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Friday, October 17, 2008

Why Train With Cables / Chest Expanders

The recent (commercial) revival of interest in the training techniques of old-time strongmen has brought some unjustly neglected training methods to the surface. Of course, these techniques have been used throughout the decades by strength athletes like powerlifters, weightlifters and Strongman competitors, but had fallen out of favor with elite athletes, physique competitors (principally bodybuilders) and the average Joe/Jane trying to get stronger and look better.

The resurrection of these methods in the strength and conditioning community was started some years ago by the esteemed Brooks D. Kubik, author of Dinosaur Training, probably the best strength book ever written (my humble opinion). Several other experts rode the "functional training" wave to success: the Evil Russian, Pavel Tsatsouline; the snake oil salesman, Matt Furey; Bud Jeffries, probably the most underrated strongman in the history of the game. Fringe authors like John Brookfield, Dennis Rogers and John Wood, came out of relative obscurity and shared their immense knowlede and expertise on being strong as hell. These success stories inspired hundreds of other fitness "experts" to follow suit, which they did more or less successfully. Either way, old-time training seems to be back to stay. It seems as if the strength training world is forced to revert to training philosophies from almost one hundredyears ago, which gives one a good notion of the actual progress (or rather lackthereof) made in this field.

One of the tools of the trade extensively used by old-time strongmen were/are cable sets, or chest expanders. Cable training/strandpulling can be defined as the activity of stretching out elastic strands/bands, usually rubber tubing or steel springs, to a certain length in certain positions. Now, for most of you the mention of a "chest expander" device will a) register no "hits", b) bring back a foggy memory of two handles connected with steel springs that your Dad/Grandpa used to have around the house and didn't necessarily use, or c) bring back painful memories of said springs pinching chest hair and skin, if you belong to the "Baby Boomer" generation and actually used to use one. Indeed, the original concept of cable and spring sets was severely perverted over the years, as companies tried to market it as a training tool for women and guys "into toning", which resulted in expanders that, to paraphrase the words of John Brookfield, "your aunt Betsy could pull for 10 good reps the first time she tried it". One can understand that this kind of gimmick sort of killed strandpulling in the eyes of serious, hard-core strength athletes.

However, I like to draw the parallel between cable gimmicks and pink 2-lb. dumbbells used for "power aerobic" classes. Just because some companies market a ridiculous dumbbell, no one attempts to claim that weight-lifting is useless and non-productive; yet, cables get a bad rap. A set of moderately strong cables will give any man a great workout, and strong ones will humble even the mightiest weight-lifter if he's unaccustomed to working with them. To put it smply, serious cable training will develop strength and size. Some of the strongest men in history have used cables - if it worked for them, it will work for you. It will enhance an existing weight-lifting program, or put the finishing “touches” on a physique forged through diligent use of iron, or as a strength and flexibility program unto itself, or combined with non-apparatus and bodyweight exercises.

Although many people credit the Father of Bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow, with the invention of strands, they have been around ever since Europe discovered rubber. Also, Sandow didn't really train with them that much - he just marketed them very well, and later seemed to claim that his magnificent physique was initially built with a chest expander. Thomas Inch and Fred Rollon were professional strongmen who relied heavily (in the latter case, exclusively) on cable training. The best old-time cable training courses were written by Alfred Danks, Joe Bonomo and Roy Noe, all available for free viewing on, as well as Earle Liederman, whose course I've been unable to find. Modern courses include John Brookfield's book Training With Cables for Strength and a section in Mike Brown's work Strength of Samson and How to Attain It.

If you're not convinced yet, here's a list of reasons for cable training:

- Cables provide a different type of resistance to weights and “hit” the muscles in a different way, plus they develop muscles that are difficult to “get to” with regular barbell/dumbbell exercises;

- Cable exercises are very effective at “pumping” individual muscles, which is beneficial as it provides the necessary flushing of the muscle with blood (and removal of metabolic waste);

- Cables are light and take up very little space, so they’re very portable, great for trainees who are frequently on the road for longer periods and want to get some training done (like myself);

- Cables are extremely versatile – they can be used to replicate virtually all weight-lifting exercises, plus a vast number of others that have no weighted equivalent. They also provide unlimited options regarding muscles worked, range of motion, etc.;

- Cables do not stress the joints and tendons the way heavy weights do (although they do provide excellent joint/tendon loading), and hence lend themselves better to speed or explosive work at lower risk of injury (e.g. cable ballistic squats vs. barbell ballistic squats);

- Cables allow you to train with limit or near-limit resistance without the risk of life-threatening injury: getting whacked by a poorly secured cable or handle is very, very painful, but highly unlikely to permanently cripple you;

- Cables enable you to exercise against resistance coming from all angles, unlike weights, where the resistance is provided by gravity (always downward);

- Cables allow you to increase/decrease resistance easily and safely during the exercise, simply by adjusting the length pulled (by adjusting the grip or, if a door attachment is used, by stepping further/closer to the door);

- Cables are very useful for grapplers, as the multi-directional resistance provided is similar to
that provided by an opponent;

- Many traditional cable movements develop flexibility along with strength, an important aspect of physical development often neglected by weightlifters (indeed, excessive flexibility can be detrimental to certain categories of strength athletes, so this is something that is seldom, if ever, trained);

- Cables can be used for isolation exercises that target only the muscle worked, or for compound, full-body exercises that require all the muscles to work in unison; they cover the entire spectrum.

Good cable sets can be bought from Lifeline, Ironmind and Mike Brown. Ironmind offers a high-quality steel spring set, while the other two companies have opted for rubber. Cable sets are not very expensive, so there are no excuses: grab one and start pumping some rubber!


Anonymous said...

Is there a chest expander exercise that could be substituted for bent over barbell rows?

Nick Tangi said...

It depends on what cables you have, if you have a standard surgical tubing loop you can twist it into a figure of 8 and double it in half giving you a double strength shortened cable. Wrap that on your foot do the same with the other and you can do bent over rows, 1 arm rows or even seated rows. I use a mostly weights but I have to say this is as good if not better than weights, when done with 2 arms simultaneously you get a strong pinch in your back without taxing the lower back, plus it's almost impossible to cheat unless you cut the motion. Hope this helps and have faith and confidence in the cable because when used intelligently they do work.

Anonymous said...

Which one of these two exercises is better for overall shoulder development with chest expanders, single arm overhead presses or back presses?