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3 Best Cable Crossover Alternatives for a Toned Chest

As a gym owner, I’ve noticed that the cable crossover is slowly becoming a ‘forgotten’ exercise.

As many people move away from traditional bodybuilding style movements and more into weightlifting and functional fitness, exercises such as the cable crossover are becoming less popular.

And therefore, facilities aren’t catering for them much!

I mainly have free weights without many machines in my 6,000 sq ft gym. But I still see the value in functional trainer machines as you can see with my own one below…

There’s still a case for cable crossovers, but if your gym doesn’t have a cable machine you may struggle to think of good cable crossover alternatives. 

In this article, I’ll be showing you how I replicate the movement using other exercises in my workouts and those of my training clients.

These are exercises that either mimic the movement pattern of the cable crossover, or they mimic the effects of the exercise. They’ll ensure you get all of the benefits of the cable crossover without needing to splash out on a cable machine.

Why are fewer people doing cable crossovers?

There are a few reasons…

As weightlifting, CrossFit, kettlebell training, and the like have grown in popularity, fewer people train in a bodybuilding style. Cable crossovers are fundamentally a bodybuilding exercise. If fewer people are bodybuilding, naturally fewer people will be doing cable crossovers.

There’s also a deeper understanding of shoulder mechanics now, which has led in part to a change in training approaches. 

Personal trainers and coaches essentially influence training habits, whether directly (through teaching) or indirectly (through people copying their workouts). And there has been a move away from too many shoulder adduction exercises due to their increased risk of creating shoulder impingements. 

Cable crossovers can potentially help throwers and swimmers, but beyond those sports, there’s a little athletic carryover from them. In a world where more people are training for function over aesthetics, exercises such as cable crossovers are becoming less popular. 

Why should we look at cable crossover alternatives?

Shoulders are joint with the biggest range of movement in the body, but they’re also at the mercy of a lot of muscles. The pecs, the rotator cuff, the muscles of the upper back, and the biceps can all affect the shoulder.

If any of these muscle groups are tight or imbalanced (one side is stronger than the other), then it can create shoulder pain. One of the main ways we create an imbalance is when we put too much shoulder adduction (bringing the arms towards the middle of the body) in our training programs.

The most common shoulder adduction exercise?

Cable crossovers.

By the way, I’m not saying they’re bad, I’m just saying don’t over-rely on them because otherwise, we can create muscle imbalances. 

The other reason is that for most home gym users a cable machine is a real indulgence – it’s a lot of money and takes up a lot of space. The reality is most home gym users won’t have access to a cable machine, so I want to provide some good cable crossover alternatives that are safe and effective.

A good weight bench and set of dumbbells like these will help…

Target muscles of cable crossovers

Cable crossovers primarily target the pectoral muscles, with secondary activation of the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) and the biceps. 

It’s an excellent exercise for targeting the pectorals, with research showing it is as good as the bench press when it comes to pectoral muscle activation. The exercise itself is limited by the ability of the shoulder and torso to withstand force, so it tends to be a lighter, higher rep exercise (hence its popularity with bodybuilders). This means that although it targets the pecs well, it doesn’t provide as big a challenge as say the bench press.

Research shows that the cable crossovers challenge the core more than other chest exercises too though, so have other stability benefits.

Cable crossover alternatives

What we’re going to look at here are cable crossover alternatives that cover three main points of the cable cross-over…

  1. Core challenge and stability whilst activating pecs
  2. Safe shoulder adduction
  3. Pectoral activation

Managing to achieve all of these with cable crossover alternatives means we can avoid the expensive and space-sucking problem we’d have with a cable machine.

1. Deficit push ups (core challenge and stability whilst activating pecs)

The deficit push-up forces a stretch across the chest throughout the shoulder abduction elements of the lift. It also engages the pectoral muscles through a huge range of movement, making it a fantastic chest exercise.

Deficit push-ups can be set up quickly and easily in any home gym, they need almost no equipment and there’s very little technique to learn. It’s also an exercise that you can progress easily – just make the deficit bigger. The deficit can be created with dumbbells, plates, boxes, etc.

Equipment needed for deficit push-ups:

How to do deficit push-ups:

  1. Set your deficit to an appropriate width and height. Wider and higher means more pectoral engagement.
  2. Start with arms fully extended and lower yourself down through the movement.
  3. Lower yourself until you’ve reached full depth. You’re looking for more than 90 degree elbow bend and a full stretch of the chest.
  4. Slowly press yourself back up to a straight arm position.
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Deficit push-ups muscles worked:

  • Pectorals (chest)
  • Triceps
  • Anterior deltoid (front of the shoulders)
  • Core

If you’d like to see more tricep-based exercises, check out our tricep pushdown alternatives.

