Face Pulls: What, How and Alternatives


The face pull is an excellent but underrated exercise that targets the upper back and rear deltoids. It’s often overlooked because it is thought of as an unnecessary accessory movement that isn’t going to build any substantial muscle gains.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth!

Not only can the face pull assist in building substantial back and shoulder musculature, but it can provide the shoulders and back with a fantastic warm-up. In addition, face pulls are a great exercise for injury prevention and postural improvements as well!

If you avoid antagonist exercises like the face pull and put all your focus and effort into pressing and pushing movements, not only will you experience noticeable muscular imbalances, but you’ll likely hurt yourself in the process…

Don’t get me wrong, the face pull isn’t the “end all be all” of shoulder exercises.

However, if you want to be in it for the long haul, you might want to consider implementing them for the sake of your health and longevity. And hey, maybe you’ll experience some extra gains along the way.

So, if you want to learn more about the face pull, how to perform it, and the benefits that it provides, read on for more!

Muscles Used in the Face Pull

The face pull isn’t only a great movement for its muscle building, injury prevention, and postural benefits…It’s also one of the few exercises that you can implement that will exclusively target the rear deltoid!

So, for starters: The face pull directly targets and activates the rear deltoid of the shoulder…But what other muscles are involved?

The muscles listed below are the muscles activated during a face pull:

  • Rear Deltoid
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius (Upper Back)

The muscles above play a key role in the execution of a face pull. As you can see, they are all located around the shoulder and upper back region of the body. Because of the position that you are in when performing a standing face pull, you will also likely recruit your core muscles as well!

Those core muscles recruited include, but are not limited to:

  • Rectus Abdominis
  • External and Internal Obliques
  • Transverse Abdominis

For an accessory movement, the muscular recruitment from a face pull is at the high end of efficiency and effectiveness. In other words, you’re getting a bang for your buck!

Whether you’re a beginner or an elite athlete, you should be implementing face pulls into your weekly workout regimen!

How to Perform Face Pulls

Face pulls can be performed in both a standing or seated position. The equipment utilized to perform this movement is either a cable machine or a resistance band. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call them cable face pulls, and banded face pulls…

In this section of the article we’re going to be reviewing how to perform cable face pulls, as these are most commonly performed in gyms!

Before we get into the step-by-step guide on how to actually execute this movement, there are a few tips that need to be known prior to beginning:

  1. Start with a light weight. Not only is the rear delt a smaller muscle, but it’s also a movement that requires less weight for it to be effective. In other words, face pulls are intended to be performed at higher repetitions using a lighter weight. This is not a compound movement where you’re trying to lift as heavy as possible. Using a mind-muscle connection, you want to instead focus on contracting and activating the rear delt. Too much weight equates to overcompensation and the recruitment of other larger muscle groups not intended to be used.
  • Retract the scapula and focus on form. While the face pull is a great movement for improving posture, improper form can counteract the benefit. Think about having a tall chest, forcing the scapula down and back, and squeezing your shoulder blades together on every contraction.
  • Adjust the cable to about eye-height. This will provide the most comfort during the movement and will allow you to execute the exercise as prescribed.

OK! Now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, let’s get into the step-by-step guide on how to perform a cable face pull:

  • Standing facing towards the pulley, grab the rope attachment with your palms facing inward.
  • Take one big step backwards to engage the resistance of the cable.
  • Stand about shoulder width apart with your knees in an active position (slightly bent).
  • Once your arms are in full extension, engage your posture. Remember: chest high, scapula retracted (shoulders down and back), and keep a neutral back.
  • Tucking your elbows back, begin to pull the rope towards your eyes. Hold the top position for a second or two and intentionally squeeze your rear delts.
  • In a controlled manner, begin to release from that position to return to the original position.
  • Repeat!

A similar execution process is followed with using resistance bands, however, we’ll get into that a little later…

For now, let’s dive into the benefits of the face pull and why it should be a part of your training regimen!

Benefits of the Face Pull

It’s pretty crazy the benefits that can come from one simple exercise, but it’s true! The benefits of implementing face pulls into your exercise regimen are vast…Taking into account that the exercise is being performed consistently and properly, face pulls offer a number of advantages.

Below are just a few of the most prominent benefits:

  • As mentioned a number of times already throughout this article, face pulls can certainly improve ones posture. Avoid those rounded shoulders!
  • Face pulls target the rear delt exclusively. Not many exercises accomplish this.
  • When performed consistently over time, face pulls can fix a number of muscular imbalances.
  • Face pulls are versatile for all experience levels, and are particularly great for beginners! An easy execution with a large payoff long-term.
  • Can be implemented as a warm-up, in the middle of a workout, or as a finisher.
  • Face pulls can prevent injuries, especially related to the shoulders. This goes back to proper form/posture, and muscle imbalance corrections.
  • They can be performed at home with a simple resistance band! Again, versatile, convenient, easy, and effective…

Face pulls play a key role in a number of beneficial outcomes. From muscular growth, to rehab and prevention. They can be performed by beginners and experts alike, and they’re super effective at targeting the rear deltoids!

All-in-all, the benefits that face pulls offer are undeniable.

