Effective back training should incorporate a variety of exercises and target all of the major back muscles.
Back training often revolves around free weights and plate-loaded machines, and cables are often neglected. However, cables are an incredibly versatile and useful piece of equipment to train your back.
So, what are the 10 best cable back exercises for muscle mass?
- Wide-Grip Cable Row
- Single-Arm Cable Row
- Wide-Grip Cable Pulldown
- Single-Arm Cable Pulldown
- Chest-Supported Cable Row
- Straight-Arm Cable Pulldown
- Lying Cable Pullover
- Cable Shrugs
- Cable Face Pull
- Prone Cable Row
By the end of this article, you will understand how to effectively use each of these exercises to help train your back.
The Goal of Back Exercises With Cables
The goal of back exercises with cables should be to target the entirety of your back.
The back is a group of muscles with varying functions, including the:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Rear Deltoids
The latissimus dorsi (or lats, for short) is the large muscle group that runs along the outside of the mid to lower back. It’s the largest muscle in the back and aids in the movement of the shoulder joint and the straightening, bending, or twisting of the back.
Trapezius and Rhomboids
The trapezius (or traps, for short) and rhomboid muscles are located in the upper back. The trapezius runs along the back of the neck and shoulders and the rhomboids are located near the center of the upper back.
The traps help you maintain an upright posture and move your head while the rhomboids help hold the shoulder blades to the rib cage and enable you to draw your shoulder blades down and back.
The rear deltoids are the muscles at the back of the shoulders and upper arms. They enable you to move your arm out and back.
The biceps are a group of two muscles located at the front of the arm that enable you to bend your arm. They aren’t a primary muscle group worked in row movements, but they do provide assistance to the other muscles and are engaged as you bend your arms.
How to Effectively Train the Back with Cables
To fully train the back, you will need to incorporate a mixture of horizontal and vertical pulling movements (i.e. seated cable rows and cable upright rows, respectively), unilateral (single-arm), and bilateral (using both sides of the body at the same time) movements, and train through a variety of rep ranges.
The main benefit of cables is their versatility and freedom of movement, which allows you to position yourself and work through ranges of motion that are far easier to achieve than with machines or free weights alone.
Wondering how much training you actually need for your back? Check out my article Are Rows And Pull Ups Enough For Back And Biceps? to find out.
10 Best Cable Back Exercises
1. Wide-Grip Cable Row
Wide-grip rows are a staple in so many programs, and that should not change just because you are using cables. The wide-grip cable row targets more of the lats than other cable row variations, making it an excellent option for anyone looking to add size or strength to the lats.
How To Do It
- Set a wide straight bar attachment to the bottom of a cable stack and sit in front of the stack holding the bar with a pronated (palms facing down) grip about 1.5x shoulder width. Place your feet against the cable stack to support yourself.
- Lean back so that your torso is at 90 degrees to the floor and allow your arms to remain fully extended in front of you.
- From here, row the bar towards your lower ribs by driving your elbows back. Aim to keep a 30-45 degree angle between your upper arm and torso.
- Once the bar reaches your torso, control the load back to the starting position. Keep your torso position consistent throughout the set.
- Equal range of motion on each side. As you are using an attachment that has you rowing with both arms equally, it stops any differences in the range of motion from side to side.
- Easily adjusted to suit your goals. A huge benefit of cable rows overall is the freedom of movement and their versatility. Looking to train your upper back more? Row higher towards your chest and flare your elbows. Looking to target the mid-back and lats more? Row into your stomach and keep the elbows closer to your sides.
- You may need more load. For more experienced lifters, some cable stacks may not have enough weight for bilateral rowing variations. A solution here would be rowing unilaterally (one arm at a time) or using more challenging variations such as paused or tempo rows.
As you row, make sure to keep your shoulders down and back. Doing this increases lat activation and ensures you’re hitting the target muscle correctly. If you shrug your shoulders up, you’ll no longer be working the lats as effectively.
Not sure which cable attachment you should be using for cable rows? Check out What Attachment To Use For Cable Rows? (5 Options).
2. Single-Arm Cable Row
Single-arm cable rows are one of my favorite cable exercises. The unilateral aspect is hugely beneficial for training each side independently because it helps ensure that you’re training each side evenly without your dominant side overcompensating for the weaker one.
