3 Cable Shoulder Workouts For Mass (Complete Guide)

3 Cable Shoulder Workouts For Mass (Complete Guide)

Cables can offer advantages for the shoulders that machines and free weights cannot give. 

With cable machines, you can manipulate the direction of the resistance and also maintain consistent tension throughout the range of motion.  This allows you to both isolate the shoulders to a greater extent and induce a larger stimulus for muscle growth. 

So what are good cable exercises for building shoulder mass?

  • Cable Lateral Raise
  • Underhand Cable Front Raise
  • Single Arm Leaning Lateral Raise
  • Single Arm Rear Delt Flyes
  • Half Kneeling Single Arm Cable Shoulder Press
  • Facepulls

In this article, I’ll describe each of these exercises in detail, but also why cable workouts for your shoulders are effective for building mass, how you should structure your shoulder cable workouts, and tips on using cables to stimulate greater muscle growth.

Are Shoulder Cable Workouts Effective For Building Mass?

Cable shoulder workouts are effective for building muscle mass for the following reasons: 

  • Cables can offer consistent tension throughout the range of motion
  • Cables can be set in the direction that best hits the muscle fibres
  • Cables can offer the safety of resistance machines
  • Cables can offer similar freedom of movement to free weights
  • Cables can target the front deltoid, side deltoid and rear deltoid muscles
  • Cables can increase the range of motion for common shoulder exercises

Cables Can Offer Consistent Tension Throughout the Range of Motion

Cables can give the advantage of creating constant tension throughout the muscle. This is because regardless of the position the cable handle is, the resistance is still pulling from the weight stack in the cable’s direction and against the muscle fibres.

cable

Whereas with free weights such as dumbbells, the resistance is always in the direction of gravity which is vertically down.

An example of this would be the lateral raise exercise. With a dumbbell, there is no resistance on the deltoid in the bottom position. With a cable machine, there is resistance on the deltoid in the bottom position.

Cables Can Be Set in the Direction That Best Hits the Muscle Fibres

Cables can be adjusted at different heights to achieve resistance going in specific directions. This will benefit the deltoids as you can set the cable to go in line with the direction of the muscle fibres.

For example, you can set the cables to stem from the bottom to perform lateral raises or shoulder presses to target the front and side deltoids. You can also set the cables to stem from higher up to target side and rear deltoids to perform exercises such as rear delt flyers.

Cables Can Offer the Safety of Resistance Machines

Cable machines can be used at a level of difficulty where if you were to push close to failure and you want to let go, there is a lower risk of injury compared to if you were to use a dumbbell.

This is useful as it means you can train harder and bring the muscles closer to failure with your sets to give it a higher stimulus. 

With dumbbells or barbells, there can be a higher risk of danger of pushing it close to failure as you may accidentally drop the weight on yourself or move in a bad way that injures you.

So why train close to failure?  Because metabolic stress, which is the act of taking a muscle at or near fatigue, has been shown to be one of the main drivers of muscle growth

Cables Can Offer Similar Freedom of Movement to Free Weights

If you train shoulders using machines, you are fixed in the range of motion of the machine, which means it might not suit your mobility or be too short in motion range. However, cables are more similar to “free weight movements”, where you have more control over the direction of load. 

This is good because it works around your mobility and can get more range of motion, which is beneficial for muscle mass. 

Another advantage is that cables put more demand on stability during the exercise similar to when you train with dumbbells or barbells. This may be better for shoulder health as you engage the smaller muscles that help stabilize your shoulder joint.

Cables Can Target the Front Deltoid, Side Deltoid and Rear Deltoid Muscles

For cable exercises to be effective for building shoulder mass, it needs to be able to target all of the deltoid muscles. As cables are very versatile, you can easily set them to do exercises that target both the front, side and rear deltoids.

You can perform exercises such as shoulder presses, which target the front deltoids, lateral raises, which target the side deltoids, and rear delt flys that target the rear deltoids.  Not many single pieces of gym equipment have the ability to target each area of the shoulder.  

Related Article: 18 Rear Delt Workouts (Barbell, Dumbbell, Cable, Machine)

Cables Can Increase the Range of Motion for Common Shoulder Exercises

Cable machine handles that you hold onto are smaller than bulky dumbbells. This means that you can perform similar exercises with more range of motion.

For example, if you use dumbbells for the shoulder press exercise, your range of motion stops when the dumbbells touch your shoulders, which is normally around the mid-face level. Whereas with cable handles, you can bring the handles to lower down to lower neck level.

