Cable vs. dumbbell exercises – which is better?

Cable vs. dumbbell exercises – which is better?

Dumbells and barbells have long been the weapon of choice for bodybuilders and other gym-goers, and there is a high chance they will continue to be. Are there better options, though? For example, which is more effective, a barbell curl or a cable curl?

With the expansion of affordable leisure gyms, filled with a verity of fitness machines, lever systems and cable stations, the exercise choice facing many gym-goers is greater than ever. In the past the dumbbell and barbell had a near monopoly, and the low-tech kit served (and still serves) well. But now most gym goers have a choice, such as; should I do chest flys using dumbbells, machine, or cable? Hopefully we can answer these questions:

When are dumbbells and barbells better?

There are without doubt a number of exercises which are unrivalled when it comes to building muscle mass. These include; squats, deadlifts, rows, pull ups, bench press, dips and shoulder press. What do all these exercises share in common? They are called compound exercises. They involve movement in more than one joint and recruit a number of muscles so are therefore highly effective.

It’s fair to say these important exercises are not suitably performed using a cable system. They are best performed with dumbbells, barbells and other free weight equipment.  So, it’s clear that the backbone of a successfully training plan is going to involve the use of free weights, not cables.

When are cables better?

Cables have two main advantages over free weights; they provide continuous tension to the muscle and they have a dynamic line of resistance.

Cable fly

The continuous tension refers to the fact the resistance supplied to the muscles during a cable exercise is uniform throughout. This is not true of free weight exercises. For example, during a dumbbell arm curl the most resistance is experienced when the arm is bent at ninety degrees. It is at this point which the arm flexor muscles are resisting against 100% of the resistance force (i.e. the gravitational pull of the dumbbell towards the ground). As the arm flexes or extends the resistance is reduced, with the resistive force lowered by roughly 30% when the arm reaches forty five degrees1.

The continuous tension provided by a cable station is due to the pulley system which lifts and lowers a weight stack. It is this pulley system which also allows the line of resistance to be dynamic, unlike free weight exercises which have a resistive force which is always perpendicular to the ground. A dynamic line of resistance offers great freedom, such as allowing a cable curl to be perform either standing or lying on the ground. This may seem trivial, but it may be particular useful to bodybuilders who want to be highly strict with their form, or anybody with an injury which prevents them from maintaining a sound upright posture.

What does this mean for my training?

For the most part, free weights are probably best suited for the majority of exercises, specifically the important compound exercises previously mentioned. Free weights are also good choices for most isolation exercises, although given the benefits we have outlined it would be worth experimenting with cable exercises incorporated into your training, too. There are no hard rules – if you prefer free weights - stick to them. The cable station offers you another training tool.

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