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The 7 Most Popular Functional Trainer Exercises

Here's 7 Popular Functional Trainer Exercises

And some of their most common variations


The functional trainer also known as the adjustable cable column or cable crossover machine is staple for any gym. 

The functional trainer is one of those awesome pieces of equipment that can be used in almost an endless amount of variations. The versatility of this machine lets you target very specific areas of the body in many different ways. This machine allows you to keep your workouts diverse and do multiple exercises in one place. 

Cable crossover machines are a type of functional trainer often seen in gyms that are pretty bulky, but offer a lot of possibility. These usually come with several exercise stations including a pull-up bar. 

Functional trainers operate on a pulley system and incorporate cables with different attachment options. These attachment options include bars of different sizes, ropes, cuffs, and various handles. 

Functional trainers use weight stacks or weight plates to add resistance, that of course can be adjusted for different exercises and different fitness levels. 

These machines are cost effective. The initial investment pays off as you can use this machine to work virtually every part of your body making it an all in one gym! 
If you are considering purchasing a functional trainer, you may be wondering what exactly you can use it for. 

It would be nearly impossible to list all of the exercises you can do on a functional trainer or cable crossover machine, but let’s break down some of the most functional and most popular. We’ll also dive into a few alternatives and variations within some of these exercises. 

1. Bicep Curl 

You have most likely performed a bicep curl. The bicep curl is a basic exercise that is easy to learn and can be performed using many different types of equipment. When you think of a bicep curl, you likely picture it being performed with dumbbells. 

However, the bicep curl is just as effective when done using a functional trainer and there are a few different options for completing this type of movement. 

You’ll most likely be using the regular handles with one in each arm, or you can use the bar attachment and grip it with both hands. The standing bicep curl or seated bicep curl will be the most similar to bicep curls with free weights, but you can also play with lying down. Using different grips and experimenting with different isolations for your curls will also help you target different muscles of the arm. 

Standing Bicep Curl with Short Bar
Single Arm Bicep Curl with Handle

2. Tricep Extension 

Another common and powerful exercise you can do on a functional trainer are tricep extensions and the different variations of them. 

In its basic form, a tricep extension with a cable machine will most often involve either a straight handlebar or a rope attachment. You will face the machine and start with arms bent and hands toward your chest. 

From there, you pull the handlebar or rope downward so that the arms are extended down beside you. You’ll feel the burn for this one mainly in the triceps which are the muscles at the back of your arms. 

There are several variations of the tricep extension, including overhead tricep extension. For this move, the placement of the rope will be much higher and you will face away from the machine. The legs take a split stance and the torso leans slightly forward as you grab the rope overheard. Once again, you will straighten and bend the arms to work the triceps. 

3. Lat Pulldown 

The classic lat pulldown is a staple exercise for a cable powered machine. To do this move seated, you’ll sit down on the bench and face the machine. You will grip a long bar with hands a bit wider than shoulder width distance and start with arms extended up in a V shape. From there, you bend at the elbows and pull the bar towards your chest, while keeping the chest lifted. 

The focus here is to make the muscles of the upper back do the work, not the biceps or forearms. Wrist straps can help you get a better grip and do this move with more control. 

Variation: Straight Arm Pulldown

This move is a variation of the lat pulldown that still targets the muscles of the upper back. For this move you will stay standing instead of seated. You stand in front of the machine and grip your attachment. 

Lean forward slightly from the hips with a gentle bend in the knees and bring the bar or rope down toward your thighs. Keeping the arms straight (avoiding bending the elbows) keeps the tension where you want it, which is the upper back!

Both variations of these pulldowns are extremely beneficial for strengthening the important muscles of the back body. This can be helpful for athletes that are wanting to bulk up and take on heavier lifts or simply for improved function and mobility in daily life. 

4. Chest Press

This is another functional trainer or cable crossover machine exercise that has a few different variations. The cable chest press can be performed standing, seated, or lying at an incline. 

