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9 Cable Back Workouts to Help Tone and Strengthen Your Back Muscles

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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If you want insane strength, training your back is a must. The back muscles are large and strong, and play a huge role in stabilizing many other movements. There are plenty of exercises that help tone and strengthen your back muscles, but we highly recommend doing cable back workouts in addition to your free weights. 

Mixing up your training between free weights and the cable machine will give you the best combination of building on that stabilizing strength and effectively targeting those muscles for increasing strength and size. 

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Here are the 10 best cable back exercises to tone and strengthen those muscles, adding to your size, boosting your strength, and giving you more power for other movements.

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Why Strengthening Your Back Muscles Is Important 

Your back muscles are important stabilizing muscles in the body. They’re also amongst the largest muscles in the body, so paying particular attention to them will yield excellent results in terms of both strength and stability. Here are some of the best benefits of working your back: 

Improved Posture and Core Strength 

Although your back muscles are not considered to be part of the core, they play a big role in stabilizing the core as you go about your everyday movement. 

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Back exercises strengthen the erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles, which are all important stabilizing muscles. When these are strong, they take some strain off the rest of the core muscles, which means your posture is likely to be better. 

Strong back muscles also ensure that the spine is more stable, preventing excess movement that could cause injury. So building a stronger back is, in a roundabout way, building a stronger core as well. 

Increased Muscle Strength and Endurance 

Naturally, working out your back muscles will cause muscle growth and help you to gain strength, as long as you’re lifting heavy enough. As well as gaining strength, regularly training your back will improve the muscles’ endurance, so they can stand up to heavier loads over time. This will also help you to gain muscle mass in your back. 

Improved Coordination and Balance 

Back exercises that challenge your coordination and balance can help you to develop better balance and coordination over time. Although using the cable rather than free weights reduces a lot of the need for external stabilization, your balance is still challenged. 

Any back exercise that requires some core activation will build some balance and coordination. Even if you’re using the cable, engage your core and it’ll help in this department. 

Better balance and coordination go hand in hand with improved posture. It’s all about that core strength

Increased Flexibility 

The stronger your back muscles, the more easily you’ll be able to twist and bend. This is helpful for real-life movements, like twisting and bending to pick up the remote off the floor! 

Stronger back muscles equals more flexibility. You’ll be able to perform movements that you wouldn’t have been able to before due to restrictions in motion from weak back muscles. 

Having stronger back muscles allows you to reach further and twist more while remaining stable, whereas weak back muscles will give in long before you reach your full range of motion. 

Reduce Back Pain 

The stronger your back muscles, the less likely you are to suffer from back pain. This is partly because stronger back muscles have more endurance, but also because there’s less likely to be referred pain from other areas as your back muscles help to stabilize the core. 

It might seem counterintuitive to actively work out the muscles that are hurting, but trust us—building your back will significantly contribute to less pain, as long as you’re performing the exercises with good form

Extra Calorie Burn 

Because the back muscles are large muscles, you expend more energy when you work them out. That equals a higher calorie burn that you’d get when working out smaller muscle groups. 

If part of your goal is shedding some extra pounds, a good back workout can go a long way towards helping! Remember, your diet needs to be on point if your goal is cutting. 

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Why Should You Do Back Exercises on a Cable Machine? 

The cable machine might seem less versatile than free weights, but they’re an excellent complement to barbells and dumbbells. One of the biggest benefits of cable back exercises is that they’re able to work your back muscles in ways that free weights can’t, so adding some cable back workouts to your repertoire is a good idea. 

Allows You to Work Muscles From Different Angles 

Because cables are anchored (unlike free weights) you can move through a significantly wider range of motion than you can with free weights. 

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By simply changing up the angle of your pull, you can target certain areas of the back much more easily than you ever would be able to with weights. 

As an example, performing cable back exercises from the higher pulleys make it easy to target your upper back. But using the lower pulleys makes it easier to really work those lower back muscles. Not as easy when using free weights! 

Another bonus is that it’s easier to switch between overhand grip, underhand grip, and neutral grips on the cable station than it is with free weights. This gives you many more options for working your muscles in different ways. 

More Time Under Tension 

One of the great things about cable back workouts is that the tension holds constant throughout the movement. Whether you’re pulling or releasing, the constant tension is there equally. 

The tension isn’t increased or decreased by the pull of gravity like it is with free weights, which can make a significant difference to the movement. You may be able to use slightly heavier weights than you would with free weight movements. 

Easily Switch Between Exercises 

With the cable machine, you can perform dozens of movements on one single piece of equipment. You don’t need a barbell, two dumbbells, and a bunch of weight plates to get through your workout. Just the cable machine! 

It’s an extremely versatile piece of equipment that makes it easy to have a full workout without worrying about putting equipment together or taking things apart.

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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Muscle Isolation 

Thanks to the elimination of gravity, cable workouts can more easily isolate your muscles rather than bringing stabilizing muscles into effect. 

By simply choosing the right isolation exercises, you can effectively isolate more hard-to-reach muscles, like the lower traps or the lats. 

Reduced Risk of Injury 

Thanks to the more controlled range of motion, there’s less chance of injury on the cable machine than with free weights. Your limbs don’t easily move out of the range of motion as they’re held in place by the cable. 

With free weights, there’s much more chance of moving outside of that range of motion as you’re not bound by tension (other than the up-and-down tension of gravity). Especially if you’re using heavy weights, it’s easy for your form to slip and a joint or muscle to move in a way it shouldn’t, causing injury. 

This is particularly useful for those cases in which you perform a unilateral exercise to isolate one specific muscle or work on muscle imbalances.

A man doing cable back workouts at the gym using both arms
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Cable Machines vs. Free Weights: What’s the Difference? 

In a nutshell, free weights are a much more unstable form of lifting weight than a cable is. You’re working against gravity, which means there’s a lot more chance of losing your form and injuring yourself as you’re constantly fighting to move the weight against the force. 

Cables are much more stable, requiring only that you work against the tension of the cable, which actually helps you to keep your form. Because of this, you may be able to lift more on the cables than you would with free weights, and you’ll be less likely to get injured. 

Free weights may be a better representation of “real-life movement”. For example, when you lift your heavy grocery bags or pick up a child, those are more similar to free weight movements. 

However, cable movements are less likely to cause injury and can isolate the muscles more effectively, helping you to build more strength and flexibility with which to perform everyday movements anyway. 

It’s hard to say if one is better than the other. But we highly recommend including both in your gym routine, as they complement each other well.

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9 Best Cable Back Exercises

Want to build a strong, muscular back? Include these cable exercises in your regular workout routine to target your muscles more specifically and really build strength and size. 

1. Lat Pulldown 

A staple of the back workout repertoire, the lat pulldown is one of the most popular exercises. It’s already a cable exercise, so there’s no learning curve here! The best way to really target the lats is to use a wide grip, but you can really get creative with variations here. 

As the exercise’s name suggests, this one targets the lats—the latissimus dorsi muscles. They’re sizable, flat muscles that are located underneath the shoulder blades, and aid in moving the upper extremities and breathing. 

There’s a key to getting it right. Squeeze your elbows together as you pull downwards, imagining that you’re bringing them down towards your tailbone. Keep your chest up at the same time. 

Variations 

Aside from the normal grip, normal width cable lat pulldown, there are a number of different variations you can try: 

  • Wide Grip Pulldown: A wider grip targets to lats more effectively and reduces bicep activation. Don’t lean back while doing this movement—you’ll be using momentum rather than your own strength. 
  • Narrow Grip Lat Pulldown: Use a supinated grip for this one, and make sure to keep your elbows in as close to your sides as possible. This movement mimics a chin-up. 
  • Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Cable Pulldown: Use a D-ring to work each lat separately. The single-arm variation is an excellent way to really target that lat muscle on either side. Make sure to train each side equally when doing this exercise. 
  • Straight-Arm Pulldown: Grip the bar about shoulder-width apart, about chest height, and with your arms fully extended. Keep your arms straight throughout this movement, pulling down with your lat muscles specifically. 
  • V-Bar Pulldowns: Using this extension allows you to use a neutral grip. 

Tip: We recommend avoiding behind-the-head lat pulldowns. They don’t have any great advantage over regular pulldown variations and also increase your risk of injury.

2. Bent-Over Row 

Set your attachment on the bottom pulley for this one. You want a slight bend in your knees, and hinge at the waist until your torso is at about 45 degrees. You can choose whatever grip works for you, but make sure to row the handles up to the lower chest, hold for a second, and release back to the start slowly and in a controlled way

One of the benefits of this particular exercise is that you still need to stabilize yourself as you row. While you aren’t working against gravity, you need to actively hold your position against the pull of the cable. 

Variations 

You can also get creative with the challenging variations on this exercise, depending on what exactly you want to target at the time. 

  • Pronated grip 
  • Supinated grip 
  • Neutral grip 
  • Single-arm bent-over rows

3. Seated Cable Rows 

Another much-loved back exercise, the cable row targets multiple muscles in the back. You can use almost any cable attachment here—the bar, a V-bar, or even two handles. That also makes it easy to adjust your grip as you like. 

Keep your back straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together on the back pull, and make sure not to rock backwards or push your upper body backward to use momentum during the rowing motion. Also make sure to keep your elbows close to your body

Variations 

This is another exercise you can vary up to target all parts of your back effectively. 

  • Wide-grip Row: Targets more of the lats than other variations; focuses more on the upper back. 
  • Kneeling Cable Row: Removes the lower body, forcing you to really work your muscles as you can’t use momentum to pull the weight. 
  • Single-Arm Cable Row: An easier way to target each side of your back. Make sure to stabilize yourself and don’t twist too much when doing the movement.

4. Cable Incline Pushdown 

This exercise targets the lats, but also works the shoulders and chest. It’s excellent for improving scapular strength, which improves overall core and back strength. 

Set up a bench at a 45-degree incline, placed in front of the cable pulley, so the pulley is behind you when you’re on the bench. 

You want to grab the bar with a regular grip, arms fully extended, above your head. Bring the weight down as close as you can to your quads, without bending your arms. Squeeze your lats together as you bring it down, and keep them tight as you bring it back up.

5. Cable Shrug 

Target your upper traps with this exercise. You can either set up a single pulley at the bottom of the cable machine, with a straight bar, or you can set up two cables on either side, with D-ring attachments. 

Either way, grab the attachments, stand up straight, keep your core tight, and shrug the weight up using your shoulders. Your arms should stay fully extended throughout the movement.

6. Face Pulls 

This one works the upper back muscles, more specifically, the posterior delts, rhomboid muscles, traps, and the rotator cuff muscles, while being easy on the shoulder joint at the same time. Use the cable rope attachment to really get the full range of motion here. 

Set the pulley up to be slightly lower than face level. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and stagger them a little so you’re more stable. Grab the ropes and keep your arms fully extended. 

There are two ways to go here. Some people swear by one, while some prefer the other. You can either grab the rope using a pronounced hand position (overhand grip), and pull it back to your face, keeping your elbows higher than your wrists at all times. 

Or, you can use a neutral grip, which will give you a little more range of motion. It’s pretty impossible to keep your elbows above your wrists in this case. Either way, make sure you’re squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end of the movement. 

Whichever way you do it, make sure to keep your shoulders down, making very sure not to lift them as you pull the weight back.

7. Reverse Cable Flyes 

The reverse cable fly focuses on the rhomboids and posterior delts, so it’s a great one to include to target different muscles to the pulldowns. Start with lighter weights than usual so you can get a full range of motion. 

Set up two pulleys with the handles around chest height. Grab each handle with the opposite hand, so the left one is in your right hand and vice versa. Your arms should be fully extended. 

Keeping your arms straight, pull them out to the sides, squeezing your shoulder blades as you do so. Make sure your arms stay in the same plane of movement—don’t move upwards or downwards. 

Take care to bring your arms back to the starting position in a controlled manner.

8. Cable Deadlift 

The cable deadlift mimics the free weight conventional deadlift, and it’s great for building the back, glutes, and leg muscles. If you’re using a single cable machine, use the bar attachment. If you’re using a double cable machine, you can use two D-ring handles on the pulley setup. 