2. Flat bench dumbbell fly (safe shoulder adduction)

The dumbbell fly is the closest in terms of movement pattern that we’ll get to the cable crossover in this list. It’s an exercise I prefer to the crossover because I think the position allows for a greater stretch of the end range of movement, helping to prevent shoulder issues. This version of shoulder adduction is safe and controllable.

The flat bench activates the pectoral muscles effectively, as research shows us that the angle of the bench during chest exercises is important. When it’s flat, the whole pectoral muscle group is activated rather than biasing the upper or lower portion of the muscles you’d see if the bench was inclined or declined.

Equipment needed for a flat bench dumbbell fly:

How to do a flat bench dumbbell fly:

  1. Lie flat on the bench with your arms extended directly in front you. The palms should be in a neutral grip (palms facing together)
  2. With a slight bend in the elbows, open the arms and lower the dumbbells towards the floor. Keep the arms long throughout – don’t bend the elbows much
  3. At the bottom of the movement, you should feel a stretch. Hold this position for a second or two
  4. Keeping the arms largely extended, use the pectoral muscles to bring the dumbbells back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Flat bench dumbbell fly muscles worked:

  • Pectorals (chest)
  • Biceps (secondary activation)

3. Dumbbell bench press (pectoral muscle group activation)

I love dumbbells – I use them daily for both my training and my personal training client’s workouts. I like the unilateral element of them, meaning each side has to work independently. There’s also evidence that when it comes to pressing movements, the dumbbells are a good option.

The results from a comparison study between dumbbell, Smith machine, and barbell bench presses showed that the dumbbells had an equal pectoral activation to the others, but had a higher bicep activation. This is because of the stability element provided by the biceps. Considering the additional muscle activation and the unilateral aspect of the dumbbell press, I use this as a good cable crossover alternative.

Equipment needed for a dumbbell bench press:

How to do a dumbbell bench press:

  1. Lie flat on the bench with your arms bent and the dumbbells at either side of your torso
  2. Planting your feet into the floor, drive your arms straight, maintaining an overhand grip throughout the movement
  3. When your arms are fully extended, pause and return the dumbbells to the start position, controlling the descent as you go
  4. At the bottom of the movement, you should feel a stretch. Hold this position for a second or two
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Dumbbell bench press muscles worked:

  • Pectorals (chest)
  • Biceps (secondary activation)
  • Anterior deltoids (front of shoulder)

Check out our pull up alternatives article for more upper body and biceps-focused exercises.

As always, consider function with chest exercises

I’ve mentioned this in another article, but it’s an important message that bears repeating. When training your chest, you have to consider the impact that exercises have on shoulder health. 

We live in a world where most of us spend long periods in an internally rotated position across the chest. This pulls the shoulders forward and inwards, making the pectoral muscles tight. This leads to shoulder pain and possible impingement.

Throwing a bunch of exercises into a workout that requires shoulder adduction will only make it worse, so consider what you need to do. These exercises will help to avoid too many problems, but they have to be balanced with a lot of vertical pulls – the exercises in this article are the perfect antidote.

Pro tip: If you have tight pecs and sore shoulders, for every set of chest exercises do 4 horizontal pull sets. It’ll help to address the imbalance quickly and remove the pain.

Cable crossover alternatives – the bottom line

Whilst I have no beef with cable crossovers as an exercise per se, I think there are much better chest exercises. The cable crossover offers very little in terms of overall athleticism and they’re a chest exercise that requires a movement pattern that risks feeding shoulder dysfunction. 

They also require equipment that is expensive and takes up a lot of space in your home gym. There’s a usually better use of space and money than a cable machine.

The research shows they don’t engage the pectoral muscles as well as bench pressing, so it doesn’t matter which way you turn, it appears there’s a better option for training your chest. Hopefully having read this article you’ll understand that you don’t need cable crossovers in your program – the only real purpose they serve most of us is an aesthetic one.

If you’re training with aesthetics in mind, by all means, throw them into your workouts. If you’re reading this page because you simply want effective alternatives to the cable crossover, these exercises will do all you need and more!

Part of my training philosophy is to keep things simple, and the exercises I’ve shared do just that.

If you’re looking for more chest-focused exercises check out our alternatives to dips article.

by Steve Hoyles
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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