by Truth Fry January 10, 2023 10 min read
Have you ever considered how big of a role your shoulders play in your daily movement, functional strength, and even appearance?
Your shoulders are involved in just about any upper body movement you perform. On top of that, having big, broad shoulders is a very desirable look. Plus, I know plenty of guys who would love to fill out their sleeves a little more.
Newsflash guys ... this is a great way to do it! Training your shoulders is also a great way to help build strength in your other lifts too.
You use the front portion of your shoulder during any upper-body pressing movement. You use the rear portion of your shoulders during any upper-body pulling movement.
Now, there are a ton of ways you can train your shoulders. You can use dumbbells, barbells, and even bands ... but some of my favorite shoulder exercises are done on a cable machine.
The shoulders are the most mobile joint in the human body. It only makes sense to use one of the most versatile and mobile pieces of equipment to train them, right?
At least, I'd like to think so. However, there is truth to the fact that cable exercises can be great for building big shoulders.
In this article, we'll look at why that is, and some great shoulder exercises you can do with cables. First though, let's take a closer look at the muscles of the shoulder.
The shoulder has quite a few muscles that give it movement. This is important to know because you want to vary your exercise selection to accommodate all of them. The main ones we will focus on though are the deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, and the trapezius muscle.
The deltoids are a large triangular shaped muscle that sits atop the shoulders. Their main job is abducting the shoulder (pulling the arm away from the body). They also work to stop the shoulder from becoming dislocated when carrying a heavy load.
Anterior Deltoid (Front) - The anterior deltoid is the front portion of this shoulder muscle. Its primary function is to aid the chest in raising the upper arm in front of the body and overhead.
Lateral Deltoid (Middle) - The lateral deltoid sits directly between the front and rear portions of this muscle. Its primary function is abduction of the arm. Picture raising your arms out to your sides like you’re doing a jumping jack. This is abduction of the shoulder and is primarily using the lateral head of the deltoid.
Posterior Deltoid (Rear) - This head is the smallest of the 3, and its primary role is pulling the arm back behind the body.
The rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles that help provide strength and stability to the shoulder joint.
With the shoulder being the most mobile joint, that also makes it more susceptible to injury. The rotator cuff muscles help to keep the head of the humerus (arm bone) where it's meant to stay. The problem is ... it has a wide range of motion.
This makes this group of muscles quite important to the health and function of this joint.
The 4 muscles of the rotator cuff are the: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and the teres minor.
Supraspinatus - This muscle sits above the spine of the scapula, and it aids the deltoid in abducting the arm.
Infraspinatus - This muscle sits below the spine of the scapula, and it’s primary function is involved in external rotation of the arm. Think of this motion as rotating the arm away from the midline of the body. This is external rotation.
Subscapularis - This triangular shaped muscle sits on the front (internal) side of the scapula. Its primary role is involved in internal rotation of the arm. This is the opposite direction of rotation the infraspinatus and teres minor help with.
Imagine arm wrestling and trying to pin the other person’s arm to the table. This would be internal rotation of the arm.
Teres Minor - This muscle attaches on the lateral border of the scapula and on the humerus as well. It's primary function, outside of stabilization, is externally rotating the arm.
The trapezius (traps for short) is a large trapezoidal shaped muscle that extends from the upper neck down to the middle back. It also is wide enough that it extends from shoulder to shoulder.
It is involved in many movements and adds a lot of support for the shoulder girdle. The main functions of the traps are helping to elevate and depress the shoulders. This happens when you shrug. It also helps to retract and rotate the scapula as the shoulder goes through a wide range of motion.
Now that you know a little more about what muscles are involved in moving the shoulder ... let’s take a look at some of the benefits of training with cables.
Out of every possible piece of equipment to train the shoulders, why do I choose to use cables? Well the truth is, I don’t ONLY train them with cables. In my opinion, it’s best to use a mixture of different pieces of equipment to train your muscles in multiple ways.
With that being said, the cables are very versatile pieces of equipment. I mentioned earlier that the shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the human body. If you utilize cables correctly they have the benefit of being very mobile as well.
You can set the height virtually anywhere you want it to be set for maximum customization. So whether you want to pull from high to low, from low to high, or from somewhere in the middle…
You have the freedom to play around with it and work those muscles from your angle of choice.
You can also train with cables in many different body positions. You can be standing, sitting, lying down, bent over, on your knees, or any other way you can think of.
Also, when using cables, there is always a constant amount of tension being placed on the muscle. It doesn't matter what angle you’re pulling from. You see, with free weights, the angle of resistance is always straight up and down. That's because you’re working the muscles against gravity.
You’re still working against gravity with cables, but it won’t feel like it. That’s because of their design. The cable runs over wheels to change the direction of pull, which allows you to pull from whichever direction you like. At the same time, the weight is still lifted vertically against gravity.
Pretty cool, right?
