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September 21, 2021 9 min read

Have you ever gone to the gym, excited to hit legs, only to find out that every squat rack is taken? Or that every leg machine is being used besides the cable machines?

This is a frustrating occurrence for many lifters, but what you might not know is that you can still get a killer leg day in by using only a cable machine! In this article, we’ll go over 7 cable machine exercises for your legs.

1. Cable Leg Extensions

Cable leg extensions are an excellent lower body exercise. This leg exercise will work your quads and will get you feeling the burn quickly if you are going heavy.

Additionally, this exercise can be used used as an excellent warm-up to prep your quads for other types of heavy lifts. Doing this exercise does require the use of a bench, so it might not be the most convenient exercise if your gym is busy or has limited equipment.

How To Do Cable Leg Extension:

  1. You’ll start by setting the pulley of the cable machine at about your shin level. Then, hook on an ankle strap to it. 
  2. Grab a bench and then place it near the cable machine. You’ll want the bench to be close enough that you can easily fit into the ankle strap. You don’t want to make putting on the strap a workout in and of itself. Also, you can place the bench horizontally or vertically, whatever makes it easier. 
  3. Once your bench is in place and you can slip on the ankle strap, you’re ready to go. With your knee bent, extend your leg, just like you would with a leg extension machine. Remember, for good form you’ll want to stop just short of locking out your knees. It helps to prevent them from getting hurt. 

    2. Cable Squats

      The cable squat, sometimes known as a Brignole squat, is an excellent substitute for a normal squat. If you can’t find an open rack or Smith machine, you’ll definitely want to keep this exercise on deck for an excellent leg workout.

      The cable squat works all of the same muscles as a normal squat but doesn’t require you to hold all the weight on your back, like a dumbbell or barbell squat. An added benefit of this alternative to traditional squats is that they do more than just work your legs.

      You’ll need to use your abs, as well as your arms and back, mostly for stabilization during this exercise. You will primarily feel it in your legs, of course, but this exercise really helps you feel the tension in your entire body. 

      How To Do Cable Squats:

          1. Cable squats are a bit more simple than the leg extension, as they don’t require you to use a bench. In the case of this exercise, you’ll need to make use of both of the pulleys on a cable machine. Put both of them at the lowest setting, so pretty much right on the ground. Make sure you have handles for both of the pulleys as well. 
          2. Grab the handles and step back a little bit from the machine. You’ll want enough slack on the pulley so that you can properly squat down. 
          3. With your pulleys in hand, make sure that your feet are about shoulder-length apart. Lean back to put your body weight on your heels and then squat down until your quads are parallel to the floor or a little lower. Remember, you’ll want to keep your back straight. 
          4. Hold this position for a second or two. Then, push with your heels back up into the starting position. Do this as many times as your needs require, whether it be  hypertrophy or for strength training. 

          3. Cable Romanian Deadlifts

            Here we have another classic leg day exercise that’s been adapted to be used with cables. An added benefit of doing this variation, kind of like the cable squats, is that there won’t be as much strain on your lower back as a traditional Romanian deadlift. This makes it ideal for people that have lower back pain, or other problems.

            How To Do A Cable Romanian Deadlift:

                1. For this exercise, you’ll only need to make use of one cable pulley, but you’ll also need a straight bar for it. 
                2. Put the pulley on the lowest setting, then grab the straight bar with an overhand grip and stand straight up. Walk back about two feet and now you’re in the starting position for this exercise. 
                3. Now, keep your back straight while you bend at the hip. It is very important to keep your back straight during this exercise, not only for proper form but also to prevent a back injury. 
                4. While the resistance of the band pulls you down, push your hips back. While doing this, it’s okay to have a slight bend in the knees for comfort, but don’t bend them too much.
                5. To return to the starting position, squeeze your glute muscles and push your hips forward. 

                  4. Cable Kickbacks

                    If you’re looking for a killer glute exercise to add to your routine, then look no further. This exercise is also known as the glute kickback if you’re looking to really focus on your that part of you and it's a good substitute for something like hip thrusts if are unable to do them. Incorporate this exercise into your routine to isolate those glutes and hamstrings and get them burning.

                    How To Do Cable Kickbacks:

                    1. For this exercise, you’ll only need one pulley from the cable machine as well as an ankle. Set the pulley to its lowest setting and then put on the ankle cuff.
                    2. You’ll want to stand facing the machine. Additionally, it’s recommended that you hold onto the machine if you can for extra support. 
                    3. Next, you’ll want to lean forward, essentially creating a 90-degree angle with your body, keeping your back straight.
                    4. Then, take your leg that’s secured in the ankle strap and kick it back. Make sure that your back is straight for the entire time, and that your leg fully extends. Make sure to squeeze your glutes to feel the full effect of this exercise. 
                    5. Finally, you’ll slowly let your leg down and return it to the starting position so that you can start another rep. 

                      5. Cable Reverse Lunges 

                        Now, this is an excellent exercise, not just for working on your legs, but for helping with your balance and coordination as well. The cable reverse lunge works all of your lower body muscle groups while putting a little bit of pressure on your upper body. Those of you with knee pain will like this exercise because the exercise actually puts less strain on the joints in your knees due to the momentum from moving backward, as opposed to forwards.