The single-arm cable row works the lats, rhomboids, traps, rear delts, and biceps to a small degree.
How To Do It
- Set a single-arm attachment to the bottom of a cable stack (I like a D-handle) and sit in front of the stack holding the handle with a neutral gip. Place your feet against the cable stack to support yourself.
- Lean back so that your torso is at 90 degrees to the floor and allow your arm to remain fully extended in front of you.
- From here, row your elbow back and down while keeping it close to the side of your torso.
- Once your upper arm is in line with your torso, control the load back to the starting position. Keep your torso position consistent throughout the set.
- Allow you to train unilaterally. Single-arm training allows you to develop the strength and size of each side independently. This can help reduce the chances of muscle imbalances or may even highlight pre-existing imbalances in strength.
- Uneven range of motion. The main con of unilateral exercises, where each side is worked independently, is using an inconsistent range of motion. This is where standardizing form is key, having a set and consistent start and end to each rep.
You’ll likely find that you can use more weight or do more reps on your dominant side. To make sure you’re working both sides evenly, perform your sets with your non-dominant side first, and only use a weight with which you can complete all reps in your program on your non-dominant side.
This will ensure you’re not making your dominant side even stronger by lifting more weight or doing more reps on that side.
3. Wide-Grip Cable Pulldown
Vertical pulling is a fundamental part of effective back training, and wide grip pulldowns are one of my favorites. Like other wide grip row variations, the wide-grip cable pulldown engages the lats more effectively. It also works the rhomboids and, to a lesser extent, the biceps.
How To Do It
- Set a wide straight bar attachment to the top of a cable stack. Grip the bar about 1.5x shoulder width, holding the bar with a pronated (palms facing down) grip.
- Sit down on the floor, place your feet against the cable stack to support yourself, and lean forward slightly.
- From here, pull the bar towards your chin as vertically as you can, tracking your elbows down in line with your torso.
- Once the bar reaches your chin, control the load back to the starting position. Keep your torso position consistent throughout the set.
- Targets the lats with less mid or upper back involvement. Vertical pulling movements isolate the latissimus dorsi far more compared to horizontal pulling movements.
- Great for building strength towards pull-ups. For those lifters that cannot yet complete multiple reps of pull-ups, wide grip pulldowns are great for building the strength required.
- You may need more load. For more experienced lifters, some cable stacks may not have enough weight for bilateral variations. To work around this, you could do unilateral (one arm at a time) rows or try more challenging variations such as paused or tempo reps.
You may see people in the gym doing behind-the-neck lat pulldowns in an effort to work the back muscles at different angles. However, I strongly recommend avoiding this movement.
Behind-the-neck lat pulldowns have been shown to be less effective than pulling the bar in front of you. You also risk injuring your shoulders if you’re not careful because behind-the-neck lat pulldowns put more stress on the shoulder joint and rotator cuff.
Always pull the bar to the front of your body, and don’t pull it to any spot lower than your chest to avoid shoulder discomfort.
Looking for an alternative option to lat pulldowns? Check out my favorite lat pulldown alternatives you can do with dumbbells, cables, and resistance bands.
4. Single-Arm Cable Pulldown
Another staple exercise in my programs is the single-arm pulldown. I find lifters often manage to stay more consistent and more vertical in their range of motion compared to bilateral movements due to not having to work around the fixed bar.
The single-arm cable pulldown works the lats, traps, rhomboids, and rear delts as well as the biceps.
How To Do It
- Set a D-handle attachment to the top of a cable stack. Hold this with a neutral or supinated (palm facing upwards) grip – use whichever allows you to feel your lats more during each rep.
- Sit down on the floor and place your feet against the cable stack to support yourself. Lean forward slightly.
- From here, pull your elbow down in line with your torso until your elbow reaches your side.
- Control the load back to the starting position, fully extending your arm and allowing a stretch of your lats. Keep your torso position consistent throughout the set.
- Freedom of movement. Using a D-handle compared to a straight bar allows for more freedom of movement. Lifters can pull more vertically due to not having to get their head out of the way of the bar and can track their elbows more naturally.
