The shoulders may be one of the most enjoyable muscle groups to train in the gym. One of my favorite ways to train them is by using cables.

Their pivot joints, interchangeable handles, and the ability to change the resistance point make them incredibly versatile and a lot of fun to use.

Training the shoulder is a great way to improve your physique and define your upper body.

Over my years as a personal trainer, I would rarely see others taking the cable approach favoring more traditional methods such as free weights.

Many of my clients were surprised that using cables was great for targeting shoulders.

Now, with this in mind, I will share with you my ultimate cable shoulder workouts and the 17 best exercises to perform for strength and size.

Let’s jump in. 

Table of Contents

  • Are cable shoulder exercises good for shoulder development?
  • What are the benefits of training shoulders with cables?
  • What part of the shoulders do cables work?
  • When should I train my shoulders?
  • 17 Best Cable Shoulder Exercises
  • Cable Shoulder Workout Program
  • Cable Shoulder Recommended Rep Range, Load, and Progression
  • The benefits of Training Shoulders with Cables Compared to Barbells and Machines

Are cable shoulder exercises good for shoulder development?

Cables are great for shoulder development because their versatility provides a range of different angles, hand positions, and resistances.

The shoulder joint is one of the freest moving joints in the body. The muscles surrounding the joint work much like cables, accommodating a variety of movements.  

Training with cables allows you to target the muscles of the shoulder through many different ranges of motion that are not always afforded with other equipment in the gym.

What are the benefits of training shoulders with cables?

Research indicates that there are many benefits to training shoulders with cables. The ability to change angles of the pulley and points of resistance makes it great for targeting all the shoulder muscles.

By simply changing the body’s position in relation to the cable, we can perform push and pull movements, making it great for training the anterior (front) and posterior (back) of the shoulders (front).

While turning the body allows us to perform rotator cuff exercises that require alternative movements such as internal and external rotation. 

Drawbacks

While excellent for training shoulders, Cable machines aren’t without their drawbacks.

Due to their size, they aren’t always available in every setting. This means they can be expensive and can take up more space than a set of dumbbells.

They can also vary in their quality, with parts such as pulleys, grips, and even accuracy of resistance being an issue between machines.

For many affordable home-based models, resistance and cable length is an issue. This limits versatility, with some exercises unable to be taken through their full range of motion.    

What part of the shoulders do cables work?

Cable shoulder workouts

The table below presents the muscles we can target by training shoulders with cables.

Anatomy

MuscleActionOriginInsertion
Anterior DeltoidFlexion of the armFront outer collarboneDeltoid tuberosity of the humerus (upper arm)
Medial DeltoidAbduction of the armAcromion (outer side) of the socket joint (ball and socket)Deltoid tuberosity of the humerus (upper arm)
Posterior DeltoidExtensionExternal rotationHorizontal abduction of the arm Spine of the scapulaDeltoid tuberosity of the humerus (upper arm)
SupraspinatusAbduction of the armUpper ridge of inner bladeLateral (outer side) of the humerus (arm)
InfraspinatusExternal rotation of the armMedial back side of the shoulder bladeLateral (outer side) of the humerus (arm)
Teres MinorExternal rotation and Adduction of the armLateral (outer) margin of the scapulaLateral (outer side) of the humerus (arm)
SubscapularisInternal rotation Extension of the armFront of the scapulaFront of the humerus (arm)
Trapezius RetractionElevation of scapDepression of scapThoracic spine, base of the skullCollar bone, spine of scapula, outer side of the socket joint (Acromion)

When should I train my shoulders? 

Given the shoulder’s ability to function through almost all planes of movement, different shoulder muscles can be added to different days. 

Using the anatomy table above, I will help you group specific movements and exercises.

Let’s take a four-day split routine schedule, with days dedicated to the back, chest, and arms.

Back Day

Back day is a great time to train the posterior muscles of the shoulder and the upper back. 

Many of our movements require retraction and a degree of stability through the shoulder during these sessions, making it a logical selection. 

Movements such as reverse cable flys, wide cable rows, and external cable rotations can be great additions as they stimulate the posterior shoulder and the stabilizers of our rotator cuffs.

