When you picture the number of things that could go horribly wrong at the gym, you might think of flying off a treadmill, dropping a weight on your foot, or getting crushed under a barbell.
While you’re probably safe from these gym snafus, there’s a solid chance of goofing up when using complicated pieces of equipment. (We’ve all done it.) And the machine trainers see people struggle with the most is the cable crossover or cable pulley machine.
The struggle is real. Why? “It’s a very complex and versatile piece of gym equipment,” says Chris Finn, certified personal trainer at Life Time Athletic at Sky in NYC.
“There are a lot of stations and a range of handles available to enhance its versatility, but this also causes a lot of confusion,” says Finn.
Plus, the machine makes it easy to isolate individual muscle groups, but that also means it’s easier for users to load on way too much weight. “If the weight is too heavy, that compromises your technique,” Finn explains.
And that’s a shame, because the cable crossover machine is the perfect one-stop shop for a killer total-body workout. The good news is, we’re here to help.
To clear up the confusion, we worked with Finn to create some guidelines on the proper form for the six most commonly flubbed exercises on the cable crossover machine.
When it comes to choosing the right weight, it depends on your fitness goals, says Finn. Before you get going, take a minute and think about your desired outcome.
If you’re trying to build lean muscle, pick a weight that gets challenging at 15 to 18 reps. If you’re trying to bulk up, a heavier weight should feel difficult at 8 to 12 reps.
The most important rule to remember is that you should never sacrifice technique for weight, since it puts you at risk of injury and actually prevents you from getting stronger, says Finn.
“If you do the technique correctly, the weight will come, and nothing slows your progress more than getting hurt,” he adds.
Now that you have your weights at the ready, let’s go over the most common mistakes (see photos for reference) and how to fix ’em. Follow Finn’s tips below to avoid injury and get fitter faster.
Common mistake: Incorrect setup
Rushing through setup (i.e., grabbing the handles, walking forward, and diving right in) may lead to compromised form.
Grab the handle(s) and take a step backward instead. Pull the weights down to chest like a row, then walk forward. Standing with feet staggered, punch the handle(s) down so wrists are in line with shoulders.
Common mistake: Leaning too far forward
While the name may be confusing, “decline” isn’t referring to the position of your body but rather the angle that you move the weight. Too often, people lean or lunge too far forward during this move.
To decline the right way, grab the handles and pull the weights. Step into a staggered stance with front leg as an “angle indicator” for the weights, slight bend in elbows, chest lifted.
Squeeze shoulder blades together and open arms out to the sides at about chest level. Keep shoulders packed so arms aren’t flung back behind you.
Using your chest, pull the weights back down to starting position at the same angle as your forward leg. Continue to repeat.
Common mistake: Poor posture
Rounding your back or hunching your shoulders puts your back at risk of injury. And leaning back is also a no-no. If you’re feeling your abs or lower back fire up, it’s a sure sign you need to decrease the weight.
Begin by sitting at the machine, with feet on the platforms and knees slightly bent. Grab the handle to get into position with arms extended straight in front of you. Sit up tall with core engaged
Make sure spine is straight, shoulders are back, and chest is up. Bend elbows to pull handle toward chest, then focus on squeezing shoulder blades together, almost like you’re holding a piece of paper between them.
Hold for 1 count, then slowly return to starting position while keeping back still. Repeat.
Common mistake: Lack of control
Form is everything — it ensures that you’re targeting the right muscles and helps prevent injuries. So if you find that you can’t extend and flex your arms with control, that’s a big problem.
As you pull the handle toward chest, don’t let elbows lift up to shoulder height. If your body can’t help it, lighten up on the weight and focus on proper form.
Common mistake: Using momentum
Another sign you’re doing too much heavy lifting is generating momentum from your legs, hips, or torso. If you see (that’s what the mirrors are for) or feel yourself leaning forward or back, take a few pounds off.
With the weight lighter, grab the handle with an underhand grip, then start by standing in front of the weights, with feet together for a sturdy base and knees slightly bent. Stand tall (don’t stick your butt out).
Bend elbows to draw the handle up toward chest, then resist the weight as you slowly lower it back down to starting position.
For this exercise, it’s important to keep your elbows tight against your body. One trick Finn recommends is tucking a towel under each elbow as a reminder. If the towels drop, you know you’re doing it wrong.
Common mistake: Bending over
Don’t be this person. Bending over to get leverage over the weight is not the way to do it. Your body should be tall with your core engaged, and you should perform this move slowly with control to really reap all the benefits.
Grab the ropes and stand in front of the weights, with arms bent to 90 degrees, elbows close to your sides, feet together, and knees slightly bent.
With core engaged and elbows still, extend arms straight down to your sides, then return to starting position and repeat. You can also use the towel trick for this exercise.
Common mistake: Bar behind the neck
This one may seem pretty self-explanatory — you just pull the bar down, right? Well, according to Finn, he sees people messing up this move all the time.
One of the most common errors: pulling the bar down behind the neck. “That’ll cause a lot of shoulder problems and neck issues,” he says.
Sit facing the weights and grab the bar. With a tall spine and tight core, pull the bar down to chest, leaning back just enough so you can pull it past your face without hitting your chin.
Think about pulling your shoulder blades down, like you’re moving them toward the back pockets of your pants. Return to starting position by resisting the weight slowly up. Repeat.
Common mistake: Too much movement
When it comes to the trunk rotation, you shouldn’t move anything except, well, your trunk. “You don’t want to bend forward or lean over or generate momentum from anywhere else,” says Finn.
If it feels like the weight is pulling you off-balance or you need to use your whole body to get momentum, drop the weight.
To perfect this move, focus on keeping your body upright and using just your core to rotate at the waist. Grab the handle with both hands and step to the side of the weights, arms extended straight out in front of chest.
Twist at the waist to pull the weight over to one side. Your lower body shouldn’t move at all. Return to starting position and repeat on the other side.
With all the handles and cables, the cable crossover machine may look like the most confusing piece of equipment at the gym (we feel you), but it doesn’t have to be. The key is this: Slow waaaaayyyy down.
Setting up with the optimal weight will ensure that you can maintain proper form and get the most bang for your buck during the exercise. This usually means having your spine straight and chest lifted, but it will depend on the exercise.
And before you grab the handles and start busting out reps, check your starting position and form. Don’t forget to make sure you’re breathing (passing out won’t help you get super ripped).
During each rep, move with intention and control. If you can’t maintain good posture for the whole set, drop the weight, check out our quick fixes, and start again.
If all else fails, ask a personal trainer (or that fellow gym-goer you’ve been casually side-eyeing) what to do. It’s better to feel slightly embarrassed at the time than to be hunched over in pain the next day, right?
We hope these tips will make the cable crossover your new favorite machine. With the right techniques, it can be as fun as it is versatile.
Special thanks to photographer Julia Hembree and Life Time Athletic at Sky for the photoshoot.