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October 03, 2022 11 min read

If you want a barn door back that will turn as many heads when you walk away as when you approach, cable back exercises might be your route to building that attention-grabbing upper body you desire.

 

Cable back exercise – Image from Shutterstock

 

Strengthening the important muscles like your lats, traps, rhomboids, and those frequently overlooked muscles in the rotator cuff, builds the foundation and supports your body needs when you push a lot of weight.

However, back training involves significantly more than straight-bar exercises like inverted rows, bent-over rows, and T-bar rows, which are typically tough on your shoulders and elbows.

If you’re looking for a piece of gym equipment that is uncomplicated to use, cable machines are a good place to start.

Cable exercises allow free arm movements while putting constant tension on targeted muscles more efficiently than you can achieve with dumbbells.

Cable machines offer many variations of back exercises and exercisers new to this machine are often unsure where to start, or even which options are best for overall back muscle benefits.

Here we will list seven cable-centric back exercises that will cause tension on the targeted muscles as they shorten.

As your muscles shorten, they generate enough force to move objects. This is the most popular type of muscle contraction with strength builders working to pack their backs with slabs of muscles.

What are the Muscles of the back?

Back Muscles – Image from Shutterstock

 

Although cable back exercises engage many of the 40 back muscles you have, we’ll briefly look at the primary muscles, specifically those large ones that are most obvious because they are superficial.

Trapezius:Typically referred to as the traps, they are one of the most prominent and noticeable pairs of muscles of the upper back.

Trapezius Muscles – Image from Shutterstock

 

It is a pair of broad triangular-shaped muscles that stretches from the occipital bone at the base of the skull to the lower thoracic vertebrae, and to the scapulae. The main function of your traps is to support your arms and move the scapulae. If you want a back that looks like a barn door, you’ll have to work on building the traps.

Rhomboids:Also in the upper back, you have a pair of rhomboids on either side of your upper back.

Rhomboids – Image from Shutterstock

 

The rhomboids are Located under the traps, running from your spine to the medial part of the scapulae. Their name refers to their quadrilateral shape, and each rhomboid comprises a major and a minor muscle.

Their main function involves the movement of the scapula.

Not many exercises engage the rhomboids, and you will have to do specific movements to target the rhomboids. Fortunately, the cable machine offers options for back exercises with angles that will show the rhomboids some love.

Teres Major: The teres major is the larger of the teres muscles that stretch between the scapulae and the large humerus bones that run from your shoulders to your elbows. The teres major is located above the latissimus dorsi. Its primary function is to assist in the extension and medial rotation of the humerus. Strong Teres major muscles play a significant role in the sought-after V-shaped back.

Teres Major and Minor – Image from Shutterstock

 

Teres Minor: The smaller teres muscles are narrow and rounded. They are part of your rotator cuffs. Originating at the scapulae and inserting into the joint capsules of the humerus bones. Their main function is to control the actions of the deltoids and prevent the head of the humerus from moving upward when the arm is abducted.

Latissimus Dorsi: The latissimus dorsi, aka the lats, is the largest muscle in the entire upper body, and the widest muscle on either side of the mid and lower back.

Latissimus Dorsi – Image from Shutterstock

 

This pair of muscles wrap around your back from your sides to your mid-back where they are partly covered by the trapezius. The lats play important roles in multiple movements, including adduction, extension, horizontal abduction, flexion from an extended position, medial rotation of the shoulder joints, and more. The lats are the back muscles that receive the most attention.

Erector Spinae: The erector spinae is not just one muscle, but a group of muscles and tendons that start from both sides of your lower spine, and stretch up to your neck.

Erector Spinae – Image from Shutterstock

 

This muscle group is responsible for rotating and straightening your spine, and as the prime support provider of your lower back, strong erector spinae are essential for the optimal functioning of your back.

The importance of targeting lower and upper back muscles

Both lower back muscles and upper back muscles contribute to that sought-after barn door look. Therefore, your back muscle strength-building routine should include exercises that target specific muscle groups.

Exercises that target the lats and upper-middle areas of your back will build strength in your upper back.

Cable back exercises to work the upper back include high-pulling exercises like reverse flys and rows.

Choose cable pulldowns and low-cable rows to target your lower back.

It is crucial to ensure your cable back exercise program is carefully balanced to prevent an imbalanced outcome. When you develop the muscles in both your upper back and lower back, the gains will help you with primary lifts like barbell military presses and deadlifts.

BENEFITS OF DOING BACK CABLE EXERCISES

If you are unsure whether the cable back exercises are as great as we say, look at the benefits listed below.

