The face pull is a classic upper back resistance movement made notable by its unique recruitment set of the posterior deltoids and other rotator cuff/scapula musculature.
When examined at a more technical level, we can determine that face pulls are an open chain compound movement primarily relying on scapular retraction, external shoulder rotation and elbow flexion to work the upper back and shoulders.
In practice, face pulls are most effective as either a method of “bulletproofing” the shoulder girdle or as an accessory exercise for targeting the more underutilized parts of the back and shoulders.
Face Pull at a Glance
Cable Machine and Rope Attachment
Main Muscles Targeted
How to Do Face Pulls
- Set the cable machine pulley to the same height as your head, attaching a double-ended rope or similar handle to the caliper.
- Stand far enough away from the machine to create a near horizontal angle with the cable as you grip the handle in both hands, arms fully extended.
- Brace the core, keep the head over the neck and square the shoulders. Ensure that the spine is neutral, torso tilted slightly back and that the chest is pushed out for optimal muscular contraction.
- Now in the correct stance, engage the shoulders by rolling them slightly back and depressing the scapula while simultaneously retracting it.
- This should pull the handles towards the sides of the head, the elbows bending out to the sides until they are horizontally parallel to the shoulders.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together while maintaining tension in the shoulders.
- Release the tension slowly as the resistance in the cable pulls the arms back into a state of extension at the front of the body.
- The repetition is now considered complete.
Sets and Reps Suggestions for Face Pulls:
Face pulls are not meant to be overly heavy or intense whatsoever.
If you’re new to face pulls, try:
- 2-3 sets of 12-20 repetitions at a low amount of weight.
Additional Performance Tips
Avoid extending the head forwards, as this can reduce trapezius contraction and potentially strain the cervical section of the spine.
Ideally, aim for an overhand or neutral grip orientation to be used; An underhand grip may contract the biceps excessively and irritate the labrum further.
Remember that face pulls benefit from the versatility of the cable machine. Use this to your advantage; Try out different face pull alternatives, experiment with pulley height and different handle attachments.
What Muscles are Worked by Face Pulls?
Face pulls primarily work the posterior head of the deltoids, but also target the upper trapezius, rhomboids, the many smaller rotator cuff muscles and even the biceps to a certain extent.
Common Face Pull Mistakes to Avoid
To avoid injury and get the most out of cable face pulls, avoid the following mistakes.
Wrong Equipment Configuration, Attachment or Adjustments
A common mistake made by many lifters is the incorrect configuration or adjustments of their equipment.
Avoid elevating the pulley too high as this will greatly alter the mechanics of the exercise, and avoid using an attachment that limits the total range of motion possible.
An ideal face pull will have a double ended rope attachment long enough to allow for the elbows to be parallel to the sides of the shoulders at the end of the repetition – and with a cable pulley height that directly aligns the ends of said attachment with the face at the start of the exercise.
Poor Tempo, Time Under Tension or ROM
As is a mistake in all other exercises, face pulls must be performed through a full range of motion with a focus on proper tempo and time under tension. This is especially important during the eccentric portion of the movement, where the lifter should make an effort to slow down in order to properly work their musculature.
Each repetition of face pull should begin with the arms fully extended and feature an apex with a position quite similar to the “double front bicep” pose common among bodybuilders.
Furthermore, this entire movement pattern must stretch out to approximately 2-3 seconds with each repetition.
Over Engaging the Biceps/End Hand Position Too Narrow
Keep in mind that the face pull is a posterior deltoid and upper back exercise. If you are overly engaging your biceps by essentially turning the movement into a curl, the aforementioned muscles will not be targeted as much.
Avoid rotating the forearms inwards or adopting an underhand grip, as these both tend to favor biceps activation.
In addition, the top position of the movement should have the hands at least wider than the shoulders as they grasp the handles, not nearly touching the ears.
Failing to Retract and Squeeze Scapula
Winging the scapula forwards or hunching the shoulders while performing a face pull can easily lead to injuries and generally poor training stimulus as a whole.
Instead, aim to keep the shoulder blades neutral and slightly depressed at the start of the movement.
As the arms begin to rotate externally and the hands approach the sides of the head, slowly join the shoulder blades alongside by squeezing them together. This should end with them fully pinched behind the body at the top of the movement.