Home Bodybuilding The Ultimate Cable Shoulder Workouts

The Ultimate Cable Shoulder Workouts

Written by Michael Jessimy, RPh

A well-defined pair of deltoids really put on display all the hard work you put into your body.

A physique is just not complete without nice broad shoulders, but what do you do when things just aren’t going your way?

Many people actually experience a very hard time building well-rounded shoulders.

Why does this happen?

Genetics definitely plays a part. Some people just don’t have the body to support massive delts.

But diet and appropriate training routines arguably have an even more significant impact on this.

Of course, in order to truly sculpt 3D shoulders, you need to appreciate the anatomy of the muscle to appreciate what techniques will work best.

With that in mind, it’s necessary for us to take a quick walk down memory lane; say hi to-

Anatomy Of The Shoulder Muscles

First and foremost, it is important to set the record straight- the shoulders are actually composed of two separate muscle subgroups; the deltoids, and rotator cuffs.

Of course, the deltoids are the muscles that are associated with hypertrophy and muscles definition, while rotator cuffs focus on the stability of the joint complex.

The shoulder joint is highly movable, but this comes at a cost- instability.

This is why stabilization muscle training is also necessary, even though the result won’t be big, flashy muscles to show.

Failure to do so sufficiently, and you can appreciate why the shoulders are very prone to injury when compared with other joint/muscle complexes.

But back to the meat of it all-the deltoids. That’s what it’s called in bodybuilding anyway, right? Deltoid training.

Without a doubt, a well-trained pair of delts impart an aesthetically pleasing shape to the shoulders, but they can also be an indication of strength in athletics.

Let’s not forget that they’re the real deal when it comes to throwing punches or lifting heavy objects at work.

Plus, wider shoulders also help give the illusion of a smaller midsection and waistline, even this isn’t technically the case.

The deltoids are in fact composed of three heads, each with a different point of origin, namely:

The Anterior Deltoids

Clavicles are made up of two parts: a superior surface, and an anterior border.

The clavicular (front) portion begins on the upper surface and the anterior border of the lateral third of the clavicle.

The primary function of the anterior deltoids is shoulder flexion, which usually involves movements done through the front plane of the body.

Any type of pressing movement against resistance heavily utilizes the anterior delts.

It is also heavily involved in the process of transverse adduction or moving the arms across the plane of the body.

Think of the technique used in dumbbell chest presses, or even hugging a barrel, for instance.

Owing to the high recruitment of this muscle group during training of the pecs, undertraining is quite uncommon.

Exactly, the opposite, in fact, as this is the part of the shoulder most likely to be overtrained and contributing to shoulder imbalance and instability.

The Lateral Delts

Also known as the “side delts”, this is the group most responsible for actually adding dimension and width to your frame.

This acromial part of the deltoid originates from the lateral side and superior (top) surface of the acromion of the scapula (shoulder blades).

In terms of function, the lateral delts are most involved in abduction, which is highlighted in the movement of the arm sideways from the body.

This muscle has a very specific recruitment pattern and is not usually called up for many daily movements.

Also noteworthy is the fact that there aren’t many significant implications from undertraining this deltoid head, except that your shoulders will flood small and fragile if you don’t.

Who doesn’t want broad, mountainous shoulders?

The Posterior Deltoids

Many people consider the rear part of the deltoid complex as the functional opposite of the anterior delts, but this just isn’t true.

For example, it is believed that just how the front delts are heavily recruited in pushing movements, the rear delts are involved in pulling movements such as rows or pull-ups.

This is a fallacy.

There are very minimally involved, and this is actually the reason why many people don’t even realize that they are sorely undertrained.

Out of the three deltoid heads, the posterior is the most critical to the stability of the shoulder joints and injury prevention.

The posterior deltoids originate from the lateral third of the spine of the scapula, at an area known as the crest.

The primary function of the posterior deltoids is transverse abduction, or moving the arms from an extended forward position to the centerline.

Note that this motion requires the arms to be in front of the body, and not across it.

The posterior can contribute to injury prevention, but only when they are trained sufficiently to offer a primarily supporting role.

Rotator Cuff Muscles

Rotator cuff injuries are a dime a dozen, and even consider a “rite of passage” of many muscleheads in the gym.

We say musclehead because no- they are not a rite of passage.

In fact, you really do want to skip this particular rite, as not only is it dangerous, but very painful if you do develop any sort of rotator cuff injury.

There are two groups of rotator cuff muscles, those responsible for internal rotation, and those for external rotation.

They also play a role in stabilizing the deltoids and do well with low volume training.

Exercise Selection

Phew! Seems like that refresher took a while, eh?

It was absolutely necessary though.

By now, you’ve likely developed an appreciation about what you should spend time on, and what you don’t need to lose sleep about.

So, without further ado, here are the 13 best cable exercises you can incorporate into shoulder training days to really take them to the next level.

Why Cables?

The major advantage of using cable machine exercises over other workout equipment is the constant tension they offer throughout the entire range of motion of an exercise.