  1. Range of Motion

The range of motion you can achieve when using a cable machine is significantly greater than achievable when you use free weights.

Lats are notoriously tough to target with traditional exercises, but easy to target when using a cable machine.

One of the top benefits of cables is allowing you to target different areas of your back by modifying the angles of your pull.

For example, using high pulleys will target your upper back muscles, while you can use low pulleys to focus on your lower back muscles.

  1. Isolation

You can even isolate specific muscles when doing cable back exercises. That can make a significant difference when you have muscle imbalances. By offering continuous tension, your chance of building a barn door back.

For example, doing free weight rows will only engage your biceps and traps, while doing rows on the cable machine, you can entirely isolate your lats by simply turning your grip from underhand to overhand.

  1. Versatility

The cable machine offers a wide variety of back exercises, so wide that you can target virtually any muscle group.

That also means that regardless of your experience, age, body weight, metabolism, or health, there will be a cable back exercise just for you.

That means that as a beginner or an advanced lifter, there will be a set of cable exercises perfect to get you to your goal.

Here’s a bit of advice for those whose funds are a bit tight. If you can’t meet the gym membership fees right now, you can rig your own personal cable station by adding a few insignificant attachments to any door.

Now that we’ve gone over some of the many benefits of cable back exercises, let’s take a look at the seven best cable back workouts. 

7 Back Exercises with cables: beginner to advanced

The following cable back exercises are ranked according to experience, starting with exercises suitable for beginners and moving on to advanced strength-builders. Note that the techniques, proper form, and reps and set recommendations are included for your best interest.

 

1. Seated cable row 

This exercise uses a weighted horizontal cable row machine to do the most basic back exercises while also engaging the arms.

 

Seated Cable Row – Image from Shutterstock

 

How to do it:

  • Sit on the machine, bend your knees and place your feet on the front platform. 
  • Lean forward and grab the handles while maintaining a neutral back and flexed knees.
  • Keep your elbows tight to your rib cage.
  • With your torso at 90 degrees to your legs, and your core engaged to keep you stable, pull the handles toward your abdominals.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades while holding your torso stationary all the time. Avoid flexing at the waist to gain momentum.
  • Slowly return the handle to the machine to the starting position.

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 8 repetitions.

2. Seated single-arm row 

The seated single-arm cable row is similar to the two-arm variation, except that the work is performed one side at a time. This exercise is good for when you want indirect core training stimulus. The single-arm version is also helpful when adequate loading is unavailable. Ensure you load a weight that allows for a full range of motion pull.

 

How to do it:

  • Sit on the machine, bend your knees and place your feet on the front platform. 
  • Lean forward and grab the handle with one hand while maintaining a neutral back and flexed knees. 
  • Keep your elbow tight to your rib cage.
  • Ensure your torso is at 90 degrees to your legs, and your core is engaged to stabilize your back, especially if you use higher weights.
  • Pull the handle toward the abdominals on the working side of your body. 
  • Note that rotation is bound to happen as all the force is on one side. Therefore, focus on keeping your torso stationary to avoid rotation and squeeze the working side shoulder blade.
  • Slowly return the handle to the machine to the starting position.

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 8 repetitions.

3. Seated single-arm row with rotation 

Rotation is a critical component of your daily activities and tasks, and also for various athletic movements. Therefore, adding rotation to your rowing exercise routine creates a natural feel because few human movements happen in an isolated manner. Although the technique of isolated rowing to target specific muscle groups can be effective, including rotation is essential to ensure benefits for the full range of motion. Ensure the weight you use is light enough to allow smooth rotation.

Technique

  • Sit on the machine, bend your knees and place your feet on the front platform. 
  • Lean forward and grab the handle with one hand while maintaining a neutral back and flexed knees. 
  • Keep your elbow tight to your rib cage.
  • Ensure your torso is at 90 degrees to your legs, and your core is engaged to stabilize your back. Allow your torso to rotate slightly.
  • As you pull the handle toward the working side of your rib cage, reverse the rotation from your waist up as your hand approaches your torso. 
  • Hold the contraction at the top of the movement before allowing the cable to pull you back into the starting position.

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 8 repetitions.

4. Seated lat pulldowns

The latissimus dorsi muscle is the largest muscle in your back and the lat pulldown done on the cable machine is one of the most effective cable pulls for latissimus dorsi muscle stimulus. Good posture and spinal stability rely on strong lat muscles. The best lead-in exercise for pull-ups is lat pulldowns. Beginners should use lighter weights and progress the loading as they progress. 

 

Lats Pulldown – Image from Shutterstock

 

How to do it:

  • Sit at the cable machine with your knees snug to the knee pad and the bar attached to the top pulley. 
  • With your arms extended overhead and your chest upright, exhale and squeeze your shoulder blades back and down.
  • Pull the bar down fast without leaning into the pull, until it lightly touches your upper chest.
  • With your arms still straight overhead, slowly return the bar to the starting position. Maintain the fast pulldown and slow raise throughout the reps.

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 8 repetitions.

5. Straight arm pulldowns 

Use a light weight and strict form when you do straight-arm pulldowns on the cable machine. With this exercise, you initiate the movement from your shoulders while keeping your elbows straight. The straight-arm pulldown is an isolation exercise that targets the shoulders, upper back, and arms.

Straight-arm Pulldown – Image from Shutterstock

 

How to do it:

  • Start the straight-arm pulldown in a standing position, with a high pulley position and a short, straight bar.
  • Step back several feet and bend your torso forward at your waist and extend your arms at the elbows.  
  • Without changing your posture, tighten your lats and pull the bar down until your hands are beside your thighs. 
  • Slowly return the bar back to the start position. 

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 12 reps.

6. Face pulls 

Cable face pulls target shoulder joint muscles including the rotator cuff muscles and the rear delts. If you have shoulder problems after recovering from injuries, cable face pull exercises are ideal for improving shoulder health. Instead of performing countless bench presses, push-ups, and other pressing exercises, you might find a steady stream of cable face pulls can be game-changing.

Ensure you don’t overdo the weight with the cable face pull exercise. Overloading the weight will involve your lower back, reducing the focus on the upper back and shoulders. and make sure you don’t move your head forwards to meet the handle while pulling because that will ruin a great exercise.

How to do it:

  • Set up the cable machine with the double-rope attachment fixed to the high pulley.
  • Use an overhand grip to grasp the handles with your arms fully extended out in front of you.
  • With your upper arms parallel to the floor, and without moving your head forward to meet the handle, pull the handles towards you until they are on either side of your face.
  • While keeping the tension on the cable, slowly return it to the starting position. Your movements throughout the exercise should be slow and controlled.

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 10 reps.

7. Reverse cable flys

This is another excellent compound exercise where cable machines can create excellent tension in the primary back and shoulder muscles. The cable reverse fly is an exercise for those with an intermediate level of physical fitness and exercise experience.

Reverse Fly Cable back Exercise – Image from Shutterstock
  • Set up two cable pulleys with stirrup handles at chest height.
  • Stand between the two cables and grab the right stirrup handle with your left hand and the left stirrup handle with your right hand.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight.
  • While standing center between the two pulleys, your arms will be crossed over your chest.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down. as you pull the cables, uncrossing your arms so that your arms end up parallel to the ground stretched out to your sides.
  • Slowly reverse the movement to bring you back to the starting position, which is with the cables set up at chest height and both hands gripping a handle.

Recommended sets and reps: 3 to 5 sets of 10 repetitions.

Conclusion

While purists might maintain that pull-ups/chin-ups and deadlifts are the only worthwhile back muscle builders, most modern-era bodybuilders have used seated rows and lat pulldowns to build barn door backs.

Optimal hypertrophy is achievable with the cable back exercises listed above. They give you control of a range of intensity levels and rep ranges to suit your unique needs. Different hand positions, handle options, wide grip, narrow grip, and more allow you to focus on the precise part of your back where you want to add muscle mass. Some bodybuilders liken the best cable exercises to the precision of a sniper’s rifle.

There is no reason to limit your cable machine exercises toolbox to the seven best back exercises in this article.

The list of cable back exercises is almost endless, not to mention cable workout routines for building muscle in other areas like your lower body, glutes, hamstrings, biceps, triceps, etc.

If your life is very demanding, and you find fatigue interfering with your workouts, you might want to try a supplement called Beta-alanine. It is a non-essential amino acid that is produced naturally in the body and has a lot to do with how many reps you can do. What’s more, research also shows beta-alanine improves anaerobic exercise capacity andreduces feelings of fatigue during exercise.

Charged-AF  is a pre-workout supplement for high-intensity and focused training sessions. It is designed to amplify energy, alertness, strength, stamina, and pumps while providing you with essential nutrients to optimize anaerobic and aerobic capacity. It comes in a range of flavors, including Candy Bliss, Strawberry Watermelon, and Blueberry Kiwi, and it can help you power through even the most grueling of training sessions.