Hi, my name is Steve Hoyles, and I’ve been a gym owner and a personal trainer for two decades now.
I know these machines left-to-right, top-to-bottom.
Not only did I use many of them with my clients, but I’ve also sourced them for my own personal gym.
I know where the steel arrives from.
I know the little towns in China that assemble some of them.
I know it all (he said humbly).
If you allow me, I’ll be your industry insider.
Show you the good stuff and the underbelly of the cable machine industry…the machines to stay away from.
Call me your cable guy, if you will.
Bells of Steel FT
Force USA G20
- 11 best cable machines
- 1 – Best cable machine overall (top value among functionals) – REP FT-5000 2.0
- 2 – Most versatile cable machine for home gyms – Force USA G20
- 3 – Best budget cable machine – Bells of Steel FT
- 4 – Best cheap cable machine for a home gym – Valor Fitness BD-61
- 5 – Best compact cable machine – Prodigy HLP Single-Stack Tower by Prime Fitness
- 6 – Best budget cable tower – Bells of Steel Tower
- 7 – Best weight-stack cable crossover machine – Body-Solid GDCC250
- 8 – Budget pick among cable crossover machines – Titan plate-loaded
- 9 – Cheap pulley system for a home gym – SERTT Upgraded
- 10 – Best smart cable machine for a home gym – Tonal
- 11 – Best portable cable machine – MAXPRO
- Buyer’s guide to best cable machines for a home gym
- FAQs about cable machines
- Other cable machines – honorable mentions
- Best home-gym cable machines – quick resume and takeaways
11 best cable machines
|Name||Type||Best in category||Price||Defining characteristic/feature|
|REP FT-5000||functional*||Overall||$$$||Versatility, premium build|
|Force USA G20||all-in-one||cost versatile||$$$$$||Unrivaled versatility, commercial-grade build|
|Bells of Steel FT||functional*||Budget cable machine||$$||Value for money|
|Valor Fitness BD-61||cable crossover/functional||cheap cable machine||$||Low cost|
|Prodigy HLP single-stack tower||cable tower||single-stack cable machine||$$$$||Versatility in small footprint, premium build|
|Bells of Steel Tower||cable tower||budget cable tower||$$||Value and variety|
|Body-Solid Selectorized Cable Crossover||cable crossover machine||crossover machine for home gyms||$$$||Affordable for a weight-stack cable crossover|
|Titan Cable Crossover||cable crossover machine||budget crossover machine||$||cheap|
|SERTT Upgraded Cable Pulley Attachments||cable pulley system||cheap cable system||$-||cheap, mounts onto a rack|
|Tonal smart home gym||smart gym machine||Smart cable machine for homes||$$$$$||Fully adjustable arms, guided workouts|
|Maxpro||portable system||portable cable machine||$+||Solid resistance in a small and light “package”|
*Functionals – for brevity, I’ll refer to functional trainers as “functionals” at some points in this guide (see our best functional trainer guide here).
1 – Best cable machine overall (top value among functionals) – REP FT-5000 2.0
Who it’s for: The conservative buyer looking for commercial-like quality for a reasonable price.
- Good value – conservatively priced for the construction level.
- Accurate geometry and solid cable travel length.
- Robust commercial-like build (frame, pulleys, bearings, cable).
- Premium finishes – Chrome and powder coat.
- Big footprint (42 square inches).
- The top pulley position might be too low for the tall (anyone over 6.3).
The second and vastly improved version of the FT-5000 takes the “best cable machine” laurels back to Colorado.
Its main forte is the commercial-like quality for a “home-gym” price.
That sounds commonplace, but it’s actually pretty special.
What’s special about it
It’s not one thing.
It gets all the crucial quality aspects right and does it at a more-than-fair price.
To compare it to other cable machines in its category, you can go one of two routes:
- Compare it to machines that are just as good.
- Compare it to machines that cost the same.
Route 1 – quality-based comparison
This would mean comparing it to machines like the Inspire FT2 or Rogue FT-1.
In that company, it stands out as the value choice.
The rest of that elite group cost two or three times more…’nuff said.
Route 2 – price-based comparison
This comparison makes much more sense because, at first glance, we’re looking at a few similar cable machines.
Three units pop to mind first – the Xmark 7626, BodyCraft HFT, and Titan Functional.
In this company, FT-5000 is the most well-rounded machine:
- It’s as robust as any (11-gauge frame).
- It comes with more pounds in the weight stack.
- The movement is smooth.
- The tolerances, finish, and attention to detail is (in my opinion) superior.
What it means for you
It means you’re getting a versatile cable machine that has a premium feel.
Imagine a gloomy day, 3 or 6 months from today.
On days like that, a machine like this might be the difference between staying in bed and getting a killer workout.
