A Beginner’s Guide to Cable Pulley Machines

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A Beginner’s Guide to Cable Pulley Machines

There is an abundance of equipment that you can use for the purpose of strength training: barbells, dumbbells, cable pulley machines, selectorized weight machines, plate-loaded weight machines, etc. Because all forms of strength training equipment offer different advantages and are limited by different disadvantages, it is best to use a variety of training equipment in your strength training program. There are many areas you will never be able to train efficiently using only dumbbells and barbells. The nice thing that cables do, that free weights don’t offer, is allowing you to load your body diagonally and horizontally. Furthermore, you can move the cable in any direction and design a total-body program around this piece of exercise equipment only.

What are cable pulley machines?

Cable pulley machines are sort of a hybrid of strength-training machines and free weights. They refer to exercise machines that are based on a simple system of cables and pulleys (freely rotating wheels).

Picture an elastic-band exercise where you anchor the end of the band to a door and pull the cable for resistance. The tightness of the band is the resistance. The cable system is similar, only the cable does not stretch, so you lift the weight plate instead.

Usually the weight stack is connected to a long cable that terminates in a small handle. The most common pulley exercise is cable crossover. Cable crossover machine is two cable system with height-adjustable handles. If they are not height-adjustable then they have both the upper and lower pulleys.

cable crossover machine with adjustable handles

cable crossover machine with adjustable handles

cable pulley machine with fixed handles

cable pulley machine with fixed handles

The low-pulley setup allows the individual to pull the handle up from the floor or from below knee level. The high-pulley setup allows the individual to pull the handle down from above the head or from shoulder level.

In each case, both the upper and lower pulleys can be turned around by more than 180 degrees to lead the cables in all directions. This technology makes your training fun, as well as beneficial.

How these exercise machines look like & work?

The cable machine consists of a cable and a round pulley attached to a metal frame. There are one-tower and two-tower versions. With a two-tower cable pulley (see two images above), you can stand between the towers and work both sides of your body at the same time.

one tower cable pulley station

one tower cable pulley station

The cable machines work in the same way as any strength building device; by providing resistance for your muscles to work against. In their most basic form they consist of a cable that routes through a pulley (or several pulleys) and connects to a weight stack.

A pulley is a freely rotating wheel used to change the direction of force applied by a cable. That way you can easily apply the force to a muscle in a variety of directions, such as horizontal. A weight stack is a stack of specialized weight plates (usually rectangular in shape and weighing 10 to 20 pounds each) that are fixed so that they can slide verti­cally on the guide rods of a weight machine.

Each weight plate is drilled with a horizontal hole that allows a pin to be placed through the plate. This weight and all those above it may then be lifted by the moveable rod, which is typically attached to a cable or lever arm. Immediately when you place the tension on the cable (when you pull it), the weight stack will lift along its guide rods, thereby supplying resistance.

What are the basic types of cable pulley machines?

Cable equipment comes in several forms, from large, multi station pieces, to single low- or high-pulley pieces, to the newest styles that allow you to move the pulley anywhere from the floor to above your head with a simple adjustment.

The advantages and disadvantages of cable pulleys

In the realm of resistance training, cable pulley machines have a couple of distinct benefits.

What are the main pros of cable pulleys?

Cable machines aren’t as constricting as regular machines. They are a cross between machines and free weights. Also like free weights, cable pulleys allow you to perform a wide variety of exercises. For instance, to strengthen your back, you can pull down a bar clipped to a high pulley — one that’s attached all the way at the top. Therefore, you control the pathway of the bar. This makes the exercises more effective than a similar exercise on a weight machine. To strengthen your biceps, you can pull up on a low pulley — attached near the bottom of the frame, typically a few inches from the floor. To strengthen your chest, you can grab a high pulley on each side of the frame and pull both handles toward your chest, as if you’re going to wrap your arms around someone.

They are also beneficial because they allow you to choose a movement that fits your body size and your particular movement patterns. A  machine moves in only one direction, so you can’t make adjustments to make it fit you. A cable moves where you tell it to, so it always fits your body. A free weight should do the same thing, but a free weight works only when you are  lifting the weight up, whereas a cable can be set so that you are pushing the handles (and therefore the resistance) directly out in front of you, or even down toward the ground. Because gravity works in only one direction with free weights, that limits their use for some movements.

