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If you want to build a well-defined, strong torso, with high-quality functional strength through your upper body, you will need to include chest training in your regular training regime in some way. Developing pectoral, anterior deltoid and triceps strength and definition will be key for anybody wanting to make the most out of the upper body pressing power.
However, there are many different ways to achieve this end. You could stick with calisthenics and plyometrics, relying on explosive push up and dip variations to build your chest. You could hit the weights room and bench triple your body weight. You could box, relying on explosive punches against a heavy bag for good-quality conditioning.
All of these work: they are all a good idea.
However, if you want a user-friendly workout that anybody can make the most of, with constant time under tension through every single rep, that improves your mind-muscle connection through full ranges of motion for your pecs, delts and triceps, and a great deal of stability, keeping you safe and comfortable throughout, you should give cables a go.
Their inbuilt weight stacks and variable cable heights mean that adjustments are easy and quick to make. Everything you need is in one place, you don’t need to go searching out extra plates, you don’t really need any special training, and you don’t really need to worry all that much about form.
The chest is a large, though quite simple, muscle group. Though chest training also includes working accessory muscles like the anterior deltoids and triceps, and antagonist muscles like the biceps and the muscles of the upper- and mid- back, we’ll focus on the pectorals. Whilst large barbell and dumbbell movements are great for spreading trauma through wider areas, a part of the charm of cable chest training is that it really allows you to zone in on the pectorals, maintaining mind-muscle connection to a higher degree and allowing for a much better pump than other forms of training permit.
As we recently wrote, in our discussion on chest training in the context of CrossFit:
The chest is made up of two fundamental areas- the sternal and clavicular heads. Each will benefit from a mixture of indirect, compound training and direct, specific training. Isolation exercises should accompany core, compound exercises in order to maximise gains in the form of both hypertrophy and strength. Though big compound movements will form the majority of the trauma that will lead to overload, smaller, isolation work will be what hits the two sternal and clavicular heads directly to finish them off.
Alongside the improved mind-muscle connection and pump that can be elicited by cables, another great advantage is their versatility, as we will see below. You can use the same piece of equipment to set up large, compound movements like crossovers and pullovers as you can to set up small, isolation movements like cable flys.
In this way, you can bring the large-scale trauma needed to overload your whole chest section before isolating the sternal and clavicular heads, meaning a great leap in efficiency for your chest hypertrophy.
We will go into more detail on these exercises below.
As we noted in the same recent article on chest training as referenced above, what your regime looks like will depend on a number of factors- most notably your ability and your own personal goals.
These two factors should determine things like exercise selection, rep ranges, set numbers, intensity, frequency and variety. Luckily, cable machines can be adjusted to meet pretty much all of these requirements and variables.
For example, if you want to improve strength then you will want to focus on low-rep work. Each set will be short and heavy. For these, you will probably limit yourself to training only once or twice per week. Rest periods between workouts and sets themselves will want to be long.
When training heavy using a cable machine, obviously you will want to set the weight stack at a point at which you can complete, say, 2-6 reps per set (cables aren’t great at extreme weights, so realistically we will want you training in more like the 4-6 rep range). You will want a strong brace (see below) and a stable posture. Getting the handles moving in the first place will be hard but, once you’re into it, you will find that the constant tension going into your muscles will be intense: the full pressure will be on for the full range of motion.
Cables excel at the mid- to high- rep range, with lighter weights performed over sets of 8+ reps. Therefore, they are ideally suited to building mass: anybody seeking out hypertrophy in the gym should consider using them often. You can use them 2-4 times per week for each muscle group, keeping rests to a minimum. As above, the constant tension that cables deliver will be perfect for eliciting hypertrophy through a full range of motion.
These exercises are amongst the best cable-based, chest building movements going. If you want to add some variety to a pre-existing routine, consider swapping out one or two barbell or assistance exercises for anything from this list. For a full, hypertrophy-centred cable chest workout, read on- we’ll give you some strong examples at the end.
Cable presses are something akin to a chest press, though they are performed from a standing position with a cable in each hand. Focus on slow returns as you bring your hands back to the body after each set- allow yourself time to feel the movement in your muscles, building up your mind-muscle connection.
To perform a cable press:
Cable crossovers are similar to cable presses. However, they use much less weight and you keep your arms straight throughout, removing the pressing element. In this way, you will really be able to isolate the pecs.
To perform a cable crossover:
This will obviously be very similar to a standard cable press, but will use one arm at a time. This will help to zero in on mind-muscle connection and correct any muscular imbalances between your two arms.
To perform the unilateral cable press:
You will need a bench for this, as the name suggest. For this one, we’re going to be using cables to perform a near standard bench press. However, the constant tension involved in the cables will keep constant tension on the movement, meaning that your muscles will be straining against the same force through every point in their range of motion.