FT-5000 is THE machine to get if you decide that a functional trainer is what you need. It’s a unique combo of premium build and a conservative price.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||45 x 72 x 84|
|Weight stack size (lbs)||448|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||224|
2 – Most versatile cable machine for home gyms – Force USA G20
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for one cable machine that can replace a whole gym.
- Unrivaled versatility.
- Selectorized weight with heavy dual stacks.
- Thick uprights with 1-inch hole spacing.
- Features a Smith machine.
- Smith machine not counterbalanced.
The G20 all-in-one is hands-down the most versatile piece of gym equipment you can own.
For as long as I can remember, people in the industry have referred to functional trainers as “the most diverse pieces of gym equipment.”
I’m sure you read that sentence at one point or another.
The functional trainer is only 1 of 14 stations on the G20.
Let me drop some numbers:
- 11 workout units and 30 attachments on the base model*
- 3 optional upgrades (14 units total)
- Two weight stacks with 289 lbs in each
- Stout cable rated for 2,000 lbs of weight
* I use units to be clear and not sound cheesy. The 11 “stations” on the base model that could be standalone machines. This includes a functional trainer, a power rack, a Smith machine, a leg press, lat pulldown, etc.
A “problem” solved
The updated 2023 version corrected one flaw that used to bug me – the pulley ratio.
It used to be 1:1, which was good for powerlifters doing low-rep series.
But it meant shorter cables with less travel.
It felt too direct and, at times, uneven and jerky…despite of the premium pulleys.
Not the lame all-in-ones we remember
Some of us remember the “gladiators” that made claims about doing it all, only to become overpriced clothes hangers.
These still exist, and they’re just as bad.
This is not that.
The number of stations and attachments is important.
But putting them together in a way that actually works is where the rubber meets the road.
That’s where Force USA changed the game.
They’re now the undisputed king of that hill with no real competition.
And the G20 is the most complete unit in their lineup.
That says it all.
G20 is the one machine here that can effectively replace a whole gym. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth every penny, especially for small spaces. Buy this, and you’ve removed the need to buy a lot of peripheral equipment.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||79 x 67 x 91|
|Weight stack size (lbs)||578|
(1:1 on the lat pulldown)
|Actual resistance (lbs)||289|
|Number of stations (base unit)||11|
|Number of stations (with upgrades)||14|
3 – Best budget cable machine – Bells of Steel FT
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a medium-range cable machine on a budget.
- Low cost – 20-30% less than the FT-5000.
- Durable, aluminum pulleys.
- Wide range of accessories available.
- Smaller weight stacks (160 lbs).
- Frame not as thick as the FT-5000’s (14-gauge).
It’s all about smart budgeting with this one.
I totally get what Bells of Steel did here – they recognized a market gap and filled it.
Here’s what I mean:
- They gave up on the 10% of advanced lifters (the stack is too small for them).
- They gave up on 10% of no-compromise buyers (details and finishes are too basic for them).
- They gave up on the 10% of buyers simply looking for a cheap cable machine.
To the other 70%, they offered a unique value proposition.
Good for most
For 8 out of 10 people, the corners cut are not deal-breakers.
This is the important part – there’s no significant loss in functionality.
Moreover, they sneaked in a few premium details (like the aluminum pulleys).
Simply put – it does everything you need from a good cable machine for less money.
It’s not for everyone
The one thing that’s worth stressing is the smaller stack.
Compared to the FT-5000, the dual-weight stacks are 120 lbs lighter (440 vs. 320 lbs).
The ratio is 2:1, so the max weight you can get per side is 80 lbs.
For some, this will be too light. Especially when it comes to rows and other pulling exercises.
Still, 80 lbs per side is enough for most exercises and most people. Curls, flyes, pushdowns etc are all golden here.
What it means for you
It means you can save a pretty penny without missing out on anything essential.
If you save over 500 bucks here, you can get that awesome barbell you’ve been eyeing for months with zero guilt.
A penny saved is a penny earned, right?
If the 160 lbs resistance is enough for you and you’re not after a premium machine, your search might end here. It’s pretty spartan, but that’s reflected in the price point.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||30 x 53 x 81|
|Weight stack size (lbs)||320|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||160|
4 – Best cheap cable machine for a home gym – Valor Fitness BD-61
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a cheap cable machine that’s still decent.
- Solid quality for the price.
- Fits both Olympic and standard weight plates.
- Separate low pulley station.
- Basic construction.
- 1:1 weight-to-resistance ratio.
Valor BD-61 is the cheapest cable machine (in the functional-trainer category) that’s still decent in all key aspects.
That’s a convoluted sentence, and it sounds like I’m intentionally being vague.
Let me put it like this – if you gave me a thousand bucks to buy a cable machine with two pulleys, I’d get this.
And I’d still have some money left.
I’d probably spend the leftover money on beer to take the edge off as I try to put it together because the assembly is a bitch.
