How to Do Face Pulls

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

face pulls exercise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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 toward straight toward your forehead. Exercising the rear delts will prevent muscular imbalance and build overall shoulder strength. 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.

Targets: Deltoids

Equipment Needed: Cable pulley machine

Level: Intermediate

Benefits

Face pulls are a great exercise for the rear deltoids, trapezius, and upper back muscles. 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 critically important 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 anterior and lateral heads of the deltoid are often worked 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. As a result, it's important to incorporate exercises into your routine that target the rear delts, and face pulls happen to be an excellent option.

Step-by-Step Instructions

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Herbst suggests adding two sets of 20 reps of face pulls to the end of a back workout. Go a little lighter than you think you need to and really focus on slow, controlled motions.

Common Mistakes

Avoid these errors so you get the most from this exercise and prevent strain or injury.

Poor Form

The most common culprit when it comes to 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 are performing a pull-down rather than a face pull.

Too Much Weight

It's also pretty common to overload select too much weight. The rear delts are a smaller muscle group, and if you're not used to working them, you're going to 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.

Modifications and Variations

This exercise can be done in a few different ways to make it more accessible or to target your muscles in new ways.

Need a Modification?

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 who are new to training the rear delts, but the bands might not provide enough resistance to challenge advanced exercisers.

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 flys. It's not a perfect replacement for face pulls, but it does target the same muscle groups.

Up for a Challenge?

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.

If your goal is building muscle and you want to lift heavier weights, use as seated position. This is important because with heavier weights you are more likely to use your hips and lower body and therefore decrease the load on your deltoids. By sitting you can better maintain a stable torso.

Safety and Precautions

If you have any back or shoulder problems, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about whether this exercise is appropriate for you. If you feel any pain during the exercise, stop.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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