Prehabilitation is always better than rehabilitation. With an incidence of approximately 10/1000 per year, shoulder injuries have become a common occurrence in athletes and non-athletes alike.
Many shoulder injuries result from damage to the rotator cuff from inappropriate and repetitive use of the shoulder joint.
While there are many exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff in a stable shoulder position, the face pull reigns supreme for shoulder health.
In this post, you will learn how to do the face pull with proper form.
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Okay, let’s get started.
FACE PULLS FORM VIDEO
BENEFITS OF THE FACE PULL
- Strengthens the posterior shoulder muscles as well as the four small muscles of the rotator cuff
- Strengthens and improves scapular stability in an externally rotated position
- Can help improve the rounded shoulder posture that is prevalent in our society
- Can help iron out muscle imbalances from excessive bench press use
WHAT MUSCLES DO FACE PULLS WORK?
- Posterior Deltoids
- Rotator Cuff
HOW TO PROPERLY DO A FACE PULL
This tutorial will go over how to do a cable face pull (or the rope face pull). Below, I will go over a few other variations you can do if you don’t have access to a cable machine.
- Approach a cable pulley machine and set the apparatus to a height that is roughly at the level of your neck
- Attach the rope handle to the apparatus. (If you don’t have one, they are pretty cheap on Amazon).
- Set the machine to the desired weight (start very light)
- Grab the rope handles FROM BELOW THE ROPE (underhand grip, or more specifically a neutral grip) with your palms facing inward
- Step away from the cable machine to begin lifting the weights from the weight stack
- Step far enough so that your arms are completely outstretched in front of you
- Set your feet roughly shoulder with or you can stagger your stance to improve your balance
- Set your shoulder blades back into a retracted position and brace your core
- Begin the exercise by pulling the rope towards your face/forehead while actively trying to separate the rope (Pretend like you are trying to snap the rope in half)
- The separation is what will create the shoulder external rotation
- The range of motion should naturally end right before touching your face
- Your arms should almost be at 90° angles when you reach the end range as if you are flexing your biceps
- Do your best to avoid shrugging
- Hold this position for a brief one count and slowly reverse the movement back to the starting position
- Repeat for the desired amount of reps
Not Keeping the shoulder blades retracted
This common mistake will lead to an excessive motion of the shoulder joint in the shoulder socket. Too much motion can lead to shoulder instability and increase the risk of injury. Keep the shoulders back and do not let them move from this position.
Performing the shrug during this exercise will deemphasize the rotator cuff and emphasize the trapezius muscles. Focus on keeping your traps out of the movement.
Setting your grip above the rope (overhand grip)
An overhand grip automatically puts your shoulders into an internally rotated position which is what we are trying to avoid. Grab the rope from the bottom and keep your palms facing each other.
OTHER FACE PULL VARIATIONS
Resistance Band Face Pull
The face pull could also be performed with a closed-loop resistance band (which you can get cheaply on Amazon).
I recommend that you get a few different sizes as they vary in strength.
The fifth exercise in this video is banded face pulls. (In this video Brittany is using an overhand grip, but she would have been better off using an underhand grip to better train the external rotators).
Seated Face Pulls
Similarly, this exercise can be done from a seated position at home with a resistance band.
Simply wrap one end of the loop around your feet and widen your stance to put more tension on the band. When pulling the band toward your face, remember to externally rotate your shoulders so that your thumbs are facing backward at the end range.
Towel Face Pulls
Lastly, this exercise can be done with a towel, as shown by Jeff Cavaliere of Athlean X.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Are Face Pulls Actually Good?
- Face pulls are one of the best exercises for strengthening the rotator cuff muscles and developing the rear deltoids. To get the same benefit, you would have to do an external rotation exercise in addition to a rear delts exercise.
When Should I Do Face Pulls?
- Face pulls can be done at the end of an upper body focused day, or on a day where you focus on accessory movements.
How Many Times a Week Should You Do Face Pulls?
- You should train face pulls anywhere from one to three times per week depending on your goals and experience. On average, most people will benefit from training it twice per week.
Should Face Pulls Be Heavy?
Face pulls should be performed with a moderate weight that fatigues the targeted muscles in the 8-15 rep range. Do not go so heavy that you cannot maintain proper form.
What is a Good Face Pull Rep Range?
- When you are first learning the face pull, it is a good idea to use lighter weight and work with higher repetitions. The absolute minimum amount of reps you should perform on this exercise is 8, working up to 10-15 reps per set.
Are Face Pulls For Shoulders or Back?
- Face pulls are primarily an exercise for the posterior deltoid and the rotator cuff. However, due to the nature of the exercise, the upper back muscles do get activated during the movement.
Are Face Pulls A Compound Exercise or Isolation Exercise?
- Face Pulls should be considered a compound exercise. They train the rear deltoids, the rotator cuff, the upper back and a little bit of the biceps.
- If you would like to see all the best compound exercises for your entire body, check out my e-book!
Are Face Pulls Good for Biceps?
- The face pull will work the biceps to a degree, but you are much better off doing other bicep-focused work like chin-ups and underhand rows.
What is the Right Face Pull Cable Height?
- The cable should be set at a height that is roughly at the level of your neck. This will place the resistance in the same plane as the muscles being worked.
What Grip Should You Use For Face Pulls?
- You should use an underhand or neutral (palms facing toward each other) grip. We want the exercise to train your shoulders in an externally rotated position. An overhand grip may lead to internal rotation of the shoulder which can be can be uncomfortable and cause shoulder impingement.
Can I Perform the Face Pull on a Seated Row or Lat PullDown Machine
- The short answer is yes. The weight won’t be perfectly aligned with the direction in which you are pulling, but if you only have access to a lat pulldown or seated row, then you can perform this exercise as long as you have a rope attachment.
Do Face Pulls Fix Rounded Shoulders?
- The face pull is one of the best exercises for improving the posture of your shoulders and upper back. With that said, resistance exercises are only one part of improving rounded shoulders. Check out my post on how to identify and fix poor posture to learn more.
Face Pulls vs Band Pull Aparts vs Rear Delt Flys
- The band pull apart and rear delt flys are other great exercises to train the same muscle groups as the face pull. However, the face pull is unique because it actually allows you to externally rotate your shoulders to a greater degree, and thus, isolate the rotator cuff muscles more.
FACE PULL ALTERNATIVES / SIMILAR EXERCISES
- Horizontal Pullup/Inverted Row
- Power Clean
- Seated Cable Row
- Bent Over EZ bar row
- Pendlay/Barbell Row
Or you can check out a full list of the Best Back Exercises That Actually Work.
Last but not least, you can download our free workout routine to learn how to add this great exercise into your current training!
Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT
Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.