These exercises allow us to hit some of our target muscles, including:

  • Trapezius
  • Rear deltoid
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor

Performing many of these shoulder movements following your larger back day lifts is a great way to flesh out your program and build a great set of shoulders.

Chest Day

During our chest or push days, we can aim to target the anterior (front) aspects of our shoulders. 

Exercises such as the bench press and flys already utilizing the anterior muscles and stabilizers of the shoulders make it a great time to add some extra shoulder work in.

For chest and push days, focus on movements that require flexion and abduction of the arm. 

Exercises such as lateral raises, overhead pressing, and even shrugs and external rotation can be great additions to your chest day. 

By performing these movements, we can hit muscles, including:

  • Anterior deltoid
  • Medial deltoid
  • Upper trapezius
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres Minor 

The great thing about training stabilizers during most of our upper body days is that it allows us to improve our shoulder health. 

Arm and Shoulder Day

If you are currently performing or thinking of taking a split routine with a dedicated arm day, this is a great way to squeeze in another shoulder session.

Arm days typically comprise both push and pull elements with the use of biceps and triceps. Adding shoulders in is a no-brainer as you will be using the shoulder to some degree through these movements already. 

While we train them during our back and chest days, they are often the secondary mover.

By training them on your arms day, you head into your session with fresh shoulders and hammer out some dedicated work.

It is here that you can also work on the areas of your shoulders you want to isolate and improve. And with no prior exercises, you can perform any movement. 

17 Best Cable Shoulder exercises

Related: Cable Chest Workout

1. Kneeling Shoulder Press

The kneeling shoulder press is an excellent exercise for the whole body. You must engage your core and brace through the hips by assuming the kneeling position. This allows you to press from a solid foundation.

How To Perform Kneeling Shoulder Press

  • Adjust the pulley to the bottom using a cable machine and wide neutral grip attachment.
  • Kneeling on one leg, place yourself with the cable at the midline of the body.
  • Start by grabbing the handles and lift the wide neutral grip attachment to the collarbone, with the elbows tucked into the sides of the body. 
  • Take a deep breath, bracing the core while pressing handles overhead to begin the movement.
  • Press handles until arms are straight above your head.
  • From the top, gradually lower the handles, returning them to the starting position. Repeat.  

Pro Tips

  • Before your lifts, be sure to brace the core and engage the glutes. This will help stabilize your body giving you a solid base to press from.
  • Kneeling position can be done on one knee or both, depending on personal preference.

2. Front Raises

Cable front raises are an excellent variation to their dumbbell counterparts. Using the cable allows for a smoother movement and continuous resistance throughout the entire movement. 

How To Perform Cable Front Raises

  • Begin by standing in the split stance, dual cables adjusted to the bottom.
  • Using single-handed grips, grab the handles with arms relaxed at the side
  • To begin the movement, exhale and engage your core.
  • With palms facing down, lift the cables out in front of you, with a slight bend at the elbows.
  • Raise the cables until your arms are horizontal and directly out in front of you. 
  • Once you have reached the top, gradually lower the cable back to the starting position. Repeat. 

Pro Tips

  • For the first set, start with a lighter weight and focus on performing controlled repetitions. This will allow you to focus on your technique and the contraction of the anterior deltoid (front shoulder.)
  • Before each repetition, exhale and engage the core.

3. Lateral Raises

The lateral raise is excellent for developing the width of the shoulders. Like the cable front raise, the lateral raise allows our muscles to have constant resistance.

This makes it a great alternative, letting you switch up your approach to deltoid training.

How To Perform Cable Lateral Raises

  • Using a dual adjustable cable machine, stand between the cables with feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Grab a handle in each hand, crossing them over, with palms facing inward.
  • To start the movement, breathe and tense your abdominals. 
  • Gradually lift cables out toward the sides until your arms are parallel with the ground.
  • Once you have reached the top, gradually lower the cables and return them to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips 

  • Before each repetition, exhale and engage your abdominals. This will help you brace for a more stable movement.
  • Start with a lighter weight to begin, and focus on the contraction of your medial deltoid.