- Allow you to train unilaterally. Because single-arm movements work one side of the body at a time, it helps reduce the chances of developing muscle imbalances. It can even highlight pre-existing strength imbalances that you weren’t aware of previously.
- People often cheat. It’s easy to lean back with these and treat them like a single-arm row in pursuit of higher loading. Keep your torso angle consistent and pull as vertically as you can.
You may not want to do single-sided work to avoid spending too much time in the gym. But the benefit of doing unilateral work is that one side is resting while the other is working, so you can theoretically do 3-4 sets of single-arm cable pulldowns in the same amount of time (or maybe even less) than it takes you to do bilateral pulldowns.
After you do one set on each side, you’d then start over right away with whichever arm you trained first instead of taking a break. Not only will this save you time but it can also help you burn more calories if you’re trying to lose body fat.
Still not quite feeling your lats in your vertical pulls? Our article How To Activate Your Lats More During Pull-Ups (5 Tips) will be able to help you.
5. Chest-Supported Cable Row
Chest-supported rows are a great option for after deadlifts where you may not want to further load your lower back.
They are also useful for those with tendencies to cheat their rowing movements by using a lot of upper body momentum, as the chest support makes these harder to cheat.
The chest-supported cable row works the lats, traps, rhomboids, and biceps.
How To Do It
- Set a straight bar to the bottom of the cable stack and place an adjustable bench 2-3 feet away from the stack. Set the bench to a 45-degree incline.
- Grip the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing down) around 1-1.5x shoulder-width apart, walk around the bench, and sit on it facing the bench.
- Starting with your arms fully extended, row the bar towards your sternum, keeping your upper arm at a 30- to 45-degree angle to your torso.
- Row until you make contact with the underside of the bench and control the load back to the start position.
- Sitting with your chest against a bench prevents cheating. You cannot use torso momentum or leg drive to cheat the movement. This ensures all the loading and movement are controlled by your back.
- Rowing to the bench standardizes the range of motion. Always pulling to touch the underside of the bench gives you a consistent reference point for the range of motion of each rep.
- Smaller lifters may find the range of motion too short. Pulling until the bar reaches the underside of the bench may actually limit the range of motion for some lifters compared to a normal row. A solution for this would be to perform them unilaterally or with a cambered bar-style attachment.
If you’re looking to add more variety to the chest-supported cable row, add an isometric hold. This means pausing once the bar is at the underside of the bench for an extended period.
Isometric holds recruit more muscle fibers, leading to greater hypertrophy gains, and help you develop a greater mind-muscle connection so you can really feel the targeted muscles working.
My favorite way to do them is to utilize a 1:1 ratio of the number of reps you do to the length of the pause. For example, if you’re doing sets of 12, you’d pause for 12 seconds at the end of each set.
You can also add 3-4 second iso holds every 3-4 reps for the duration of your set.
Just make sure that you’re not resting the bar against the underside of the bench too much, as that will take some load off your muscles and make the pause less effective.
Chest-supported cable rows are a fantastic option for deadlift day. Check out our article What Else Should I Do On Deadlift Day? (5 Examples) for more insight.
6. Straight-Arm Cable Pulldown
These are one of my favorite exercises for training the lats, and I think they are a useful tool for those who often have trouble engaging their lats in other exercises like pull-ups.
How To Do It
- Set a rope or straight bar attachment to the top of a cable stack and take a pronated grip.
- Step back 2-3 steps and lean forward to a 45-degree torso angle, keeping your arms extended overhead.
- Keeping your arms straight, pull the rope/bar down towards your hips – I like to think about driving my wrists to my pockets.
- Once you reach your hips, control the load back until your arms are extended overhead again.
- Easier to target the lats than other variations. I find this a great exercise for those that struggle to feel their lats in other exercises as it reduces the contribution from the other muscles in the back.
- Hard to cheat. There is no easy way to cheat this exercise. Therefore, execution typically stays more consistent and keeps the load in the lats.
- Progressions can be harder week to week. Progressing load on these will not be as frequent as other movements. Chasing rep or set progressions is more practical.
To increase your range of motion, you can do this movement with two rope attachments (one in each hand) instead of one. Being able to move your muscles through a greater range of motion means more muscle fibers are stimulated, which can produce greater hypertrophy gains.
