Unlike many machines that are ineffective (or even dangerous) in the gym, the cable pulley has stood the test of time. Cable pulley and cable crossover machines are the most versatile pieces of gym equipment, allowing you to hit small and large muscle groups, and complete isolation and compound moves from multiple angles and directions.
“One of my favorite moves is the pallof press (an anti-rotational core exercise),” says Felix Bangkuai, B.S., N.A.S.M.-C.P.T., a personal trainer at the Health & Wellness Center at Florida Wesley Chapel. “This move, and its variations, engages your core, back, arms, hips, and legs—all in one,” he adds. Plus, it maintains constant tension, and you can move in any plane of motion and direction, which helps you properly understand how to “brace” your body—key to core engagement and function, Bangkuai explains.
The 12 excercises that follow include variations of the pallof press, as well as other total-body moves designed to improve your weaknesses, craft a shredded core, and add muscle definition to your arms, back, and legs.
On every move, adjust the weight/tension as needed. Don’t go too heavy. The emphasis should be on form, technique, and keeping your heart rate up. “You want to brace your core as hard as you can with each move, but you also need to maintain proper form and posture the entire time,” Bangkuai says.
He suggests doing these moves as finishers, so, at the end of a workout after you’ve done all your primary lifts, complete 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps of one or more of these moves, taking 30- to 45-second breaks.
For moves that require half-kneeling on one side, complete 6-7 reps and repeat for 6-7 more on the other side. If one side of your body is weaker, start the exercise on that side.
Overhead pallof press with squat
How to do it: Attach a rope extension to the top pulley of a cable station, and grasp it with both hands. Stand facing away from the station, taking a step out so you feel tension on the cable. Holding the rope at your chest, feet shoulder-width apart, and abs engaged, press the rope overhead without twisting or bending your torso. From here, perform a squat. Rise and lower your arms, then repeat.
Why it’s effective: You’re torching your entire body with this compound move, challenging your stability, mobility, and strength as you resist overhead and squat.
Half-kneeling face pull
How to do it: Fix a rope attachment to the highest point of a cable pulley. Kneel on one knee (you can place a towel or thin mat underneath) with your torso tall and abs engaged. Grab both ends of the rope so your palms face one another. Draw your hands toward your eyes, driving your elbows out and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Flair either end of the rope out so the point where they join is near your nose. Slowly bring the rope back to the start position, maintaining control, and repeat.
Why it’s effective: Because you’re pulling from a high-to-low range of motion, you really target your mid-back; and the half-kneeling stance challenges your core and helps you handle a significant amount of weight.
Half-kneeling pallof press
How to do it: Attach a D-handle to the cable pulley so it’s level with your hips while standing, and chest-level while kneeling. Stand so the right side of your body is closest to the machine. Come down on your left knee (again, feel free to place a towel or mat beneath) and plant your right foot on the floor, making sure your leg is in a straight line with your right hip. Keep your torso tall and lower spine neutral as you pull the handle in toward your chest with both hands, resisting the weight so it doesn’t rotate your torso. With your abs engaged, extend your arms; bring the handle in toward your chest and repeat.
Why it’s effective: This half-kneeling position makes you stabilize your core and hips to keep your lower half motionless as your upper body moves the weight. By working your trunk stability, you teach your body to engage the right muscles and execute movements with a full range of motion, which will enable you to lift heavier in the long run. It’ll also improve your posture, balance, mobility, and reduce your likelihood of injury.
Pallof press squat (hold position)
How to do it: Attach a D-handle to the cable pulley so it’s level with your chest. Engage your abs and, standing with your right side closest to the pulley, bring the handle toward your chest using both hands. Extend your arms, making sure the resistance doesn’t rotate your torso, and squat down. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds; rise, then repeat.
Why it’s effective: Aside from sculpting your abs, the isometric hold in the squat position develops your glutes and hamstrings.
