Face pulls are an underrated movement that targets the shoulders and back. One of the odder-named exercises in the gym, conjuring images of legendary guys like Jack LaLanne pulling cars and boats with their teeth, the exercise gets its name from pulling a cable handle to the face, not the neck or upper chest. Here’s how and why to build cable face pulls into your upper-body routine.
Face Pull Benefits
Many machine exercises contribute to shoulder instability, overuse, and injury. Face pulls, however, when done correctly, do the opposite.
The exercise strengthens all the stabilizer muscles around the shoulder, enhancing scapular stability, and preventing injury. While most guys spend some time stabilizing their hips and put a ton of focus on their abs, they don’t devote enough effort to their shoulders, which take a beating from everyday life hunched over computers and steering wheels.
Shoulders also take a lot of abuse in the weight room. There’s a reason it’s called shouldering a burden. Face pulls improve posture, prevent shoulder issues, and even enhance your pullup ability since they develop many of the same muscles used for the king of all bodyweight moves. Plus, if you want to build that impressive V-shaped back, the face pull is one of the best moves you can do.
What Do Face Pulls Work?
Face pulls target and develop the shoulders and upper-back muscles such as the rear deltoids, middle trapezius, rhomboids, and rotator cuff muscles (like the infraspinatus), which improve scapular stability and strength.
Stabilizing the rotator cuff muscles is crucial not just for guys who hammer their shoulders in the weight room, but also for baseball pitchers, quarterbacks, and swimmers, who are especially prone to shoulder overuse. Not only will face pulls strengthen and stabilize your shoulders and back, which is valuable in and of itself, but that stable upper body will produce bigger lifts, better posture, and overall musculoskeletal health.
How to Do Face Pulls
- On the cable pulley system, use the rope attachment and set the weight to an appropriate setting. Note: Use light weight until you master proper form. Going too heavy will likely shift momentum and turn this into more of a back exercise.
- Stand facing the cable machine in an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart and your body leaning back about 20 degrees.
- Grip the rope with both hands, then step back, so the stack of weight plates rises.
- Keeping your back straight and knees slightly bent, begin the movement by inhaling and squeezing your shoulder blades together as if trying to bring them toward your back pockets.
- Bring the cable to your face at eye level—not the chin or neck, where it becomes more of a biceps movement.
- At the end of the move, your upper arms and forearms should form a 90-degree angle.
- Pause and slowly return to the starting position, exhaling along the way.
How to Add a Face Pull into a Workout
As an upper-body pull exercise, face pulls fit well with most workouts, which tend to be heavy on upper-body push moves. Adding a pull between two pushes allows you to move without rest during a circuit routine.
A face pull performed with little or no weight is an effective warmup move regardless of your routine, especially if your workout comes at the end of the day after sitting at a desk or driving. Face pulls reset your posture, align the shoulders, and put you in a better position to have a good workout that won’t harm the shoulders.
Face pulls require a specific form with limited variation to make them either easier or harder (aside from adjusting the weight), and are best performed with a cable pulley machine.
If you don’t have access to one, it’s possible to use resistance bands—hanging them on a bar and pulling them to your face. Other movements that target similar muscle groups include lat pulldowns, pullups, dumbbell flyes, and dumbbell rows.