Most people also forget to mention the fact that you can use different attachments. There are a wide variety of ropes, handles, and grips you can use to switch up your workout in whatever way you please.
But now that we've covered the benefits of training with cables ... let's dive into my favorite cable exercises to train the shoulders.
Before we dive into these exercises, make sure you keep these two things in mind. They will help you perform the exercise correctly and eliminate your risk of injury.
1. Keep your core tight and engaged.
2. Pull your shoulders down and back to enhance stability of your shoulder joint.
You can do this exercise seated or standing. Grab a set of cables, and adjust them to their lowest height setting. Face away from the cables and hold each handle at shoulder level with your elbows tucked in close to your body.
The cables should run behind your body throughout the movement. Squeeze your shoulders, triceps, and chest to press the handles overhead.
Once both of your arms are fully extended overhead ... pause for a second before lowering the cables to their starting position on either side of your body.
This is the exact same movement, but only doing one arm at a time. It adds an extra element of core stability into the mix to keep the torso from bending to the side. It also allows a little more focus on the mind-to-muscle connection.
Be sure the cable is set at the lowest point. Face away from the cable with a handle in one hand held at shoulder level with the elbow tucked in close to the body.
Squeeze that shoulder, tricep, and the chest to press the handle overhead until your arm is fully extended.
Hold for a second before slowly lowering back to the starting position.
Make sure to do this movement on both sides of your body.
Set up the cable on the lowest height. You should be rotated 90 degrees away from the cable, with the handle naturally at your side.
Grab the handle with the arm on the opposite side of your body. Your arm should cross in front of your body to grab the cable.
With a slight bend in your elbow, pull the cable up and across your body and out to your side until you reach shoulder height.
From here, squeeze the deltoid for a second, then begin to slowly lower back down. This is one rep.
Set the cables on either side of the cable column at the lowest height and stand between both of them.
Grab the handle to your right with your left hand and the handle to your left with your right hand.
The cables should cross over each other in front of your body.
From here, bend over to get your upper body as close to parallel with the floor as you can be.
Squeeze the rear portion of the deltoids as you pull both arms out to the sides as far as you can go comfortably.
This should feel like you’re making a big “T” with your arms. It may also help if you keep a slight bend in your elbows.
Squeeze the rear deltoid for a second at the top of the movement, and then slowly begin lowering back to the starting position.
Set the cable at the lowest height, and use a straight bar attachment.
Face away from the cables and grab the bar with both hands in an overhand grip. The cable should be running between your legs.
Squeeze the front portion of the deltoids and the chest to raise the bar in front of you as high as you can.
This can be stopping with the arms parallel to the floor, or going completely overhead.
Squeeze your front deltoid muscles for a second, then begin lowering the cable back down.
Set the cable to the lowest height and use a v-grip attachment with 2 parallel handles.
Facing the cable, kneel down and grab the v-grip attachment. Hold it close to your chest and keep your elbows tucked in close.
Squeeze the front portion of your deltoids, chest and triceps to press the weight overhead. After a few seconds of holding at the top, slowly begin to lower the weight back to its starting position.
Set up a bench directly between 2 cables with the cables set at the highest point.
Grab the opposite handle with each hand so that the cables cross over, and then lie with your back on the bench.
You should have the left cable in your right hand, and right cable in your left hand above your chest.
Keep a slight bend in your elbows as you squeeze your rear deltoids and pull your arms out to your sides. Your upper body should form a "T".
After a slight pause at the top, slowly lower your arms back to their sides. This is one rep.
Start by setting the cables at their lowest setting and grabbing the opposite handle with each hand so they cross over in front of your body.
You should have the left handle in the right hand, and the right handle in the left hand. Bend slightly forward at the waist and squeeze your deltoids and traps to pull your arms overhead. Your arms should form a "Y".
Squeeze your deltoids and traps for a second at the top before returning to starting position. This is one rep.
Set up the cable at the highest setting, and hook up the rope attachment. You can also use 2 handles on the same hook if a rope isn’t available.
Facing the cable, grab the rope or both handles with both hands.
Using your shoulders and traps, pull your elbows and hands back so that your hands are outside of your ears. Your elbows should be raised slightly higher than your shoulders.
Squeeze at the top, then slowly return to starting position.
Set up the cable at the lowest height with a bar attachment.
Facing the cable, grab the bar with both hands.
Keep you arms straight, squeeze your upper traps to pull your shoulders up.
Squeeze your upper traps for a second, then lower back to the starting position.
Your shoulders are a highly underrated muscle group. When it comes to your physique, well developed shoulders can really alter your look.
Having strong shoulders can also help with your strength in other compound lifts too. Now, if you want big and strong shoulders ... you need to train them regularly.
While I recommend a mixture of free weights and machines, I highly recommend trying some cable exercises as well.
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BS Exercise Science NASM Certified Personal Trainer NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist