If you’re interested in building a pair of solid and stable shoulders that look like cannonballs, you must include various exercises in your training.
The problem is that it can be challenging to come up with new and exciting ways to train your shoulders, especially when you limit yourself to dumbbells and barbells.
While exercises like the overhead barbell press and dumbbell lateral raise work great and promote growth, expanding your exercise selection pool will keep your training fun, challenging, and engaging.
Let’s talk about cable shoulder exercises, their benefits, and what makes them unique. We’ll also discuss 12 of the best cable shoulder exercises you can start doing immediately.
Shoulder Muscle Anatomy And Functions
The shoulders, also known as the deltoids, are small triangular muscles that envelop your shoulder joints. Despite their relatively small size, the deltoids have three heads: front (anterior), middle (medial; lateral), and rear (posterior) head (1).
These parts of the deltoids work together during many activities, but you can also emphasize one area over the other two by picking specific exercises, tweaking angles, and more. Each portion of the deltoid has a unique muscle fiber orientation that dictates its functions and strengths (1).
When designing a cable shoulder workout, you must keep the muscle’s anatomy in mind and select exercises that lead to a balanced development of all three deltoid heads.
Anterior Deltoid Head
The anterior head makes up the front portion of the shoulder muscle and plays a vital role in horizontal arm flexion and internal shoulder rotation (1).
Because of its position and functions, the anterior deltoid head is the one people overdevelop with their training. The anterior head is active during most pressing exercises you do at the gym: push-ups, bench presses, shoulder presses, etc. (2)
Medial Deltoid Head
The medial deltoid head refers to the middle portion of the muscle and is the area trainees are most interested in developing. Building up the medial head gives your shoulders a round and ‘capped’ appearance.
Your middle deltoid is primarily responsible for arm abduction––lifting your arm to the side and away from your body’s midline (1). The muscle is also involved in pressing exercises, but to a smaller degree.
Posterior Deltoid Head
The posterior deltoid is the portion of the muscle most people don’t care about but should. It might not seem that important, but the rear delt adds balance to the shoulder muscle, promotes joint health, and contributes to upper back aesthetics (1).
Your posterior deltoids’ primary functions are shoulder extension and external shoulder rotation.
Developing the posterior head is necessary to maintain good posture, improve your pulling strength, and prevent muscle imbalances.
Monitor and track all cable shoulder exercises with a fitness tracker and see how you are progressing.
Are Cable Shoulder Workouts Effective For Building Mass?
Cable machines consist of a weight stack, steel cables, and bearings. There are various configurations, the most popular being the traditional cable pulley.
A cable pulley machine comes with a weight stack and an adjustable pulley that allows you to select the specific angle for training your muscles. You can use various attachments, including a straight bar, handle, or rope, depending on the exercise you want to do.
High-end cable pulleys consist of two pillars, each with a weight stack and pulley. You can use one at a time or leverage the two pillars to simultaneously train both sides of your body.
A cable machine is one of the best gym tools to build muscle and strength. Cables provide several unique benefits, add variety to your training, and allow you to pick from many exercises.
What Makes Cable Shoulder Workouts Beneficial And Effective?
Cable shoulder exercises are beneficial on several fronts.
1. Constant Tension
One unique feature that sets a cable machine apart from free weight exercises is the tension your muscles receive.
Free weights are heavily influenced by gravity, which means the strength curve (the difficulty of an exercise throughout the range of motion) changes.
Take the dumbbell bicep curl as an example. The exercise is excellent for the bicep, but we can all agree that it doesn’t provide the same difficulty from start to finish.
Your biceps barely feel any tension at the bottom but their involvement increases as you bend your elbows. Each repetition culminates with a peak contraction at the top.
In contrast, a cable curl is more challenging because your biceps must work hard from start to finish. The cable machine doesn’t care about gravity, the tension is consistent from start to finish, and your muscles don’t get time to rest.
2. Multiple Angles of Attack
Another advantage of a cable machine is that you can adjust the angle to fit your needs. Most cable devices come with an adjustable pulley, allowing you to raise or lower the starting point easily.