4. Leaning Lateral Raise

A variation of the lateral cable raise, the leaning lateral raise allows you to perform the movement with a great degree of abduction at the arm.

By positioning the body at an angle, you can improve resistance above 90-degree abduction, typically found in regular lateral raises. This improves the stimulation of the muscle fibers.

How To Perform Angled Cable Lateral Raises

  • Using one grip, adjust the cable to the bottom.
  • To set up your stance, grab a handle with the hand furthest away from the machine.
  • With the hand closest to the machine, grasp it for support.
  • From here, place your back foot behind the cable, and your front foot in front at the base of the machine.
  • Now, lean away from the machine with your hand supporting you.
  • To begin the movement, raise the cable out to the side of the body until it is parallel with the floor.
  • Once you have reached the top, gradually lower the weight to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips 

  • If you are familiar with the movement, start with a lighter weight and focus on technique and foot placement.
  • Use a lighter weight to begin and test your shoulder’s range of motion above 90 degrees of abduction (side raise). This will help you control the movement and reduce the risk of injury.

5. Cable Bent-Over Reverse Fly

Related: Back and Bicep Workout

The bent-over reverse fly with cables is a great way to target the rear delts. The cable’s continuous resistance allows you to perform the movement smoothly without the added jolting that can come with free weights.

How To Perform Bent Over Reverse Fly

  • Using a dual adjustable cable machine, lower cables to the bottom with single grip attachments.
  • Standing between the cables, cross them over, with palms facing inward at the midline of the body.
  • With feet shoulder-width apart, bend forward at the hips (aim for 90 degrees).
  • To begin the movement, gradually raise the cables out toward the side until they parallel with the floor.
  • Once you reach the top, slowly lower them to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Use a lighter weight to perform this movement. Flying from the bent-over position puts the shoulder in a weaker position, meaning you can use less weight and focus on muscle activation.
  • Aim to bend for 90 degrees. This angle will help you hit the rear deltoids better. 

6. Bent-Over Wide Grip Row

Related: Rear Delt Exercises

An excellent variation of a classic row exercise, the bent over wide grip row helps engage the entire body while hitting the rear deltoids and upper back.  

How To Perform Bent-Over Wide Grip Row

  • Using a single cable, attach a wide neutral grip handle, with the pulley lowered to the bottom.
  • Standing in front of the pulley, with cable at the midline of the body.
  • With feet shoulder-width apart, slightly bend the knees, bend forward at the hips, and grab the wide grip handles.
  • Start the movement with arms at length, rowing it towards the middle of your pecs.
  • Once the bar hits your chest (or close to), gradually lower the bar to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Begin with a lighter weight and focus on technique, contracting the rear deltoid and upper back.
  • Before performing each repetition, exhale and brace the core. Aim to perform each rep with as little swing as possible. 

7. Rope Face Pull

The rope face pull is one of the most effective exercises for training the rear deltoids and the upper back.

The exercise combines external rotation of the arm and retraction of the shoulders blades. The rowing of the rope past the ears draws focus to traps, rear delt, and rotator cuff. 

How To Perform Rope Face Pulls

  • Using a single adjustable cable. Position the cable to chin level and face toward the machine.
  • Using the rope attachment, grasp it with your thumb pointing toward you and arms directly out in front, parallel with the floor.
  • To begin the movement, retract shoulder blades, drawing elbows back and out wide towards you.
  • Focus on pulling rope handles past ears.
  • Once your elbows are in line with your body, gradually release, returning the cable to the starting position. Repeat. 

Pro Tips

  • Focus on pulling shoulder blades back and squeezing the rear deltoid and the muscles of the upper back.
  • High rows are weaker movements, so start with a lighter weight to begin and focus on the contraction of the rear deltoids and upper back.

8. Cable External Rotations

The cable external rotation is a simple and highly effective way to train the muscles of the rotator cuff.

By using cables, we can change the point of resistance and target these muscles more effectively. 

How To Perform External Rotations

  • Using an adjustable cable machine and single grip, raise the cable to waist height.
  • Facing the cable, grab the handle and take two steps backward. 
  • From here, bend the elbow and turn your body 90 degrees so that your cable hand is furthest from the machine.
  • Tuck your elbow to your side with your position straight so it creates a 90-degree angle with your body.
  • To begin the movement, rotate your cable arm outward, and away from the body (aim for 45 degrees).
  • Once you have reached your desired angle, gradually return the cable to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • The muscles of the rotator cuff are much smaller in size. For best results, begin with a lighter weight and focus on contracting the muscle of the rotator cuff.
  • Be sure to lock your elbow in for the duration of the set. This will help to isolate the target muscles.

9. Cable Upright Row

A variation of the free weight version, the upright row is a great way to develop the rear delts, traps, and the upper back. 

Cables let you perform the movement using constant resistance, allowing you to focus on contracting the muscle.

How To Perform Cable Upright Row

  • Using a single cable and a bar attachment, stand in front of the machine with a cable in line with the middle of your body.
  • With feet shoulder-width apart, pick up the bar with an overhand grip.
  • To begin the movement, pull the bar upward, aiming your elbows toward the ceiling.
  • Pull up until the bar is just below the collarbone.
  • From here, gradually lower the bar to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • If you are feeling restriction or impingement in the front of the shoulder, take a step back and decrease the upright angle. 
  • For beginners, start with a lighter weight and stop at chest level. This will help to improve technique and avoid discomfort.

10. Cable Scoop Flys

The scoop fly is a fantastic cable exercise for the muscle of the front of the shoulder and the upper chest.

Similar to the front raise, the scoop fly employs flexion of the shoulder joint. This is combined with an additional squeeze of the pecs as the handles are drawn to the midline of the body.

How To Perform Scoop Fly

  • Using a dual cable machine, adjust the pulleys to the base of the machine.
  • Stand in between the cables in the split stance.
  • Grab the handles with palms facing forward and chest up high.
  • To begin the movement, raise the grips with an underhand until the handles meet eye level at the midline of your body,
  • Once you have completed this phase, gradually lower the cables to the beginning phase. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • When performing the scoop fly, use a lighter weight as the shoulder is weak at the top of the movement.
  • At the top of the movement, focus on squeezing the muscle of the chest and front of the shoulders.

11. Standing Reverse Cable Fly

The standing reverse fly lets you perform the fly movement in a far more comfortable upright position.

The reverse cable fly is an excellent exercise for targeting the upper and back rear deltoids.

How To Perform Standing Reverse Cable Fly

  • Using a dual cable machine, adjust the pulleys to the top level. 
  • From here, stand in the middle of the machine, a handle in each hand, taking a small step backward.
  • Set up your stance with feet shoulder-width apart and chest up.
  • To begin the movement, pull cables and squeeze shoulder blades together, making a cross with the cables.
  • Pulling with arms strength until your arms are 180 degrees in line with your body.
  • Once you reach this position, gradually release it until they reach the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips 

  • Cable flies are one of the weaker movements, so start with a lighter weight and focus on squeezing the rear deltoids and upper back for best results.
  • Prior to each rep take a deep breath and brace your core.

12. Standing Cable Overhead Press

The standing cable press is a great exercise that emulates your traditional barbell press with the consistency of ongoing resistance.

The overhead press position requires you to engage the entire body before each repetition and can be a great tool for shoulder growth.

How To Perform Cable Overhead Press  

  • Using a dual adjustable cable machine, set pulleys at the bottom with a single-handed grip attached to each.
  • Standing in the middle, pull the cables up until your elbows are at 90 degrees.
  • From here, press the cables up and toward the middle.
  • Once your arms are almost at full length, slowly begin to lower them until they reach the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips  

  • Before each rep, inhale and brace your core.
  • If you are new to the movement, start with a light weight and focus on technique.

13. Kneeling Single-Arm Shoulder Press

The kneeling single-arm press takes a great shoulder cable exercise and adds an element of instability.

You need to brace through the core to keep the hips level and provide a strong foundation as you press with one hand.

