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Most bodybuilders supplement their bench press workouts with a few sets of cable crossovers. After all, what other chest exercise allows you to check out your reflection as you crank out the reps?!

However, the cable crossover is just one of a long list of cable machine exercises you can do for your chest. In this article, we reveal the 12 best cable exercises for bigger pecs.

Why Use Cables at All?

Bodybuilders mostly agree that the best way to build muscle mass and strength is to focus on compound, freeweight exercises. For the chest, that means barbell and dumbbell bench presses – flat, incline, and decline.

However, while these exercises are undoubtedly effective, they can lose some of their potency if that’s all you ever do. Also, compound chest exercises involve your triceps, and it’s not uncommon for those arm muscles to fail before your pecs.

Dumbbell flyes are an excellent supplementary chest exercise, but they have limitations too. With dumbbell flyes, there is lots of tension on your pecs when your arms are apart but, as your arms come back together, that muscle tension all but vanishes. Dumbbell flyes are basically half an exercise!

Cables put your muscles under constant tension. This makes them very effective for triggering hypertrophy. In addition, you can adjust your body position and the angle of your arms to target specific areas of your chest, which can be helpful for sculpting picture-perfect pecs.

Using cables, it’s also possible to isolate your chest. Your anterior deltoids and other muscles are still involved but to a much lesser degree. With cables, you can really focus on your pecs, one side at a time if you wish, and that’s a great way to work your chest even harder.

So, if you are serious about building the best possible chest, combine freeweights with cable exercises for even better results.

THAT’S why you need to add cable exercises to your chest workouts!

Chest Anatomy 101

While you don’t need a degree in functional anatomy to build a bigger chest with cables, knowing a little about how your pecs and their associated muscles work may help you choose the best exercises for your goals.

Chest Anatomy
Chest Anatomy

Known as the pecs for short, the pectoralis major is a large, thick, fan-shaped muscle located on the upper part of your chest. Its name comes from the word pectus, which is the Latin word for breast.

This muscle makes up the bulk of your chest mass. The underlying muscle, pectoralis minor, is much thinner and doesn’t contribute much to your chest size.

The pectoralis major is a convergent muscle with three broad attachment sites that come together at a single insertion point.

It can be divided into two sections or heads – the clavicular or upper head and the sternal or lower head (1). The sternocostal head is also known as the abdominal head.

The functions of the pectoralis major are…

The Clavicular head:

  • Shoulder flexion
  • Horizontal adduction
  • Internal rotation

The Sternocostal head: 

  • Shoulder extension
  • Horizontal adduction
  • Internal rotation

The clavicular head of the pectoralis major, often just called the upper pecs, is more active during incline chest exercises. Conversely, the sternocostal head, or lower pecs, is more active during decline movements (2). Because of this, you must train your pecs from multiple angles to develop them fully.

Top Cable Machine Exercises for Bigger Pecs

Not sure how to build your pecs using cables instead of free-weights? Here are 12 of the most essential cable chest exercises! Use them in conjunction with barbell and dumbbell bench presses or as an alternative.

1. Standing cable press

Barbells and dumbbells aren’t the only way to do upper body pressing exercises. You could use a chest press machine, but that locked-in movement pattern may not be ideal for some exercisers. Using cables means you can customize the exercise to suit your needs, work your pecs hard, and get a free core workout, too.

Adjust the angle of your arms to hit different parts of your chest. Push upward to hit your upper pecs, downward to emphasize your lower pecs, or keep your arms horizontal to work your entire chest.

2. Seated cable press

If standing cable presses have a downside, it is that your core could limit the amount of weight you can lift. You may even find your body moving backward more than your hands travel forward! Fix that problem by doing seated cable presses. Like the standing version, you can adjust the angle of your arms to hit your upper, mid, or lower chest.

How to do it:

  1. Place an upright bench in the middle of a cable crossover machine. Sit on the bench with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Take a handle in each hand and raise them to shoulder height. Your elbows should be just below your shoulders.
  3. Press your arms forward and in so they come together in front of your chest.
  4. Bend your arms and get a stretch in your pecs.
  5. Continue for the desired number of reps.

3. Supine cable press

The supine cable press is a cable machine equivalent to dumbbell presses. You can do this exercise on a flat or incline bench press preferred. Pushing your arms forward and together creates an intense mid-rep contraction and should produce a satisfying pec pump and burn.

How to do it:

  1. Place your bench between two cable columns. Sit on the end of your bench and take a handle in each hand. Lie down and pull your hands into your shoulders.
  2. Press your arms up and together, so they meet above your chest.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat.

4. Stability ball cable press

Dragging a heavy bench in and out of a cable crossover machine is not always an option, especially in a busy gym. One solution is to use a stability ball. In addition to being more convenient, using a ball means your shoulders can move more naturally, making this variation more joint-friendly.

