If you struggle to grow your shoulders or lack muscle definition, consider adding more cable shoulder exercises to your workouts. Cables allow you to target all areas of the shoulders with constant loading and are highly effective at helping you find the best angles to get the best shoulder workouts.
The 17 best cable exercises you can do to build more muscular and sculpted shoulders are:
- Cable Front Raise
- Cable Underhand Front Raise
- Cable Lateral Raise
- Cable Leaning Lateral Raise
- Side Lying Lateral Raise
- Cable Y Raise
- Behind the Back Cable Lateral Raise
- Cable Face Pull
- Cable Rear Delt Fly
- Lying Reverse Fly
- Bent Over Single Arm Rear Delt Fly
- Cable Shoulder Press
- Cable Kneeling Shoulder Front Press
- Cable Shrug
- Cable Upright Row
- Cable High Pulldown
- Cable Shoulder External Rotation
To help you get the most out of your cable shoulder training, I’ll teach you how to perform the 17 best cable shoulder exercises and share a sample workout that you can use today to build more muscular and defined shoulders in as little as 6 weeks.
If you struggle to build more muscular shoulders, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Get 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Anatomy Of Shoulder Muscles
The shoulders are composed of a few muscle groups that all contribute to the shape and size of the shoulders. The following muscle groups can further be broken down into smaller muscles, each performing essential roles to support shape, size, and function.
The deltoid is a large muscle that covers the entire shoulder region. This muscle has three main groupings of muscle fibers (anterior, lateral, posterior) that each contributes to the overall shape and size of the shoulders.
The anterior deltoid muscle fibers are trained during most pressing exercises (both overhead and horizontally, like the bench press). These can also be isolated with front raises and front presses.
The lateral deltoid muscle fibers are also trained during overhead pressing movements, lateral raises, or any other movement that has you lift the arms out to the sides (with straight elbows).
Lastly, the posterior deltoid muscle fibers cover the back of the shoulders and are trained during pulling movements like face pulls and high rows. These also can be isolated with rear flys.
Rotator Cuff Muscles
The rotator cuff muscle group is made up of many smaller muscles that help to support the shoulder joint. While these muscles are crucial to shoulder development (more from an injury prevention standpoint), you typically do not need to train them directly (other than in warm-ups) as they are used during all shoulder exercises to stabilize the joint.
However, if you are unstable in these movements, are currently dealing with an injury, or have had a previous shoulder injury, you may want to consult with a doctor or physical therapist to see if you need to do more rehabilitation exercises to prepare for shoulder workouts.
The trapezius is a large muscle that spans from the upper back down the spine. While the traps are not part of the shoulders per se, they play a vital role in stabilizing the scapular (shoulder blades), which can help promote shoulder health and strength.
The trap, primarily the upper traps, also provides some additional shape and size to the upper back and shoulders, so shrugs, face pulls, and upright rows are often included in “shoulder” workouts.
Related Article: Must Do Shoulder Exercise for More Muscular Shoulders
3 Unique Benefits Of Cable Shoulder Exercises
While there are many benefits (such as; the ability to train one arm at a time, the versatility of training many exercises with one piece of equipment, etc.), the 3 benefits below are unique to cables (and cannot be said for dumbbells, barbells, or machines).
Smooth, Constant, and Consistent Loading
Cables allow you to keep constant tension and loading on the shoulders throughout the entire range of motion. This is key for exercises like front, lateral, and rear raises.
When using free weights, you always work against gravity, which works vertically (gravity pulls loads and objects straight down), which means that when you lift weights farther from your body, they will be more challenging (due to leverage and physics).
This is why it’s harder to raise your arms to your shoulder height when doing lateral raises than it is just to raise them to your stomach height.
With free weights, there will also be a portion of the movement where you get to relax and take tension off of your shoulder muscles.
Training with cables takes all that away, allowing you to train your shoulder muscles throughout the entire range of motion.
Can Train A Variety of Angles
Cables are great for quickly changing the angles at which you are performing an exercise while keeping the same amount of tension and loading on the muscle. You can quickly slide the pulley up or down, or sometimes even broader or narrower to fit the individual needs of the lifter.