How To Perform Kneeling Single-Arm Press  

  • Using a single cable, adjust the pulley to the bottom.
  • With the side you are going to lift with, line your shoulder up to the pulley.
  • Kneeling next to the pulley, grab the handle and pull it up so that hand rests at the shoulder.
  • To begin the movement, engage your core and press the cable overhead.
  • Once the arm is extended overhead, lower the cable back down to starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Prior to lifting, take a deep breath and engage the core. This will help stabilize and provide you with a strong foundation to lift from.
  • Use either a double kneel or half-kneeling position to lift from. Choose whichever is more comfortable for you. 

14. Cable Y Raises

The cable Y raise is a great exercise that allows you to target all the muscles of the shoulders and rotator cuff.

Like the reverse fly, it is a weaker movement and requires more technique and focus on muscular contraction than heavy weight. 

How To Perform Cable Y Raises

  • Using a dual cable machine and single grips, adjust pulleys to the bottom.
  • Stand in front of the machine between the two pulleys.
  • Grab a handle in each hand and cross them over with arms rested, palms face down at the front of the thighs.
  • To begin, raise the cables in front of you until they reach overhead.
  • Finish the movement once your arms are at the top making a Y shape.
  • From here, gradually lower the cables to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Use a lighter weight to start as the movement can be challenging, especially overhead.
  • Before each lift, focus on engaging the core and squeezing the muscles of the shoulders.  

15. Cable Squat Press

The cable squat press is a great exercise that can be used to train for power. The cable allows you to change the angles of the press to suit your size while providing you with a level of safety that isn’t always afforded with free weights.

How To Perform Cable Squat Press

  • Using a dual cable machine and single grips, adjust the pulley to the bottom position.
  • Standing in between both pulleys, assume a split stance while holding cables at shoulder height.
  • To begin the movement, brace the core and lower yourself into a squat.  
  • From here, exhale while forcefully pushing the cables overhead as you explode out of the squat.
  • Allow the weight to return with the same momentum and absorb the weight return with the core and legs. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • To begin the movement, focus on driving the weight up using the entire body. This is done by generating power through the knees and hips.
  • Focus on breathing, exhaling as you forcefully push the weight overhead. 

16. Kneeling High Rope Row

The high rope row is great for the rear deltoid and upper back. The rope attachment is great for added shoulder blade retraction while the kneeling allows you to work your core.

How To Perform Kneeling High Rope Row

  • Using a single cable and rope attachment, adjust it to shoulder height.
  • Standing in front of the cable, half kneel with chest up.
  • Grab an end of the rope in each hand with thumbs pointing upward.
  • With arms out straight, row the cable backward and down until your thumbs reach the front of your shoulders.
  • Once you have completed the repetition, gradually release and return the cable to the starting position. Repeat.

Pro Tips

  • Keep chest up through the duration of the movement. This will help you target the muscles of the upper back rear delts.
  • Focus on squeezing the muscles of the upper back with every rep while exhaling and bracing the core. 

17. Cable Top-Down Press

The cable top-down press challenges the muscles using isometric contraction. By holding one of the cables overhead while the other performs the press movement, you will need to be conscious of stabilizing through the core and the muscles of the overhead arm. 

How To Perform Cable Top-Down Press

  • Using a dual cable machine and single hand grips, adjust pulleys to the bottom of the machine.
  • Stand in front of the machine between both pulleys with a grasping handle in each hand.
  • Start by standing feet shoulder-width apart and with both cables pressed directly overhead.
  • First, gradually lower one handle until it reaches 90 degrees bent at the elbow. While the other arm remains straight overhead.
  • From here, press the moving arm, and return it to the starting position. Alternative each hand.

Pro Tips

  • Start with a lightweight to begin as maintaining the overhead holds can be tiring. 
  • Brace core throughout the whole set. This will help you draw strength to hold the weight overhead and perform the press.