How to do it:

  1. Place your ball between two cable columns. Sit on the ball and walk your feet forward until the ball is behind your shoulders. Brace your core and legs to stabilize your body. Pull the handles into your shoulders.
  2. Press your arms up and together, so they meet above your chest.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Lift or lower your hips to change the angle of your body and emphasize your upper, mid, or lower chest.

5. Single arm cable press

Most chest exercises work both sides of your pecs at the same time. That’s no bad thing, but you may find working your left and right pecs individually allow you to create a stronger mind-muscle connection. Also, as you’ll need to work a little harder to keep your torso stationary, doing single arm cable presses provide a useful core workout.

How to do it:

  1. Attach a D-shaped handle to an adjustable cable machine set to about shoulder height. Hold the handle and then stand with your back to the machine, so the cable runs under your arm. Adopt a split stance for stability. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
  2. Starting with your hand in front of your shoulder, press your arm forward and out. Do not allow your hips or shoulders to rotate.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Do the same number of reps on both sides.

6. High cable crossover

No list of cable chest exercises would be complete without mentioning the high cable crossover. After all, this is probably the most commonly performed cable exercise for the pecs. High cable crossovers work your inner and lower pecs. You can also do this exercise seated.

Related: Learn how to do high cable crossovers here.  

7. Cable fly

Where high cable crossovers go from high to low, cable flyes use a more horizontal arm movement. This makes them more like flat dumbbell flyes or the pec deck. As such, they work your entire chest instead of emphasizing your lower pecs.

Related: Find out how to do this exercise here.

8. Low cable crossover

Low cable crossovers are the cable equivalent to incline dumbbell flyes. Starting with your arms low and moving them upward hits your upper, inner chest. This exercise is best done using light to moderate weights and medium to high reps – chase the pump, bro!

9. Stability ball cable fly

Just as you can do cable presses on a stability ball, you can also do cable flyes. This is a good option if regular flyes cause shoulder pain. You can also use the ball to judge and limit your range. Your upper arms will come into contact with the ball, preventing hyperextension of the shoulder joint.

How to do it:

  1. Place your ball between two cable columns. Take hold of the handles, sit on the ball and walk your feet forward until the ball is behind your shoulders. Press the handles up and together over your chest. Your arms should be slightly bent but rigid, palms facing inward.
  2. Open your arms and lower the handles out and down to your sides. Get a good stretch in your chest but do not hyperextend your shoulders.
  3. Squeeze your arms back up and together, and then repeat.
  4. Lift or lower your hips to change the angle of your body and emphasize your upper, mid, or lower chest.

10. Single-arm cable crossovers and flyes

All standing cable crossover and fly variations can be done using just one arm at a time. Just like single-arm cable presses, working your left and right pecs individually will allow you to create a stronger mind-muscle connection. You’ll also need to work a little harder to keep your torso stationary, providing a secondary core workout.

11. Cable/dumbbell supine press

While setting up this exercise can be a little tricky, your efforts will be rewarded! It combines dumbbell bench presses with cable crossovers to deliver an ultra-intense pec contraction. This eliminates any “dead spots” in your range of motion where muscle tension would normally drop off.

How to do it:

  1. Place an exercise bench in the center of a cable crossover machine. Put a cable cuff around each wrist and attach them to the lowermost pulleys. With a dumbbell in each hand, sit and then lie on your bench. Press the weights up to arms’ length over your chest. Use a neutral or pronated grip as preferred.
  2. Bend your elbows and lower the weights to your shoulders. Press inward to overcome the resistance from the cables.
  3. Push the weights up and in to return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions. Do this exercise using a flat, incline, or decline bench as preferred.

12. Pallof press

Named after physical therapist John Pallof, the Pallof press is mainly considered to be a core exercise. However, it’s also a useful chest exercise that works one side of your pecs at a time. You’ll also feel this exercise in your glutes, as well as your legs. You can do Pallof presses standing or in a half-kneeling position.

Wrapping Up

Barbell and dumbbell bench presses are the undisputed kings of pec-building exercises. For some lifters, they are the only movements needed to build a big, powerful chest. However, for others, they’re a sledgehammer when, what’s really needed, is a sculptor’s chisel!  

Cable exercises allow you to attack your pecs with laser-like precision, and small changes in arm or body angle mean you can hit your pecs with almost unlimited variations.

Don’t think for a minute we’re saying that you should drop heavy bench presses from your workouts. That would be sacrilegious! But, if you want to build quality chest mass, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate how these cable exercises affect your pecs.

References:

1. Encyclopedia Britannica: Pectoralis muscle https://www.britannica.com/science/pectoralis-muscle

2. PubMed:An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20512064

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