Functional trainers are amazingly versatile fitness machines.
As we explain in our ultimate guide to functional trainers, these machines use a cable and pulley system for resistance. Each of the two handles attach to two separate stacks of weights.
Because users can adjust the pulleys to any height they want, the machines can adapt to users of any size and can accommodate the widest variety of exercises. And unlike a traditional fitness machine, you’re free to move your body more naturally as you push or pull the weight. (For comparison, more traditional machines tend to lock you into a fixed position as you exercise).
Finally, because functional trainers employ two separate stacks of weights instead of a single bar, you can make sure that your exercises are devoting equal attention to each side of your body — in fact, due to the dual-weight stacks, two people may even be able to use the machine at once.
Functional trainers are amazingly versatile fitness machines.
If you’re interested in learning more fitness benefits of functional trainers, check out our post The Top 5 Reasons You Need a Functional Trainer Right Now.
You may already be aware of the additional fitness (and space-saving) benefits of a functional trainer, but not really understand the full range of exercises that you can do with one.
Below, we’ve listed a few of our favorite but somewhat lesser-known exercises to try with functional trainers.
We’ve already talked about the benefits and versatility of the squat and of squat racks, but you can also do weighted squats on a functional trainer by holding cable handles (or the cable attachment) as you squat. Using a functional trainer for squats can be a good complement to free weight squats, and squatting with the help of a functional trainer may also make for a good introduction to the exercise — you can start to working on your form with smaller weights as you prepare for the free weight version.
How to do a cable squat:
- For this exercise, the cable should be positioned low at your feet.
- Stand in front of the cable machine with your feet pointed straight ahead and shoulder-width apart. Keep your core engaged. Keep your shoulders back and down and resist the urge to shrug.
- Grab the cable handles and hold them at the sides of your body.
- Slowly lower yourself down like you’re about to sit in a chair, bending your knees and hips. Keep your knees in line with your middle toes to reduce any knee strain.
- Keeping your arms straight, return to standing position while squeezing your glutes.
- Repeat as necessary.
Australian Pull Ups
Australian pull ups, also called body rows, look like upside down push ups. The exercise is usually performed with gymnastics rings or a low locked bar, but can also be performed with a functional trainer with the cable up high and in a locked position.
In an Australian pull-up, you position your straight body beneath the bar or cables at an angle and pull your body up until your chest reaches the bar. This exercise is often used as part of a progression to a full pull-up, and it works a number of muscles in your back, core, and arms.
You can adjust the difficulty of the exercise by adjusting the angle and levels of your body.
How to do an Australian Pull Up:
- Grip the handles or bar. Keep your legs and body straight.
- Pull your body up in a slow, controlled movement until your breast or shoulders reach the handles or bar.
Standing Cable Crunches
If you don’t think of a functional trainer as being for core work, you probably haven’t tried cable crunches yet. This exercise can be used in addition to traditional crunches and core work to add a bit of variety to your core fitness routine. For a standing cable crunch, you can use a rope attachment and position the rope around your head with your hands, then bend at the waist, pulling the weights with your core muscles.
Alternatively, you can position the rope around your chest as you crunch, or even use a handlebar attachment and hold it in position just above your head.
Here are some step-by-step instructions for a standing cable crunch with a functional trainer:
- Attach the rope attachment to the high cable.
- Stand up facing away from the machine and grasp the rope on each side of your head, holding it in place at that height.
- Move forward a bit to tighten the cable.
- Crunch forward, bringing your head down until it’s at the level of your waist or upper thighs.
- Pause, then slowly stand back up and repeat.
Lunges are a great functional exercise that you can do with body weight or with free weights, but doing these exercises with the use of a cable machine adds constant tension, which can make the exercises more effective. Here are a variety of lunges you can do with your functional trainer. Remember to never let your knee extend beyond your toes at the bottom of the lunge to avoid knee injury.
Set the cable to the lowest level, holding the handles in front of you with your elbows in close to your body. Engage your core and step forward into a deep lunge, pause, then return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
You can do lateral lunges with an ankle strap attached to the leg that’s farthest away from the machine, or holding a handle attachment with the hand farthest away from the machine. You begin with your side turned toward the machine, then step out into a lunge position, then step back in and repeat.
With the cable in its lowest position, face away from the machine and hold the cable over your shoulder. Step backward into a lunge, resisting the pull of the cable. Return to your starting position and repeat on the other side, continuing as required.
This exercise is just what it sounds like: a simulation of the motion of chopping wood. It’s a helpful exercise for any athlete who needs to swing a bat or a club, and strengthens muscles in the core and the obliques (due to the twisting motion in the exercise). This functional exercise also uses muscles in the glutes, back, and shoulders. Doing wood chops with a functional trainer provides constant tension, which has some advantages over performing the exercise with a dumbbell or weighted ball.
Here are step-by-step instructions for how to do a wood chop with a functional trainer:
- You’ll need a handle attachment for this exercise. Make sure the cable is on its highest setting, then stand to the side of the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Grab the handle with both hands above one shoulder. Your arms will be fully extended and you’ll be looking at the pulley.
- Pull the handle down and across your body while your torso and hips rotate. You’ll end on the opposite side. Keep your abs engaged the entire time.
- Pause, then slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
The Cable Low-to-High Chop
This exercise is an inverse of the wood chop. A functional trainer is ideal for the cable low-to-high chop, because this exercise is tough to do with free weights. Like the wood chop, this exercise also builds core strength and is helpful for training in any sport that requires a swinging motion.
Here are the steps:
- Start with the cable and handle attachment at its lowest position.
- Grasp the handle with both hands and assume a quarter-squat stance with the cable next to your foot.
- Keeping your chest up, your back flat, and your arms straight, rotate your hips and explode upwards, pulling the cable diagonally up and across your body.
- Lower the cable in a controlled manner to return to starting position.
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