I’ll admit that the backlash against the bodybuilding bros seemed cool at first, but things escalated quickly and both sides of the argument digressed into fitness tribalism, the kind that reminds one of the yelling matches in grade school gym class.
Coming from the world of college strength and conditioning, I was confused a few years back to find that fitness writers and personal trainers were still telling athletes and folks interested in general strength and fitness to focus their workouts just on bodybuilding splits.
It wasn’t clear to me why the common advice wasn’t for folks to use free weights to press, pull, squat, and to carry heavy things. Even more confusing was why there was no talk of strategic progression in training to add more weight over time. So when the warehouse and CrossFit patriots started their crusade, yeah I was all for it.
The Priority Should Be Muscle
The loudest voices refused to acknowledge that the bodybuilding bros, or rather the true bodybuilders, weren’t wrong about the importance of feeling the muscle. Muscle needs to be built for both the competitive athlete and the everyday person. Necessary muscle and the reinforcement of muscle is often built best through isolation exercises.
The isolation exercises that often work the best are the ones where the muscle contraction can really be stressed and focused on in a low-level movement. Big barbell movements will only develop so much muscle. Eventually, muscle groups will need to be focused on and isolated to build adequate muscle to keep the body balanced and functioning effectively.
The upper-back, rear delts, and the scapular stabilizers (the muscles responsible for moving the shoulder blades around and keeping them sliding or fixed to the rib cage during upper-body movement) are areas in particular that I believe to need the most focused attention. While dumbbells and other free weights can be good for pulling exercises such as rows, machines allow for the exact focused contraction and squeeze because you’re working the muscle through a range of motion on a fixed pulley system.
The Role of the Cable Row
When I’m programming for powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters, as is my primary focus at my gym, I always include various rowing variations to build the upper-back musculature. My variations almost always include a cable row of some sort.
In fact, I believe in the cable machine so much for this purpose that I bought a makeshift pulley system that can be attached to a squat cage to act as a cable machine because there is no room for a full-sized cable machine at my strength-focused gym.
With cables you can do one arm, bilateral, and face-pull rowing variations, as well as all types of shoulder flys to build the entire musculature of the back and rear shoulder, and you can really, really focus on the contraction itself to build great quality muscle that can then be trained with the big lifts to aid in producing more force.
While other plate loaded machines are easy to load and great to use, cables are the only essential machine to accomplish the goal of building muscle and bringing up weak areas of the body.
You can get any kind of attachment for these cables you can conceive of to work every area of the back and shoulders, my kind of machine. So if you’re going to invest your time and money in a machine to build muscle, make it a cable.