August 11, 2021 9 min read

Face pulls, and stability-improving shoulder exercises in general, are really the underdogs of a well-rounded upper body program.

Typically for your upper body, you’d roll up to the gym and crush out some rows and pump out some bench presses. However, if face pulls aren’t a part of your upper bod routine, you’re missing out on some serious gains. 

What Are Face Pulls?

Face pulls are a great exercise for the upper body that typically uses the cross-over machine. However, you can also effectively use a resistance band for at-home face pull movements.

Face pulls are great for working your:

  • Lateral deltoids 
  • Posterior deltoids (rear delts)
  • Trapezius, including the rhomboids  
  • Brachialis
  • Rotator cuffs

back muscle anatomy

Basically, face pulls work the shoulders and upper back, which is a good chunk of your posterior chain. It is likely when you aim to work your upper body, you do a lot of push movements, like pushups and shoulder presses. Face pulls are a great way to incorporate a pull movement into your routine. A balance of both is typically best.

In many ways, face pulls are an essential addition to any upper body workouts as it works your back and shoulders from angles your free-weight movements often don’t.

How To Do A Face Pull

  1. The first step in doing a face pull is setting up for the exercise. Assuming you’re using a cable pulley machine and will be doing a cable face pull, you’ll need to find the machine’s rope attachment with dual ends, one side for each hand. Attach this to the pulley.
  1. Next, position the pulley at the correct height. For nearly everyone, a good face pull height is at chest level.
  1. Now, facing the pulley, grab the ends of the rope in either hand. Use a comfortable grip with your palms facing each other. This is an overhand grip. You can choose to do an underhand grip after you’ve first gotten acquainted with the movement.
  1. Walk out from the machine to lift the weight stack and put some tension in the cable. You don’t need to walk out too far, just be sure you are out far enough that the weights don’t hit the unused stack at the end of each rep.
  1. Next, choose a stabilizing stance. For most people, this means keeping your feet either hip-width or shoulder-width apart. However, you can also choose to take a staggered stance by placing one foot in front of the other.
  1. Before you begin the movement, engage the core, including the glutes, and straighten your back. It can be helpful to your posture if you maintain a forward-facing gaze. Also be sure to maintain a high chest, avoiding shoulders that are rounded inward or down.
  1. Keeping your hands at eye level, begin to pull the ropes towards your face. Your elbows should be slightly down.
  1. Pull the rope as close to your face as you can, being sure to squeeze the shoulder blades together as you do so.
  1. Once you’ve reached the top of the rep, slowly extend your arms back to the starting position. Be sure not to lose your form.
  1. Repeat the movement for your desired number of reps.

Benefits of Face Pulls

The muscles that face pulls aim to strengthen are highly important, not only to your athletic performance but also to your overall ability to function.

You probably know that a strong back, although often neglected, is highly important. But did you know strong shoulders are also very important?In total, strengthening the muscles that face pulls aim to work will help: 

  • Improve Your Posture: Posture is incredibly important for our overall health. Poor posture can lead to injury, chronic pain, and even depression. Focusing on our posture is more important than ever as our lives move to become more desk-work and technology-centered. Face pulls are a great way to gain strength in the upper back muscles, which will help your posture immensely.
  • Create Ease of Movement and Make Certain Tasks Easier: When your muscles are properly strengthened you’ll notice that your range of motion increases and certain tasks, such as carrying heavy items, will also feel much easier.
  • Lessen Your Risk for Injury: Having strong musculature is synonymous with a less-injury prone body. You can do strenuous tasks more easily and without worrying if you’ll be injured in the process as the muscles help to support the bones and joints. This is especially important for the upper and lower back as these areas are highly prone to injury in most individuals.
  • Work Multiple Muscle Groups: While many wouldn’t consider face pulls to be a compound exercise, it technically is. Face pulls work several muscle groups with one movement, but are especially great for the rear deltoids.
  • Effectively Build Muscle: Weight training, in general, is essential for creating muscle hypertrophy. Movements like the face pull exercise are great for building muscle because it is not only a weight-focused movement, but it is also an uncommon movement that is likely to shock your muscles in new ways. This type of foreign movement is best for jumpstarting muscle growth.
  • Prevent Imbalances: Think about all the times you’ve trained your chest but not your upper back or shoulders. You may not have had any ill intentions, but this can create imbalances in your body composition that can be hard on the body. Think about all that rockhard chest muscle you’ve built being supported by a weak back. It’s a lot of stress for the body to handle.

Possible Variations and Face Pull Alternatives

Like many other exercises, there are a number of effective variations and good alternatives to face pulls. Some of these movements are adapted for at-home exercise and some of the movements are good runner-ups to face pulls if you can’t perform this movement specifically.

Resistance Band Face Pull

If you don’t have access to a cross-over machine, you can still get in some killer face pulls at home with just a resistance band and a stable structure. If you’re worried about resistance bands providing a good enough workout, don’t be. Resistance bands have proven to be a very beneficial training tool.

Band Resisted Hip Hinge to Face Pull Gym Exercise

To do a resistance band face pull, simply loop the resistance band around your structure of choice (we recommended a pole or something comparable) and hold the band with both hands, leaving about 5-6 inches of space between your hands. Most people choose to add another movement to their resistance band face pulls, which is to slightly move your hands away from each other.

Seated Face Pull

If you’d like to do face pulls but have certain limitations, you can choose to sit for your face pulls. The setup is exactly the same, but just pull up a chair. This is also a good idea if you find the movement too difficult and need the extra support or want to try a heavier weight and aren’t sure if you can handle it.

Single-Arm Face Pull

Single-arm face pulls are great for working on asymmetries and getting a little more core engagement through highly effective anti-rotational exercise.

It’s also a common movement for shoulder or upper back rehabilitation.

To do a single-arm face pull, you’ll need a single rope attachment for the pulley or a resistance band. Stand with the same sort of form you would for a conventional face pull, paying special attention to keeping the core engaged.

Dumbbell Row

If you don’t have access to a cable machine or a resistance band, dumbbell rows are another decent pull movement to get some back and shoulder strength and can be an alternative to face pulls. While nothing can really replace face pulls, not being able to do them should not be a limiting factor.

Pullups

Pullups are another alternative to face pulls. Pullups are typically much harder than face pulls but can be made easier with assists such as heavy-duty resistance bands or an assist machine. Pullups target many of the same muscles as face pulls and can even be considered a great pairing with face pulls.

Lat Pulldown

Lat pulldowns are a good alternative to face pulls and they are highly popular, too. Chances are you have done lat pulldowns or have seen someone else doing them in the gym. For this exercise, you’ll use the same machine as you would for your face pulls, or you can even use a resistance band.

Lat pulldowns differ from face pulls as they cover a wider area of the back. Lat pulldowns are typically seated, so you may lose some core engagement because of that.

Face Pulls: Common Mistakes

Like many other exercises, face pulls can be deceivingly difficult. You see the exercise done one time and think you’re ready to hop to it. While visual learning is a great tool in the gym, you can miss important parts of exercises.

Or worse, seeing them being done wrong in the first place. These discrepancies can lead to many unnecessary and habitual mistakes people often make that can greatly inhibit fitness success.

Choosing An Unrealistic Amount of Weight

Far too often, people load up on the weight. While we don’t doubt your strength, face pulls can feel quite foreign to the body since it is not a movement we do often. It is best to choose a weight that is not too heavy yet still falls in line with your goals.

If it is your first time doing this movement, choose a weight that may feel light but allows you to prioritize form. Even if you have done face pulls before, still be cautious of your weight amount as the back is typically a weak and injury-prone area of the body.

Positioning the Pulley Incorrectly

Although it may seem like it doesn’t matter much, the positioning of the pulley on the cross-over machine is very important. Often, people set it too high, which can expose your shoulders to injury.

Positioning the pulley too low is not as detrimental, but you won’t be targeting the intended muscles with this movement.This is also applicable to resistance bands. If your at-home set up doesn’t allow for the proper positioning of the band when standing, you can perform the exercise sitting.

Poor Elbow Placement

While doing face pulls, it can feel comfortable to point the elbows outward, creating a diamond shape with your arms. However, this can be detrimental to your form and expose you to injury.

For best form, keep your elbows relaxed and neutral in a downward-facing position. This will center your burn in the shoulders and upper back, which is important for a face pull exercise. 

Neglecting Shoulders Altogether

If you’ve breezed over this article because you don’t think you need to do shoulder exercises, we’re here to tell you you’re wrong. Shoulder health is highly important to becoming a well-rounded athlete and can also translate easily into everyday life.

If you don’t train shoulders because you don’t have access to a cable machine or a resistance band, the good news is you can target your delts with dumbbell or barbell pull exercises such as upright rows. Face pulls are just optimal for getting sculpted rear delts and a strong back.

Of course, if you suffer from a shoulder injury, always follow professional advice about your injuries and don’t force any movements that feel wrong to your body.

Improper Warmup

We’re all guilty of it: skipping our warmups. In the grand scheme of all the important and difficult movements we do in the gym, warming up probably sounds somewhat trivial. However, when dealing with typically fragile areas such as the back and shoulders, warming up can make all the difference.

Warm-ups don’t need to be any too strenuous, you’ll need to save your energy for the actual lift. In the case of face pulls, you can simply do the exact movement but with a much lighter weight. This is usually referred to as your warmup weight.

This will get your blood flowing and help you check in with your form. It will also allow you to activate your mind to muscle connection, which has been shown to have positive effects on training.

Lack of Shoulder Blade Movement

When doing face pulls, people often forget to use the entire mobility of their shoulder blades. Doing this can inhibit progress and lead to poor form and poor posture. In fact, you should aim to feel a squeeze throughout the movement as this promotes the best posture and muscle engagement.

Not Experimenting With Placement and Stance

Yes, the form of your movement is very important. However, your stance and positioning should also not be neglecting. If you find yourself feeling wobbly and unbalanced, or if you feel pain or engagement in areas of the body you shouldn’t, don’t always blame your dynamic form.

The positioning of your feet and body relative to the cable machine can make all the difference. Also be sure to experiment with different types of stances. If all else fails, you can always do seated face pulls if you still want to reap all their great benefits.

Conclusion

Face it: face pulls are pretty necessary if you’re wanting to work on your upper body. No upper body is complete without a stacked upper back and good shoulder musculature. Although this exercise can seem simple and easy on the surface, getting the most from your face pulls means doing them properly with the correct form.

Whether you’re well into bodybuilding or are newer to the gym, face pulls should be a part of your upper body routine. Without a strong back and developed shoulders, it will be more difficult to reach your fitness goals.

If you struggle with the energy to add face pulls to your already difficult upper body routine, try our Steel Supplements Charged-AF energy and focus boosting preworkout!


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