For example, you can set the pulley in the highest position, attach a rope, and do face pulls. Alternatively, set the pulley in the lowest position, attach a handle, and perform bent-over rear delt flyes.
Each adjustment takes seconds, and you can tweak the machine to train your muscles in various ways.
3. Resistance Level
Another notable benefit of a cable machine is that you can adjust the resistance to fit your specific abilities on various exercises.
A good cable machine will have a weight stack of 200 to 220 lbs (90-100 kg), allowing you to select loads in 10-pound (5 kg) increments.
For example, you can load more weight and perform an overhead cable press with a bar. You can then attach a handle, set the load to a smaller value, and do an isolation movement like cable lateral raises.
Switching between loads is effortless; even the strongest individuals can challenge themselves by lifting a large percentage of the weight stack.
4. Attachment Options
The next notable benefit of cable devices is something we’ve mentioned so far: the available attachments.
Cable machines are fun to use because there are countless handle types you can attach to the pulleys. That way, you can modify even the most basic exercises, change the training stimulus, and keep your workouts fun.
The most common attachments include a straight bar, rope, handles, and V-bar. Each has unique functions, and you should pick them based on the exercise you want to do.
5. Safer Than Free Weights
Another advantage of using cable machines in your training is their safety rating. Any form of weight training requires focus, discipline, and listening to your body, but using a cable machine eliminates the risk of dropping a weight on yourself.
Thanks to their safety profile, cable devices are also great for training to failure without worrying about an injury. You must still be careful, but these devices allow you to push yourself to your limits without worrying about getting injured.
6. Perfect for Isolation
As discussed above, the deltoids have three heads, each with unique functions (1). One notable benefit of cable shoulder exercises is that you can isolate portions of your deltoids more easily and develop the muscles evenly.
In addition to the great choice of exercises, cable machines allow you to adjust the resistance and provide consistent tension, leading to better muscle activation (3).
7. Cable Machines are Beginner-Friendly
All forms of weight training come with a learning curve, and almost all exercises feel foreign and awkward initially. The good news is that cable machines work much better for beginners, and most activities take less time to master.
Activities like the barbell overhead press require excellent body control, good bracing, and a strength base. In contrast, most cable-based exercises require less experience, stability, and strength to perform, allowing beginners to get started and build up confidence.
Related article: Free Workout Plans for Every Fitness Level
12 Of The Best Cable Shoulder Exercises
Here is a list of the 12 best cable shoulder exercises to add to your training. Some movements isolate a specific portion of the deltoids, whereas others develop the entire shoulder and other muscle groups.
1. Shoulder Cable Front Raise
Front raises are typically done with free weights, such as a bar, weight plate, or dumbbells, but you can use a cable machine.
The cable front raise is one of the best cable machine shoulder exercises that develop the front delt (4). A notable benefit is that cables provide constant tension for your muscles, even at the bottom of each repetition.
Doing the exercise correctly is also beneficial for the rotator cuff.
- Select the appropriate load on the machine. Start light for your first few sets.
- Put the pulley in the lowest position and attach a bar.
- Face away from the cable machine with the bar between your legs.
- Bend over, grab the start bar with an overhand grip (palms facing back), and have the rope between your legs. Your arms should be straight, and your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
- Get into the starting position by bringing your shoulders back, engaging your upper body, and bending your knees slightly.
- Inhale and raise the bar away from your body in one fluid motion. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows.
- Lift until the bar is at shoulder level. Keep your arms straight.
- Lower your arms to the starting position as you exhale.
- You can train one arm at a time during a front raise via a handle attachment. Follow the same rules but use a handle and work one side.
2. Cable Lateral Raise
Like front raises, the lateral raise is typically done with free weights: dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, etc. The good news is that the cable lateral raise offers several distinct benefits.
Most notably, using cables provides constant tension and is helpful for people who struggle to isolate their middle deltoids. Second, a cable can provide a better range of motion, making each repetition more beneficial and disruptive.
- Select a light load on the cable machine.