In contrast, dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells also tend to take the foot off the gas through part of the movement when not directly working against gravity.

Plus, their ease of setup (most often, just needing to adjust a pin on a weight stack), makes them attractive to the less-than-enthusiastic athlete who despises picking up after themselves.

Cable shoulder workouts might be just the thing you need to see a difference in these muscles.

13 Incredible Cable Shoulder Exercises for a Massive Shoulder

1) Cable Shoulder Press

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBTGwHChaf4

Cable shoulder presses are a great alternative to other pressing movements such as the military or dumbbell versions.

To perform:

  • Stand facing a low pulley of a multi-unit machine, with feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Grasp the rotating bar attachment in your arms, and adjust so that your starting position is just below your chin, almost resting on the chest.
  • Press the weight upwards in front of you, elbows slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Pause when at eye level, then press once more to the top position.
  • Repeat for 10-12 repetitions and 2-3 working sets

2) One Arm Side Cable Lateral Raise

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGU9j1P5L-w

This is a great variation on the dumbbell version because it allows an even greater range of motion and control.

The single-arm lateral raise exercise stimulates the middle delt muscles to a great degree.

To perform:

  • Stand beside a low pulley attachment of a multi-machine, with feet shoulder-width apart and side facing the weight stack.
  • Grasp the cable attachment in your arm opposite the pulley attachment, so that it is roughly across your thighs.
  • In one smooth arch, contract laterally as you raise your working upper arm to a level parallel with the floor
  • Squeeze, and slowly return the weight to the start position
  • Repeat for 10-15 reps and 2-3 working sets.

3) Cable Face Pulls

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIq5CB9JfKE

Face pulls are an extremely underrated, yet, very effective exercise that really stimulates the posterior deltoids when done correctly.

To perform:

  • Stand facing a cable machine of a multi-unit, feet shoulder-width apart. For this movement, you will need to attach to a high pulley position, but not overhead.
  • Grasp the rope attachment in your arms, and adjust so that when your arms are extended in front of you, the cable is approximately parallel to the ground.
  • Pull the rope attachments towards your face, ending just outside your ears.
  • It is important in this exercise that in the fully contracted state, your arms should resemble a front bicep spread. Effectively, you combine external rotation into this movement to really torch the external rotator cuffs and posterior delts.
  • Perform 10-15 reps done with light resistance. Aim for 2 working sets.

4) Cable Upright Row

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwkLwMRHMQo

This is a variation of the cable upright row that is less likely to cause excessive stimulation of the trapezius muscles. Still good for the medial (lateral) head of the delts.

To perform:

  • Adopt a shoulder width stance facing a cable machine. For this movement, you will need to attach to a low pulley position.
  • Grasp the cable attachment in your arms, and adjust so that when your arms are extended in front of you, the weight plate does not touch the ground.
  • Your overhand grip should be narrow to less than shoulder grip, as wider grips change the emphasis of the movement to bring more traps- heavy (hint: try the cable shrug for traps instead)
  • Pull the cable attachment up towards your chin or slightly higher while contracting at the top of the movement.
  • Keep head facing forward throughout this exercise. Slowly return to starting position.
  • Repeat for 10-15 reps and 2-3 working sets.

5) Cuban Cable Press

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rg1mP1kjVjY

This is an uncommon, yet one of the best cable shoulder exercises as it helps to stimulate all heads of the shoulder muscles.

It is effectively a wide grip upright row/ lateral raise into a shoulder press at the top of the movement.

To Perform:

  • Stand between two cable stations, attaching movable D-shaped single arm cable grips to the bottom positions.
  • Grasp the two attachments and hold them to your sides.
  • Start the lift by engaging your lateral delts- effectively the first half of the movement resembles doing a lateral raise, BUT your elbows still remain low as your upper arm reaches the level of your shoulders.
  • Next, swing your lower arms forward as if you are about to perform a clean and press. At this point, your arms should be just around your chin height, but to the sides of your head.
  • Press upwards, all the while the D-shaped attachments to the side of your head (neutral grip).
  • This exercise helps to reduce the load on the anterior deltoid muscles, which are very prone to overtraining.
  • Start with 10-12 reps, and 1-2 sets until you master the technique involved.

6) Cable Front Raises

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqUgPii8Nm8

As we previously mentioned, front raises are much better for specific targeting of the front delts, especially if you already subject those heads to their more than fair share of exercise.

To Perform:

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart, either side over the cable attached to the low pulley.
  • A rotating straight bar attachment works best for this exercise
  • Bend over, grab the bar attachment, so that it hangs in front of your thighs
  • With arms straight, and a very slight bend in elbows, contract to raise the bar to shoulder height in front of you
  • Slowly return to start position
  • Use light resistance. Perform 10-15 reps and 2-3 sets.

7) High Cable Row

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J31FqaEuezw

Similar to the face pull, except in this one you pull just below the shoulder level.

This cable shoulder workout can be alternated with the face pull.

