December 07, 2021 8 min read

If you have never used cable machines before, you will soon discover that they are extremely versatile pieces of equipment.

There are so many ways you can use cables to strengthen your upper body muscles, and specifically your deltoids and shoulder muscles.

In addition to dumbbells or barbells, you can build your shoulders using cables. Here are some really effective cable shoulder exercises that you can add to your next upper body workout. You should be able to find a few exercises that fit your own personal strength level and weightlifting experience.

Tattooed muscular sportsman resting after exercising on seated cable rowing machine

Getting Started

An adequate amount of good sleep and a nutritional diet are major factors that will have a large influence on your weightlifting and bodybuilding goals. To allow your body enough time to recover and to start sculpting your muscles, always be sure to get enough deep rest (for up to two full days) before you attempt to train the same muscle groups. 

Because the shoulders and triceps are such large muscles, these types of shoulder exercises allow you to perform a lot f volume which should lead to a terrific influence on your overall body strength. With all of these exercises, we recommend starting with 8 to 10 reps per set and then moving the numbers up from there.

Cable Exercise #1: Single-Arm Lateral Raises 

 

If you are trying to strengthen and grow your shoulder muscles, single-arm lateral raises can be some highly effective movements to add to your workout routine. A lot of lifters use dumbbells when they are performing cable lateral raises, but if the dumbbells are unavailable, you can also do them with a cable machine to achieve a different stimulus.

To perform these staple shoulder cable exercises correctly, follow this sequence of steps: 

  • Start by standing off to the side of the cable machine with the cable adjusted to the lowest point.
  • Attach a handle to the cable and then grasp the handle in one hand.
  • Stand so that your arm is to one side and the cable is running behind your legs.
  • When you exhale, raise your arm straight up and stop when it is parallel to the floor.
  • Inhale and lower your arm back down by letting the cable run through the pulley through the full range of motion.
  • Keep a slight bend in your elbow, but never let your elbow joint flex and extend.
  • The slight bend should protect your shoulder joints, but if you allow for too much movement, you might not actually be targeting the shoulder.
  • Make a special effort to isolate the movement so that your shoulder and arm muscles are doing most of the work through the full range of motion.
  • Never bounce and use your momentum to swing the weight up.
  • Be sure to perform this exercise with both arms.

Cable Exercise #2: Bent-Over Rear Delt Fly 

 

To really define your shoulder muscles and build them from all angles, make sure you are also adding the rear delt fly to your workout routine. This exercise targets your side delts and the rear delt, which is the back part of your shoulder muscle. To do the bent-over rear delt fly, first stand in the center of the cable machine and grasp a cable in each hand.

Before you begin, adjust the cables so they are at the lowest point on the cable machine, and then follow this sequence of steps: 

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a cable in each hand, crossing them so they form an “X” shape.
  • Hinge at your hips as though you were about to do a bent-over row.
  • When you exhale, raise your arms straight up to the sides at about shoulder height until they are parallel to the floor.
  • Inhale and lower your arms back down by letting the cable run through the pulley.
  • Keep your elbows locked and bent slightly. 

Cable Exercise #3: Anterior Raises 

 

Make sure you are working the front part of the shoulder if you add these shoulder exercises into your routine. Cable anterior raises (along with front raises) are some of the best ways to help you build fuller and more pronounced shoulder muscles. One of the best ways to perform this exercise is with a straight bar attachment.

Simply hook it to the cable machine, and then:

  • Adjust the cable so it is at the lowest point on the machine.
  • Stand with one foot on either side of the cable.
  • Bend down and grasp the bar in both hands, then walk forward a couple of steps to put tension on the cable so the bar is close to your hips when starting.
  • When you exhale, raise your arms straight up until the bar is parallel with the floor.
  • Inhale and lower the bar back down to the original starting position.
  • Keep your arm locked with a slight bend in your elbow.
  • Just like with the lateral raises, never bounce or swing the weight up.

Cable Exercise #4: Leaning Single-Arm Lateral Raises 

 

This variation of the single-arm lateral raise allows you to better target all of the delt muscles and it really prevents you from using any of your momentum to help you swing up the weight.

Prepare your shoulders for a heavy workout and follow this sequence of steps to perform the exercise correctly:

  • Start by standing next to the cable machine, grasping the cable as you would for a regular single-arm lateral raise.
  • Grip the side of the machine with your opposite hand and adjust your feet so they are closer to the machine.
  • Lean out to one side, holding onto the machine to avoid falling over.
  • When you exhale, raise your arm until it is parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your elbow locked with a slight bend.