- Set the pulley in the lowest position.
- Attach a handle to the pulley.
- Position your right shoulder against the cable machine.
- Bend down and grab the handle with your outside (left) hand.
- Stand tall and take a step away from the machine to lift the weight off its stack.
- Get into the starting position by bringing your shoulders back, engaging your abs, and inhaling.
- Bring your left arm laterally and away from your body until your elbow is at shoulder level.
- Hold the top position for a moment and slowly lower your arm to your side as you exhale.
- Inhale again and repeat.
- Once finished, rotate 180 degrees, hold the handle with your right hand, and perform the same number of reps.
- You can lean your body in the direction of the lateral raise (away from the machine) and maintain your balance by holding onto the cable station. Doing so is beneficial for lengthening the range of motion.
- Lead each repetition with your elbow for better muscle activation. Perform the exercise slowly, aiming for at least 12 reps per set.
3. Cable Face Pulls
Face pulls are a movement you can do on a cable machine or with a resistance band. Rowing the weight to your face is excellent for engaging and developing the rear deltoids.
A notable benefit of the cable face pull is that the exercise strengthens your rotator cuff muscles, which is beneficial for shoulder joint health and stability. The movement features external rotation, which promotes rear delt activation and upper back growth.
- Select a light load on the cable machine and set the pulley at face height or to the top position.
- Connect a rope attachment to the pulley.
- Grab both ends of the rope attachment with a neutral grip (thumbs facing the ceiling).
- With your arm straight, take a step back to lift the weight off its stack.
- Bring your shoulders back, engage your abs and stagger your stance (bring one foot forward and the other back) for balance.
- Once in the starting position, take a breath and pull the rope to your face, splitting it to avoid hitting your face. Keep your elbows flared and maintain a neutral grip.
- Hold the position for a moment, squeezing your rear deltoids.
- Extend your arms slowly as you exhale.
- Start with a light load, do 20 or more reps per set, and do each slowly and keep your body stable. You should feel your rear delts activate on each repetition.
- Keep your elbows flared and pull the rope to eye level, holding each repetition for a moment before extending your arms. Doing so helps activate the side and rear delts.
- You can introduce greater external rotation for rotator cuff health by spreading the rope attachment at the top of each repetition.
4. Cable Shoulder Press
The shoulder press is a classic exercise for developing the deltoids, triceps, upper chest, and core musculature (5). One popular way to perform the activity is with free weights, such as dumbbells or a barbell.
You can perform a more beginner-friendly version called a cable overhead press. The variation is easier to do, and you reap the benefits of cable training: constant tension, good range of motion, adjustable angles, etc.
- Select the appropriate load and set the pulley in the lowest position.
- Add a handle attachment to the pulley.
- Face away from the cable machine and stand next to the handle on the floor.
- Bend down and hold the handle with both hands, lifting it to shoulder level.
- Carefully remove one hand from the attachment and hold the handle with your elbow bent and knuckles pointing to the ceiling.
- Assume the starting position by bringing your shoulders back and engaging your abs.
- Take a breath and press the handle overhead, pausing when you straighten your elbow.
- Bend your arm slowly until your hand is slightly higher than shoulder level. Exhale.
- Inhale again and repeat.
- Once finished, carefully hold the handle with your opposite hand and do the same number of reps.
- Engage your midsection to maintain stability during the exercise.
- Pick a light enough weight to do at least 8 to 10 reps with a full range of motion.
- You can introduce internal rotation (rotating your wrists in) as you lower the weight to make the exercise more similar to an Arnold press.
5. Cable Upright Row
The upright row is another exercise you can do with free weights, such as a bar or dumbbells.
Doing the cable upright row helps train all three deltoid heads and develop the biceps, contributing to arm flexion (bending). A notable advantage is that the exercise allows you to overload your side and rear delts with more weight.
The cable upright row is also effective for developing the trapezius, which makes up the upper portion of your back and is necessary for aesthetics and shoulder health.
- Select the appropriate weight and set the pulley in the lowest position.
- Attach a bar to the pulley.