By training various angles, you can hit all heads of the shoulders (front, lateral, and rear) easily and quickly (often without changing your torso position).
Ideal for Isolation Exercises
There is no denying that free weights are great for building more prominent, more muscular shoulders (especially dumbbell and barbell shoulder presses). Cables, however, offer you the ability to isolate those muscles more directly (even more than free weights) due to the benefits listed above.
This means that adding more cables could be a good option if you are looking just to isolate the shoulder.
To get the best of both worlds, I recommend choosing 2-3 free weight movements (for general strength & hypertrophy) and 2-3 cable exercises (for specific isolation) for each shoulder workout.
Related Article: Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises for Strength and Muscle Growth
17 Best Shoulder Exercises With Cables
Here are the 17 best shoulder exercises you can do with cables to build muscle.
Note: Most of the exercises below can be found in the Fitbod app, but not all.
1. Cable Front Raise
The cable front raise targets the anterior deltoid. This is the cable version of the dumbbell or barbell front raise, which keeps more constant tension on the front delts.
To ensure you keep tension on the shoulders at the bottom of the movement, set up 2-3’ back from the cable machine.
How To Do It
- Set a cable pulley to the lowest position, and grab the rope attachment with both your hands, with the palms facing each other.
- Turn and face away from the machine with the cable running between your legs.
- The weight should be off the stack as you start at the bottom of the movement.
- Stand tall with a firm base, and lift your arms upwards without bending your elbow, arching your lower back, or leaning backward.
- Lift until your arms get to shoulder height (can go higher if it feels comfortable), then slowly lower back to the starting position.
You can vary your attachment (straight bar or rope) based on what feels best on the shoulders. Switching the attachment every 4-6 weeks can extend the effectiveness of this movement, allowing you to do it for months straight before needing to switch it up.
2. Cable Underhand Front Raise
The cable underhand front raise is done exactly like the cable front raise, apart from your palms which face upward as you lift the hand rather than down.
Some lifters find that this variation helps to isolate more of the anterior deltoid due to the shoulder being externally rotated.
How To Do It
- With the cable pulley in the low position, grab the straight bar attachment with both arms and take a palms-up grip.
- While standing slightly offset and 2-3’ back from the machine (like above), lift the handle and arm with straight elbows until shoulder height.
- Lower the handle slowly to the start position and repeat.
Do not let your shoulders round forward as you lower the handle. Play around with how low you can lower your arms while still keeping tension on the front delts.
3. Cable Lateral Raise
The cable lateral raise targets the lateral head of the deltoid and is the cable version of the dumbbell lateral/side raise.
You can do this one arm at a time or stand and cross over the handles to train both arms simultaneously.
How To Do It
- Stand facing a cable machine with both pulleys set to the lowest position.
- Grab the right pulley with the left arm and the left with the right arm (crossing the cables).
- Step back 2-3’ to put tension on the pulleys. Your hands should be down to your sides and slightly in front of you.
- Lift the arms upwards and to the sides without bending your elbows, keeping your palms down and thumbs forward (do not let the thumbs rotate upwards).
- Raise the handles to shoulder height, then slowly lower them to the start position.
As you raise the handles, the elbows should stay straight and in line with the shoulders at the top of the lift. If you cannot keep the elbows up in line with the wrists (or even above), lower the weight and focus on your form.
4. Cable Leaning Lateral Raise
The cable leaning lateral raise is a one-arm raise variation that allows you to train the shoulder through a wider range of motion.
Some lifters also find that by doing lateral raises through a wider range of motion, they can get better “caps” and create more definition on the tops of their shoulders.
How To Do It
- Stand in line with a low pulley, with your body turned 90 degrees (the side of your body is facing the machine).
- Grab the machine with the arm closest to the machine, and lean away using the arm to keep you from falling. Your feet should be close to the base.
- Grab the handle with your other arm so that the cable is running in front of your body. Adjust your feet (move back or forward an inch or two as needed).
- With your outer arm straight and the palm facing your thigh, lift the outer arm until the hand is in line with your head. Make sure you keep your palm facing down.