This exercise involves two separate pulleys with stirrup attachments in each hand. 

Variation: Standing Chest Press

Come into a staggered stance position, with most of your weight grounded into the front foot. You will start with elbows bent and shoulder blades squeezing together behind you. Palms are facing the ground, as are forearms. 

From there, you extend the arms forward, bringing your hands towards each other out in front you. And repeat. It is recommended that you switch leg positioning between sets. 

Variation: Seated Chest Press

The seated variation involves the same action from the upper body, it is just performed while in a seated position. You simply place your bench in between the two pulleys and set your handles up so that they are around chest high. The support of the backpad behind you can help you focus on keeping the rest of the body relatively still, maintaining good posture, and engaging the core. 

You can choose to sit completely upright or angle the backpad so that you are at an incline or decline angle depending on what muscles you would like to target. 

Variation: Single Arm Chest Press

The single arm chest press is often done standing in a lunge position, and as you might have guessed, involves the same motion with one arm working at a time. This move can help isolate the chest and get the core more involved. 

5. Rows

There are many different iterations on “rowing” as an exercise. Using the cable machine for rowing variations, is a bit different from an aerobic or cardio rower. 

Cable rows are a functional exercise that strengthen the muscles of the back and the arms. This is another type of functional trainer exercise that can be performed standing or seated. 

Variation: Seated Cable Row

For the seated cable row, both arms are involved in the exercise. You can choose to sit on a bench with your back supported by the backpad behind you. Or, you may position the cables even lower and sit on the floor with legs straight out in front of you. 

The starting position is with the arms extended holding on to either a V shaped handle with both hands or two separate handles in each hand. You pull the handles in towards the body, while hugging the elbows in towards the ribs. Squeeze the shoulder blades together, then extend the arms back out and repeat. 

Variation: Single Arm Row 

The single arm row can also be done standing or seated and once again, allows you to isolate your movement and focus on performing this exercise with even more control. One arm does the work while the other rests at your side on your hip. 

The benefits of any variation of a cable row expand into daily life. A strong back and core make it easier for you to lift, carry, bend, etc. more easily. 

6. Wood Chop

Can you envision what it’s like to chop wood? You can use the functional trainer machine to mimic this type of movement, working the muscles of the shoulders and core across multiple planes of movement. Wielding an axe can be tiresome and so can this type of exercise. 

The pulley is placed above shoulder height, and you will want to use a handle or rope attachment. Both arms reach for the handle and pull it across the body down towards the floor in a motion like bringing down an axe on wood. 

This move targets the transverse abdominal muscles and the obliques which are the muscles responsible for your ability to twist at the waist. This is great for daily life and especially beneficial for athletes that play sports using a racket, bat, or club. 

7. Squat Variations 

The squat is another standalone move that can be intensified with a functional trainer or cable machine. Adding the resistance of the functional trainer is a guaranteed way to build a powerful lower body. 

One variation you may try is very similar to goblet squats. Instead of a dumbbell or kettlebell, you hold the cable out in front of you. Arms remain bent and the cable attachment is held in towards your chest. 

You can perform high or low cable squats, where the main difference is the placement of the pulleys. Arms stay extended as you lower the hips towards the ground into your squat. 

For any of these variations, the added resistance makes the squat a little more challenging. You can also use a functional trainer in other lower body-centric exercises like lunges and step-ups. 

Functional Trainer Back Squat
Functional Trainer Squat with Handles

Video Resources

There's vast library of videos available on the web demonstrating all of these exercises and much much more. Here's a few videos of our favorites:  



So there you have some common and popular exercises that can be performed on a functional trainer or cable machine. 

This barely scratches the surface on the amount of exercises you can do with one of these machines that allows for endless possibility and variation within every form of movement. 

No matter your fitness goals, you can carve out an effective full body routine on a functional trainer. 

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