- Bend down and grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing down). Have your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Stand tall and step back to lift the weight off its stack.
- Bring your shoulders back, engage your abs, and stagger your stance.
- Take a breath and pull the bar straight up.
- Continue bending your elbows until the bar is at a mid-chest level, and hold for a moment. Squeeze your side and rear delts at the top.
- Extend your arms slowly as you exhale.
- People with previous shoulder issues might experience discomfort when doing the cable upright row. If that’s the case, use a wider grip or do other exercises.
6. Shoulder Cable Kneeling Press
The kneeling cable shoulder press is an excellent compound exercise for developing the side deltoids and overloading your muscles with more weight. A shoulder press is also great for training the front delt.
One notable benefit of the kneeling cable overhead press is that you can easily set yourself up to press with both arms and use more weight. Doing so is suitable for overloading your shoulders, triceps, and upper chest with more weight.
- Set the pulley in the lowest position and use a straight bar.
- Select the appropriate weight.
- Get down on your knees and grab the bar with a double overhand grip. Have your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar off the floor and position it in front of your chest with your elbows to your sides. Doing so will lift the weight off its stack.
- Engage your abs, bring your shoulders back, and take a breath.
- Once you’ve assumed the starting position, press the bar overhead and pause for a moment.
- Lower the bar to chest level and exhale.
- You can try to lean back slightly. Doing so will make it easier to maintain your balance.
- Squeeze your glutes and keep your abs engaged for extra support during the cable exercise.
- You can train one arm at a time by attaching a handle instead of a bar.
7. Cable Bent-Over Single-Arm Lateral Raises
The bent-over single-arm lateral raise is one of the best and most overlooked cable shoulder exercises. You’re performing a cable lateral raise, but your torso position shifts the emphasis to the rear delt.
Using a cable is excellent for keeping tension on your shoulders and promoting better muscle activation. Cable bent-over lateral raises resemble the reverse fly you can do with dumbbells. The movement also features external rotation, similar to a cable face pull.
- Set the pulley in the lowest position and attach a handle.
- Select the appropriate weight and stand with your right shoulder facing the cable machine.
- Lean your torso forward and hold the handle with your left hand.
- Step away from the machine to lift the weight off its stack. Have your arm straight and underneath your shoulder.
- Bring your shoulders back and take a breath.
- Lift your arm away from the cable machine, going up until your elbow is at torso level. Squeeze your rear delt muscles at the top.
- Lower your arm to the starting position slowly and exhale.
- Take another breath and repeat.
- Once finished, rotate your body 180 degrees, grab the attachment with your other hand, and do the same number of reps for the other rear delt.
- Pick a light weight and focus on doing 20+ slow and controlled repetitions. A mistake people make with cable exercises for the rear delts is attempting to lift too much weight, only for their technique to break down.
8. One-Arm Cable Front Raise
Similar to the cable front raise we reviewed earlier, the one-arm cable version is one of the best cable shoulder exercises for the front delt.
A notable benefit is that training one side at a time allows you to focus your efforts better and prevent muscle imbalances from developing.
- Set the pulley in the lowest position and attach a handle.
- Select the appropriate load and face away from the machine.
- Bend down, hold the handle with an overhand grip (palm facing down) and stand tall.
- Take a step forward to lift the weight from its stack.
- Stagger your stance, bring your shoulders back, and engage your abs.
- Inhale and slowly raise your arm forward until your wrist and elbow align with your shoulder.
- Hold the top position for a moment and lower your arm to your side, exhaling on the way down.
- Once finished training one side, grab the attachment with your other hand and do the same number of reps.
- Like a cable lateral raise, we recommend picking a light weight and doing repetitions slowly. The objective is to isolate your deltoids as best as possible.
9. Cable Crossover Reverse Fly
The reverse fly cable crossover is a more complex cable shoulder exercise. Unlike the bent-over single-arm raise from above, the fly crossover trains both sides of your body simultaneously.
Setting yourself up for the exercise requires a double cable machine (one that has two independent weight stacks and pulleys).