7. Lying Cable Pullover
Similar to the straight arm pulldown, the cable pullover is another great option for isolating the lats. It’s more effective than a dumbbell pullover because it keeps the lats in a constant state of tension.
How To Do It
- Set a rope at the bottom of a cable stack, with a flat bench 2-3 feet away from the stack.
- Lie with your back on the bench with your head closest to the cable machine and grip the rope with a neutral grip – it may be easier to have someone pass you the rope.
- Starting with your arms overhead so your biceps are close to your ears, or as far back as your shoulder mobility allows while still feeling tension in your lats, pull the rope towards your eyeline while keeping your arms straight.
- Pull until you reach your eyeline and potentially until your arms are over your chest – stop pulling if you feel the load shift from your lats to other muscle groups.
- From here, lower the load back overhead while keeping control of the movement.
- Great for training the lats with less mid or upper back involvement. The lat pullover isolates the latissimus dorsi far more compared to many of the other exercises discussed in this article.
- Heavily reliant on shoulder mobility. Those with limited shoulder mobility or pre-existing shoulder issues may struggle to perform this movement through a full range of motion.
- You cannot use much weight. The range of motion and positions of the lat pullover limit the amount of load you can use. Those with strength-related goals may be better off choosing exercises that allow more load.
This movement can easily turn into more of a triceps movement if you’re not careful. You may have an urge to bend your elbows, but doing this will take the emphasis off the lats and put more of it into the triceps. Keep your arms straight (though not fully locked out) throughout the entire movement to ensure the focus remains on the lats.
If you have limited shoulder mobility, check out Front Squat Mobility: 17 Must-Do Exercises. Many of the mobility drills in this article can help you improve your shoulder mobility.
8. Cable Shrugs
The upper traps are often neglected when training your back. Shrugs are useful for filling this gap, and doing shrugs with cables keeps the muscles in a constant state of tension. This forces them to work harder and is beneficial for muscle building.
How To Do It
- Set a straight bar attachment at the bottom of a cable stack, and take a grip just outside shoulder-width apart.
- Stand straight up, holding the bar in front of you against your legs.
- Shrug the bar upwards by elevating your shoulders up and back. Keep your arms fully extended throughout the movement.
- Hold a pause at the top of the movement and control the load back down.
- Directly trains the upper traps. This is the only exercise on this list that directly targets the upper traps, which are often neglected.
- You may need more load. For more experienced lifters, some cable stacks may not have enough weight for normal shrugs. A solution here would be increasing the amount of time you pause at the top or performing the movement with a wider grip.
Cable shrugs are excellent for building the upper traps, but they don’t target the middle traps very effectively.
If you want to work more of the middle traps, face away from the cable stack and hold the bar attachment behind your back. When your arms are behind you, you have less of a tendency to roll your shoulders forward, which prevents the emphasis from being placed on the upper traps.
9. Cable Face Pull
Cable face pulls are one of my favorites for training the upper back and rear delts. They’re an excellent movement for overall shoulder health because they help increase muscular stability in the upper body. They can also help improve your posture.
How To Do It
- Set a rope at the top of a cable stack and take a pronated (palms facing downwards) grip. Take a couple of steps back from the cable machine and keep your arms fully extended out in front of your face.
- Pull the rope towards your eyeline by driving your elbows out at a near 90-degree angle. This keeps the loading in the target muscles (the rear delts and traps) rather than acting like a normal row variation (which would work more of the lats and rhomboids).
- Hold a brief pause at this end range of motion before controlling the load back until your arms are fully extended again.
- Targets the rear delts more than other movements. The rear delts are another often-neglected muscle group. The face pull helps you to fill that gap in many traditional programs.
- Load progressions can be harder. Due to the lesser load used, jumps in load can take longer. This is where I recommend aiming for rep and set progressions and incorporating methods such as drop sets (also called back-off sets) to increase the intensity.
It’s easy to use momentum, arch your back, or lean too far back when doing cable face pulls. To avoid these issues, you can do them in a half-kneeling position. This will remove the temptation to rock back and forth as you execute the movement, and you get the added benefit of some core work since your core will have to work harder to stabilize you.
10. Prone Cable Row
Prone cable rows, despite their name, are actually a vertical pulling movement. They’re similar to the chest-supported cable row but can be performed without using a bench.