So, it’s a subtle balance…
What you get
You get a basic cable machine that works as described in all critical aspects:
- It’s wide enough for cable crossovers.
- The frame is light but stabilizes when you pack the weight on.
- It features a separate pair of pulleys in the middle for low rows and lat pulldowns.
- The pulleys are solid.
What you don’t get
You don’t get that smooth movement that comes with a top-tier cable machine.
The listed ratio is 1:1, which means the pulleys are only there to direct the weight.
Specs meet reality
In reality, the weight-to-resistance ratio is not actually 1:1.
It varies from pulley to pulley:
- On the top lat bar, you get (a bit) more resistance than the packed weight.
- On the crossover, you get about 70-80% of the load.
- On the lower middle pulley, you get more…about 50% more than the loaded weight.
I’m stressing these issues to make a point
You should only buy a cheap machine like this Valor if you know what to expect.
Valor BD-61 is a good value buy if you’re on an extra-tight budget. It’s not great, but an educated buyer with realistic expectations won’t be disappointed.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||30 x 53 x 81|
|Weight plates capacity (lbs)||200|
|Pulley ratio||varies pulley to pulley|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||280 top pulley|
310 low pulley
5 – Best compact cable machine – Prodigy HLP Single-Stack Tower by Prime Fitness
Who it’s for: The no-compromise buyer who’s OK with paying a premium for a top-tier cable tower.
- Takes up less space than a functional or lat pulldown.
- Works with a wide range of attachments (some 3rd party).
- 3×3 main column with 1-inch holes.
- Dedicated top pulley (1:1 or 2:1 ratio).
- The base unit is bare-boned.
- 20-lbs increments.
If space is tight and money is not, this is the cable machine for you.
If it were a peg less expensive, it would be close to the top of the list, at least as the runner-up to the FT-5000.
What’s special about it
There’s too much stuff to list in a mini-review.
Three points stand out compared to the competition.
1 – Biggest single-stack I know of – 350 lbs
Paired with a direct 1:1 ratio on the top pulley and a 2:1 on the main pulley, it’s as heavy as anyone needs.
Seriously, I do not know a person that would find the weight on this thing lacking.
2 – Separate fixed top pulley with its own resistance ratio
First of all, you can choose the ratio – it can be either 2:1 or 4:1.
The top pulley is double that – it can be either 2:1 or 1:1.
The configuration with a 2:1 on the main pulley and 1:1 on the top is the obvious choice for most people.
That gives you the full 350 lbs resistance on the top, which is great when paired with a seat for the lat pulldown.
3 – 3×3 upright with 1-inch holes on all sides
This is a big one. It gives you both stability and precision with your handle position for different exercises.
It separates the Prime tower from the competition.
That’s no small feat, because the competition includes great machines like the Rogue CT-1.
This design allows you to add front and side-mounted accessories and turn the tower into a lat pulldown, low row, dip machine, or landmine…and that’s just using Prime’s attachments.
The 3×3 and 1-inch holes are the standard for rack attachments, which means you can use third-party accessories.
Compared to the previous version, the holes are now on all sides of the upright, which adds a lot.
You can pair it with wide-mounted attachments, like the Straydog neck machine, the Sorinex leg curl machine, or the Bulldog pad.
Truly awesome stuff!
This thing is expensive.
And the number you see when you get to their site is just for the bare-boned base unit.
To make the most of it, you’ll need the attachment, and that cost adds up fast.
And beyond that…if you’re anything like me, you might end up buying attachments that you never planned for.
My point is this – you’re looking at a few grand for the base unit and should plan for at least 30% of that in attachments.
This awesome machine goes way beyond a “normal” cable tower. It’s the most flexible cable machine on the market today. Just be prepared to get your wallet out…
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||62 x 63 x 92|
|Weight stack size (lbs)||350|
|Pulley ratio||2:1 or 4:1|
(1:1 or 2:1 on the top pulley)
|Actual resistance (lbs)||* 175 or 87.5 on the main pulley* 350 or 8175 on the top pulley|
6 – Best budget cable tower – Bells of Steel Tower
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a cable tower on a budget.
- Great value for money.
- Solid materials and finishes (Aluminum and Steel).
- Footprint-to-versatility is off the charts.
- Two towers “become” a power rack.
- Knurled pull-up bar.
- The stack will be too light for some lifters.
- Tall position might be too low for some.
- Has to be bolted down or wall-mounted.
If I took the time to calculate the number of exercises you can do on a machine per square inch of footprint (let’s call that EPSI index), this tower would easily be one of the top-rated machines here.
*Exercise per Square Inch
If I took it one step further and accounted for cost, this would be THE best cable machine for a home gym.
That’s a tall order for a machine in this price range, but I stand behind it.
