By: Joel Stubbs, IFBB Pro; Photography by: Paul Buceta; Model: IFBB Pro Joel Stubbs
[Q] Hey Joel, I saw a guy doing heavy weight for low reps on cable crossovers yesterday. Aren’t cables supposed to be for shaping with lighter weight and higher reps?
[A] Yes, in my opinion cables are best when used for shaping and squeezing to get as much blood as possible into the muscle after the heavy work done with free weights. Form and technique are very important, so the best approach is to do more reps with less weight, concentrating on squeezing and flexing the muscle during each repetition as you work on the muscle pump. That’s not to say you can’t go heavier, but you’re better served using basic, heavy, free-weight movements for mass since these will involve more total muscle.
[Q] I know you have to do heavy rows for a back like yours, but my lower back has always been an issue. Can I build mass using different grips on the cable row?
[A] If your low back is causing you problems, you’ll have difficulty going heavy with a number of back exercises because the lower back is contracting isometrically to hold your torso in place. Machines that support your torso, like the support T-bar row, take some of the tension off the lower back. As for the seated cable row, you can various grips – wide grip to work the upper lats, reverse grip for the lower lats, close grip for the middle-back muscles – but the exercise still requires your lower back to be working to some degree. If you’re leaning forward and backward on each rep, the lower back is actively involved – and it shouldn’t be. Maintain a moderately upright torso position throughout. The seated cable row is not a lower-back exercise. If you can, however, you should do some specific lower-back work to strengthen the muscles, including back extensions or even stiff-leg deadlifts. Remember, a strong lower back is crucial in squats, deadlifts and bent-over rows, all big-time mass-building moves, so you need to work on building it up as well if you want to grow.
[Q] Joel, can you recommend any specific cable exercises that will help me add mass and detail to my physique?
[A] Well, I use cables only for detailing, carving separation in the muscles rather than trying to add bulk. All my mass exercises are heavy barbell and dumbbell movements with some heavy machine work mixed in. However, I use machine or seated cable rows to thicken my middle back, seeing that very few barbell or dumbbell exercises effectively and safely target this region. With cable exercises you can work this area in a way that’s a little different from the way free-weight exercises do.
[Q] What benefits do cables give that free weights don’t?
[A] Some important differences: The angle of pull comes from the side, not straight down as a result of gravity. Right off, this means you can hit a given muscle somewhat differently than you would with free weights. You don’t get any spots at the top or bottom of a rep where you can rest for a second and catch your breath. Compare, for example, a dumbbell lateral raise with a cable lateral raise. With the former you can rest in the bottom position because your arms are hanging straight down, but with the cable (as long as the weight stack hasn’t touched down between reps) your middle delt is forced to resist the tug of the cable, which is coming from an angle. Apart from better range of motion and constant tension to the muscle, cables also provide one big perk: far less chance of getting injured!
JOEL’S TOP CABLE EXERCISES
Chest: Incline Flye
Back: Seated Cable Row (various grips)
Shoulders: Cable Lateral Raise
Biceps: Cable Curl (adding drop sets)
Triceps: Pressdown (adding drop sets)