Want a massive upper body that shows off your muscles and strength even under a boring T-shirt? Maybe a better question is: Don’t we all? And even though guys always seem to emphasize #chestday, the best way to get a big upper body is acutally to focus on building a big back. Hammering the side of your upper body that you can’t see in the mirror will do more for your physique, athleticism, and power than another bicep curl ever could. Strengthening important back muscles like your traps and rhomboids (and those overlooked ones in your rotator cuff) build the foundation your body needs to push a lot of weight safely.
And while classic straight-bar exercises are plenty effective for developing your back, there’s more to back training than bent-over rows, T-bar rows, and inverted rows.
Instead, try cable exercises. They allow for free movement in your arms and put constant tension on your muscles, which dumbbells don’t always do. Here are the eight best cable machine exercises to pack on slabs of muscle to your back.
1. Seated Cable Row
The seated cable row is a staple exercise for a strong, wide back. It hammers your trapezius (a.k.a. your “traps”), which gives your back the width and thickness that characterizes strength and power.
Start the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Row and touch the bar to your chest with every repetition. Do NOT lean backward to cheat—you’ll put unnecessary stress on your lower back. To emphasize your back muscles, use a wide grip; to get more arm work, use a narrow grip.
2. Single-Arm Cable Row
Single-arm cable rows target each side of your body independently, which corrects any imbalances in strength, activates your stabilizers to prevent injuries, and increases your core work.
Here’s how to do it: Set a cable handle to chest-height. Grab the handle, take a step back, and stand facing the cable. Start the movement by pulling your shoulder blade toward your midline and row without twisting your torso. Once you finish all your reps, switch sides.
For a different stability challenge, get into a split stance with one foot about three feet ahead of the other one—whichever leg is behind, hold the handle with that side.
3. Single Arm Cable Row & Rotation
By adding a twist at the end of a row, you’ll fire your shoulder stabilizers to improve your shoulder durability and add a lower-body component for more complexity.
Get into a split stance with your front foot turned in slightly. Hold the cable handle on the same side of the leg that’s behind. Start the movement by pulling your shoulder blade toward your midline and row without twisting your torso. Pause at the top of the row, then rotate your hips and upper-body toward the cable while keeping your shoulder packed.
4. Half-Kneeling Cable Row
To take the standard standing single-arm cable row to the next level, drop down on one knee and do your rows. It seems easy, but this stance changes everything:
First, it instantly prevents you from extending your lower back to eke out a few reps—getting into a half-kneeling position puts your pelvis in a neutral position and keeps it there. Second, you can’t compensate with your lower body. Third, you’ll activate your trunk more than before, which will carry over to almost every athletic movement there is.
It’s easy to cheat, however, in the half-kneeling position. Make sure everything is square to the cable machine and that your feet are narrow. Do NOT let your lower ribs flare out. Do NOT press the toes of your back leg into the ground—instead rest your laces on the ground. Squeeze your rear glute and keep your pelvis underneath you.
5. Split-Stance Low Cable Row
By simply altering your position, you can turn a simple cable row exercise into a total-body move that activates the powerful muscles in your glutes and hamstrings.
Set a cable handle to the lowest position. Get into a split stance and bend forward at your hips so that your torso is perpendicular to the cable. Hold the handle in with the leg that’s behind. Row and focus on squeezing the glute on your back leg.
6. 30-Degree Lat Pulldown
While the cable pulldown is a fantastic exercise to build wide lats, an easy tweak turns this move into a great shoulder-friendly exercise that pounds the muscles in your middle and lower trapezius.
Sit in a lat pulldown machine and lean backward by 30 degrees. Start the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together and pull the bar down to your collarbone.
7. Face Pull
Facepulls are a phenomenal exercise to attack poor posture, put your shoulders in a healthier position, and reduce upper-body injuries. Regardless of your strength level or exercise history, every guy needs face pulls to counteract all the time we spend with our arms in front of us—on a computer, at a desk, in the car, etc.
Set a cable rope attachment above your head. Grab the ends of the rope in each hand with your palms facing each other and start the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades down and back. Pull the rope towards your nose. For more range of motion, attach two cable rope attachments to the machine and hold one rope in each hand.
8. Cable X Row
The X-Row is another great exercise to target your back and build great posture. By pulling from such a unique angle, you’ll hammer the muscles at your mid-back and at your rotator cuff to avoid shoulder injuries.
Use a cable crossover machine. Grab the left cable with your right hand and the right cable with your left hand. Pull both handles across and in front of your body until your arms are fully extended to your sides.