How to Do the Cable Push-Pull Exercise

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Targets: Back, chest, triceps, quads, deltoids, biceps, traps, hamstrings

Equipment: Cable frame pulley system or somewhere safe to anchor resistance bands

Level: Intermediate

The cable push-pull is a popular weight training workout among gym-goers looking to target several muscle groups at the same time. You'll want to be familiar with weight training before starting this intermediate level exercise, but once you get the hang of it the move is actually quite simple.

The cable push-pull is usually performed on a cable frame at the gym, but you can also perform it at home with resistance bands and an anchor point strong enough to bear weight.

Benefits

The movement is a little like a boxing one-two punch: a horizontal push and a simultaneous horizontal pull. Pushing works your chest, triceps, quads, and deltoids, while pulling works your back, biceps, rear deltoids, trapezius, and forearms. Even your hamstrings get worked as they maintain stability.

With proper shoulder rotation and tightening of the abs, the cable push-pull is also a great core development exercise.

The cable push-pull provides weight training and aerobic exercise all in one. Improving your overall strength and endurance will not only help you reach your fitness goals and advance in your training, but you'll probably notice even your day-to-day activities become easier. A strong body and good cardiovascular health can improve your stamina for tasks from carrying groceries to keeping up with your family's busy schedule.

Strong core and back muscles can also improve posture and balance, and you don't have to be an elite athlete or even a devoted fitness enthusiast to feel those benefits.

If your primary goal is weight management and you are looking to burn calories, workouts like the cable push-pull are a great addition to interval training. Not only are you upping your energy expenditure with the move, but you are building strength and stamina at the same time. Developing more muscle will help you meet and maintain your long-term weight loss goals.

Step-by-Step Instructions

man performing cable push pull exercise
Judith Haeusler/ Getty Images
  1. Position yourself between the cable pulley system. Adjust the cable frame until you can comfortably grasp a cable handle in each hand. Your body will be turned slightly to allow you to reach for one cable in front of you and one behind you. Adjust the cable grips so they are positioned a little higher than your waist.
  2. Stand with one leg forward to place yourself in a balanced and stable position.
  3. Slightly rotate your shoulders and keep your knees slightly bent to maintain balance. Brace your abdominal muscles.
  4. Inhale as you push the cable behind you forward while simultaneously pulling the cable in front of you back.
  5. Exhale as you allow both cables to return to their original position in a slow, controlled movement.
  6. Complete 3 to 8 reps, resting for a minute between sets.

Common Mistakes

You're Only Working One Side

To make sure you are getting a balanced workout, reverse direction after completing one or two sets. You can do this by switching your leg stance and arm combination to face the opposite cable pull from the one you began with.

You're Forgetting Your Core

While your arms are certainly doing a lot of the work with the push-pull exercise, don't lose focus on your core. When you are first starting out, you'll consciously want to engage your core to get the full benefit of the workout and protect your muscles from strain. As you become more familiar with the move and your form improves, the push-pull movement should be enough for you to feel your abdominal muscles becoming engaged without having to focus on it.

You're Off Balance

Make sure to check the position of your legs before you begin, between sets, and when you switch sides. A strong stance will keep you balanced and in proper form, which will prevent you from twisting or initiating the movement from your hips or torso.

You Aren't Focused on Your Breath

This move has a lot of moving parts to think about—both your parts and the parts of the machine! Don't let your focus on the exercise make you forget to breathe. If you catch yourself holding your breath, pause to refocus. Remember that your muscles need oxygen to perform optimally.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you don't have access to a gym cable setup or you want to get the benefits of the push-pull workout at home, try using resistance bands. To perform this modification safely, make sure your anchor points for the bands (such as a solid piece of furniture) are strong and secure.

In addition to being a portable version of the exercise you can do anywhere, resistance bands are generally more user-friendly for those who are just getting started and may not be familiar with gym machinery. They're also a great way to practice your form and increase your confidence until you're ready to try the move out on the machine. The resistance band variation may be easier to get the hang of than a cable machine, but your arms will still get a solid workout.

Gym Equipment Shy?

Ask a gym employee to show you around. Most have someone who can guide you as to how to use exercise machines and other equipment properly.

Up for a Challenge?

  • If you are already familiar with weight training, you can turn the cable push-pull into a more intense workout by adding weights. Start slowly with lighter weights and only a few breaks between reps. Work your way up to a more intense strength training workout where you'll add heavier weights and pause slightly at the end of each push-pull movement or after a set number of reps.
  • Use a dual-cable cross machine: For this variation, adjust the cable in front of you into a lower position and the cable behind you into a higher position. From this arrangement, you'll intensify the move by performing it at an oblique angle instead of a horizontal one.

Safety and Precautions

The cable push-pull exercise is straightforward, but you don't want to jump into it unless you are familiar with weight training. The exercise will be safest and most effective if you've already been lifting weights as part of your routine.

As always, before you start or change up a workout routine, check with your doctor. Weight training exercises, including the cable push-pull, may not be right for you. You may need to avoid these moves if you have certain injuries, conditions, or are recovering from surgery.

You may want to skip the cable push-pull if:

  • You are pregnant or recovering from childbirth
  • You have a back, neck, arm, or hand injury
  • Your overall strength is weakened due to illness, injury, prolonged recovery or bedrest, or a low level of fitness

Some medications may affect your exercise performance. It is best to check with your doctor before starting a more intense workout if you are taking any medications that change your heart rate, breathing, electrolyte and hydration levels, or cause side effects like drowsiness.

In some cases, strength and weight training can be an important part of recovering from an injury or procedure. Ask your doctor, physical therapist, trainer, or fitness instructor if there are modified versions of the workout that would benefit you.

Try It Out

The cable push-pull exercise provides a great workout on its own, targeting many key muscle groups at once. You can improve its cardiovascular and weight training benefits by adding weight or changing up your timing.

A comprehensive push-pull strength training routine provides the benefits of the individual cable push-pull for even more target muscle groups. You can also combine elements of classic push workouts and pull workouts.

The cable push-pull is also an easy move to combine with other push-pull exercises to create a total body circuit training workout. Mix and match moves to keep your routine interesting and avoid strength training plateaus. Some to try include:

Was this page helpful?