For the cost of a good functional, you can get two of these towers and a bunch of attachments.
With two towers, you now have a machine that mimics a wide functional; you have a knurled pull-up bar and a power rack.
What’s the catch?
The catch is you have to get all these attachments (dip bar, landmine, belt squat, etc.) from Bells of Steel because the uprights are not 3x3s but 2.4×2.4.
That’s still good but limiting if you want to use a 3rd party rack attachment, which you can do with the Prodigy HLP tower.
If a single-stack tower works best for your home gym, this Bells of Steel offers a superior space-versatility-price balance. It’s a versatile tower as a standalone and even better as a pair.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||25.1 x 28.5 x 80.9|
|Weight stack size (lbs)||250|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||125|
7 – Best weight-stack cable crossover machine – Body-Solid GDCC250
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a dual-stack cable crossover machine that doesn’t cost a fortune.
- Allows for wide cable crossovers.
- Allows for a range of lateral raise variations.
- Fits narrow spaces (like along one wall of your gym).
- Big footprint.
- Can’t do pressing movements.
- Can be risky for the shoulders on higher weights.
This Body-Solid (creatively named GDCC250) is the best cable crossover machine for home gyms because it ticks all the boxes of similar commercial models at a much lower price.
The most important of those boxes are the dual weight stacks.
Functional trainer or a cable crossover
The choice between these two will depend on what you already have in your gym.
If you don’t have high/low pulleys anywhere, a functional will be a better fit.
If you’re stacked with weights, barbells, racks, and some sort of pulley, a cable crossover would add more.
It allows for wide crossovers and unique wide-delt moves, like standing lateral raises.
Most functionals are too narrow for that.
If you feel like a selectorized cable crossover is the machine for you, this Body-Solid is your best bet. You’ll need a lot of space though, so factor that in first.
Although it’ll fit tight to a wall, you’ll still need the space in front of it to make it work.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||164 x 29 x 84|
|Weight capacity (lbs)||320 (420 when upgraded)|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||160 (210 when upgraded)|
8 – Budget pick among cable crossover machines – Titan plate-loaded
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a solid crossover machine on a tight budget.
- Smaller footprint than most crossovers (not as long).
- The included handles are superb for the price.
- Not as convenient as weight stacks.
- Basic build.
- Can be shaky on dynamic moves like rotations.
Most of the things we said about the Body-Solid unit, also go for this Titan.
You know….about it being better for lifts that require cable to arrive from a wide angle.
The difference is that the Titan costs much less….like…70% less.
The tradeoffs are significant – from the (in)convenience of loading plates every time to the inherent instability, basic build, and finishes.
This is the cheapest cable-crossover machine you can get with no major deal-breakers.
If you can make your peace with the minor issues (bear in mind the low price you’re paying), you’ll be getting a decent bit of kit.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||113 x 36 x 83.5|
|Weight plates capacity (lbs)||440|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||220|
9 – Cheap pulley system for a home gym – SERTT Upgraded
Who it’s for: Anyone looking to supplement and diversify with a minimal budget and extra space.
- Cheap way to diversify.
- Solid value – surprisingly smooth pulleys.
- Can be packed away when not in use.
- Unstable on higher weights and dynamic moves.
- Carabiners should be better.
- Might need modifications for low ceilings.
SERTT pulley system is the top pick of the category because it’s the most complete package, and our data shows the lowest % of critical failures.
You’ve probably seen these things…they’re all over the place.
Are they great?
Do they add value and versatility?
In other words – as long as you know what to expect from a rudimentary pulley system like this, it’s money well spent.
It’s cheap and versatile.
Specifically, SERTT Upgraded comes with two pulleys and a bunch of accessories that combine into a vast range of pulling setups for upper body work – from biceps curls to rows and flies.
If you only read the sentence above, you’d get the impression that this is the last cable machine you’ll ever need.
That’s not even remotely true.
If your physique is a wall waiting to be built, this is caulk.
It can fill in the blanks here and there, but you can’t build around it.
Because none of the exercises will feel the same as they would on “normal” cable machines.
The resistance is a pile of suspended weights that might swing mid-set.
So, the potential for safe overload isn’t there.
Cheap pulley systems are the cheapest way to diversify your cable game. Among them, SERTT Upgraded stands out as the most complete package.
In conclusion, this is a last resort pick – get it if it’s your only feasible cable option.
|Dimensions (LxWxH, inches)||n/a|
|Weight plates capacity (lbs)||330|
|Pulley ratio||2:1 or 1:1|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||165 or 330|
10 – Best smart cable machine for a home gym – Tonal
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a cutting-edge cable machine that looks like decor but still delivers serious resistance.
- Wide-angle adjustable arms.
- Guided workouts.
- Slick and minimal design.
- Professional installation only.
- Electronic/magnetic resistance feels different.
