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Training with Cables: Their Big Advantage Over Free Weights


If you’re looking to target a muscle from different angles, don’t think cables are similar to free weights. Their unique setup alters gravity!

Ever drop a plate and narrowly avoid a disastrous injury to your foot? There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but it’s not the one I want to point out today. Instead, let’s venture over to the cable apparatus and attach a D-handle to the lower pulley. Pull the cable out and now let it go. It snaps back toward the lower pulley as the plates crash down on the weight stack.

None of this seems particularly earth-shattering, but I want to point out a notable difference: Gravity always pulls free weights toward the floor (watch your feet!), whereas with cables, the pull always comes from the angle at which the pulley is set. That is, gravity is in effect coming from the side! Sure, the weight stack goes straight down, but the position of the pulley determines the angle of pull on your muscles in relation to your body position next to—or away from—the cable, whatever exercise you’re doing. It can come from a high angle, low angle, or moderate angle, or any number of angles in between, which is altogether different from what you get with free weights when the direction of the pull always comes from the same direction.

Remember, the idea of building the fullest muscle possible is to hit it from different angles, which is why you do bench presses from flat bench, incline, and decline positions. In each movement, you press directly upward against gravity, but it’s the angle of the bench that enables you to manipulate the how the pectoralis is targeted.

So let’s see how this concept works in practice. When you do a standing barbell or dumbbell curl, the weight pulls directly downward—nothing novel here. What gets interesting is that many lifters pull their elbows forward a bit during execution, which means that in the top position their hands are stacked directly over their elbows, which actually takes tension off the biceps, providing a short break in the rep. In fact, you do see a lot of guys who use this stacked position to momentarily relax and take a breath.

Now attach a bar (with a rotating sleeve so it doesn’t slide in your hands) to a lower pulley. Stand a foot back and curl that bar to the exact same position as you did with the barbell. Not only has the angle of pull changed (sure, it’s not too dramatic, but it is a novel angle of stimulus), but the rest stop at the top is gone. You still have tension on the biceps because you’re pulling at an angle! That, in fact, is one benefit of cables over free weights: You have constant tension throughout the range of motion, and rest stops like the one mentioned are eliminated. That allows you to keep tension on the target muscle longer!

One of the more obvious ways you can change pulley positions is when doing cable crossovers from the lower pulley (which better targets the upper pecs) and the upper pulley (lower pecs). But don’t think you’re limited to just those two pulley positions because each in between slightly alters the training stimulus.

The point is, start using the multiple pulley positions to introduce a new training stimulus on other cable exercises you do. They no longer become the same movement you did with free weights and can offer slight changes in the muscle-recruitment pattern, which is essential for building a muscle to its fullest potential. And your feet will love you, too.


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