Face Pulls: The Best Exercise You’re Not Doing, But Should Be

WRITTEN BY Nigel Holloway

What on earth are face pulls? If you’ve never heard of them, they just might be one of the best-kept secrets of the fitness world.

Why?

As you go through your lifting career, there’s probably going to be times when you don’t feel at your best, when you feel a bit worse for wear, and maybe even get injured.

Hopefully not, but it’s possible. What do you do? You do everything you can to minimise the risk of injury.

Enter face pulls.

Face pulls are a simple exercise that bring huge benefits. We’ll go through how to correctly do the exercise shortly, (as with everything else, your form is important), but for the moment, you essentially use a cable machine and pull the weight towards your face.

Hence, face pulls.

Simple.

Why should you be doing face pulls?

There are many benefits and advantages to performing face pulls. The most important thing about them though is their role in overall shoulder health and injury prevention.

That’s right – they might not be showy, but they’re worth their weight in gold, (or weight plates, I suppose).

If you’re a competitive powerlifter or even a typical bro in the gym, you probably do a lot of pushing. I mean a lot of pushing. Every day is bench day, am I right?

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing inherently, although if your shoulders start to feel battered, bruised and beat-up, this probably has something to do with it.

In order to properly treat your shoulders with the love and respect they deserve, it’s a good idea to balance the number of push exercises you perform with an equal, (or some would even say greater), amount of pulling exercises. This is known as the push-pull ratio.

Why? Well, this has to do with the impact that pushing exercises can have on your shoulders.

Performing too many pushes can result in too much internal rotation of the shoulder joint, more commonly known as rounded shoulders or bad posture.

You know – working those vanity/mirror muscles too much and neglecting the upper back. Don’t be that guy, (or girl)!

This can lead to structural and stability issues, threatening the longevity of your lifting career by neglecting your shoulder health. So, working on your upper back musculature can improve the poor posture and rounding issues that can be associated with too much pushing.

Constant, heavy benching can potentially play havoc with your shoulders over the long term if you’re not regularly strengthening your scapular retractors – these are the muscles you use when your shoulders move backwards.

Working these muscles alongside external rotation, (in other words, performing face pulls) …well, you’re onto a shoulder health winner there.

In addition to the structural and health benefits of face pulls, they are also a great exercise for the posterior, (rear), deltoids, (and upper back to a degree).

The rear deltoids don’t always get as much love as they should by the average gym rat, so in addition to keeping your shoulders healthy when you’re working up to some new bench PRs, they also add to your physique, which is never a bad thing.

For my own anecdotal experiences, prior to inserting face pulls into my training, I was occasionally feeling the odd niggle in my right shoulder. I bench quite a bit, and earlier in my training career, my push-pull ratio was way off.

Face pulls fixed all that.

Now, I have no issues whatsoever with my shoulders. The face pull is a regular in all of my training programmes, and those of the people I train, and so far, it seems to be working – no shoulder issues in anyone I know due to too much pushing.

Result.

How do you perform face pulls?

Like any other exercise, the correct form is important. Using the guide below, you should be able to perform the exercise to its full benefit.

  • You’ll need a cable machine with a rope attachment. The height of the cable, (if adjustable), should be between upper chest and face height, or even a bit higher.
  • When gripping the handles there are a couple of different grips you might use, but the preferred one is with a neutral grip so that you’re pulling the cable towards you with your palms facing each other.
  • Stand in front of the machine with a split stance, with your chest proud. Slowly retract your scapulae, (shoulder blades), as you pull the weight towards your face, with your elbows pointing outwards to your side at the top of the movement.
  • When pulling, try to pull the weight so that it stops at forehead height, rather than any lower. This will result in you getting the maximum benefit from the movement as your shoulders enter full external rotation – you can tell if you’re doing it right or not, as at full pull you’ll have your hands at the side of your head almost in a classic biceps pose – show off those guns!
  • Hold the movement in that pose for a second, then lower the weight in a controlled manner back to the starting position.
  • This is not a movement to rush or to just blast out; a controlled movement with a pause at full pull is the most beneficial.
  • Repeat for the allotted number of repetitions (discussed later).

When it comes to load, this is not a vanity exercise where you want to try to shift as much weight as possible with poor form so that you can show off.

Nooo!

This is a movement that you want to be able to comfortably feel and complete correctly, so select a weight accordingly. Once you can complete the exercise with a moderate weight for the allotted number of sets/reps with good form and with ease, then you can increase the weight.

Practical programming applications for face pulls

So now you know why you should be performing face pulls, and you also know how to perform them with correct technique. The next question is; how do you incorporate them into your training?

Read on…

The rear deltoids, (and upper back muscles in general), have a high degree of fatigue resistance. This means that it’s easier to train them more often than some other muscles, as they recover well, (assuming other recovery factors such as nutrition, sleep, hydration, etc. are in place as part of a sensible and personalised training programme).

Due to this, face pulls can quite easily slot into an existing training programme, even if you’re training using high-frequency methodologies, hitting multiple muscle groups/exercises multiple times per week.

The core of any good training programme, especially that of a powerlifter’s, is the big 3 compound movements, (squat / bench / deadlift), and face pulls have a particularly good synergy with the bench press.

So, in a high-frequency programme, you may perform the bench press, (or a variation), two, three, or even four times a week. That’s a lot of pushing. With the push-pull ratio firmly in mind, you need to do something to look after your shoulders with this amount of pushing.

This is where face pulls come in.

Quite simply – for every bench press set you do, also perform a set of face pulls straight after.

Face pulls use muscles that are the antagonists (opposites), of the ones you use for the bench. This, combined with the relatively light weight used in the face pull, means that it won’t impede your performance on your main lift, and it’ll help keep your shoulders healthy and injury-free.

Incorporating the exercise into your programme like this also has time benefits, as you’re not tacking on extra sets of another exercise at the end of your workout or anything like that.

Unless you want to, of course, as there are multiple ways to program face pulls. If you prefer, you can always perform them at the end of your workout after all, or they could be paired with other accessory exercises.

However you add it to your training, it’s a low-impact, high-benefit exercise, one that can easily be slotted in alongside other movements without compromising them or your workout length.

Depending on your loading parameters, and how you are periodizing your training, reps should be performed in the 8-12 reps range. You can go higher than this, of course, although I would caution against going too much lower as the face pull is not an exercise that you want to use excessive weight for.

Finally, select an appropriate number of sets – if you are pairing it with the bench press or another accessory movement, then it will have the same number of sets as this.

Wrapping Up

In a nutshell: You should be doing face pulls.

Use a moderate load, pair it with another exercise for efficiency’s sake and perform with good technique for multiple sets, multiple times per week. Easy.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that too much pushing and not enough pulling is bad. It’s not too late, though! Face pulls can help sort you out.

Remember – you’re in this for the long-run, so it’s best to get things right as soon as you can.

Also, as a bonus, you’ll probably look better too, as your posture and upper back musculature will benefit. And as we all know; anyone who says they don’t want to look even that little bit better is lying.

If you follow the above advice, you’ll go a long way to help safeguard your future lifting career by protecting your shoulder health and minimising your chance of injury.

Author: Nigel Holloway
Nigel Holloway is a health & nutrition enthusiast, fitness professional, guinea pig lover, and music fanatic.

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.

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