Tonal is the best smart cable machine for two main reasons:
- Adjustable arms
- Solid resistance levels
- User interface
Adjustable arms for full ROM
We go on and on about angles and muscle activation at different positions.
The solution has always existed…and the price was always your firstborn son.
It’s machines with pulley arms that adjust in all three plains (image below).
It makes all the sense in the world
The two cable machines that come to mind are Freemotion and Cybex Bravo.
Both are great for the same reason – arms that allow you to choose width, height, and depth of the pulleys.
Granted, Tonal is not Freemotion or Cybex.
It’s not as sturdy, and the resistance feels different.
But it offers angle adjustments.
And you get 100 lbs of resistance per side, which is solid.
Compared to other smart cable machines, Tonal’s interface, the guided workouts, and the library feels “mature,” with most initial kinks ironed out. It’s just a hell of a price, when it’s more limited than other, similar machines.
Tonal smart cable home gym is a conversation-starter and envy magnet if there ever was one. I don’t think it’s one for the purists, but if you’re new to training, the videos and instruction will be a help.
In functionality terms, the adjustable handles make all the difference.
|Dimensions (closed, LxWxH, inches)||5.25 x 21.5 x 50.9|
|Weight capacity (lbs)||200|
|Actual resistance (lbs)||200|
11 – Best portable cable machine – MAXPRO
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a cable machine to use on the go.
- High resistance in a small package (300 lbs).
- Versatile – all handles, bars, and straps included.
- Uses cables instead of bands (elastic bands are common in similar devices).
- Simple twist controls.
- Costs more than similar units with elastic bands.
- Resistance takes getting used to – tends to feel “bumpy” or stiff.
I’m awarding Maxpro the label of best portable cable machine for two main reasons:
- It’s the one cable unit that’s so small and light to be truly portable
- Shaq says it’s good…and that man can do no wrong
Anyway, Shaq aside…
This truly is a unique concept that’s good as is, but still has room for improvement.
What’s better about it
The fair comparison here is to cable machines (or rather platforms) like the Vitruvian.
In that competition, Maxpro truly stands out:
- It’s much smaller and lighter
- It’s cheaper
- It’s all cables – no cumbersome elastic bands to pack
MaxPro is the closest you can get to a portable cable machine.
Again, like the Tonal it’s not going to be one for the purists, but it’s a decent option for those who are interested in home exercise, rather than training.
|Dimensions when packed (LxWxH, inches)||19 x 15.8 x 5.8|
|Weight of the unit (lbs)||9|
|Number of resistance settings||50|
|Resistance type||Electronic, battery-powered|
|Charge time of the battery||150 minutes|
|Life of the battery||1 month of regular use|
Buyer’s guide to best cable machines for a home gym
The guide below will be an interesting read for two groups of people:
- The conservative buyer who’s passionate about what goes into their home gym.
This guy likes to understand the logic behind choosing before he spends a dime. I like this guy because I am him.
- The people who didn’t like any of our picks and want to keep searching.
Self-serving jokes aside…
I’ll keep things super practical and be specific whenever I can.
10 primary factors to look for in a cable machine
1 – Type of cable machine
Saying that you need a “good cable machine” is like walking into a Big Lots store and saying you need the “best furniture.”
That might be a clumsy metaphor, but you get it…
The types of cable machines can be as different as a sofa from a closet.
Below is a 3-question list that should point you in the right direction.
- How much space do I have available? (more on machine sizes in a second)
- What pieces do I already own, and what’s missing from my gym? (this should leave you with a list of stations that should be on your new cable machine)
- Am I OK with the “feel” of cable resistance on all exercises? (this one is often overlooked)
Let’s unpack #2 and 3, and we’ll get to 1 in a hot minute.
Pieces of gym equipment you own (and what’s missing)
There are two scenarios here:
- You’re starting from scratch and planning out the whole home gym.
- You already have an existing setup, and a cable machine needs to complement it.
Let’s be ultra-specific…
- If you have the space for a rack and a pressing bench (or already have them in place), your best bet is a functional trainer.
Furthermore, if you’re not big on cable crossovers, a single-stack tower or a simple wall-mounted cable machine can be a good fit.
If I had to guess, I’d say that functionals and cable towers will be the way to go for 60-70% of home gym setups.
- If you’re working with a small space and can’t fit a rack and a cable machine separately, go with an all-rounder like the Force USA G20.
An overlooked factor – the “feel” of cable resistance
I hear this as a grievance all the time:
“Cables just don’t feel the same as free weights.”
It’s a remnant from the ol’ days of commercial gyms.
We’re used to cables for stuff like lat pulldowns, rows, and triceps extensions.
We’re not used to cable resistance on squats or bench presses.
The good news
The “feel” does not translate to sub-par results.
All the studies show it.
You get similar results from free weights and cable exercises.
The even better news is that some of that buyer’s remorse goes away as you get used to cable resistance.
What the studies don’t show
Studies can’t account for skipping a workout because you don’t like the machine.
They can’t show how that one skipped workout might unravel.
My point here is that I get the subjective feeling of liking or not liking cables. User experience is a key measure too, and you want to enjoy using your home gym equipment.
If it’s strong, ignore the studies and listen to your gut.
If in doubt, mix and match
Here’s the bottom line…
If you’re a hardcore beastly thing, there’s a good chance you’ll never get used to the sound of magnetic pin poppin’ in instead of iron plates clinking.
And I get it…
If this describes you, a good rack or a half-rack is probably a must.
If you don’t have the space for it, you’ll love the Force USA machines.
- A full power rack combined with a cable machine (like on the X20)
- A half-rack with a cable machine (with or without a Smith bar – the G20 and the X15, respectively)
Choosing the type could probably be a guide in its own right, but that wouldn’t help anyone.
At this point, you probably have an idea of what’s right for you.
If you don’t, here’s a boiled-down checklist:
- Re-read what I said above.
- Pinpoint where you fit in.
- Define your goals and likes/dislikes.
- Take stock of the existing setup.
- Choose the type of cable machine (a clear winner should emerge by this point).
- Check out our picks for the type, and see if any fit your space.
Click here to skip back to the top picks table.
2 – Size of the cable machine
Comparing sizes across different types of cable machines makes no sense.
It’s only natural that a does-it-all behemoth like the G20 will be 2 or 3 bigger than your average functional.
We’ll do it anyway…well, kinda…
It’s still worth doing, just to give you a point of reference, and you can pick it up from there.
Below is a graph with the sizes/footprints (some approximated*) of the best cable machines.
*When the footprint is not a rectangle or when a machine is bigger at the top, we’ve calculated the size using the furthest-most points. The functionals are a great example of this – the shape is triangle-like, and the top parts of the frame protrude out beyond the base.
Specs, actual, and real-life-use size of cable machines
This ties into the previous point about how we size calculations.
I’ll use the FT-5000 to explain my point.
This is the size listed in the specs, and it’s there to give you an idea of the floor space you’ll need for the machine.
On the example of the FT-5000 – the listed size is 68×36 inches.
Those numbers do not account for two aspects:
- The upper part of the frame goes beyond the base.
- Parts that stick out (like the pulley mechanism).
Whenever possible, we use this as a reference.
The “actual” size is what you get when you take everything into account…stuff like the pulleys, protruding parts of the frame, horns for weight storage, etc.
With all said and done, this is the surface that matters.
It’s what you get when you account for the movements you’ll be doing on the machine and the space needed to maneuver around it comfortably.
The latter is crucial if it’s a plate-loaded unit.
To be specific…
For the example of a functional trainer, I’d say that real-life use space ranges from 60 to 100 square feet.
For nine out of ten people, a space of 8.5 x 8.5 ft will do.
Cover the big ones, and you’re golden
There are a few exercises that are my go-to for calculating this number for a specific cable machine and user.
These require the most floor room.
Include these in your math, and you’ll have enough space for everything else:
- Standing triceps extension
- Standing cable rotations
- Low rows
- Barbell rotations on a landmine attachment
I call this space the ”landmine triangle,” and it’s an important consideration (when there is a landmine, of course).
Below are three illustrations of the points I’m trying to make.
That’s about as deep as I can dig.
My one goal here was to highlight size-related math that’s often overlooked.
3 – Weight capacity of a cable machine
There are two ways to look at weight capacity:
- The actual weight of the stacks or plates.
- The transferred weight – resistance that gets to your end.
Since the frames are rugged and the cable are typically tested for weights that exceed the listed, the second approach makes more sense.
Below is a graph that compares the total “transferred weights.”
4 – Type of resistance – plates vs. single and dual weight stacks
This one is all about moniez.
There’s zero doubt that popping pins into weight stacks will be quicker, easier, and more convenient than loading plates.
Even the “I’m old-school” argument doesn’t work here.
Because the weight travels through a cable and feels the same on the other end.
The one argument you could defend here is control of the increments and progress. If you’re at a plateau, moving the needle one pound at a time will be easier.
Fractional plates allow you to do that on a plate-loaded unit.
Here’s the problem with that argument
You can do the same thing with weight stacks.
Get fractional magnetic plates; you can easily work your way up in smaller increments.
So, it’s really simple:
- If you have the money and you’re short on time and nerves, go for the stacks.
- If you’re buying on a budget and have the plates lying around, a plate-loaded cable machine will do just fine.
And you can use the money saved to get other awesomeness for your gym.
- If you’re going with weight stacks, two will offer more versatility (like cable crossovers).
