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. 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 New York City. “There are a lot of stations and a range of handles available to enhance its versatility, but this also causes a lot of confusion.” 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," explains Finn.
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: 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. Follow his tips below to avoid injury and get fitter, faster.
How to Choose the Right Weight
When it comes to choosing the right weight, it depends on your goals, says Finn. 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. But the most important rule to remember is 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.”
How to Set Up the Weights
Before we get into specific exercises, it's important to know how to properly set up the weights on a cable crossover. Your gym may only have one of these (a cable pulley machine), but the same rules apply.
Grab the handle(s) and take a step backward (not forward). Pull the weights down to chest like a row then walk forward. In a stagger stance position, punch the handle(s) down so that wrists are in line with shoulders.
Decline Cable Fly
Common Mistake: While the name may be confusing, the “decline” isn’t referring to the position of your body but rather the angle that you move the weight. Make sure not to lean or lunge forward during this move.The Fix: To decline the right way, grab the handles and pull the weights as demonstrated above. Step into a staggered stance with your front leg as an "angle indicator" for the weights, slight bend in elbows, chest lifted. Squeeze shoulder blades together and open arms out to sides about chest level. Keep shoulders packed so arms aren't flung back behind you. Then, using your chest, pull the weights back down to starting position at the same angle as your forward leg. Continue to repeat.
Seated Cable Row
Common Mistake: This move is all about great posture. Rounding your back or hunching your shoulders puts your back at risk of injury. And leaning backward is also a no-no. If you're feeling your abs or lower back fire, it's a sure sign you need to drop the weight.
The Fix: Begin by sitting at the machine, feet on the platforms, and knees slightly bent. Grab the handle to get into position with arms extended straight out in front of you. Sit up tall, with core engaged, spine straight, shoulders back, and chest up. Bend elbows to pull handle toward chest and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, almost like you’re holding a piece of paper between them. Hold for one count, then slowly return to starting position while keeping back still, and repeat.
Biceps Cable Curl
Common Mistake No. 1: If you find you’re unable to extend and flex your arms with control, that’s a problem. As you pull the handle toward chest, don't let your elbows lift up to shoulder height or you need to lighten up on the weight.
Common Mistake No. 2: Another sign you’re doing too much heavy lifting? 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.
The Fix: Grab the handle with an underhand grip, then start by standing in front of the weights, 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 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 your elbows as a reminder. If the towels drop, you know you're doing it wrong.
Triceps Cable Extension
Common Mistake: Don't be this person. Bending over to get leverage over the weight is not the way to do it. Your body position should be tall with core engaged, and you should perform this move slowly with control to really reap all the benefits.
The Fix: Grab the ropes and stand in front of weights, arms bent to 90-degree angle, elbows close to sides, feet together, and knees slightly bent. With core engaged and elbows still, extend arms straight down to sides then return to starting position and repeat. You can also use the towel trick for this exercise.
Seated Cable Lat Pulldown
Common Mistake: 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.
The Fix: Instead, sit at the machine 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 contracting your lats (the muscles that wrap from under your arms around to your back) and don't let your shoulders creep up to your ears. Return to starting position by resisting the weight slowly up and repeat.
Standing Trunk Rotation
Common Mistake: 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.
The Fix: 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 then repeat on other side.