To Perform:

  • Attach a rope to the high pulley, and take a step back so that there is tension on the cable.
  • Grasp the rope with hands wider than shoulder-width
  • Pull your hands towards your upper chest, bending your elbows as you do so that they form an almost 90-degree angle at the fully contracted position.
  • Pause briefly and then slowly return to the starting position. This exercise is great for targeting the rear delts, as well as developing thickness in the middle of your back.
  • Perform 10-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

8) Cable Rear Delt Flye

Watch Practical Videohttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JENKmsEZQO8

This is one of the best isolation exercises for rear deltoids.

To Perform:

  • Attach a D- shaped attachment to the low pulley and take a step back so there is tension on the cable.
  • Grasp the attachment with your hand, and bend forward at the waist until your torso is parallel to the floor.
  • Your free hand should be on your hip for support.
  • Keeping your back flat, and elbow slightly bent, lift the attachment out to the side until your arm is parallel to the floor.
  • Pause and then slowly return to the starting position.
  • This exercise is best performed with a lightweight so that you can focus on isolating the rear deltoids.
  • Do 10-12 reps and 2-3 sets.

9) Kneeling Shoulder Pulls

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GSYAoyt84s

This is a low-impact shoulder exercise that benefits the rear delts and muscles of the upper back, acting as a sort of hybrid movement.

To Perform:

  • Secure a high pulley, attach a rope attachment and kneel in front of it, facing the weight stack.
  • Grasp the ends of the rope with your hands and pull it towards your chest, keeping your back straight.
  • Pause briefly and then slowly return to the starting position.
  • This exercise can also be performed standing if you find it too difficult to maintain good form when kneeling, although the kneeling position might be preferable to people with lower back issues.
  • Perform 12-15 reps and 2-3 sets.

10) External Shoulder Rotation

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I5OYNpcfzM

As the name implies, this exercise targets the external rotators of the shoulder.

To Perform:

  • Position the cable pulley at about chest level, and stand laterally to the attachment (ti the side)
  • Grasp the cable in your working arm, bent 90 degrees at the elbow.
  • In slow controlled movements, pull the cable from your midline, outward past the shoulder.
  • Your elbow should remain close to your body throughout the movement
  • Perform 15 reps with very light resistance. One working set per side is sufficient.
  • Shift to the other side after completing the one set.

11) Internal Shoulder Rotation

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbAxvTFPIbw

Performed in the opposite manner to the external cable rotation, it targets the internal rotator cuff muscles of the shoulders.

To Perform:

  • Position a cable at about chest level, and stand laterally to the pulley, with your working arm closest to it.
  • Grasp the cable and step away from the pulley so that you feel a slight stretch in the cable.
  • The starting position should be with your working arm bent 90 degrees at the elbow and outside the midline of the body.
  • Bring the working arm across the body to the midline, keeping the elbow close to your side throughout the movement.
  • Slowly return to the starting position, and repeat.
  • Perform one set of 15 reps per side.

12) Lateral Cable Crossovers

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdmFpWCzImU

The cable crossover machine is excellent for working both sides of the body at the same time, in this case, performing dual lateral raises.

To Perform:

  • Stand inside a cable crossover station, with D-shaped handles affixed to low pulleys.
  • Cross cables in front of you as you simultaneously perform lateral raises.
  • Slowly return to start position
  • Perform 10-15 reps and 1-3 working sets.

13) Incline Cable Lateral Raises

Watch Practical Video > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cr7VaOh0Yks

This exercise is an absolute beast, simply because it targets the two primary heads you should be spending most of your time on, the rear and lateral delts.

To Perform:

  • Set an incline bench to about a 30-degree angle and select a lightweight on the cable pulley (low attachment), between a crossover machine.
  • Adjust the seat so that your chest can rest on the bench while your feet are on the ground
  • Grab the D-attachments in each arm, and lift your arms to about shoulder height while minimizing the bend in your elbows.
  • Perform 10-12 reps and 2-3 working sets.

Putting Together Cable Shoulder Workouts

It is important to keep in mind that the deltoids, and shoulders as a whole aren’t a large group of muscles.

As such, it is important that you keep the limited volume in mind.

This is especially true when it comes to anterior deltoid work, which as you might have noticed, is fairly limited from the list of exercises we included.

A much more balanced shoulder workout program for developing well-rounded and defined delts focuses heavily on the middle delts, posterior delts, and then front delts- in that order.

This way, none of the three heads are neglected.

Work up to 6 sets for the laterals, 3-4 sets for posterior delts, and 3-4 sets for the anterior.

In practice, many athletes do the opposite- 9-12 for anterior delts and the rest in diminishing fashion.

The rotator cuff muscles only require one working set or so per side, so keep that in mind.

And last, but certainly not least; you do not need to have an exclusively cable-based workout. Barbells and dumbbells (free weights) are still considered the gold standard for building a well-developed body, but adding cables to the mix can definitely help you get the 3-dimensional boulder shoulders you have been looking for all these years!

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