The standard bench press happens to be everyone’s go-to exercise when it comes to targeting the chest. And although it is effective, you need to start including cable chest exercises as they provide constant tension throughout each rep which increases both strength and size.
In fact, cables allow for greater muscle activation, minimise injuries, and promote muscle hypertrophy.
However, free weights allow you to go heavy on your set which is a proven strategy for to build muscle overtime. Therefore, it is essential to include a mixture of both cable and free weight exercises into your routine for the BEST outcome.
In this article, I will be guiding you with the 7 best effective cable chest exercises you need to build a strong, more defined, and muscular chest. Trust me, it’s a game changer!
As a bonus, I will also be going through the best way to use a combination of free weights and cables in your chest workout to achieve a proportion and aesthetic chest appearance.
So, let’s get started!
Chest Muscle Anatomy
Most people walk into the gym without the slightest idea of which exercise targets which part specially of their working muscle. For example, performing low-high cable fly’s and incline dumbbell press both hammer the upper chest.
Now, although you can perform a variety of chest exercise and hope to God that you’re targeting each part, it’s always good to know the anatomy of the chest muscle to maximise the efficiency.
Our chest muscle consists of 4 distinct parts:
- Pectoralis MAJOR
- Pectoralis MINOR
- Serratus Anterior
Let’s investigate all of them separately.
1. Pectoralis Major
The pectoralis major, or the pec major, is the superior and largest muscle of the anterior chest wall. It is a thick fan-shaped muscle that makes up majority of the chest, making it the most important!
It’s also the muscle that most people talk about at the gym. I’m sure you’ve heard someone mention “this exercise targets the lower chest”. Well, they are referring to a certain part of the pec major.
You see, the pec major has two parts:
- Clavicular head
- Sternocostal head
The Clavicular head, often referred to as the “upper chest” originates from the anterior portion of the medial clavicle and attaches onto your humerus. The main function is shoulder flexion which is moving your arm up. It also helps with internal rotation.
Hence, we need to perform exercises that involve moving the arm in an upward direction to target the clavicular head. For example, low to high cable flies.
Also note this portion of the pec major is the “lagging” portion for most people. However, you can target the upper chest by following some of these exercises that require just a cable machine.
Also, stay tuned for the bonus part of this article where I go through my own chest workout that will GUARENTEE a bigger and stronger chest.
This part accounts for the middle and lower chest. In fact, majority of the pec major is the sternal head. It originates from three different areas: the anterior surface of the sternum, the superior six costal cartilages, and the aponeurosis of the external oblique muscle.
The main function of the sternal head is internal rotation and horizontal adduction, meaning bring the arm towards the midline of the body. Think of the standard dumbbell or barbell press where the weight is moved up from the middle of the chest.
What about the lower chest? Well, many anatomists will say that there is a third portion to the pec major which is the abdominal head. This part covers the lower part of the pec major. To specifically target this area, perform chest exercises that involve your arm coming downwards.
Exercises like high-to-low cable fly or standard dips will increase emphasis on the lower chest.
Hence the position of your shoulder and the angle of your torso will all make an impact on which area you’ll be targeting. Keep in mind that you CANNOT completely isolate each part of the chest. However, you can change the angle to emphasise more on one part, especially if it’s your “lagging” area.
2. Pectoralis Minor
While the pec major is the biggest chest muscle, there is a small muscle that hides underneath it. This is called the pectoralis minor.
It’s a small triangular muscle in the anterior chest wall that attaches from the 3rd-5th rib and inserts into the coracoid process of the scapula.
The main function of the pec minor is stabilisation, abduction or protraction, internal rotation, and downward rotation of the scapula.
During our chest exercises, both our shoulders and pec minors act as stabilizers muscles.
However, there are a few cable chest exercises that can emphasise a little more on the pec minor. These exercises include leaning your torso forward and retracting your shoulder blades. We will go through some of these exercises in this article.
We’ve discussed the key portions of the chest, but there is another small but significant part. It’s called the subclavius.
It’s a small triangular muscle that originates directly under the collarbone and runs horizontally. This muscle’s main function is to stabilize the sternoclavicular joint.
Although we won’t be going in too much depth about this muscle, it’s always important to understand all muscles in our chest region.
4. Serratus Anterior
Many cable chest exercises emphasise a lot on the serratus anterior muscle.