This will allow the cables to be in the optimum position to stretch the muscle fibers and therefore maximize the range of motion, which is important for maximizing the hypertrophy stimulus.

Research has shown that full range of motion is more effective than partial range of motion for muscle strength and hypertrophy.

4 Best Cable Shoulder Exercises 

Cable Lateral Raise

The cable lateral raise is a great way to isolate the side deltoid. The use of the cable machine allows the side deltoid to feel constant tension throughout starting from the bottom position.

Dumbbells would provide little tension at the bottom during lateral raises, which is why many people prefer doing this exercise with cables.

How To Do It

  • Set the cable handle to stem from the bottom of the machine
  • Stand with your feet about hip widths apart and hold onto the cable handles from the opposite side to the cables
  • Keep a soft bend in the elbows and maintain this bend
  • Pull against the cables and raise the handles to your sides to about shoulder level with your palms facing the floor, then return back down until your arms reach the side of your body

Pro-Tip

  • You can choose to use an underhand grip on the cable handles and you can target your front deltoids a little more. Some may also find this grip more comfortable for their shoulders if they are naturally predisposed to shoulder injuries.

Underhand Cable Front Raises

The underhand cable front raise is great at targeting the front deltoids. You can use a straight bar handle or a cable handle that has a slight angle to it like an EZ barbell.

How To Do It

  • Set the cable handle to stem from the bottom of the machine
  • Stand with your feet about hip widths apart and you can face towards or away from the cable
  • Stand away from the barbell enough that there is constant tension from the bottom position of the exercise
  • Keeping your body steady and core tight, raise the handle up to shoulder level then return it back down to the bottom position

Pro-Tip

  • Some people find it somewhat uncomfortable with a completely straight bar so you can use a handle that is shaped more like a W.
  • You might find it a bit more comfortable on your elbows if you keep a constant soft bend in them throughout the movement.

Single Arm Leaning Lateral Raise

The single-arm leaning lateral raise is a great way to isolate the side deltoid one arm at a time with a maximal range of motion.

Performing it one arm at a time is useful for you to concentrate your efforts to make sure you minimize asymmetries. Adding the lean to the exercise will help you gain slightly more range of motion.

How To Do It

  • Set the cable handle to stem from the bottom of the machine
  • Stand in a staggered stance so that the cable handle is between your legs
  • Hold onto the side of the machine and lean away from the machine
  • Use a single-arm handle and raise the cable as high and far away as possible

Pro-Tip

  • Control the upward motion and do not lift too explosively, this will help make sure you are not recruiting other muscles to execute the movement.
  • You may also want to have the external cue of raising away from the machine as opposed to upwards toward the ceiling, this will help you focus more on the deltoids as opposed to the upper trapezius muscles.

Single Arm Rear Delt Flyes

The single-arm rear delt flyes is a good way to hit the rear delts one arm at a time with a good stretch across those muscles.

Performing it one arm at a time is better than doing two arms simultaneously because your arms will not have to cross over and under and move asymmetrically. Also, by doing it one arm at a time, you will not have one arm block the range of motion of the other arm so you can stretch your arm further across to the other side.

How To Do It

  • Set the cable handle to stem from the bottom of the machine
  • Stand in a bent-over position with your back parallel to the floor
  • Hold onto the side of the machine with your arm closest to the machine and keep it straight
  • Allow your arm to stretch towards where the cable stems from, and pull out and away 

Pro-Tip

  • Try to stay as far away from where the cable stems from so that you can maximize the stretch across your rear delts at the start position. This will increase the muscle length that you are working through, which increases your hypertrophy stimulus
  • You may also want to have the external cue of raising away from the machine as opposed to upwards toward the ceiling, this will help you focus more on the deltoids as opposed to the mid-back muscles.

Half Kneeling Single Arm Cable Shoulder Press

The half-kneeling single-arm cable shoulder press exercise is a great shoulder pressing variation that maximizes the range of motion on your front deltoids.

This is a multi-joint compound movement that also involves other muscles such as your triceps and serratus, which is important for maintaining shoulder health for shoulder training.

How To Do It

  • Set the cable handle to stem from the bottom of the machine
  • Position yourself in a half-kneeling or split stane position. If you are training your right shoulder first, your left leg goes forward and your right knee is on the floor
  • Ensure that your back is flat and core muscles engaged to stabilize your posture during the exercise
  • Keep the hand of your passive arm by your hip
  • Position your body so you face away from where the cable stems from
  • Use a single hand cable handle and hold it right in front of your shoulder with the cable leading from the outside of your arm
  • Use a neutral grip so that your thumb points back towards you, then press upwards and away

Pro-Tip

  • Try to start with the handle as low as you can go to stretch your front deltoid without letting your shoulder joint roll forward
  • Try to think about exhaling when you press and focusing on reaching away as this engages your serratus anterior, which is important for good shoulder mobility.

Face Pulls

These are a really popular shoulder exercise among powerlifters and it targets your rear delts, side delts and external rotators. This is because it helps keep their shoulders healthier as they bench press so much in their training.

How To Do It

  • Set the cable handle to stem from mid chest level
  • Stand up straight and use a rope handle
  • Use an overhand grip on the rope handle
  • Stand far away from the cable so that you feel a stretch in your shoulder muscles
  • Pull the rope handle towards your face with your hands outside of your ears, then return the rope back

Pro Tip

  • Keep your elbows high and stop at the range of motion that feels most comfortable for you. 
  • Using an overhand grip with your thumbs pointing away might make it easier to pull, but pointing your thumbs back might be less stressful on the shoulder joint.

3 Muscle-Building Cable Shoulder Workouts

These are 3 workouts that you can put into your program.  

If you’re not already training shoulders 3 times per week, then I would only perform two of these workouts (workouts #1 and workout #2). After 6-8 weeks of training shoulders with 2X/week frequency, you could try 3-4 weeks of training shoulders 3X/week.  

After that, you would want to deload or focus on other body parts.   

Cable Shoulder Workout For Mass #1 

  • Warm Up
  • Cable Lateral Raise – 3 sets 15 reps
  • Underhand Cable Front Raise – 3 sets 12 reps
  • Face Pulls – 3 sets 10 reps

Cable Shoulder Workout For Mass #2 

  • Warm Up
  • Single Arm Leaning Lateral Raise – 4 sets 15 reps
  • Single Arm Rear Delt Flyes – 4 sets 12 reps
  • Half Kneeling Single Arm Cable Shoulder Press – 4 sets of 10 reps

Cable Shoulder Workout For Mass #3 

  • Warm Up
  • Half Kneeling Single Arm Cable Shoulder Press – 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Cable Lateral Raise – 3 sets 8 reps
    Supersetted with
    Face Pulls- 3 sets 8 reps
  • Single Arm Leaning Lateral Raise – 3 sets 10 reps
    Supersetted with
    Single Arm Rear Delt Flyes – 3 sets 10 reps

4 Tips For Using Cables To Grow Your Shoulders 

Standing Cable Straight Bar Curls

Here are 4 ways you can use cable machine exercises to really enhance your shoulder training:

  • Use a long tempo eccentric
  • Control the execution
  • Use drop sets
  • Use supersets and triple sets

Use a Long Tempo Eccentric

Using a long tempo eccentric during a repetition means increasing the time under tension and slowing down the portion of the repetition when the muscle is lengthening. For shoulder exercises, it is typically during the lowering phase.

This serves to increase the stimulus on the muscle, which can increase the stimulus for hypertrophy. Research shows that a slow eccentric portion and a fast concentric portion, which is the muscle shortening phase, is more effective for building muscle.

Repetitions should ideally last no longer than 8 seconds each, so you should take between 3 to 6 seconds on the way down as a rule of thumb.

Interested in learning more about eccentric training, check out our guides: 

Control the Execution

What we want to do is to maximize how much of our shoulder muscles we use during the exercise and minimize the use of all the other muscles.

It is important to use a fast muscle contraction during our repetitions, but we need to make sure that we do not sacrifice our technique in order to complete repetitions. Sacrificing our technique will increase risk of injury and reduce the stimulus on our muscles.

Use Drop Sets

A really useful part of using cable machines is that we can very quickly adjust the load that we are using when we are training. For this reason, we can benefit from using drop sets with these exercises where immediately after completing a set at a certain load, we drop down the weight by a certain amount and attempt to complete some more. 

A good protocol is to use 2 drop sets after a main set, and drop the load by 10% to 20%  or 1 to 2 machine load increments every time. Minimal or no rest is taken during drop sets, and the load should be switched as quickly as possible.

Performing drop sets can allow us to perform more repetitions to increase our overall stress on the muscles.

Use Supersets and Triple Sets

Many of the cable exercises for shoulders are isolation exercises, which make it really easy for anyone to combine them into supersets or triple sets. These are when sets for 2 or 3 exercises are performed back to back with no rest.

Using supersets and triples sets are a time efficient way to train the shoulders whilst trying to give as much of an equal amount of attention to the different deltoid muscle groups of the shoulders.

Other Shoulder Training Resources


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com