The Best Cable Exercises You're Not Doing

11 Ways to Build Your Back, Glutes, Biceps, and More

The Question

What's the best cable exercise that most people don't do or don't even know about?

Dante rows

This is the best cable exercise that few people know about or do. I'm guessing other names exist for it, but I saw Dante Trudel do it first, so I attribute it to him.

It works by isolating the lats through a long range of motion. I consider it a superior, modern-day equivalent to the old chain-driven Nautilus pullover machine made famous by Dorian Yates.

You do these with a seated pulley row machine, but in an unconventional manner. The key is to get a good stretch when extending your arms before driving your elbows back towards your knees, rounding your back and flexing your lats as hard as possible before accentuating the negative. Mark Dugdale

Cable pull-throughs

Most people know about the cable pull-through, but they don't do it often enough, if at all. That's probably because it looks weird. It looked silly the first time I saw someone doing it, and the first time I did it in a commercial gym, some of my buddies actually started laughing!

Today, with the glute-building craze, looking silly should no longer be a problem. Still, most people seem to favor glute bridges and hip thrusts over the pull-through.

The cable pull-through will improve your hip hinge and build your glutes. It's simple, effective, and comes with a very low risk of getting injured. Possible side benefits include improved technique in the deadlift, more stability during leg training, and improved sprint and jump performance.

The pull-through is best trained within a high rep range and moderate load – 12 reps or more per set. You can really pump up the volume with this one! Eirik Sandvik

The 3-way biceps curl

Coach Charles Poliquin once wrote that cables are basically re-directed dumbbells and shouldn't really be dumped into the "machine" category. Unlike a true free weight, cables also allow you to keep constant tension exactly where you want it. This is especially true when it comes to biceps training.

Cable curls allow you to easily target both heads of the biceps, as well as the brachialis. Different types of curls place more tension on different parts of the biceps at different points in the range of motion. This has to do with what the old-schoolers called the "line of pull."

Now, that makes it sound like you need to be doing thirteen different biceps exercises every workout to fully train this little muscle group, but you can take care of all that with one giant set of cable curls.

This is basically a mechanical drop set – where you go from the hardest movement to the easiest without rest. As a bonus, this will really extend the time under tension. Here's Dani demonstrating it:

  1. Cable curl, line of pull behind you. With your elbows a little behind your torso, this is the hardest of the three movements. Once you get near failure, without resting or dropping the handles, move to...
  2. Cable curl, line of pull in front of you. After stepping back, do more reps with a good squeeze at the top of each. Then move to...
  3. Cable curl, line of pull beneath you. This is "easiest" movement in the set, BUT you'll be really fatigued at this point. Knock out a few more reps and take a rest. Repeat the whole set twice more.

    Want to nail every part of the biceps? Add...

  4. Cable hammer curl. Just rotate the handles and use the neutral grip to hit the brachialis. You can do them cross-body style or elbows-pinned-to-sides style.
Cross-Body Hammer Curl
Cross-Body Hammer Curl
Hammer Curl

Reps are up to you. There are different benefits for just about every rep range. The best rep range to use is probably the one you haven't used in a while. Chris Shugart

The Gironda 45-degree row

Start the movement bent over with your arms over your head (shoulders at 180-degrees of flexion if you want to get technical). Then lean back, arching the lower back, and perform a row into the lower abs.

Get the lats into a fully lengthened position, then go into a fully shorted position, and your lats will work in conjunction with the upper back. Because the elbows come in directly behind the waist, you may feel a strong peak contraction in the lower lats, which isn't a bad thing of course.

Using a ton of weight on these would be counterproductive and most likely cause you to get some of that hip-pumping action going, which you should NOT be doing.

Stretch the lats then pull with the elbows. Don't allow the hips to move back and forth. This will remove tension from the lats and upper back. If they drop down that's okay. Just leave the bump n' grind action to R Kelly. Paul Carter

Guillotine high cable curl

This exercise hits both the long and short heads of the biceps, which most biceps exercises can't do.

Generally, biceps exercises are set up so the upper arms remain roughly parallel to the torso and the resistance reduces as the hands get closer to the chest. But the guillotine curl requires the upper arms to be positioned perpendicular to the torso with the shoulders flexed (arms forward with respect to the torso). That makes the resistance grow stronger – instead of decreasing – as the cable moves downward toward the body.

This is a great finisher exercise when training biceps. Hold and squeeze the biceps at the peak contraction to further heighten the training effect. Michael Warren

Tug-of-war row

If you've ever participated in tug-of–war, you know it involves a leg drive, a solid torso position, and a strong pulling action from both arms. It's a full-body movement. Well, you don't have to be working against someone else in order to benefit from using this exercise. You just need an adjustable cable column and a rope attachment!


  • Attach a triceps rope to an adjustable cable column at your mid-torso level.
  • Stand at a 45-degree angle to the cable with your feet slightly farther than shoulder-width apart and your right leg back.
  • Grab the rope with a baseball-bat type of grip, keeping your right hand behind your left.
  • With your knees bent to roughly 15 to 20 degrees, hinge at your hips, leaning your torso forward so that it's parallel to the floor and your arms are outstretched above you toward the origin of the cable.


  • Slowly reverse this motion by bringing your torso upright while leaning backward slightly with your upper body.
  • Plant your feet on the ground and pull the rope into your body until your right wrist contacts your ribs on your right side.
  • Do half of the reps with the same leg forward, then switch your stance and grip and perform the other half.

Coaching Tips

  • Use your legs as anchors to drive your torso backward slightly.
  • At the beginning of each rep, allow your arms and upper back to stretch forward without rounding your lower back.
  • As you perform the exercise, your weight should shift from front to back.

Set, Rep, and Rest Recommendations

Try 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps on each side.