- Slowly lower the handle (2-3 seconds lowering), coming all the way down before repeating for reps.
The more you can lean, the greater your range of motion, and the harder your lateral delts have to work. It is best to grab the machine around chest or shoulder height; just be sure to make sure your fingers are clear of any pulleys, cables, or weights.
5. Side Lying Lateral Raise
The side-lying lateral raise is a lateral raise variation that removes the ability to lean or cheat the movement.
By lying on your side, you can keep your torso from moving as your arm raises. This is extremely helpful for lifters who struggle to do standing lateral raises properly.
How To Do It
- Lie on an incline bench (30-degree incline), with your right shoulder down and left facing the sky and your feet towards a low cable pulley.
- With a handle in your left hand and palm turned towards you, straighten the elbow and back.
- Lift the left hand upwards above you without bending the elbow or turning the wrist.
- Lift your arm until you are at a 90-degree angle at the armpit, and then slowly lower the hand back to the starting position.
When lowering, focus on controlling the movement. By doing this on an incline bench, you can also add more range of motion to the movement. Make these even more difficult by stopping 1’ off the thigh at the bottom, keeping tension on the shoulders between reps.
6. Cable Y Raise
The cable Y raise targets both the anterior and lateral delts, as well as the lower traps. This is a great warm-up movement to encourage shoulder health and stability.
When doing this, you want to make sure that you are not leaning back and are always controlling the movement on the way down.
How To Do It
- Stand facing a cable stack and set both pulleys at knee height. If the handles are more than 3-4’ apart, you must cross the cables (grab the right handle with the left arm, and vice versa).
- With the palms down, lift your hands upwards, making a Y above you, keeping your elbows straight the entire time.
- Raise the hands above your head, and then slowly lower the arms to the start position.
As you raise your arms, ensure you are not letting your chest or rib cage rise upwards. Keep the ribs down, and raise your hands rather than arching your lower back or leaning back.
7. Behind the Back Cable Lateral Raise
The behind-the-back cable lateral raise increases the range of motion of the standard lateral raise but also removes the anterior delt from the movement.
This is a good option for lifters who want to isolate the lateral delt and have issues feeling it during regular lateral raises.
How To Do It
- Stand perpendicular to the cable machine, with the side of your body next to the low pulley.
- Grab the handle with the hand farthest from the machine, with the cable running behind you. You should be slightly in front of the pulley so the cable doesn’t hit your legs or hips as you move.
- With the chest up and shoulders back, lift your outside arm outwards in an arcing motion, not letting the elbow bend or body lean as you lift.
- Lower the hand back down behind the hips, and repeat.
You can also do this by maintaining a slight outwards lean of the torso further to increase the range of motion of the movement. The key is to set your body position before you pull, rather than leaning as you pull.
8. Cable Face Pull
The cable face pull targets the posterior deltoid and is a good option for lifters who want to train the shoulder and rotator cuff stabilizer muscles.
This is one of my favorite movements to program for those who work a desk job to help strengthen the upper back (including the posterior delts) and encourage better posture.
How To Do It
- Attach a rope handle to a pulley set at head level. While facing the machine, grab the rope handles so your thumbs are up.
- Without leaning backward, pull the elbows back past your ears on a downward diagonal.
- The center of the rope attachment should be in front of your eyes or forehead at the end of every rep.
- Return the arms slowly to the start position and repeat.
Keep your elbows high as you pull, do not let your elbows drop below the shoulders. If you’re struggling to keep your elbows up, then lower the weight and focus on your technique.
9. Cable Rear Delt Fly
The cable rear delt fly targets the posterior deltoid and is the equivalent of the dumbbell reverse fly.
This is a better option than dumbbells as you can load the rear delt at the bottom of the movement (not just the top). It can also help lifters understand the angle at which they are moving their arms (many lifters do dumbbell raises incorrectly).
How To Do It
- Stand facing a cable machine with both pulleys set above your head (by 1-2’).
- Grab the left handle with your right hand, and vice versa. The cables should be crossed, and your hands should be raised above and in front of you toward the cables.
- You may need to step back 2-3’ to make room.
