downs offer you a vertical back workout while you build up to pull-ups. Bench taken? Set the cables halfway down and perform four sets of pec flys.
“The constant resistance of a cable means you’re under tension on the way forward, as well as on the way back,” Laidler adds. Much like lowering a bicep curl under control, the cable teaches you to work your muscles throughout the lift. Being able to perform an exercise under control, from any angle, is a great way to isolate muscles like your triceps that contribute to bigger lifts.
Trying to avoid injury? Eschew the iron for a cord. “Cables protect you from injuries that can be caused by free weights,” Laidler tells us. “By the time you find out a barbell is too heavy for you, it's too late.” 90% of gym injuries come from dumbbells and barbells, according to a study published in American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Piling too many plates onto a barbell is risky, especially without a spotter, whereas releasing a cable results in no more than the crash of heavy metal. People might stare, but it’s better that than having two laughing frat-bros wrestle the bar from your windpipe.
“Improper form is also more common with weights. Where there is no directed plane of motion this can cause imbalances and injury.” The greatest boon of barbells is also a double-edged sword; instability forces your muscles to work overtime, but too much imbalance can lead to bad form, which causes injuries. Working on a ‘directed plane of motion' cables allow you to build up to big weights safely.
There’s a cable rig and a selection of handles in almost every gym. The versatility of the rig (bicep curls, flys, reverse flys, tricep pushdowns and woodchoppers, to name a few) means you can park yourself in a cable bay and get a full-body workout in 30 minutes.
Most rigs even incorporate overhead pull-up bars, meaning you can go to exhaustion with your hanging bodyweight before taking on lat pulldowns, bicep curls and reverse flys for a back-and-bis blitz as good as any free weight workout.
End of your rope
So where to begin on the cables? We asked Scott Laidler to talk us through some favourite cable-friendly moves. Tether yourself to the idea of better muscle for injury free sustainable gains.
Form tip: “Contract your abdominals throughout the rotation,” says Laidler.
Why: remember that this exercise is concentrated on the rotation of the torso to carve a shredded core. Creating tension in your abs will help.
Form tip: “Keep your arms straight throughout the movement.”
Why: maintaining rigid form works your shoulders and lats as well as your obliques. Keeping your arms straight forces your torso to do the work.
Form tip: “Make sure you are far enough away from the cable machine so that the cable is at full tension at the start of the exercise.”
Why: being unable to relax your muscles until you finish the set increases time under tension, ensuring you a beach-body six pack.
Form tip: “Be sure to keep equal attention to form when pulling away from the machine as well as returning to the starting position.”
Why: slowing down the eccentric phase, rather than simply “letting go”, will develop full-body muscle control as well as enviable abs.
Cable kneeling Crunch
Form tip: “Crunch your abs whilst pulling the rope down until your elbows meet the floor.”
Why: you may get a few funny looks, but this exercise works your much-maligned lower abdominals. Sit back and pull your elbows to your knees to change the emphasis to your upper abs.
Form tip: “Hold for a second or two before you repeat.”
Why: time under tension again, keeping your abs contracted and forcing them to work harder.
Cable Pec fly
Form tip: “Bring your arms together using your chest muscles as if hugging a tree.”
Why: visualisation will help you track your form. To hit the whole pec, try and get your extension horizontal.
Form tip: “Keep a 15 degree bend in your elbow throughout the exercise.”
Why: too much elbow will turn your fly into a press. Pec flys place emphasis squarely on the chest compared to dumbbell and bench presses, and you’ll want to make sure the right muscles are moving to keep it that way.
Now, you know more information about how cable machines work. But what about your gym wear? Then why not check out our collection here.