It has a “saw-toothed” appearance the originates on the lateral wall of the thorax inserts along the superior angle, medial border, and inferior angle of the scapula.
The main function of this muscle is the protraction and upward rotation of the scapula.
Although this muscle has a primary role in many chest movements, we will be focusing more on the pec major and minor.
The 6 Best Cable Chest Exercises
If you want to take your chest workout to whole new level, try these cable chest exercises.
These 6 cable chest exercises will provide maximum chest activation and will hit every part of the pectorals muscle effectively.
With cables, you will be able to apply constant tension throughout the entire movement which, overtime, will help increase muscle mass and definition.
I personally use these exercises in every chest workout, and they absolutely BURN my chest! So, let’s get started!
1. Middle Chest Fly
You’ve definitely seen people perform the standard chest fly with a pair of dumbbells and lying flat on a bench. However, what you don’t know is that better variation is to use cables.
The primary difference is that cables provide constant tension from the starting position to the end of the movement. With dumbbells, there is little to no tension at the top of the movement.
This gives your chest a slight “break” or pause. To get the most out of your chest fly, you need to have your chest activated throughout the ENTIRE movement. That’s why cables are a much better choice.
- Set up the pulleys on each side at about shoulder height and select an appropriate weight.
- Attach single handle attachments and grasp them firmly with each hand using a neutral grip.
- Take a couple of steps forward into a split stance, standing in the middle of the crossover machine. Transfer your weight onto the front foot by bending your front knee.
- Extend your arms back and wide until you feel a stretch in your chest. Retract your shoulder blades and engage your core. This is your starting position.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, use your pecs to bring your arms together in a sweeping motion until they are in front and in line with your chest. Your elbows should straight at the end position and SLIGHTLY bent at the starting position.
- Pause and squeeze your chest then slowly reverse the position to the starting position maintaining that SLIGHT bend in your elbows.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
In all chest fly variations, make sure your elbows are slightly bent at the start and fully extended at the end position. This is because the main function of the chest is horizontal adduction which means bringing your upper arms together. Hence if your elbows stayed bent at the end of the movement, your upper arms wouldn’t be brought together as far as it could have.
To maximise chest activation, the direction of the able must align with your arms. That’s why you need to make sure your arms don’t fall under the cables or above. You may need to play around with the height of the pulley.
To increase chest involvement, try crossing the cables over each other for a deeper and more intense contraction.
2. High-to-Low Cable Fly
To target the lower chest (abdominal head), we need exercises that have shoulder extension and horizontal adduction. In simpler words, moving our arm down and in front of your torso.
The high to low cable fly does exactly that. It isolates the the lower head of the pec major and provides an intense stretch which is undeniably the key for muscle hypertrophy.
- Set the pulley at the highest position and attach D-handles on each side.
- Grab one handle in each hand and pull them down in front of your hips.
- Take a couple of steps forwards into a staggered stance. Transfer your weight onto the front foot by bending your front knee.
- Open your arms wide and back until they are ln line with your shoulders. You should feel a stretch in your chest.
- Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, embrace your core, and retract your shoulder blades. Ensure to adjust your position so that the cables run inline with your forearms. This is your starting position.
- Use your pecs and bring your arms down towards your hips. Your elbows should be fully extended at the end position.
- Pause, squeeze, and deeply contract your pecs to develop that mind muscle connection.
- Slowly reverse the position by opening your arms wide and back until you feel the stretch.
The key is to make sure your arms are moving in a “downward” motion since your primary aim is to target the lower chest. Again, your arms must be slightly bent initially however fully extended at the end of the movement.
The cables must run in line with your arms to maximise chest activation and minimise other muscles being involves.
If you want, the exercise can be done using a bilateral stance however most people prefer the split stance since it provides more stability and balance.
Ensure NOT to touch the cables together. Instead allow for the cables to have a couple of inches of space between them during peak contraction. You could also perform these by crossing the cables over each other to provide higher chest activation.
3. Low-to-High Cable
Now that we’ve covered the middle and lower chest, let’s look at the best cable chest exercise for the upper chest.
The upper chest of the pec major (clavicular head) is often underdeveloped and undertrained by most people. However, to solve this, the low-to-high cable fly is one of the best upper chest exercises.
