The cable crossover machine can strengthen your body from head to toe, as it tests your core stability with every move. Here's how to use it wisely.

By Mallory Creveling
April 16, 2020
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Woman at the gym working out on a cable crossover machine
Credit: boonchai wedmakawand/Getty Images

You've likely spotted a cable crossover machine at your gym or fitness studio. It's a tall apparatus, some of which have a simple T shape and others have more attachments that make it a bulky and can't-miss-it machine.

No matter what type your fitness facility has, the cable machine will always include, of course, cables—or at least two pulleys with handles that you can pull down, up, across, or on a diagonal (so many options!). In other words, this piece of equipment can work your entire body in multiple planes of motion, making it hugely helpful for your strength training workouts. (It's one of the few Exercise Machines That Are Actually Worth Your Time, according to experts.)

That said, it's not exactly self-explanatory. Here's everything you need to know about how to use the cable crossover machine safely and effectively.

The Benefits of Using a Cable Crossover Machine

It's a little safer. "There is a safety component with the cable crossover machine because you're never in a position where weight can come down on you," says Don Saladino, trainer and owner of Drive495 fitness clubs. "You're always pulling toward you or pushing away, so if something goes wrong, you can just let go of it and it goes right back into the rack." That means if you've ever stayed away from heavy weights in fear of dropping them, the cable machine could become your new go-to tool for getting strong, sans worry about impact injuries.

It's always working your core. Another major pro to using this machine: You get a stability challenge with each move. "The cables force you to engage and stabilize with so many specific, small muscles," says Saladino. "If those small stabilizers aren't strong and you're strengthening your bigger muscles only, that's when people blow out muscles and injuries happen."

Take the chest press exercise, for example, says Saladino. With a dumbbell or barbell, you're likely lying down, pressing the weight up toward the ceiling. When you're doing it at the cable machine, you're standing (on two feet, in a staggered position, or even kneeling), which means now your entire body is working to keep you upright. So, as your upper body pushes the weight, your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and your core are firing to keep you steady. You're then working your entire body together as one unit, which is incredibly important for athletic performance, he adds. (See: Why Core Strength Is Important Beyond Aesthetics)

It adds a different element of resistance. What's great about using the cable machine for these exercises is that you have tension throughout the movement. "When doing movements with dumbbells, there's a point of the movement where there's no tension on the muscle," explains Saladino—the top of a chest fly is an example. "But with the cable machine, you can create tension throughout the entire exercise."

It's super customizable. Finally, another advantage to the cable machine is that it's customizable, says Saladino. For example, it can be adjusted to best suit the height of the person, you can easily progress in weight as you get stronger, and it's super versatile for doing a ton of different exercises (but more on that below).

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The Disadvantages of Using a Cable Crossover Machine

In addition to the machine being huge and heavy (it's not exactly an at-home-friendly workout tool), it has a few drawbacks for training.

It can only get so heavy. For starters, while you can use the cable machine to get stronger by adding more weight as exercises feel easier, you'll eventually reach a stopping point—or the heaviest the cable machine will go. Saladino says this is more of a disadvantage for those really trying to put on muscle, a lá bodybuilders, more than anyone else. But if you're also super strong, it could hold you back.

It's not ideal for speed and power work. Also, if you're an athlete who wants to get faster, the cable machine won't necessarily help you train in that specific modality. Say, for instance, you're playing softball and want a more powerful throw, so you work on a strong, quick chest press in that throwing motion. It's tough to generate force while you push or pull because the weights on the cable machine will just fly up and smack back down—not necessarily something other gym-goers will appreciate. The same goes for runners who might be working on sprint mechanics, like a speedy, strong knee drive.

It can be too much for beginners. If you're brand new to exercise and still learning how to work through movements with correct form and maintain proper body alignment, it's probably best to tackle your first cable machine workout with an expert. "If you are a novice exerciser, it's important to seek the guidance of a certified fitness professional to ensure you are using the equipment safely, as it was intended," says Jacque Crockford, ACE-CPT, and exercise physiology content manager for the American Council on Exercise. The trainer can then cue you on stabilization and what muscles you should be working. (Also check out this strength training workout for beginners.)

The Best (and Worst) Exercises to Do on a Cable Machine

You can do any type of push or pull exercise with the cable machine and it will activate your entire body. That includes moves like the standing chest press, chest fly, lat pull-downs, and any type of row (standing, kneeling, or even bent over).

The cable machine also works well for anti-rotation exercises, like the Pallof press, which turns up the burn on your obliques and other core stabilizers. It's also a stand-out tool for training your body at different planes of motion. For example, for rows, you can do the move standing straight up, pulling the cables straight back toward your rib cage. Or move the cable up and pull at a downward motion, working the muscles from a different angle. "I like loading the joint at different angles," says Saladino. "If you're always pulling the cable at the same angle, you're only going to get very strong in that one plane of motion." (See: Why You Need Lateral Moves In Your Workout)

You can also easily switch up your stance for different exercises to add more variety, from a staggered-stance single-sided chest press to a lunge with a bicep curl to a kneeling wood chop. "Due to the cable resistance set-up, this type of equipment allows for flexibility in movement patterns while maintaining consistent resistance," says Crockford. "Standing, seated, kneeling and lying positions can all be accomplished with most cable machines, which allows for full-body resistance programming."

The cable machine even works well for compound movements, working multiple muscles at once. Take this side plank row, targeting your abs and your lats, or this anti-rotation reverse lunge, which works your core and your legs—both favorites of Crockford.

While you can do almost any type of exercise with the cable machine, there's one you likely want to skip—that is, crunches. Lots of people do a crunch with the cable machine by holding the cables behind the neck and crunching downward and toward the machine, but that's probably not the best way to work your abs. "You're pulling with the neck and going into spinal flexion," says Saladino. This adds to a typical hunched-over posture and yields a greater risk of injury than potential pay-off. Stick to those anti-rotational moves (like these cable machine abs exercises) to strengthen your midsection, instead.

Your Cable Crossover Machine Workout

To create a full-body workout on the cable crossover machine, choose one exercise from each category (muscle group) below. Perform 6-12 reps of each for 3-4 sets.

Quads:

Glutes:

Chest:

Back:

Core: