The face pull is an exercise that involves pulling a weight toward your face.
To the untrained eye, it looks like a poorly performed cable row, but it’s a popular exercise for training the rear delts and keeping your shoulders healthy.
That’s because, unlike most exercises, the face pull emphasizes the “rotator cuff”—the group of muscles surrounding the shoulder joint that’s responsible for keeping your shoulders stable.
This means it’s uniquely capable of helping you build strong, mobile shoulders that are resistant to injury. (It’s also one of the few exercises that directly trains the rear delts).
Like any exercise, though, if you want to get the most out of the face pull, you have to know how to perform it properly.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the face pull, including what the face pull exercise is, what the face pull’s benefits are, which muscles are worked in the face pull, how to do the face pull with proper form, the best face pull alternatives, and more.
Table of Contents
The face pull is an upper-body exercise that trains the shoulders and upper back and involves pulling a weight toward your face.
You can perform the face pull using a barbell, dumbbells, or a resistance band, but most people prefer to use a cable machine with the rope handle attached (that’s why the face pull is often referred to as the “cable face pull” or “rope face pull”).
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When most people think of their shoulder muscles, they think about the deltoids—the large muscles at the top of your arm that cover your shoulder joints.
What many don’t realize, though, is that underneath the deltoids is a complex group of muscles and tendons called the “rotator cuff.” This small but important muscle group works alongside the deltoids to stabilize your shoulder joint and give the shoulder its impressive range of motion.
A good way to maintain optimal shoulder health and minimize your risk of injury is to strengthen your rotator cuff muscles, and one of the best exercises for strengthening your rotator cuff muscles is the face pull.
(That said, the reason I say may improve shoulder health is that this is still largely theoretical, and it’s debatable how important it is to do face pulls if you’re already doing other exercises that train your rotator cuff muscles, which includes many upper-body pulling exercises.)
This is known as “scapular retraction,” and it’s necessary because it puts your shoulders in a strong, safe position, which reduces your risk of injury and provides a stable base to press from.
However, many people find it difficult to maintain this position for the entire duration of a set, often because they have weak upper-back muscles or because they have poor control over the muscles used to squeeze their shoulder blades together.
The face pull helps with this in two ways:
- It strengthens the muscles you use to retract your shoulder blades, which makes it easier to hold the position for an entire set.
- It helps you “groove in” the correct way to retract your shoulder blades, which should make it easier to get into the right position when you bench or overhead press.
Your “rear delts” are the sections of your deltoids that are located behind your shoulder joints on your upper back.
Training them is important because . . .
1. It ensures that your shoulders are proportional.
The rear delts often aren’t trained as much as the other heads of the deltoids, which means they need a bit of extra attention if you want them to grow at the same rate as your front and side delts. (This probably isn’t the case if you do plenty of upper-body pulling exercises, but if you don’t, face pulls are worthwhile).
2. It improves the health of your shoulders.
Many weightlifters spend more time training their front and side delts with pushing exercises than they do training their rear delts with pulling exercises.
Over time this can cause a strength and size imbalance between your rear delts and your front and side delts, which may increase your risk of injury.
The face pull is an excellent isolation exercise for fixing this imbalance.
The main muscles worked by the face pull are the . . .
- Teres major and minor
- Posterior deltoid
Here’s how these muscles look on your body:
The best way to learn how to do face pulls is to break the exercise up into three parts: set up, pull, and extend.
Set the pulley on a cable machine to eye level and attach the rope handle.
Grip one end of the rope in each hand so that your thumbs are in contact with the plastic handles at the ends of the rope, then take a few steps away from the pulley so that there’s tension in the cable and your arms are stretched in front of you.
Stand up straight with a slight bend in your knees and place your feet shoulder-width apart. (As you get stronger, you’ll probably reach a point where you need to stagger your stance to maintain your balance).
While keeping your elbows up, pull the rope toward your eyes allowing your hands to move apart until they’re above your shoulders.
As you pull, squeeze your shoulder blades together. A good cue for this is to imagine pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades.
Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. This is basically a mirror image of what you did during the pull.
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The only difference between the seated face pull and the regular face pull is that you perform the seated face pull while sitting on a bench or box. The main benefit of sitting while performing the face pull is that you have a stronger base of support. This allows you to lift heavier weights, which is generally better for building muscle and gaining strength.
The banded face pull is the same as the cable face pull, only instead of using a cable you use a resistance band. The band face pull is a good face pull alternative if you’re new to weightlifting, coming back from an injury and taking it easy, or if you’re traveling or training in a home gym and don’t have access to a cable machine.
The main benefit of performing face pulls with dumbbells is that each side of your body works independently, which is useful for identifying and evening out any muscle or strength imbalances you might have. However, because you have to maintain a bent-over position to perform the dumbbell face pull correctly, many people find it more awkward than the cable face pull.
The barbell face pull trains your shoulders and back similarly to the dumbbell face pull. However, a significant disadvantage of the barbell face pull is that the bar limits the exercise’s range of motion (if you pull the bar too far you’ll hit yourself in the face). Thus, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s a viable option if you don’t have a machine, dumbbells, or bands.
Some people prefer lying face pulls to standing face pulls because lying on the floor prevents you from using momentum to make the exercise easier. That said, it also reduces your range of motion, which generally makes exercises less effective for muscle gain.
In the kneeling face pull, you set the pulley on the cable machine to head height or slightly higher, then perform the exercise from a kneeling position. Altering the direction or angle of an exercise like this may help maximize muscle growth, so it may be worth rotating between a different face pull variation every few months.
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There’s no need to do a dedicated “face pull workout.”
Here’s an example shoulder workout that includes face pulls:
- Barbell Overhead Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Arnold Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Face Pull: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
And here’s an example of a back workout that includes the face pull:
- Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Face Pull: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
The face pull primarily trains the shoulders, particularly the rear delts and rotator cuff muscles, though it also trains the upper-back muscles such as the trapezius and rhomboids to a significant degree, too.
There’s no difference between “rear delt face pulls” and “shoulder face pulls”—these are just two different names for the face pull exercise.
The face pull trains the shoulders and upper-back muscles. Specifically, the muscles worked by the face pull are the . . .
- Teres major and minor
- Posterior deltoid
If you follow a well-designed program that contains plenty of upper-body pulling exercises (like my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men and Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women), then you don’t need to do face pulls.
That’s because compound pulling exercises like the barbell row, dumbbell row, lat pulldown, pull-up, and chin-up train the same muscles as the face pull. Face pulls are still a fine exercise for training your rear delts, but they aren’t strictly necessary.
However, if the majority of the upper-body exercises you do are pushing exercises (or if you’ve focussed mainly on pushing exercises for a long time), including the face pull in your training can improve the health of your shoulders and even out any muscle imbalances you might have.
+ Scientific References
- Maruvada, S., Madrazo-Ibarra, A., & Varacallo, M. (2021). Anatomy, Rotator Cuff. StatPearls. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441844/
- Gross, M. L., Brenner, S. L., Esformes, I., & Sonzogni, J. J. (1993). Anterior shoulder instability in weight lifters. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(4), 599–603. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354659302100419
- T J Neviaser. (n.d.). Weight lifting. Risks and injuries to the shoulder - PubMed. Retrieved March 6, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1868562/
- Bhatia, D. N., de Beer, J. F., van Rooyen, K. S., Lam, F., & du Toit, D. F. (2007). The “bench‐presser’s shoulder”: an overuse insertional tendinopathy of the pectoralis minor muscle. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(8), e1. https://doi.org/10.1136/BJSM.2006.032383
- Kolber, M. J., Cheatham, S. W., Salamh, P. A., & Hanney, W. J. (2014). Characteristics of shoulder impingement in the recreational weight-training population. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(4), 1081–1089. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000250
- Yoo, W. G. (2013). Comparison of Isolation Ratios of the Scapular Retraction Muscles between Protracted Scapular and Asymptomatic Groups. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 25(8), 905. https://doi.org/10.1589/JPTS.25.905
- Page, P. (2011). SHOULDER MUSCLE IMBALANCE AND SUBACROMIAL IMPINGEMENT SYNDROME IN OVERHEAD ATHLETES. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 6(1), 51. /pmc/articles/PMC3105366/
- Barakat, C., Barroso, R., Alvarez, M., Rauch, J., Miller, N., Bou-Sliman, A., & De Souza, E. O. (2019). The Effects of Varying Glenohumeral Joint Angle on Acute Volume Load, Muscle Activation, Swelling, and Echo-Intensity on the Biceps Brachii in Resistance-Trained Individuals. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(9). https://doi.org/10.3390/SPORTS7090204