Cable Exercise #5: Cable Shoulder Press 

 

The cable shoulder press is similar to an overhead press, but you can complete it by using a cable and straight bar attachment instead of a barbell or a set of dumbbells.

Start by attaching the straight bar to the cable machine and adjusting the cable to its lowest point and then follow this sequence of steps:

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Pull the weight up so it rests in front of your shoulders.
  • Inhale, squeeze your glutes, and try to engage your core throughout the full range of motion.
  • When you exhale, raise the bar straight up over your head.
  • Make sure not to arch your lower back or use your legs to help you push it up.
  • Inhale and return to the original starting position by letting the cable run through the pulley.

Cable Exercise #6: Face Pulls 

 

Face pulls are another targeted exercise if you want to work on your rear deltoids. They also require the activation of the muscles of your upper back and so they can be very good exercises if you are trying to improve your regular posture.

To do face pulls correctly, follow this sequence of steps: 

  • Attach a rope to the cable machine and adjust the cable to the highest point.
  • Stand in front of the machine and grasp one end of the rope in each hand.
  • Use an overhand grip and turn your palms so that they are facing each other.
  • Lift your elbows to shoulder-level.
  • Take a step back to put constant tension on the cable.
  • When you exhale, bend your elbows and pull the rope attachment toward your face.
  • When the attachment gets close to your face, split your hands so that one end of the rope goes on either side of your face.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then return to the original starting position as you inhale.

Cable Exercise #7: Cable Upright Row 

 

Upright rows target the front part of the shoulder and they can be a good extra exercise to add to your upper body workouts. When doing this exercise, you can use either a rope attachment or a straight bar attachment. Whichever attachment you choose, adjust the cable to the lowest point, grasp the bar or rope with both hands, and then take a step back to put some tension on the cable.

Follow this sequence of steps: 

  • When you exhale, bend your elbows and pull the bar or rope straight up toward your chest through the full range of motion.
  • Stop when your elbows are at shoulder-level.
  • Inhale and return back to the original starting position by letting the cable run all the way through the pulley with constant tension.

Cable Exercise #8: Rear Delt Crossover 

 

To further build up your rear delts, the rear delt crossover is another one of the best cable machine shoulder exercises for you to do on a regular basis. This is similar to the cable rear delt flyes, but you start with the cables at a higher point on the machine to really work your deltoid muscles. Grasp a cable in each hand, making sure they cross and form an “X” shape, and start with your hands close together.

Then, follow this sequence of steps:

  • When you exhale, separate your arms and pull them down and back (think about opening your arms as if you are doing a chest fly).
  • Inhale and return to the original starting position by letting the cable run through the pulley with constant tension.
  • Never arch your back so as not to let your momentum take over.

Bonus Cable Exercise: The Seated Cable Row 

Cable rows target all of your back muscles and build real strength in your lats by adding a lot more resistance than you usually get from bodyweight training. 

  1. Sit on a gym bench with a slight bend in your knees at roughly 45-degrees. 
  2. Hold the handle with both hands and your arms out straight in front of you and your back straight. 
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the handle towards you.
  4. Hold this position, and then extend your arms in a controlled way to return to the starting position. 

Avoid leaning back too much and be sure not to extend your legs fully. Your back and arms should be doing all of the work in this movement.

Bonus Cable Exercise: Cable Shrug

Cable shrugs mostly target your trapezius muscles (the muscles that start at the base of the neck and end at the upper back). They also force the shoulders to do more work, though, and these exercises will really help you sculpt a more well-rounded upper body. 

  1. Attach a straight bar to the cable and adjust the cable to its lowest point. 
  2. Grasp the bar with both hands, using an overhand grip (your palms should be facing down). 
  3. When you exhale, shrug your shoulders up toward your ears (without moving your arms) to lift the bar up a few inches. 
  4. Finally, inhale and return to the original starting position.

Getting Different Results by Changing Your Grip

You can target certain muscles more specifically just by changing your grip. You will find that if you use an underhand grip with your palms facing up, you will more actively engage different types of muscles than when you use a neutral grip.

Also, all of these exercises can be performed with a wide range of training volumes to help you produce the kind of overall muscle and strength gains you might be looking for.

 

Build Bigger, Stronger Shoulders

You can use these cable shoulder exercises to really grow and strengthen your shoulders.

Always include a lot of good sleep and a solid overall nutrition plan in your workout program.

Getting enough sleep is crucial for optimal health and to avoid disease, and following a regular diet plan can help keep your weight under control. Your bodybuilding results will depend to a large degree on how well you can recover after working out.