Since upper chest muscle fibres run “upward”, to activate this portion, you need to perform chest exercise where your arms move up (shoulder flexion). This is exactly what you’ll be doing during the low-to-high cable fly.
- Set the pulleys at a low position and attach D-handles on either side.
- Grab both handles so that your palms are facing forward and position yourself between the cable towers.
- Take a couple of steps forward into a staggered stance placing your weight onto your front knee.
- Retract your shoulders, embrace your core, and have a slight bend in your elbows. Also externally rotate your shoulder to expose your chest. This is your starting position.
- Using your upper chest, bring the cables up and in while internally rotating such that your thumbs are facing each other at the end of the movement.
- Keep lifting until the cables are in line with your shoulders. The movement should look like an upside-down “V”.
- Squeeze and hold.
- Slowly reverse the position by bring your arms back down while externally rotating.
Remember that your upper chest has a significant role in internal rotation. In fact, try this. Place your left hand on your right chest rotate your right arm inward. You should feel a slight contraction in your pecs. Hence, make sure you internally rotate your arm maximise upper chest activation.
With all the exercises for your chest you need to retract your shoulder blades to expose that chest out. This will place maximum tension on your chest.
Again, perform these slow and lower the weight to perform higher reps. This one is my go-to upper chest exercise! Try it out.
4. Seated Cabe Chest Press
This exercise is by far one of the best cable chest exercises however is generally overlooked by many people.
The main difference between free weight bench press and cables is the range of motion and tension.
Using cables offers a high range of motion and increase in muscle activation. Remember, pec major’s main function is horizontal adduction.
When performing the seat cable chest press, the cables would be pulling back and out to the side which makes this exercise much harder for your arms to travel towards the midline of your body.
Whereas, with dumbbells, gravity is pulling the weight straight down and as you push to the top position, your chest has little to no resistance.
That’s why it’s so important to use cables during your workout.
Here is how to perform the seated cable chest press.
- Set up a bench at a 90-degree angle and position it between the two cable machines.
- Set the height of the pulley to about chest level and attach D-handles to each side.
- Grab the handles with a pronated grip (palms facing down) a sit on the bench. Keep your shoulders retracted and your core tight. This is your starting position.
- Sitting upright and your chest out, squeeze as you extend your elbows. The cables should run in line with your arms.
- Keep extending your elbows until your arms are directly in front of your chest. Don’t need to lockout your elbows.
- Pause and squeeze!
- Slowly reverse the position in a controlled manner.
Your arms are the only thing moving throughout this exercise so try keep everything else stationary.
Perform this exercise slowly to develop that mind muscle connection.
5. Cable Incline Fly
If you want variation in your workout and want to hit the upper chest, this exercise is for you.
It’s like the standing low-to-high fly variation but this one is seated and is more comfortable for some people.
Throughout this movement, your front delts will be heavily activated as well.
- Set-up a bench at a 45-degree angle and position it between the two cable machines.
- Set the height of the pulley at a low position and attach D-handles to each side.
- Grab the handle with each arm and sit on the bench.
- Retract your shoulders, embrace your core, and open and extend your arms wide on either side. You should feel a stretch in your pecs. Your arms should be in line with your shoulders with a slight bend in your elbows. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your shoulders retracted and your arms in line with the cables, lift your arms in a semi-circle motion until they are directly up in front of you.
- Squeeze, squeeze, and squeeze at the top of the movement. Feel that deep stretch in you upper chest?
- Slowly return to the starting position.
Make sure your elbows are slightly bent at the start but fully extended at the end for peak contraction. Think to bring both of your elbows together.
Perform this exercise slowly in a controlled manner to get the most out of it. Especially the eccentric part of this exercise.
Also, avoid touching the handles together since that will take tension off the chest. Instead, stop the movement when both the handles are close together.
6. Decline Cable Chest Press
Positioning the bench in different angles targets different parts. Like we saw above, the upper head gets a lot of activation if the bench is position at an incline angle.
Hence, you guessed it, to target the lower chest, you need to perform exercises on a decline angle.
Of course, you could perform these with free weights, but cables will maintain a lot more tension and is also much safer.
Let’s see how to perform this exercise.
- Place a decline bench in the middle of the cable machine and directly in front.
- Lower the pulleys to the lowest setting and attach two D-handles on either side.