Keep in mind that this is very similar to the regular deadlift and in this case, you will be subject to the forces of gravity just like a normal deadlift. 

Make sure not to squat too low at the starting position, else you’ll be doing more of a squatting movement than a deadlifting movement. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement for the best results.

9. Standing Cable Pullback 

This is another straight-arm exercise that works the lats and upper back, but does so from a different angle. Set the cable pulley at around knee height. You’ll do one arm at a time. 

Stand facing the pulley. You want to step back until your hand is about 6 inches in front of your body, at about hip-height. Your palm should be facing forward, away from your body. 

To do the exercise, pull your hand backward from this position, until it’s about 6 inches behind you, also around hip-height. Hold it for a second, and then return it to the starting position slowly and steadily. 

Make sure to keep your arm straight throughout the movement. You may need to lower the weight in order to get it right.

Tips to Maximize Back Workouts 

If you perform your back workouts properly, you can expect big strength and size gains. But getting them wrong will significantly reduce their effectiveness. Here’s how to make the most of your back workouts

Use Proper Form and Technique 

We can’t overstate the importance of getting your form right. You may be able to lift more if your form is wrong, but you’ll eventually pay the price. Incorrect form is a one-way street to injury, so don’t neglect it. 

If you pay attention to your form from the beginning, you’ll make the most effective gains. Your muscles will strengthen naturally and your risk of injury will be reduced. Yes, you’ll sacrifice “quick gains”, but your progress will be much more sustainable

Incorporate Progressive Overload 

Progressive overload is the act of slowly increasing the weight you’re lifting. Here’s the easiest way to do it. Aim for 4 to 6 reps if you’re a guy and 8 to 10 reps if you’re a girl. Find a weight you can lift with perfect form for the lower rep count (4 for men, 8 for women) but not to the full rep count. 

Work with it until you can do the full rep count, making sure every single rep is with excellent form. Then, go up in weight. You should find that you can do the lower rep count with the increased weight, and you can now work with that weight until you can reach the max rep count. 

Rinse and repeat, slowly increasing your weight. Take note that it can take a few weeks for each increase in weight, so patience is key here. Also, the moment your form starts going off, that’s when you should stop. Don’t push through bad form just to hit those reps!

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Utilize Supersets and Drop Sets 

To shake things up a little, you can try incorporating supersets and drop sets in your routine. You don’t need to use them every workout, but they can be a nice way to change things up, fit more into your workout, or finish hard and strong. 

In a superset, you do two exercises back to back and only rest after the second one. For example, you could do one exercise that focuses on the traps and one that targets the lower back. 

Drop sets are performed without a specific rep count in mind, but rather training until failure (as always, with good form). Once you’ve reached the point of failure, lower the weight and do the same for another set (until failure). Continue for as many sets as you like. 

Use Slow, Controlled Movements 

Pumping through your sets as fast as you can is not the right way to do it. Make sure your movements are slow and controlled, and really focus on the muscle during the movement. This helps to activate that mind-muscle connection and can actually accelerate muscle building effects. 

Plus, the faster you lift the more at risk you’ll be of injury. Lifting slowly and mindfully significantly lowers your risk of hurting yourself. You might not be able to lift as much weight when you’re going slowly, because you aren’t using momentum to help you get the weight up. But in the end, you’ll make better gains this way. 

Incorporate Different Grip Positions 

With free weights, it can be difficult to vary your grip position and still lift heavy. With the cables, it’s easier and highly recommended

Something as simple as changing from a pronated grip (overhand) to a supinated grip (underhand) can effectively work the same muscle in a slightly different way. Or, it can shift the focus from one muscle to another within the same muscle group, contributing to a more well-rounded set of muscles. 

Work Each Side Equally to Avoid Any Muscular Imbalances 

With back exercises like deadlifts or barbell rows, you’re working both sides equally. But when you’re using the cables, it’s important to remember that you need to work both sides to the same level
Failing to do so may contribute to muscle imbalances, which are much harder to fix than they are to create. It’s natural that one side is slightly weaker than the other, but take care not to work one side significantly harder than the other.

About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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