                        Admittedly, some beginners who try this exercise for the first time may have some trouble doing it. This is because it can be hard to stabilize yourself while working against the resistance from the cable machine. You can actually try out the exercise without the machine first, to get a feel for things. Obviously, you’ll need to know how to do that beforehand.

                        How To Do Cable Reverse Lunges:

                        1. For cable reverse lunges you’ll need only a single pulley and a handle for it. With that attached to the pulley, set it up so it’s at one of the lowest settings. Depending on how it feels this could be at the bottom, or about three levels up.
                        2. Then, grab the handle and take a step back so there’s tension from the machine, make sure that to keep your feet shoulder-width. 
                        3. Now, take a large step back with your left leg and drop that knee to the floor. In other words, perform a lunge.
                        4. To return to the beginning position, push with your front thigh and stand back up.
                        5. Finally, do the same thing with your right leg and you will have completed a full rep with both legs. 

                        6. Cable Pull-Throughs

                            Now we have another exercise that is a perfect glute workout, the cable pull-throughs. These are an excellent compound exercise that is great for supplementing other lifts that involve hip movements such as a deadlift or a hip thrust. This is one of the best isolation exercises for your glutes and really helps drive growth.

                            How To Do A Cable Pull-Through:

                            1. For this exercise, you’ll need a rope handle to connect to the pulley. With the rope handle connected, set the pulley to your knee level. 
                            2. Now, stand in front of the machine and away from it. Pick up the rope handles in both hands, between your legs, and take a few steps forward. Start by standing up straight, then bend your knees slightly, keeping your back in a neutral position. 
                            3. Next, you’ll bend over at the hips, driving them back and letting the cable rope and your hand go through your legs behind you. If you’re doing this right, you should feel your hamstrings stretching 
                            4. At this point, use your glutes and pull yourself back up into the starting position. To make this exercise the most effective, make sure you squeeze your glutes at the top of your rep. 
                            5. Wait a second or two before starting up another rep and then do it all over again.

                            7. Cable Machine Calf Raises

                              Finally, we’ll end this list of cable exercises by isolating just the calf muscles.

                              These muscles tend to be overlooked and can be pretty stubborn when it comes to development. Therefore, you should always include these types of isolation exercises in your leg day routine.

                              How To Do Cable Machine Calf Raises:

                              1. For cable calf raises, you’ll first need to get something to elevate yourself off the ground. This can be anything from a weight plate to a small box. Place this right in front of the cable machine. 
                              2. Now, you’ll need to attach a straight bar to the cable machine and put the pulley on the bottom setting.
                              3. While holding the bar, step on top of whatever it is you grabbed for this exercise. While the width of your stance doesn’t really matter here, you should be standing so the heels and middle of your feet are in the air. 
                              4. Now, lower your heels and then push with your toes. You should feel your calves contracting. Hold this for a second. 
                              5. Finally, lower your heels back down again and get ready for another rep. 
                              6. It’s important with this calf exercise to not “bounce.” Control the reps so that your muscles are doing all of the work, not gravity. 

                              Sample Leg Day Cable Machine Workout Routine

                              Now that you’ve got a good idea about what exercises you can do for a killer leg day with nothing but a cable machine, we’ve put together a little workout circuit that’s sure to get those legs burning. This circuit focuses on isolating different parts of your legs.


                              You’ll start with cable squats first at a lightweight with high repetitions (12-15). Do this for three sets and rest for a minute in between the sets. After three sets of that, we’ll do some cable pull-throughs. This will help your hips be ready and warmed up for the rest of the workout. For this, also go with high reps for three sets with a minute rest in between sets.

                              Set 1

                              For the first set, we’ll be doing mostly quad work. So, we’ll start with cable leg extensions. For this exercise, we’ll want to hit that sweet spot rep range for hypertrophy. So, you’ll want to do 8-10 reps at an appropriate weight. Do this exercise for three sets as well with a minute rest in between sets.

                              The other exercise that we’ll be doing during this set is cable reverse lunges. While they are great for your entire leg, they will really help you feel the burn in your quads and get you pumped up. Like the leg extensions, do these for 8-10 reps for three sets with a minute rest between your sets.

                              If you really want to step up the intensity, something you can do is do both of these exercises in a superset. For those of you who aren’t aware, a superset is where you do one exercise right after the other without rest.

                              Set 2

                              Set two is all about your hamstrings and glutes. Therefore, we’ll be starting off with cable kickbacks. Do three sets of 8-10 reps of these with a minute rest in between them. After that, do cable Romanian deadlifts, do the same amount of sets and reps as with the kickbacks.

                              Set 3

                              For the final set, we’re going to end with cable calf raises. For this final exercise, we’ll actually be doing five sets of 8-10 reps instead of 3. Remember, the calves are stubborn muscles and need extra stimulation.

                              Closing Thoughts

                              While exercises like the traditional barbell squat and the use of machines to isolate certain parts of your leg are perfect for heavy weight training, sometimes you don’t have  free weights available to you.

                              Cable machines are versatile pieces of equipment that can work wonders if you know what you’re doing. With a little creativity, you can make a really effective cable workout!