- Grab the handles and lay down on the decline bench and position the handles beside your chest. Your arms should form a 90-degree angle.
- Retract your shoulder blades and tighten your core. This is your starting position.
- Slowly, press the weight up by extending your arms and bringing the close together (adduction).
- Keep lifting until the handles are directly above your chest. Don’t fully lockout your elbows.
- Pause and SQUEEZE.
- Slowly reverse the movement.
Don’t lockout your elbows to maintain tension throughout the entire movement.
Also, ensure to retract your shoulder blades will significantly increase the tension being placed on the lower chest (abdominal head).
Some people do experience shoulder pain when performing this. If that’s you, stop right away and perform an alternative like a high-to-low fly.
Benefits of Using Cables
The main and most important benefit of using cable to perform chest exercises is because of the constant tension they place.
With free weights, there will be a point in which your “targeting” muscle will have little to no resistance at all. Let’s take the dumbbell fly as an example.
Yes, throughout majority of the exercise, there will always be tension. But when the dumbbells are right above you, there is virtually no tension on your chest.
What this does is that it gives you a slight “break” between your set. This is evident in the standard dumbbell bench press. When the dumbbells are right above you, there is no tension on your chest.
With cables it’s the complete opposite. From the start of the movement right till the very end, there is always tension being placed.
This increased in constant tension is key for hypertrophy.
Let’s look at the other key benefits of including cables into your workout.
1. More muscle activation
Not only do the cables provide constant tension, but it also involves many other stabiliser muscles. From your shoulders to your core, and your legs. Overall, more muscles will be activated which provides a higher intensity workout which promotes muscular strength.
This is a big thing. Cables are generally much safer and are easier on the joints, especially the shoulder, wrists, and elbows. Afterall, the last thing you want is to injure yourself, right?
With cables, if you find the weight too heavy, you simply won’t be able to lift it. With free wights, if you find the weight too heavy, you have no choice but to drop it which damage you shoulder badly, and your phone if its next to you. Yes, I’ve broke my phone before!
Hence, if the risk is limited, you can train to failure which is the best way to build muscle over time.
3. Great for Beginners
Apart from all the mistakes I made at the gym, the one thing I did correctly is start with cables.
Performing the standard bench press with no experience can seriously cause injuries. You first need to gain an understanding on your chest mechanisms before diving into things that require a lot more technique.
Cables require less technique and is generally easier to perform.
Cable machines are probably the best investment. Pretty much, any free weight exercise can be done with cables. They offer a variety of angles and different origin point positions that help target each part of any muscle.
For example, the above exercises targeted every part of the chest through simply varying the angle of the cable machine.
My Chest Workout with Cables And Free Weight.
This is my current chest workout. Note that you may see fitness influencers perform 5 or 6 different chest exercises however you really only need 3 -4 max.
1st Chest Day Of The Week
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Flat Bench Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Middle Chest)
Exercise 2: Incline Barbell Bench Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Upper Chest)
Exercise 3: High-to-Low Cable Fly: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Lower Chest)
2nd Chest Day Of The Week
Exercise 1: Flat Barbell Bench Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. Go Heavy! (Middle Chest)
Exercise 2: Incline Dumbbell Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Upper Chest)
Exercise 3: Seated Cable Chest Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Middle Chest)
Exercise 4: High-to-Low Cable Fly: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Lower Chest)
Just Cable Chest Workout
You can definitely target your entire chest with just a cable machine. Let me show you how and which exercises you can do.
1st Chest Day Of The Week
Exercise 1: Middle Chest Fly (Middle Chest)
Exercise 2: High-to-Low Cable Fly 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Upper Chest)
Exercise 3: Low-to-High Cable Fly: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Lower Chest)
2nd Chest Day Of The Week
Exercise 1: Seated Cable Chest Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. Go Heavy! (Middle Chest)
Exercise 2: Incline Cable Fly: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Upper Chest)
Exercise 4: Decline bench Chest Press: 3-4 Sets of 10-12 reps. (Lower Chest)
If you want a bigger and more defined pecs, you need to start focusing on cable chest exercises. They provide constant tension throughout the eccentric and concentric, are much safer, and highly effective.
These cable chest exercises above are some of the bests that will help target each area of the chest.
If you want the best results, include both free weight and cables into your workout as free weight does allow you to go heavier which is key for building muscle.