Don't gas out your arms on the first half of the set (i.e., doing one side). Choose a weight-load that allows you to complete all the reps facing both ways with good technique and control.

Keep in mind, it's tough to use a heavier weight that limits you to less than 6 reps per side without feeling like you're going to get pulled off your feet, and therefore have to limit your range of motion. Nick Tumminello

The face-pull

From High Pulley

From Low Pulley

In the powerlifting world it's a staple. For everyone else who just wants to look good, the face-pull has been all but forgotten. This is a mistake.

While the face-pull isn't an exercise that's going to add slabs of muscles to your frame, what it will do is help offset all the pressing you're doing, while at the same time working the often neglected rear delts, rhomboids, and external rotators. This is going to allow you to continue getting stronger while keeping you healthy in the long run.

To get the most out of the face-pull, don't treat it as a progressive-overload exercise. Go light, be meticulous with your form, and focus on contracting all the small muscles working in your upper back and shoulders. Do 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps.

The beauty of the face-pull is its versatility. It can be done with an overhand, underhand, or neutral grip, and you can also vary the height of the pull. They all work, and it's wise to rotate them every few weeks to bulletproof your shoulders from all angles.

Whether or not your shoulders are banged up right now, make this a staple from now on. You'll thank me later. Akash Vaghela

Kneeling pulldowns

A former coach used to have me do pulldowns on my knees with a narrow neutral grip, and I'm still doing them years later, but with a couple adjustments.

A tip from Nick Tumminello inspired me to try these with a diagonal torso angle (instead of a completely upright torso), and that change actually made it a lot more effective. Leaning back forced me to have to sit down on a leg. So play around with the degree of your torso angle until you can get the tension where you want it.

The second adjustment was putting one foot in front. You don't have to, but I've found that it helps me stay anchored on the ground a little better when I'm using more weight than my bodyweight.

The kneeling pulldown will hit your back in a different way than the standard (not-from-the-floor) pulldown, but consider it supplemental rather than a priority. You'll probably want to do them at the end of your workout because you can't really load them quite as heavily as you might need to. There are two reasons for this:

1. If you load it with too much more than your own bodyweight you'll need to fight gravity as your body tries to rise off the floor. That's why I keep one leg bent out in front.

2. There's actually not enough weight in the stack. You'll notice that I'm using almost the entire stack. Trust me, that's not because I'm crazy strong. I can use the whole stack and, I suspect, that I'm able to do so because of the advantage you get by being on the floor instead of seated, the way you are with traditional pulldowns.

So, if you're not a person who can use the entire stack on any cable exercise, you'll feel like a rock star doing this. And bonus – people who aren't familiar with this exercise might assume you're stronger than you really are when they see you using the whole stack, or anywhere near it. And I'm a fan of that. Dani Shugart

Rotational rope rows

Rotational rope rows are some of the most effective movements you can do on the cable station. The rope allows you to rotate with your hands, which produces greater activation of the lats and upper back.

There are several reasons for this. First, the pronated grip allows a greater stretch and elongation of the lats while the supinated position promotes a stronger squeeze throughout the back when moving into the contracted position. This combination is powerful because it improves postural mechanics and spinal alignment. Bonus: It helps you build muscle and strength in the upper back.

Secondly, you can get a greater range of motion out of it than what you would with traditional rows. This increases the recruitment of the lats and upper back.

Third, the rotational position allows more natural scapulohumeral rhythm, making it therapeutic for the shoulder. In fact, I frequently add these for athletes who have shoulder issues and the effects are quite profound.

Fourth, the rotational nature of the rope produces both converging and diverging hand positions at different phases of the movement. For instance, during the concentric phase, there's a natural spreading of the hands (towards the sides of the torso) creating a greater squeeze in the upper back in the fully contracted position. In contrast, the eccentric or negative phase pulls the handles closer together in a converging fashion creating additional elongation and stretching of the lats.

You can do rotational rows in a unilateral fashion, the way Pittsburg Pirates outfielder, Austin Meadows, is demonstrating in this video:

The benefits are similar to the bilateral version, but there's additional tension on the upper back and lats. That's because the less restricted single-arm position allows slight rotational movement of the upper torso. This further increases the range of motion in both the stretched and contracted positions creating one enormous contraction on each rep.

The core is also forced to stabilize the movement and resist excessive rotation thereby increasing spinal rigidity. This enhances the stimulus to the upper back and lats. The effects are further magnified when performed in a standing fashion as shown in the video.

Whichever version you choose, make sure you fully extend on the eccentric phase without allowing your shoulders to round – excessive protraction is a common rowing mistake.

You'll only need to use about half the weight you'd typically use on traditional cable rows. This combo is highly effective for deloading the joints while also inducing a potent growth stimulus to the upper back and lats. Joel Seedman, PhD

Half-kneeling cable rotations

For bringing up functional weak links, not many exercises beat this. Nearly every lifter needs more rotational work in their programming.

Why? Because we live and lift in sagittal-plane dominant environments. The half-kneeling position allows the lower body to find natural synergistic tension and torque at the hips and pelvis from an asymmetrical stance. At the same time, rotation off the cable unit provides the loaded stimulus to challenge different force planes and degrees of rotation directed from the shoulder complex.

The key here is hip and core stability. The stronger and more stable the lower quadrant and core positions, the more force and loading you can tolerate at the cable rotation to boost the training effect. Dr John Rusin

Almost any standard cable exercise, but with a TRX attachment

In the video, I'm demonstrating cable reverse flyes with a TRX attachment. Few people think about using a suspension trainer as a cable attachment. It puts a completely different spin on exercises like reverse flyes, Y-raises, face-pulls and even some great bicep and tricep exercises.

You can even put exercises together for some really smooth complexes and circuits. It's been a game-changer for me. Barry Vincent