Half-kneeling overhead pallof press
How to do it: Attach a D-handle to the cable pulley so it’s level with your hips while standing and chest-level while kneeling. Stand so the right side of your body is closest to the machine. Come down on your left knee (again, feel free to place a towel or mat beneath) and plant your right foot on the floor, making sure your leg is in a straight line with your right hip. Keep your torso tall and lower spine neutral as you pull the handle in toward your chest, resisting the weight so it doesn’t rotate your torso. With your abs engaged, extend your arms up overhead; bring the handle back down toward your chest and repeat.
Why it’s effective: The split stance will help you find a neutral spine more so than if you were standing in a square stance, which protects against injury. The stance also provides a good stretch in your hip flexor. Make sure you’re engaging the glute of your “down” leg (the one you’re kneeling on) to maximize the benefits.
Standing cable row to a squat
How to do it: Fix a cable pulley at a low position, and attach a short bar. Grasp the bar with an underhand grip, and step back, facing the pulley to put tension on the cable. Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms extended. Lower into a squat position, keeping your arms straight. As you rise back up to standing, pull the bar up into your chest to complete a row. As you squat back down straighten out your arms.
Why it’s effective: You sculpt and build a strong body all over by keeping your body stable throughout the entire movement.
Dead bug lat pushdown (on floor)
How to do it: Attach a lat pulldown bar to the cable pulley at a setting where you can grab the bar with arms straight above your chest to push down. Lie down on your back with knees bent. Instead of alternating arms and legs like a traditional dead bug, you’ll push down the bar with both arms as you alternate legs. Exhale, then push the bar down toward your lower ribs as you extend your right leg. Inhale, bring you right leg back to a bent position and the bar back up. Exhale, and extend your left leg as you push the bar down again. Continue alternating.
Why it’s effective: You’ll torch your abs and create better core strength, which will translate to bigger deadlifts and squats. This is also a great technique for learning how to breathe properly to maximize exercises.
Pallof press to a reverse lunge
How to do it: Set up the cable at slightly below chest level. While standing, grab the handle or bar from the side, and press it in front of you, taking care not to let it rotate your torso or spine. Fight the resistance as you perform a reverse lunge moving the leg that is farthest away from the resistance (i.e. if the machine is on your left, lunge with your right). Drive through the lead leg to rise.
Why it’s effective: Anti-rotation exercises, when done correctly, strengthen all the small muscles along your spine helping to prevent injury and improve your posture.
Chest flye with alternating stepups
How to do it: Set up the cable pulleys on a crossover machine at the mid-point. Place a 12″ step or box in front of you. Step forward to gain tension in the cables. Place your palms facing forward and arms straight. With a slight bend in your arms, draw your hands upward and toward the midline of your body. Your hands should come together in front of your chest, while simultaneously stepping up on the step.
Why it’s effective: Combining the flye with the stepup forces you to work on balance and stability across your entire body.
Plank with single-arm row
How to do it: Fix the cable to a low setting using a handle attachment. Assume the top of a pushup position. Engage your core and glutes as you hold the plank and reach one hand for the cable handle. Row the handle to your chest, then release under control to the start position.
Why it’s effective: The body-sculpting benefits of the plank is intensified with the one-arm row, forcing your small stabilizing muscles and large muscle groups to keep you square and balanced.
Dead bug with pallof press (on floor)
How to do it: Fix the cable to the lowest setting and attach a handle. Lie down perpendicular to the cable pulley so your right side is closest to the machine. Assume the dead bug position so your right knee is bent and left leg is extended and elevated off the floor. Start with the handle to your body, then press directly up as you alternate legs.
Why it’s effective: All dead bug exercises boost the strength of your deep abdominal muscles, making your abs pop and creating an amazing center of power.
How to do it: Fix a D-handle attachment to a low position on the pulley. This move combines a single-leg RDL with a single-arm row. Grab the handle with your right hand. Put your weight in your left leg and bend your knee slightly. Lift your right leg off the floor. From here, keep your left arm out for balance, row the cable toward your body as you extend your right leg back. Drive your right knee up and release the tension in the cable to come back into the start position.
Why it’s effective: This is a killer glute workout that will keep your core strong, in addition to strengthening your balance, stability, and mobility.