- Set the appropriate weight on both stacks and position the pulleys in the lowest position.
- Attach handles to both pulleys.
- Stand in the middle of the pulley machine with the two stacks to your sides.
- Walk to your left and grab the attachment with your right hand.
- Go to the right pulley and hold the handle with your left hand.
- Return to the middle of the machine, lean forward (have your torso parallel to the floor), and point your arms to the floor, keeping your wrists neutral.
- Bring your shoulders back and take a breath for the correct starting position. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows.
- Simultaneously raise your arms to your sides, squeezing your upper back at the top.
- Hold a moment and lower your arms across your body as you exhale.
- Pick a lighter weight to train the rear delt muscles in a higher rep range (at least 12 reps). A common mistake with the exercise is using too much weight and swinging your body.
- If you don’t have access to a double cable machine or someone uses one pulley, you can train one side at a time by doing the bent-over single-arm lateral raise (reverse fly) discussed above.
10. Cable Shoulder Alternating Press
The best way to do the cable shoulder alternating press is by using a double cable machine where the two pulleys are a couple of feet apart. You can stand in the middle, grab both handles, and press them overhead.
A notable benefit of the exercise is overloading your side delts with more weight and independently training both sides of your body. The exercise is also great for the front delt and upper chest.
- Set the pulleys in the lowest position and attach a handle to both.
- Select the same weight on both pulleys.
- Face away from the pulleys, grab both handles, and stand up.
- Bring the cable-attached handles to your sides.
- Retract your shoulder blades, engage your abs, and take a breath.
- Press the right handle overhead, extending your arm at the top.
- Lower the handle slowly and exhale near the bottom.
- Take another breath and press the other handle.
- Alternate between left and right until you’re done.
- A pronated grip (palms facing forward) could lead to slightly better side and front delt activation because the mechanics are similar to a barbell or dumbbell overhead press.
11. Cable Shoulder Y Raise
The shoulder Y raise is one of the most overlooked but beneficial cable exercises for the front, rear, and side delts. Like most other exercises on our list, you can do the Y raise with free weights but using cables offers some unique benefits.
Most notably, performing the exercise with a cable provides constant tension to the side and rear delt and promotes shoulder stability.
Like the cable shoulder alternating press, the best way to do the exercise is on a double cable machine where the two pulleys are close together. The exercise features external rotation, which is fantastic for rotator cuff strength.
- Set the pulleys in the lowest position and attach a handle to both.
- Select the appropriate load on both pulleys.
- Bend over and grab the right handle with your left hand and the left handle with your right hand.
- Stand tall and take a step back to lift the weights off their stacks. Your arms should be in front of your body with your hands crossed.
- Bring your shoulders back and engage your abs. You can stagger your stance for extra balance.
- Take a breath and pull the cables back and over your head while keeping your elbows slightly bent.
- Pause at the top and slowly lower your arms across your body as you exhale.
- You can train one side at a time. Grab the handle with your right hand and turn your body slightly to the right to mimic the mechanics of a regular Y raise. Train your right side, grab the handle with your opposite hand, and repeat. The range of motion is the same.
- Pick a weight that allows you at least 12 reps. Doing so is necessary for training the shoulder muscle group effectively.
12. Cable Shoulder Shrug
Doing shrugs promotes scapular stability and creates a good environment for the rotator cuff.
- Set the pulley in the lowest position and attach a bar.
- Select the appropriate weight.
- Bend over and grab the straight bar with a double overhand grip (palms facing your body).
- Stand tall and step back to lift the weight off its stack. Your arms should be straight and in front of your body.
- Bring your shoulders back, engage your abs, and take a breath. You can stagger your stance for extra balance.
- Take a breath and shrug your shoulders as high as possible. Imagine that you’re trying to touch your ears with your shoulders.
- Hold the top position for a moment and lower your shoulder blades as you exhale.
- You can train one side at a time by attaching a handle instead of a straight bar. Doing so helps prevent shoulder imbalances.