- If cable crossovers aren’t a must, a single-stack tower is a space-saver and can do most of the same stuff.
(OK, so maybe not so simple after all…)
5 – Overall build of a cable machine
Overall build boils down to three things:
- Gauge of the steel
- Cross-section of the uprights or the frame
- Quality of the joints
The no-compromise best cable machines will typically be built using 3×3, 11-gauge steel.
The gauge of the steel refers to the thickness, and lower means thicker here.
Below is an image that explains gauge.
The right way to look at this
There is nothing wrong with 13-gauge steel as long as the machine is stable and safe.
The best value doesn’t live in the 11-gauge neighborhood.
That’s where the expensive stuff is.
To get the full picture, look at the warranty terms as part of the build equation.
Here’s what I mean…
If I see an 11-gauge machine backed by a vague warranty, it doesn’t pass the smell test.
It still might be good, but it raises questions about the joints and the welds.
We’ll get back to the warranty terms in a minute…
6 – The cable pulley system
There are three key aspects to look at here:
- The cables
- The pulleys – material, size, adjustability
- The resistance ratio
Let’s unpack each.
The cables – overhyped lingo
The cables are not likely to be a problem.
At least not a substantial one.
You might see some splitting of the plastic coat in the low-tier cable machines, but that’s pretty much it.
Here’s why I say it’s overhyped
Steel cables used on these machines are sold by the ton.
The “amount” that goes into a single unit is…I dunno…maybe a few bucks’ worth.
The better cable machines try to gain an edge here and go for specific high-end materials.
You read stuff like aircraft-grade something-or-other.
The reality of mass production
Whatever the material the bigger brands use for the cables, the cheaper names can match it.
At least in terms of strength.
It’s as simple as asking their Chinese supplier to start using a 6 or 7-mm cable instead of 5.
What’s my point?
Those videos you’ve seen of cables snapping are material fatigue resulting from the heavy daily use in commercial gyms.
It’s one in a million. In fact, in my entire career I’ve never seen it happen. I’ve seen plastic coating fray – that happens, but cables snapping? It’s incredibly rare.
The cables today are tested to twice or three times the machine’s capacity.
My point – don’t pay extra for big words.
Note: One exception here is cables paired with aluminum pulleys…more on that in a second.
The pulleys – material, size, adjustability
Unlike the cables, the pulleys make a real difference to how a cable machine “feels.”
A cheap plastic pulley will feel “jerky” after 6 months.
Smooth pulleys will make all the difference to your experience.
Aluminum, nylon, and polymer pulleys
Any respectable brand will use one of these three materials for the pulleys.
Aluminum – tough, cool, and “aggressive”
Aluminum looks and sounds cooler than nylon or plastic polymers.
Is it better?
It’s more durable, but it’s also noisier and more aggressive on the cable.
I can imagine the cable coating splitting and the friction biting into the steel strands somewhere down the line…and I’m talking way down.
It’s not a problem either way.
The good news is that top brands like REP know it, too. So they only pair aluminum pulleys with top-tier cable coating.
(this is the exception I mentioned)
On the other hand, nylon and plastic polymers have made leaps in durability over the last decade.
So much so that the durability of aluminum is almost a moot point.
With that said, nylon and polymer pulleys do “feel smoother,” so I give them a slight advantage over aluminum.
Bottom line – the material of the pulleys is not a deal-breaker as long as it’s not the cheapest plastic.
Size and adjustability
There are two simple points here:
- The bigger pulleys feel smoother because the contact surface with the cable is greater.
- Adjustability refers to the vertical height range and the side-to-side swivel.
It’s a concern for the tall.
In my experience, this only becomes a concern if you’re over 6.2 with an exceptionally wide wingspan.
The “concern” is that the top position might not be high enough for full ROM* on some exercises.
If this is you, you’ll want to look at models with adjustable arms for the cables, like the Cybex Bravo.
(It’s expensive, I know, but not as expensive as a machine you’ll never use.)
*ROM – Range of Motion
7 – Cable machine resistance ratio
This one’s important.
The resistance ratio of a cable machine is a number that describes how much of the weight from the stacks or weight plates gets to your end.
For example, a 2:1 means you get 100 lbs of resistance for 200 lbs of weight.
2:1 is the sweet spot
Most cable machines have a 2:1 ratio and plan the capacity accordingly.
A 2:1 also means that the cable travels twice as much as the weight, which gives you enough range for full motion.
The outliers fall into two groups:
- 1:1 – you lift what’s on the horns or the stack. These are a good fit for those who need more weight.
Also, the resistance on the 1:1’s feels different.
It’s more direct because the pulley is there to redirect the force, not smoothen it out.
- Dual pulley system – 2:1 & 4:1 or 1:1 & 2:1
A dual pulley system means that the actual ratio is 4:1 or 2:1, and you double it by joining two cables.
Another way to do this is to offer a separate pulley with its own ratio.
Bottom line – for most people, a 2:1 will offer enough resistance and cable travel for a full range of motion.
The image below explains how resistance ratios work.
8 – Coating and attention to detail
The best cable machines, like REP FT-5000, are precisely and cleanly welded and typically finished with a good powder coat.
Powder coating has gone a long way
Not all powder coats are created equal.
The modern ones used by the top brands like Rogue are much better than a decade or two ago.
Each step has seen improvement – from the chemicals (urethanes, epoxies, and polyesters) to the mixing, spraying, and curing.
Bottom line – it’s good enough and cheap.
By “good enough,” I mean it looks clean, and it’s scratch and corrosion-resistant.
Any other coating would be less practical for the manufacturing phase.
And who’d have to eat that cost?
You, the buyer.
All hail the powder coat!
9 – Prices of cable machines
Cost is another category where direct comparisons across different machine types make little sense.
Apples to oranges
You can pay as little as 50 bucks for a pulley “system” that mounts onto your rack and mimics a cable machine.
And you can pay around ten grand for a state-of-the-art cable machine like the Cybex Bravo.
Comparing those is crazy.
That’s also why I tried my best to present budget options in all main categories.
Here’s a generalization I’m OK with making based on the two decades behind me – 80% of people will find their next machine in the $1-3K range.
For reference, below is a price comparison graph.
10 – Warranty terms of a good cable machine
I have two precise rules of thumb here:
- If you’re paying over $1K for a cable machine, don’t settle for anything less than a Limited Lifetime warranty.
- A 1-year warranty is only acceptable if you’re buying a cheap cable machine with weight plates.
I understand that most people aren’t bothered by warranties.
You’re paying thousands for the darn machine; why would you worry about it breaking?
I get it.
Look beyond that – good warranty terms are a subtle indicator of a quality cable machine.
FAQs about cable machines
What is a cable machine used for?
A cable machine like REP FT-5000 is used to complement free weights for full-body workouts.
As shown in this 2017 study, even different kinds of cable machines can mix things up and stimulate muscles by challenging them with new angles and different ranges of motion.
In a home gym setting, their main forte is adding versatility when space is limited.
I tend to avoid leg work on them (with a couple of minor exceptions), but upper body work is a go!
Can you build muscle with cable machines?
Yes, you can build muscles with cable machines, especially versatile ones like the Force USA G20.
As this 2020 study found, there’s no significant difference in muscle mass gains between free weight and machines.
Cable machines can only add to that by forcing muscle tension through the full range of motion, unlike free weights or other machine types.
Which cable machine is best?
Other cable machines – honorable mentions
Below is a list of cables machines which fell just below the red line…the line that separates the good from the best.
- Inspire FT-2 – a premium cable machine with some unique design solutions. Too expensive to compete in such a broad niche, though.
- XMark functional trainer cable machine – good, popular, but not as good as the FT-5000.
- BodyCraft HFT – solid home cable machine with the bad fortune of competing against FT-5000 and Bells of Steel.
- Cybex Bravo Advanced – best cable machine among functionals if you can afford an absolute splurge.
It’s also one of the few trainers that actually stands out – courtesy of the fully adjustable arms and a back support pad for stabilization.
Too expensive for most home gyms.
- Rogue Monster Lat Pulldown/Low Row Combo – the pulldown/low-row standalones is a whole group of machines we decided not to include because units like Prodigy HLP make them obsolete.
Rogue Monster combo machine has two jobs – the lat pulldown and low rows. The HLP does the two jobs just as well but excels in a ton of other stuff.
You might get the Rogue combo if you have everything else covered and you’re a brand partisan or prefer the Rogue aesthetic.
The same goes for standalone cable lat pulldown machines and cable rowers.
- ROGUE CT-1 cable tower – good but (again) less versatile than the Prodigy HLP.
- Muscle Motion Adjustable Cable Crossover – a commercial-grade unit that’s ultimately too expensive to compete with the more versatile cable machines for home gyms.
- BodyCraft PFT – slightly better than most units we looked at. Much more expensive than the competition, though.
- Life Fitness cable machines – three series of great pulley machines (Multi-Jungle, Synergy, Signature Series) – all better suited for commercial gyms than homes.
- Cable row machine – great in its own right, and deserves a separate guide.
Best home-gym cable machines – quick resume and takeaways
This one was tricky, but we pulled it off and pinpointed a few clear winners.
For most people with an existing setup, a functional trainer strikes the best versatility-price balance.
For those starting from scratch or working with small spaces, there’s no machine on Earth is more versatile than the Force USA G20.
Among the single-stack towers, the compact Prodigy HLP takes the cake with a few thought-out tweaks that add a ton of value.
If you’re still unsure, click here to skip back to the Top 11 table.