Face pulls target the posterior deltoids of the shoulder, which are often neglected by other shoulder exercises. You use a cable pulley machine to pull the weight straight toward your forehead. Exercising the rear delts will prevent muscular imbalance and build overall shoulder strength.1 This exercise isn’t hard to do as long as you pay attention to your form. You can use face pulls as part of an upper body strength training regimen.
How to Do Face Pulls
Set up a cable pulley machine so the pulley system is positioned slightly above your head. Use the rope attachment that features two hand-holds for this exercise.
Reach up and grasp the handles with both hands with your palms facing in. Step back until your arms are fully extended, then engage your core and lean back slightly, positioning your body at a roughly 20-degree angle.
Pull the rope toward you just enough to start lifting the weight from the stack, then engage your shoulders, rolling them back to create good posture—you don’t want your shoulders hunching or rolling forward. This is your starting position.
Pull the handles of the attachment straight toward your forehead. Keep your palms facing in as your elbows flare outward toward the sides, engaging the rear delts.
Reverse the movement and slowly extend your arms without allowing your shoulders or chest to roll forward as you extend. You want to maintain good posture throughout the exercise.
Start by doing two sets of 20 reps. Go a little lighter than you think you need to and focus on slow, controlled motions.
Benefits of Face Pulls
Face pulls are an excellent exercise for the rear deltoids, trapezius, and upper back muscles.2 Robert Herbst, a 19-time World Champion powerlifter, personal trainer, and wellness coach says, “They help keep the shoulders squared and back so someone doesn’t get the pulled-forward look from doing too much chest and front delt work. They also help build a thick upper back as a base to arch into for a power bench press.”
Strong shoulders are crucial for everyday activities of lifting, pressing, pulling, and rotating your arms. The deltoids are the powerhouse muscle group of the shoulders—responsible for all overhead actions (putting items up on high shelves, lifting a child onto your shoulders, or even shooting a basketball).
Exercises like shoulder presses, lateral dumbbell raises, front dumbbell raises, and bent-over reverse dumbbell flys all target the delts from different angles. The delts have three separate heads—the anterior, lateral, and posterior. The deltoid’s anterior and lateral heads often work far more than the posterior, or “rear delts,” because they’re involved in pushing and pressing exercises.
The rear delts, by comparison, are often neglected. This type of muscular imbalance can contribute to shoulder pain and injuries, not to mention a “hunched forward” appearance and poor posture.3 As a result, it’s important to incorporate exercises into your routine that target the rear delts, and face pulls are an excellent option.
Other Variations of Face Pulls
You can do this exercise in a few ways to make it more accessible or target your muscles in new ways.
Try Resistance Bands
If you have access to heavy-duty resistance bands, you can hang them over a high attachment point, like a pull-up bar, and mimic the movement using bands. This is good for those new to training the rear delts, but the bands might not provide enough resistance to challenge advanced exercisers. Also, many exercise safety experts caution against using resistance bands on exercises near your face because they can hurt you if the bands slip or break.
If you don’t have access to a cable machine or resistance bands, you can do dumbbell exercises designed to target the rear delts, such as the rear delt dumbbell fly. It’s not a perfect replacement for face pulls, but it does target the same muscle groups.
Adjust Your Grip
While the overhand grip is preferred, some trainers suggest using an underhand grip as a variation. When doing so, use lighter weights and go slower.
Try Seated Face Pulls
Use a seated position if your goal is building muscle and you want to lift heavier weights.4 This is important because, with heavier weights, you are more likely to use your hips and lower body, decreasing the load on your deltoids. By sitting, you can better maintain a stable torso.
Avoid these errors so you get the most from this exercise and prevent strain or injury.
The most common culprit when doing face pulls incorrectly is simply not understanding what you’re supposed to be working. This is a rear delt exercise, so you should feel it working the back side of your shoulders into your upper back between your shoulder blades.
If you start pulling the attachment toward your chin or neck, if your elbows start pointing down instead of out, or if you fail to keep your palms facing in, chances are you’re going to feel it more in your biceps and back. If you do, double check your form. If the arms are not at right angles to the body, you perform a pull-down rather than a face pull.
Too Much Weight
It’s also pretty common to select a weight that is too heavy. The rear delts are a smaller muscle group, and if you’re not used to working them, you will need to go lighter than you would with other shoulder exercises.
If you find you’re using momentum to pull the attachment toward your body, or if you can’t control the weight as it returns to the stack, pulling your body forward, then you should probably reduce the amount of weight you’re trying to lift. To target the rear delts effectively, you need to make sure you’re not inadvertently recruiting additional muscle groups to take over to perform the exercise.
Safety and Precautions
If you have back or shoulder problems, talk to a healthcare provider about whether this exercise is appropriate. If you feel any pain during the exercise, stop.
Some people want to try to do face pulls at home with resistance bands. As previously mentioned, this maneuver has safety concerns. 5 If the resistance bands slip or break, they can cause injury, particularly to the eye. A good rule is never to pull resistance bands toward your face.
Schory A, Bidinger E, Wolf J, Murray L. A systematic review of the exercises that produce optimal muscle ratios of the scapular stabilizers in normal shoulders. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016;11(3):321-336.
Sakoma Y, Sano H, Shinozaki N, et al. Anatomical and functional segments of the deltoid muscle. J Anat. 2011;218(2):185-190. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2010.01325.x
Kim MK, Lee JC, Yoo KT. The effects of shoulder stabilization exercises and pectoralis minor stretching on balance and maximal shoulder muscle strength of healthy young adults with round shoulder posture. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018;30(3):373-380. doi:10.1589/jpts.30.373
Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance training volume enhances muscle hypertrophy but not strength in trained men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94-103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
Snarr RL, Hallmark AV, Casey JC, Esco MR. Electromyographical comparison of a traditional, suspension device, and towel pull-up. J Hum Kinet. 2017;58:5-13. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0068
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