Those cable machines at the gym look fierce, don't they? This steely, clangy machinery intimidates even the most ferocious exercisers with its heavy-metal moving parts -- namely weight stacks, pulleys and cables or thick wire ropes. Unlike one-stop-shop machines like treadmills that offer variations on one form of exercise, cable machines are single columns or full-on multi-exercise stations, offering a vast, multi-plane approach to exercise. Admittedly a tad tough to figure out at first, once you have the set-up and weights-adjusting down, you're golden. When seeking new workout challenges, cable machines provide an excellent way to build and maintain muscle mass.
A simple or single-pulley system changes the effective direction of applied force. Single pulleys feel, and are, heavier and harder to manage than double pulleys. These are typically located on outer rims of cable crossover machine stations. When deciding what weight to tack onto a single pulley, know that the exact amount of weight you choose is the amount you lift, which is not the case with double pulleys. Machines, or stations, may offer both types of pulley systems, depending on the set-up. On single-cable set-ups or machines, one cable attaches to a bar and to weights. Good exercises to try on these include abs-toning side crunches, one-arm high-pulley-cable side bends and shoulder-targeted front cable raises.
If you're new to working out with cables, stick with the double-pulley system. Double pulleys, or compound pulleys, have two pulleys and allow a greater load to be hoisted through a shorter distance. That's why double-pulley systems actually feel, and are, lighter and easier to operate compared to single-pulley cable machines that don't offer a force/distance trade-off. Double-pulley systems are typically situated on the inner rim of cable-crossover machine stations. Here, whatever weight you choose, you'll actually be lifting only half of the weight as gravity is redirected--so be careful not to take away a false sense of how much weight you can powerhouse. Good exercises to try with these include lat pulldowns with underhand grip or wide-grip lat pulldowns working the lats, biceps, middle back and shoulders.
This type of cable machine is able to vary the amount of space between what's called the pivot point, or axel, and the fixed weights so that the muscles can be worked evenly throughout a complete range of motion. At the peak of the exercise, where it is most difficult, the space between the weights and the pivot point shrinks, making the weights easier to lift. But during simpler stages of the exercise, the space between the axel and weight stacks increases so the challenge can be maintained and evenly spread to the muscles.
The less common of the two resistance systems, the system of pulleys and cables in fixed-resistance cable machines, is, as it sounds, preset and does not adjust during exercise. Thus, the energy expended and resistance varies at different points of the exercise. Unlike with variable-resistance cable machines, the muscles here are not evenly challenged throughout the entire range of motion. Strength-training exercises can be done on either type of machine. It depends on whether, for example, during a 10-pound biceps curl you want to lift that 10 pounds the entirety of the curl or you prefer the machine to consider the angle, gravity and movement and make adjustments so that the release of the curl feels as difficult as the lifting.