- With your palms forward or slightly turned toward the floor, pull the arms apart and back on a slightly downward angle until the hands align with your upper chest/shoulders.
- Return your hands to the starting crossed-over position, and repeat.
You can do this without any handles and simply grab the ball on the cable; some people find this feels more natural and feel it gives them a better contraction.
10. Lying Reverse Fly
The lying cable reverse fly is an excellent option for lifters who struggle to keep their body from moving during rear flys.
This is also a great movement if you are trying to train heavier, as your body positioning does not limit you from doing so.
How To Do It
- Place a bench between both cable tracks, and set the pulleys to the highest position.
- Grab the right handle with your left hand, and vice versa. The cables should be crossed.
- Lie down on the flat bench with your chest facing upward and your hands above you (cables crossed).
- With the palms facing each other, straighten the elbows and pull the arms apart and down towards the floor, keeping the hands in line with the shoulders.
- Once the hands align with the bench at the bottom, slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Make sure you have your chest/shoulders in line with the pulley track. You can play around with where you lie down to see what angle feels best on your shoulders.
11. Bent Over Single Arm Rear Delt Fly
The bent over single arm rear delt fly is another posterior delt exercise you can do to train one arm at a time
This variation requires less setup than the lying fly and can be done with any type of cable machine (not just the larger ones).
How To Do It
- Stand with your side facing the pulley track, with the pulley set in the lowest position. Your inside hand can grab the machine for additional support.
- With your feet slightly behind the pulley (2-3”), bend over at a 90-degree angle so your back is parallel to the ground.
- Grab the handle with your outside arm and turn your palm so it faces you (pinky facing out). You can use a handle or just grab the ball on the cable itself.
- Pull the cable outwards to the side until your hand is in line with your torso.
- Slowly lower the weight back down and repeat.
At the bottom of the movement, make sure the weight stack is not resting on itself. If it is, step out a bit further from the pulley so that you have constant tension, even between reps.
12. Cable Shoulder Press
The cable shoulder press trains the front and lateral delts and is a great way to add strength and stability while training each side of the body independently.
This can be done seated (best for beginners who struggle to control their body position) or standing.
How To Do It
- Stand facing the cable machine, with handles on each pulley. If you do not have access to a cable machine that has the ability to move the handles inwards so they are shoulder-width apart, then use one cable and attach a straight bar.
- Grab the handles (or straight bar) so that your hands are shoulder-width apart. You should be facing the cable stack with the pulleys set into a low position.
- Step back to provide space so you do not hit the machine in front of you (but stay close).
- Press the hands overhead like a shoulder press, straightening the elbows once the hands are overhead.
- Lower the hands down to the start position and repeat.
If you are someone who struggles to not arch your lower back or lean back as you press overhead, do this seated with your back on an upright bench to prevent your torso from changing positions as you press.
13. Cable Kneeling Shoulder Front Press
The cable kneeling shoulder front press trains the anterior delts.
By kneeling, you minimize the ability to cheat the movement by leaning back, while also giving yourself enough space to reach your arms overhead.
How To Do It
- Set a low pulley up with a D row attachment and set up in a kneeling position 1-2’ in front of the pulley.
- While facing the pulley, grab the attachment so that the handles are facing toward the sky. Your palms should be facing each other.
- With the thumbs in front of the chest, press the handle overhead vertically using the front of the shoulders.
- Once the elbows are straight, lower the handles to the start position and repeat.
You can also press the handle up and slightly in front of you to place even more emphasis on the front delts. The more the hands are in front of you the more the front delts are working at the top of the movement.
14. Cable Shrug
The cable shrug targets the upper traps.
By using cables, you can keep constant tension on the traps and also shrug up at a better angle than with free weights.
How To Do It
- Set a low pulley with an EZ curl bar attachment, and grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip. Your palms should be facing you.
- Step back 2-3’ and straighten your arms.
- Pull the shoulders upwards by shrugging with your traps, pausing at the top of the movement for 1-2 seconds, and then slowly reverse the movement to the start position.
You should not feel stress or tension in the front of the neck, so if this is the case, lean slightly forward and think about pulling the shoulders up and back behind the ears.
