If you want to know what the cable face pull is, what muscles it works, and what proper form looks like, this page will show you what to do.
- The Cable Face Pull: Introduction and Benefits
- Face Pull: Muscles Worked
- How To Do Face Pulls: Instructions
- Common Mistakes
- Variations, Modifications & Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
The Cable Face Pull: Introduction and Benefits
The cable face pull is a compound exercise used to strengthen the shoulder and upper back muscles.
Specifically, the exercise strengthens a number of muscles involved in scapular stability, the traps and rhomboids in particular, along with the external rotators of the shoulder.
A weakness in one or more of these muscles is linked with rotator cuff problems and shoulder pain. That’s why the face pull is often recommended as a way to improve shoulder health.
And it’s not just for people who are trying to fix creaky shoulders.
If your training program involves a lot of horizontal pressing movements, such as push-ups or the bench press, the muscles strengthened by the face pull will add some balance to your upper body, and keep your shoulders functioning as they should.
Even if your shoulders currently feel fine and you’d like them to stay that way, the face pull can head off any shoulder problems before they get too serious.
To be clear, the face pull is not some kind of magic bullet guaranteed to restore normal shoulder function, or correct poor posture, in everyone that does it.
There are many different things that could be causing shoulder pain, and no single exercise that will cure every single shoulder problem known to man.
While the face pull certainly has the potential to improve shoulder function, its ability to do so depends on:
- The specific face pull variation that you’re using.
- What’s causing your shoulder problems in the first place.
Some minor twinges here and there can be worked around, and may improve over time, just as long as your overall training program is set up properly.
But if the shoulder problems persist, it’s worth going to see a physical therapist rather than trying to sort it out yourself.
Self diagnosis isn’t always accurate, and can make thing worse rather than better.
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Any approach to treating a shoulder injury by correcting a deficit in strength and/or flexibility should be based on a patient-specific assessment rather than general advice.
Face pulls are usually done as part of an upper body workout. Some people like to do a few light warm-up sets at the start of a workout routine, to help prepare the shoulder muscles for the heavier work to come.
Others will do them towards the end of a training session, once the heavier compound lifts are out of the way.
Although it’s often viewed as a rehabilitation-type exercise, the face pull is also a very effective way to add size to your delts and traps, depending on the variation you use (which I’ll talk more about in a moment).
Face Pull: Muscles Worked
- Rear deltoid
- Lateral deltoid
- Rhomboids (found underneath the traps between the shoulder blades)
- Infraspinatus and teres minor (two of the rotator cuff muscles)
- Trapezius (mid and lower traps)
- Elbow flexors (biceps, brachioradialis and brachialis)
How To Do Face Pulls: Instructions
While there are many different ways to do cable face pulls, depending on which muscles you’re trying to emphasize, this is the way I prefer to do them.
- Set up a cable pulley machine with a rope attachment fixed to the high pulley.
- Take hold of the rope handle using an overhand grip, with your palms facing the floor and your thumbs facing each other.
- With your arms straight, step back far enough from the cable machine that the weight you’re using comes away from the rest of the stack.
- Keeping your arms outstretched, put one foot in front of the other, and bend the knees slightly. Maintain this staggered stance throughout the movement to help your balance.
- Pull the centre of the rope towards your face. Imagine that you’re pulling the ends of the rope apart, rather than simply pulling back.
- At the end of the range of motion, the thumbs should be roughly level with the ears.
- Hold the end position briefly, giving the muscles in your shoulders and upper back a quick squeeze.
- Return your hands to the starting position.
Don’t go too heavy. Instead, focus on proper form, using a full range of motion. In most cases, you’re better off using a lighter weight, and using a smooth, controlled lifting tempo.
If you’re tilting your head forward to meet the rope, or you feel it more in your biceps than your shoulders and upper back, chances are you’re lifting too much weight.
If you’re training at home or your gym doesn’t have a cable machine, many people will loop a resistance band around a stair rail or power rack, and do face pulls that way.
However, there is a risk of damaging your eyes if the band snaps and hits you in the face, as trainer Nick Tuminello explains in the video below.
“Band face pulls are a very dangerous exercise considering the massive risk of suffering a potentially blinding eye injury if the band snaps,” says Tuminello. “And bands snap all the time. Never pull a band towards the face. The risks of suffering a potentially blinding injury are just too great.”
If you do want to do resistance band face pulls, get yourself some safety glasses first.
Face Pull Alternatives, Modifications & Variations
There are many different face pull variations you can do in the gym, depending on the particular muscles you want to emphasize.
The four main things you can change are:
- Starting hand position (overhand vs hammer grip)
- Starting rope position (high vs low)
- Finishing hand position (overhand vs hammer grip)
- Finishing rope position (high vs low)
Let’s say that you start off using an overhand grip, with the chunky ends of the rope next to your thumbs, and the pulley positioned just below the level of your chin.
You pull the rope back and up towards your forehead, meaning that the rope goes from a low to high position. Finish with your hands in the hammer grip position, thumbs pointing backwards and palms facing you.
You can see a demo in the video below:
This variation strengthens the external rotators (teres minor and infraspinatus), and can help to fix any shoulder problems associated with a weakness in those muscles.
It’s best done with a long rope, or two ropes attached to a single carabiner. You’ll also need to use lighter weights and a slower, more controlled lifting tempo.
Focusing more on the posterior deltoids and upper back muscles would require a change in technique.
Specifically, you’d start off using an overhand grip, but with the chunky ends of the rope next to your little finger rather than your thumb.
This time, the rope would start in a slightly higher position. As you pull the rope towards the lower part of your face near the chin, maintain an overhand grip, and flare the elbows out to the side.
There’s no single right way to perform the face pull. The variation that you choose depends on the muscles you want to focus on, and what other exercises are included in your training program.
Kneeling Face Pulls
Both the kneeling and bench-supported face pull make it harder to cheat, forcing you to use a lighter weight and limit momentum.
Bench-Supported Face Pull
Barbell Face Pull
If you don’t have access to a cable machine, and prefer not to use a resistance band, try the barbell face pull.
Using a barbell does mean that your hands are in a fixed position, meaning it’s not quite as joint-friendly as cable face pulls done with a rope. But if you can do it without pain in your wrists or shoulders, it’s certainly a viable option.
Frequently Asked Questions
As long as you’re doing a sufficient number of sets, and pushing yourself hard in each one, face pulls will build muscle in your upper back and shoulders.
Depending on the variation you use, face pulls target the deltoids, infraspinatus, teres minor, the rhomboids and trapezius. So it’s working muscles in both your upper back and shoulders.
The face pull is one of those exercises that lends itself well to a higher rep range, somewhere in the region of 10-20 reps per set.
They are similar in the sense that both hit some of the same muscles in the shoulders, upper back and arms. The major difference between them is that the pull-up works the lats, while the face pull doesn’t.
The trapezius, commonly referred to as the traps, is a large muscle found in the upper back. It has upper, middle, and lower groups of fibers. The face pull will typically work the fibres in the mid- and lower traps. To hit the upper traps, you’ll need an exercise like the dumbbell shrug or upright row.
Yes, face pulls do work the side delts, particularly when the rope is pulled higher up on the face. Pulling the hands lower down the face and flaring the elbows out to the side will shift the emphasis to the rear delts and upper back.
Yes, you can do face pulls with dumbbells. You can also use dumbbells to target the same muscles as the face pull, with exercises like the bent over lateral raise or kneeling Y-raise (shown in the video below). These exercises aren’t a one-for-one replacement for face pulls, but they do target some of the same muscle groups.
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