To perform the cable flat bench press:
This is like the flat bench press, except that it will put the pressure more into your upper chest, in the same way that an incline bench press would.
To perform an incline bench press:
Perform any of these chest workouts on chest day, as part of your upper body day, or simply as a way into resistance training. You will work your entire pressing muscle group (pecs, anterior delts and triceps) as well as some antagonist groups (posterior delts, biceps, upper back muscles) for balance.
This is straightforward, performed in straight sets, with 90-120 seconds rest between each. Every exercise included in the workout is also in the list above.
Complete all reps and sets of each exercise before moving on to the next.
This is a little more complicated, as it makes use of super sets, giant sets and exercises not on our list above, as we try to incorporate some extra muscle groups into our chest workout. It is also a much higher volume workout, with far more reps performed.
Perform all exercises in a group before resting and perform each group the specified number of times before moving on.
This is a circuit style workout designed to rip your muscles to pieces- figuratively, of course. Perform one exercise, move onto the next, and so on, until you have completed one set of everything. Then start at the beginning again. Repeat the full sequence 6 times- this is your workout.
It is hard work, high volume, and will work everything you need to build a strong upper torso.
Write using above, 3 different ones, 3 different emphases.
There are multiple advantages to using cable machines over free weights- and, admittedly, some downsides, too.
For example, cable machines are very easy to use. Beginners can walk into the gym for their first ever session and get a good, safe workout in on the cables, where they might otherwise have to spend weeks learning correct barbell patterns to elicit similar results in the weights room. They are also quicker and easier to set up and alter, saving you time from adjusting plates on a barbell.
Cables allow a fluid movement through the full range of motion to work any given muscle group, which, once again, is perfect for beginners looking to learn how their bodies should be moving.
In addition, it is easier to perform isolation work with a cable machine than it is with free weights. It is easier both to isolate a single muscle or muscle group in the first place, and easier to feel a pump and work mind-muscle connection with the slow, controlled movements that cables foster.
However, there are some downsides to these positives. In training, it’s often the case that if something is easier, it is less effective. That it true, here. Cable machines provide less stimulation to any given muscle group, and less of an adaptive effect, than free weights. They are good for assistance work, but if you want to pack on mass, you will likely need to use some kind of free weight movements in your routine.
In addition, isolation work should always be approached with care. You don’t want to make one individual muscle stronger than the muscles that surround it- make sure you’re working the full range of muscles in any area of the body. With this in mind, keep your assistance work varied, and put most of your effort into large, compound movements.
Also, free weights being hard to master are one of their many benefits. If you train just with cables, you will build muscle. However, you won’t learn the movement patterns and postural quirks that underpin true strength. Weight lifting is a skill- learning that skill will give your training longevity and variety, and will bring about more real life and athletic carryover as you learn how to move your body in a mechanically safe, efficient manner.
Though breathing and bracing is most commonly associated with powerlifting and large, compound, barbell movements performed in low, heavy rep ranges, it is equally important to maintaining good form in less-intense exercises like those performed on a cable machine.
We cannot finish a discussion on cable chest workouts without taking some time to run through your ability to breathe and brace.
What is your breathe and brace? To begin, let’s look at a familiar scenario.
Imagine that somebody can leg press 600kg, but they can only squat 160kg. They are using the same muscles in both exercises. Their glutes, quads and hamstrings are working together to support and push that weight.
You may recognise yourself, here. Most lifters will.
What is the difference between the two exercises, though? What could cause such a large discrepancy in power output?
Well, it’s not really a discrepancy in power output- at least, not fully so. It is a discrepancy in mechanics and stability.
The leg press is more mechanically stable than the squat. What this amounts to is saying that the thing failing your squats is not your leg strength, but your mechanical integrity. This is always going to happen: you will never find somebody who can squat more than they can leg press. But we can close this gap by increasing core, and thus mechanical, integrity.
This is what mastering the breathe and brace will do for you.
The breathe and brace will improve your core stability. Generally speaking, your core section has two functions. The first is ‘redirection’- the ability to redirect force through your body. Power generated in your lower body can only be redirected upwards through a strong and stable core, for instance.
Secondly, the core is responsible for ‘redistribution.’ It redistributes tension and load, enabling you to stabilise through your lifts. The stronger the core, the more stable the lift.
Training your chest with a cable machine will mean often standing up, bracing as you work the handles out in front of you. If you cannot breathe and brace properly, you will be setting yourself up to fail. You need to be able to ground your feet, pushing downwards and bringing that stability to bear through the lift, whilst keeping your torso solid and braced- redirecting force from your legs into your upper body, redistributing the force forwards rather than pushing your body backwards. If you follow the advice in this article, and perform the above workouts to a high standard, pushing yourself hard, you should be able to get the best possible chest workout using little more than a cable machine and your own body.