15. Cable Upright Row
The cable upright row targets the traps as well as the rear delts.
You can pull this as high as your shoulders will allow. The key is to not let the elbows fall below the wrists.
How To Do It
- Stand 1-2’ back from a cable machine with the pulley in the low position. Attach an EZ curl bar, and grab it with an overhand grip (palms down).
- Pull the bar up and slightly towards your face, keeping the elbows lifted.
- Once the bar gets to about face level, pause for 1-2 seconds at the top and then slowly lower to the starting position.
You can also do this with a straight bar or rope attachment, however, I find the angled EZ bar curl bar is more comfortable on the wrist joint. You can also adjust your grip to adjust where you place more emphasis. The wider your grip, the more rear delt; the narrower the grip, the more traps.
16. Cable High Pulldown
The cable high pulldown is primarily a rear delt exercise, however, it does also train your lats.
This is a great way to strengthen the rear delts and subject them to heavier loads as you are also able to use your lats for assistance.
How To Do It
- Sit down on a bench facing the cable machine, and set a pulley in the highest position.
- Grab a straight bar or lat pulldown bar attachment with an overhand grip (shoulder width apart). If you have access to a bar that allows a neutral grip, even better.
- Lean back 30 degrees to place more emphasis on the upper back and rear delts.
- Pull the bar down towards your nose, stopping once the elbows are pulled back so that they are in line with the torso.
- Slowly lower the weight back down and repeat.
You want to ensure the angle you are doing this is more vertical than horizontal. You will know you are at the right angle when you can feel the rear delts and upper back rather than the lower lats.
17. Cable Shoulder External Rotation
The cable shoulder external rotation is a warm-up or prehab exercise that can promote shoulder health and stability, however, it should not be trained with heavy weights.
Most lifters could improve their external rotation abilities by adding this into warm-ups for a few sets.
How To Do It
- Stand perpendicular to the cable machine (the side of your body is facing the machine).
- Set the pulley so that it is in line with your belly button, and grab the handle with your outside hand.
- With your palm facing you/the machine, bend the outside arm so that the elbow is bent 90 degrees and pinned at your side.
- Slowly rotate the handle, moving it from the front of the body to the side, without letting the elbow come off the body. It may be helpful to try to hold a towel between the elbow and your ribs.
- Pause once you reach the limit of how far you can rotate, SLOWLY rotate the arm back to the start position, and repeat.
Use this as a warm-up movement. This is not the movement to perform with heavy loads and high volume (sets and reps), this is a movement that should facilitate better shoulder performance and prepare you for your hard workout… not be a hard workout.
Related Article: At Home Shoulder Workout WITHOUT Weights
Sample Shoulder Workout With Cables
Below is a sample shoulder workout you can do with cables to build muscle on all three heads of the deltoid, as well as the traps. The workout also starts with light shoulder warm exercises to help prepare the smaller rotator cuff muscles for training.
Note: The warm-up and workout below are not found in the Fitbod app. However, most of the exercises are. You can use the exact workout below as a template to help you design your cable shoulder workout within the Fitbod app.
- Cable Y Raise: 2 sets of 10 reps, 3 seconds raising arms, 3 seconds lowering arms. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
- Cable Shoulder External Rotation: 2 sets of 10 reps, 3 seconds raising arms, 3 seconds lowering arms. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
- Cable Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets
- Cable Kneeling Shoulder Front Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
- Cable High Pulldown: 4 sets of 12-15 reps. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
- Cable Upright Row: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, pause 2-3 seconds at the top of every rep. Hands inside shoulder width to target traps more. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets
- Cable Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Train Shoulders With Cables?
Training shoulders with cables is very similar to training without cables; the main difference is that you will need to adjust the pulley height and sometimes change the angle you are at (you may be standing, bent over, leaning, or lying) to best target the shoulder muscles.
Are Cables Good For Shoulders?
Cables are a great way to train the shoulders as they allow you to train all shoulder muscles with smooth, constant tension. Unlike free weights, cables can be adjusted to meet the lifter’s needs while attacking various angles (not just vertically against gravity) to isolate the shoulders better.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.