Face Pulls at Home

Performing a face pull at home requires some creativity, however, it is super simple and requires little equipment. In addition, the mechanics on how to perform the movement remains the same no matter which piece of equipment you choose to use.

Simply scroll up to “How to Perform the Face Pull” for instructions!

Using either a resistance band wrapped around a door or sturdy pole/handle of sorts, OR a towel surprisingly enough, a face pull at home can be effectively executed. Moreover, this exercise is safe enough to where it can actually be performed repetitively everyday.

Lastly, some may ask “can a face pull be performed with dumbbells?”.

While technically you can execute a face pull with dumbbells, it does require an incline bench of sorts in order to perform them. In my opinion, a face pull with dumbbells is essentially a variation of a bent-over lateral raise (see “7 Awesome Rear Delt Exercises”).

Additionally, a face pull is most effective when there is resistance on both the eccentric and concentric portions of the movement. With dumbbells, you only get resistance on one portion of the movement thanks to gravity. While it can still be beneficial, I prefer to keep face pulls to resistance bands and cables…

Face Pull Alternatives

In this section, we’re going to be looking for exercises that target the same musculature as the face pull, largely the postural/rear deltoids.

While some of these exercises are more complex, may require more equipment, and may involve more weight, the result is much the same.

Let’s take a look:

  1. Bent Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise (Reverse Fly)
  2. Cable-Cross Lateral Extension
  3. Pull Up or Inverted Row
  4. Dumbbell Row or Cable Row
  5. Banded Pull Aparts

Bent Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise

Much like the face pull, this movement is one of few exercises that specifically target the rear delt. It carries many of the same principles as the face pull and it requires much of the same weight, and rep scheme as well.

In this exercise you want to chose a light enough weight to where you aren’t compensating for poor form. It’s to be a slow and controlled movement, pausing and squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.

Here’s how you perform the movement:

  • With bent knees and standing shoulder width apart, bend at the hips so that your neutral back is just above 90 degrees.
  • Grip the dumbbells in a neutral position with palms facing towards the body and out in front of the torso.
  • Raise your arms out to the side with slightly bent elbows. Squeeze the upper back/deltoids at the top of the movement.
  • Slowly control the weights back down to the starting position.
  • Repeat for a rep scheme of 12-15.

Cable-Cross Lateral Extension

Cable crossovers are another rear delt exercise that will get your upper back firing! It does require some focus as you don’t want the cables to become entangled…

In this movement, bending over isn’t necessary. Simply stand tall in an active position, shoulder width apart, slightly bending at the knees.

  • Begin by grabbing the left cable pulley with your right hand, and the right cable pulley with your left hand. Crossing them over each other and out in front of you will give you the starting point of this exercise.
  • With a slight bend in the elbows, engage your arms back and to the side. The finished position should result in an “X” out of both cables, with your arms straight and to the sides of your body.
  • Slowly release the pulleys back to starting position.
  • Repeat!

Again, this is an exercise that requires minimal weight. The intention of this exercise is activation, not brute strength.

Pull Up or Inverted Row

While this movement isn’t exclusive to the rear deltoid, it still tackles the vicinity of the shoulder and upper back musculature.


The pull up and inverted row are performed in the same manner. The only difference is that during an inverted row, you are actually grounded, back parallel to the ground, heels planted, rowing/pulling up from a smith machine bar.

This is a bodyweight exercise fantastic for your rear deltoids, trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi.

Dumbbell Row or Cable Row

Again, this exercise isn’t exclusive to the rear deltoids, however, it certainly targets the general vicinity that includes the deltoids and upper back.

Any row will suffice, whether it is a bent over dumbbell row, a kneeling single-arm dumbbell row, or a cable row. They all target the same muscles.

The idea behind a row is to go heavier in weight. It’s more of a compound exercise in that it targets larger muscle groups. The principle remains the same, however. When executing a row variation, always retract the scapula (shoulders down and back), keep your chest up, and squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.

Getting a solid mind-muscle connection during a row is going to give your rear deltoids the attention that it needs.

Banded Pull Aparts

Banded pull aparts aren’t going to give you the muscle growth you’re looking for. This movement is usually used as a warmup prior to the actual workout. Nonetheless, it targets the rear deltoids exclusively!

Simply take a long resistance band, take a wide grip, and keep your elbows slightly bent.

All that is required to execute this movement is to spread your arms out laterally as to pull the band apart…This can be repeated at a very high rep scheme and is probably the safest movement of them all.

Summary

The face pull is a safe, effective, and versatile exercise that exclusively targets the rear delt and should be included in everybody’s workout regimen.

Not only does it provide you with some muscle building benefits, but it is great for rehab, prevention of injury, and can be utilized as part of a warm-up or finisher in any workout.

Shoulder health is very important for having longevity in any sport or fitness endeavour like weightlifting. Face pulls can help keep your shoulders strong and healthy!

Sources

https://www.healthline.com/health/face-pulls
https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/rear-delt-exercises
https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/exercise-library/336/high-row/
https://athleanx.com/articles/shoulders-for-men/do-face-pulls-after-every-workout

Heath Barrow

Heath is a certified personal trainer, an ordained minister, and most importantly, a father. He loves reading and learning new things...and enjoys it when he's able to pass that along to others!  ~"A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." (Proverbs 11:25, NIV)

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