Two Shoulder Workouts With Cables For Mass And Strength
Now that we’ve gone over the cable shoulder exercises, it’s time to get practical. Here are two cable workouts for shoulders based on the cable shoulder exercises discussed above:
Hypertrophy Cable Shoulder Workout (Build Muscle)
|Cable Shoulder Press||4||8 to 12 (per side)||1.5-2 minutes|
|Cable Upright Row||3 to 4||10 to 15||1.5-2 minutes|
|Cable Front Raise||3||12 to 15||1.5 minutes|
|Cable Lateral Raise||3||15 to 20||1.5 minutes|
|Cable Face Pull||3||15 to 25||1-1.5 minutes|
Click here to find and log this workout on the Hevy app.
No shoulder workout is complete without an overhead press. The classic exercise and its variations train all deltoid heads, the triceps, and the upper chest. You also strengthen your midsection and upper back.
The upright row is also fantastic for overloading the side delts with more weight. We then proceed to isolation exercises for the three deltoid heads.
Front raises train the anterior deltoid; the cable lateral raise emphasizes the medial head; face pulls work the rear delts, strengthen the rotator cuff, and promote shoulder joint health.
Cable Shoulder Workout For Strength and Deltoid Health
|Kneeling Cable Shoulder Press||4||6 to 10||2-3 minutes|
|Cable Shoulder Alternating Press||4||8 to 10 (per side)||2-2.5 minutes|
|Cable Front Raise||3||8 to 12||1.5-2 minutes|
|Cable Lateral Raise||3||12 to 15||1.5-2 minutes|
|Bent-Over One-Arm Lateral Raise||3||12 to 15||1-2 minutes|
The second workout resembles the first in several ways. First, we begin with a cable overhead press to train the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest.
Second, we have isolation exercises for all areas of the delts. Examples include the cable lateral raise for the middle deltoids and the bent-over one-arm lateral raise for the rear delts.
The workout structure is also similar, and you get to train one arm at a time on some movements (e.g., bent-over reverse fly and cable lateral raise).
Some notable differences relate to the rep range. The first workout features exercises in a higher rep range. In contrast, workout two mostly has you do 12 reps or fewer.
Despite being a strength-focused workout, you must do the lateral raise and bent-over lateral raise for 12 reps or more. Using too much weight can quickly lead to technique breakdown and increase the injury risk.
Related articles (learn how to structure your weekly training):
- 2 Day Split Workout – The Complete Guide
- 4 Day Workout Split – The Complete Guide
- 6 Day Split Workout – The Complete Guide
There are countless practical exercises for shoulder mass and strength. You can train with barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, resistance bands, and gym machines.
Despite the sheer choice, cables offer unique benefits, add variety to your training, and make your workouts fun and engaging.
Most notably, the tension is more consistent, you can adjust the resistance to fit your strength level, and plenty of good exercises can be done.
If you are serious about taking your shoulder training to the next level, consider the above cable exercises and workouts.
Cable Shoulder Workouts Frequently Asked Questions
1. Are cable shoulder exercises effective?
Cable exercises are fantastic for the shoulder muscle group. There are various movements to pick from, you can overload your muscles with more weight, and cables provide great tension.
Single-arm exercises like the shoulder press are also great for introducing internal rotation, which can help strengthen the rotator cuff.
2. Is a cable shoulder workout effective for building mass?
Cable workouts can be effective so long as there is enough variety because you must train all three deltoid heads (the side, front, and rear delt). Moving the shoulder joint in various planes (such as through cable external rotation) is also beneficial.
3. Are single-arm exercises beneficial?
Single-arm deltoid cable exercises are those where you train one arm at a time. An example would be cable lateral raises, a bent-over reverse fly, or a single-arm shoulder press.
These movements are great because you can take advantage of cable external rotation and internal rotation to strengthen the rotator cuff.
4. How to train the shoulders with cables?
First, assume a strong starting position and flex your midsection to maintain balance. Second, pick the appropriate weight to challenge yourself without ego lifting. Third, do multiple exercises to train all areas of the shoulders, including the overlooked rear delt