Visit any large commercial gym and you will probably see at least one cable crossover machine. Stick around long enough and you will most likely see someone performing a cable fly or a triceps pressdown, perhaps even a leg adductor exercise -- but that’s about it. This is unfortunate, because the cable crossover is a total body exercise machine that can be used to perform countless exercises. Let’s take a look at a few.
As background, credit is often given to fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne for coming up with the idea of the cable crossover machine, along with the leg extension and Smith machine. But unlike a leg extension machine, the versatile pulleys and crossbar chin-up attachment of the cable crossover enables you to perform not just traditional bodybuilding exercises, but also functional training movements and the assisted stretching exercises popular with physical therapists and strength coaches.
The basic cable crossover machine has two high/low pulley systems linked together with a crossbar. The pulleys are swivel-mounted, allowing them to move in a more natural path. The weight stacks use a selectorized weight-stack system (which apparently LaLanne also developed!) so that the resistance can be easily changed. The more expensive units have additional attachments, such as special seats for performing lat pulldowns or preacher curls. These monster-sized units take up a considerable amount of space and are usually only found in the largest commercial gyms.
Because exercises performed with cables require more stability than conventional machines or free weights, you will generally use less weight than the same exercise performed on a cable crossover. However, before comparing a free weight exercise to a cable crossover variation, consider that often the pulley design creates a 2:1 ratio of resistance, such that 100 pounds on a cable crossover exercise may be equivalent to just 50 pounds on a barbell or dumbbell exercise. This is why most commercial gyms have weight stacks of at least 150 pounds each on their cable crossover machines.
From a bodybuilding perspective, cable crossover exercises should be considered more of a way to instill variety into a program, enabling you to work the muscles from unique angles and with different strength curves. Compared to elastic band exercises, cable exercises could be considered more functional as they provide resistance throughout the entire exercise, whereas bands provide minimal resistance at the start of the exercise.
For a few hundred ideas on what exercises you can do with the cable crossover, a remarkable resource is Bill Pearl’s classic, Keys to the Inner Universe (2nd edition, June 10, 2015, Bill Pearl Enterprises). It’s not possible here to list all the exercises that can be performed with a cable crossover, but let’s look at a few for each of the major body parts.
Abdominals. Abdominal crunch machines are a standard fixture in many commercial gyms, but the rectus abdominis (i.e., the “six pack” muscles) can be effectively trained with standing and kneeling crunches using the high pulley attachments. A straight-arm pulldown with a high pulley attachment can also effectively train this muscle for those who find crunch-type movements uncomfortable.
Biceps and Triceps. Besides the high pulley “double biceps pose” curls and triceps pressdown exercises that you often see in muscle magazines, there are numerous types of elbow flexion and elbow extension exercises that can be performed with the cable crossover pulley system.
Chest. The single most popular exercise for the chest on a cable crossover is the cable fly -- it is so commonly associated with this machine that it is often called cable crossovers. There are several variations of this movement, such as performing it with the low handles or with just one handle.
Hamstrings/Glutes/Lower Back. Pull-throughs using a rope attachment connected to a low pulley is a popular posterior chain exercise commonly performed on a cable crossover, along with single-leg deadlifts. Conventional deadlifts can also be performed with a low pulley, but the resistance is usually too light for anyone except a beginner or someone who is exceptionally weak.
Leg Adductors/Abductors. Performing isolation exercises for the leg adductors (pulling in) and abductors (extending out) have been popular among women, but these movements are also often used in corrective exercise programs. The low pulley attachment and an ankle attachment enable you to perform these movements comfortably.
Quadriceps. Using a low pulley, split squats and squats and be performed with a cable crossover machine. The low pulley affects the legs differently than a standard split squat with a barbell or dumbbell because the resistance pulls you forward rather than pushing you down. As such, the posterior chain muscles (especially the hamstrings) are more actively involved.
Rotational Core Exercises. Rotational core exercises, such as the wood chop and reverse wood chop, are sports specific movements often used by golfers and those involved in throwing sports. The high/low pulley design of the cable crossover makes it easy to perform both standing and seated variations of these movements.
Shoulders. Pulleys allow for resistance throughout the entire movement of an exercise, making them ideal for shoulder exercises such as lateral raises. And by changing the body position, you can effectively hit all areas of the shoulder.
Upper and Middle Back/Trapezius. Many cable crossover machines come with a special seat to perform lat pulldowns, but there are many types of standing and kneeling pulldown exercises that can be performed with the high pulley attachments. Chin-ups and pull-ups can also be performed if the unit comes with a chin-up bar attached to the crossbar, and many types of rows can be performed from a kneeling or standing position. As for the upper trapezius, upright rows using the low pulleys are a good alternative to barbell and dumbbell variations.
It’s a stretch to say that the cable crossover machine should be considered an on-the-spot, one-stop shop for all your exercise needs, but it comes pretty close. Rediscover this versatile exercise machine and see it can do for you!