The word “prone” refers to being in a facedown position. By doing cable rows this way, you remove your ability to cheat because you can’t use momentum to lift. This enables you to target the upper back muscles more effectively.
How To Do It
- Set a D-handle at the bottom of a cable stack and get on your hands and knees in front of it.
- Grip the D-handle with one hand while supporting yourself with the other. Make sure the hand on the floor is directly below your shoulder.
- Pull the load towards you by driving your elbow down and back towards your hip until your elbow reaches your torso.
- From here, control the load back to the start position, allowing a full stretch of the lat.
- Targets the lats more by allowing a more vertical pulling motion. This variation allows you to angle your torso more in line with the angle of the pull and therefore keep more load going through your lats.
- You may need more load. For more experienced lifters, some cable stacks may not have enough weight. I find the stability and angle of these put me in a stronger position than single-arm pulldowns. I often avoid these issues by using higher rep ranges.
Since this movement is difficult to overload, you can also incorporate tempo work to make it more challenging. I recommend taking a 3-second count to pull the cable toward your hip, pausing for 1 second, then taking another 3-second count to return the cable to the starting position.
Not only will this help teach you how to maintain bodily control in any pulling exercise you do, but it will also help you grow your back muscles by increasing the amount of time they are under stress.
Related Article: 8 Best Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives (With Pictures)
The Best Cable Back Workouts For Muscle Mass
These two workouts will give an example of how you can set up each of the exercises on this list to effectively train your back while just using cables.
The primary considerations for these should be including exercises that train different muscles of the back and utilize differing ranges of motion and varying rep ranges.
Effective back training will prioritize progressions in load, reps, or sets over time and different ranges of motion. An even number of vertical and horizontal pulling movements should be included in each workout.
Cable Back Workout #1
- Wide-Grip Cable Row – 4 Sets of 6-8 Reps – Leave 1-2 reps in reserve for each set and increase load when you hit 8 reps on each set.
- Cable Shrugs – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Leave 1-0 reps in reserve and hold a pause at the top of each rep.
- Single-Arm Cable Pulldown – 2 Sets of 8-10 Reps – Leave 2-3 reps in reserve on each set and progress load for the second set if you hit 10 reps on the first.
- Cable Pullover – 2 Sets of 12-15 Reps – Leave 2-3 reps in reserve for each set and aim for 15 reps on each set.
- Cable Face Pull – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps + 1 Drop Set – Leave 1-2 reps in reserve on each set and increase load for the following sets if you hit 12 reps on any set. Perform a drop set to failure after the third set with 70% of the load.
Cable Back Workout #2
- Wide-Grip Cable Pulldown – 1 Set of 10 Reps + 3 Repeat Sets – Perform a set of 10 with 1-2 reps in reserve, then perform three more sets with the same load, leaving 1-2 reps in reserve each set, regardless of rep count. Aim to progress loading each week for 4-6 weeks.
- Chest-Supported Cable Row – 3 Sets of 8-10 Reps – Perform each set 1-2 reps from failure. Progress load when you hit 10 reps across all 3 sets.
- Single-Arm Cable Row – 2 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Perform each set 2-3 reps from failure.
- Cable Prone Row – 3 Sets of 12-15 Reps – Push each set 0-1 rep from failure. Increase load when you hit 15 reps per set.
- Straight-Arm Cable Pulldown – 1 Set of 20 Reps + 2 Drop Sets to failure – Perform a set of 20 reps with 1-2 reps in reserve, then perform two sets to failure with 75% and 50% of the initial loading.
Additional Cable Machine Workouts
- 12 Best Cable Crossover Alternatives (With Pictures)
- 11 Best Cable Crunch Alternatives (With Pictures)
- 3 Cable Glute Workouts For Mass (Complete Guide)
- 3 Cable Shoulder Workouts For Mass (Complete Guide)
- 15 Best Seated Row Alternatives (With Pictures)
- 18 Best Upper Body Pull Exercises
Cables are an incredibly versatile and effective way to train the muscles of the back.
Back training should look to incorporate a variety of horizontal and vertical pulling movements to train the many muscle groups that make up the back musculature.
As well, incorporating a variety of rep ranges will not only make your training more effective but also more engaging.
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.