Cable Shoulder Workouts

Beginner

ExerciseSetsRepetitionsRest Time
Kneeling Shoulder Press38-1245 – 60 secs
Rope Face Pulls38-1245 – 60 secs
Bent-Over Wide Grip Row38-1260 secs
Cable Front Raise38-1045 secs
Cable Lateral Raise38-1045 secs

Advanced

ExerciseSetsRepetitionsRest Time
Rope Face Pull4845 – 60 secs
Cable Y Raises38-1245 – 60 secs
Bent-Over Wide Grip Row4860 secs
Cable Scoop Fly41045 secs
Cable Top Down Press31045 secs
Cable Push Press46-845 secs

Cable Shoulder Recommended Rep Range, Load, and Progression

Using cables for shoulder development targets all the different muscles surrounding the joint. 

The literature indicates the following rep ranges are recommended for specific types of training.

TypeRep Range
Strength/Power0-5
Hypertrophy6-12
Endurance 12-15+

Cables are great for muscle hypertrophy and endurance as it allows us to push heavy weights and high rep ranges in a safe environment.

And while strength and power can be trained through cables, it is not often done.

Strength and power training are often performed with the barbells and dumbbells. This is done as gravity provides a more realistic resistance than the continuous flow of cables.

The Benefits of Training Shoulders with Cables Compared to Barbells and Machines

Cable shoulder exercises

Want to mix up your training? Train shoulders with cables.

But what makes them better than training with more traditional pieces of equipment such as the barbell and dumbbell?

Here, I will list five benefits of training shoulders with cables.  

Continuous Resistance

Training using cables allows you to have continuous resistance through the entire repetition.

Unlike dumbbells and barbells that use gravity for resistance, the cable uses the pulley system.

This means that from the moment you begin the exercise and all the way through the movement until you release it, you will have the same weight.

On the other hand, free weights have moments where the weight becomes light. This is due to the weight’s position in relation to gravity. This is called a strength curve.

Strength curves illustrate how resistance can vary through the course of exercises.

A good example of this is the strength curves of the dumbbell bicep curl.

The arm has minor resistance while the dumbbell is held at the side. As the dumbbell moves up and the elbow is at 90 degrees, this is where the weight is near its heaviest for the bicep.

Finally, once the dumbbell reaches the top, the weight is again lighter due as it is directly above the arm, with gravity resting it in a secure position.

The pulley system does not require gravity for resistance, so it can provide resistance through the entire movement. 

Safety

Safety is another great benefit of training with cables over dumbbells or barbells.

As free weights use gravity to create resistance, we are also susceptible to losing grip and having the weights come crashing to the ground.

The benefit of using cables is that when we lose our grip or release the weight, the pulley system will return the cable to its resistance point.

While accidents can still happen using any piece of equipment, cables allow us to indirectly use weight making it a much safer option, especially at high resistance.

Different Angles

Cable machines provide various angles that aren’t available with dumbbells and barbells.

Originally, cable machines would have a fixed position, only allowing for a pull in a single direction.

They have since evolved, with the addition of hinges that give great freedom of movement.

The ability to change angles is excellent for super-setting shoulders. The quick change gives us the freedom to change our target muscles with a simple change of position.  

Adjustable Point of Resistance

The ability to change the cable’s point of resistance is a gamechanger. 

With many machines providing the option to change the cable outlet position, we can now change the angle and the height.

While dumbbells and barbells only offer gravity for resistance, cables can offer resistance in all planes of movement as we lift the weight vertically.

This is great for training shoulders as they perform so many movements.

By lowering the resistance point, we can go from training the front of our shoulders with a push movement straight to training our rear shoulders by performing upright cable rows.

Change Weight Quickly

The ability to change weight quickly is yet another great function of the cable machine. 

While free weights require you to have multiple pairs of dumbbells or barbells handy, the cable machine only requires a simple switching of the pin.

You can quickly change resistance without having to hoard dumbbells or needing to unnecessarily bend down between sets.    

Conclusion

With the shoulder being one of the most free-moving joints in the body, it only seems natural that we should train with an equally fluid and interchangeable machine. 

The cable provides a unique approach to training the shoulders. Changing handles, position, and weight is easy, making your workout more dynamic.

So, what did you think of my list? Are any of your favorites on there, or have I left one out? 

Let me know in the comments below.