Other advantages of using cable machines:

  • Excellent for rehab.
  • Allow the movement in just about any direction.
  • They provide constant (continuous) tension unaffected by your motion relative to the pull of gravity.
  • Cables provide a dynamic line of resistance unlike free weight exercises which have a resistive force which is always perpendicular to the ground.
  • Allow for working out alone.
  • You can perform dozens of exercises on a cable machine by adjusting the height of the pulley so that it’s close to the floor, up over your head, or anywhere in between.
  • Provide more safety and stability than free weights, and the exercises are easier to learn.
  • The cable is hooked up to a stack of weights, so nothing can come crashing down.
  • You can clip a dozen different handles onto the same pulley and instantly create different exercises.

What are the main cons of cable pulleys?

Unlike weight machines, cables don’t have cams, small kidney-shaped pulleys that change the resistance to match what your muscle is able to lift at each point of a movement. When your muscle has good mechanical advantage, the cam gives it more work to do; when you’re at a weak point during the exercise, the cam lightens the load. Because there’s no cam, you may hit points in some exercises where your muscles won’t be working to their fullest throughout the motion, as they do with regular machines.

Other cons of using cable pulleys:

  • They require stabilization, control, increased technical skill, and strong core musculature. Thus the true beginner should first focus on machines with a set path of motion.
  • Like free weights, cable machines require a certain amount of control and instruction since the motion isn’t fully guided. You’re free to pull the bar/handle up, down, and in any other direction the way you want to, and you’re free to make lots of mistakes.

Cable pulleys vs. free weights vs. machines

The only real difference between this and other machines or equipment, is that, in this case, weights are connected to cables via a set of pulleys. You train by moving the cables around, while they stay under constant tension against the weights. This means that your muscles are also under constant tension during an exercise. There is no “resting point” here, unlike with free weights (dumbbells and barbells).

Special tips for using cable pulleys

Don’t be afraid to play around with the different types of adjustments. Attaching a new bar is easier than it looks, and you may find that, when working your triceps, a V-shaped bar feels more comfortable than a straight bar. When you do make the switcheroo, you may need to adjust the amount of weight you’re using. Even if you’re doing the very same exercise, you may use more weight pulling down the V-shaped bar than you would pulling down the straight bar.

different attachments for cable pulleys

different attachments for cable pulleys

Exercise variety

One of the concerns with using machines exclusively is the lack of exercise variety. For instance, triceps training. If you use station machines they can only offer seated triceps extension, dips and overhead triceps extensions. That is pretty much all what the triceps machine can offer to us. The best method to remedy this is to add in cable machine exercises as they add in a near limitless variety of exercises.

Another advantage of cable pulley exercises is they don’t limit your exercises to a fixed plane of movement like single station machines do. Cable exercises imitate many dumbbell exercises and offer freedom of movement like dumbbell exercises do.

For chest training you can add in lower, middle, upper cable crossovers, cable bench presses and cable upward chest crossovers. Cable exercises for the back include cable rows, straight-arm cable pull downs, pull-downs, ab strap pull-downs and angled cable pull-downs.

Cable exercises for the arms are almost unlimited and include cable curls, concentration cable curls, seated rope curls mid-pulley, rope curls high pulley, rope curls low pulley, cable preacher curls, palms-facing pull-downs, overhead triceps extensions, low pulley triceps extensions, angled triceps extensions, press-downs, push-downs and more. You get the idea – cable machines and cable exercises are a great addition to any machine training program.

Closing thoughts

Training equipment choices include free weights (such as barbells and dumbbells), selectorized weight machines, plate-loaded weight machines, cable pulley machines, and equipment for body-weight exercises such as bars for chin-ups and dips. A cable machine is a vertical metal beam, called a tower, with a pulley attached. You can adjust the height of the pulley to move it close to the floor, up over your head, or anywhere in between.

There is no “best” piece of equipment. All of these contraptions can help you build strength & size. You can even get stronger without any equipment at all. The selection of equipment depends on the desired outcome. Still, in certain circumstances, some equipment is more effective than others, and using a combination will give you the best of all worlds. In general, for muscular hypertrophy, relatively equal amounts of free-weight, machine, cable, and body-weight exercises should be used.

About Author

Hey! My name is Kruno, and I'm the owner and author of Bodybuilding Wizard. I started this website back in late 2014, and it has been my pet project ever since. My goal is to help you learn proper weight training and nutrition principles so that you can get strong and build the physique of your dreams!

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