How to Do the Face Pulls Exercise for Stronger Shoulders

Face Pulls Shoulder Rear Delt Exercise
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Strong shoulders are critically important for everyday activities. The shoulder joint itself is the least stable joint in the entire body, and as a result, it's incredibly mobile, allowing you to lift, press, pull, rotate, abduct, and adduct your arm, shrug your shoulders, pull your shoulders down, roll your shoulders forward, and draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine. This complexity requires the recruitment and engagement of numerous muscles, including the small muscles of the rotator cuff, and the large muscles of the chest and back. But the powerhouse muscle group of the shoulders—responsible for all overhead actions (think, putting items up on high shelves, lifting a child onto your shoulders, or even shooting a basketball)—are the deltoids.

The Importance of Targeting the Rear Deltoids

The deltoids, or delts, are the muscles most commonly targeted when you're working your shoulders. Exercises like shoulder presses, lateral dumbbell raises, front dumbbell raises, and bent over reverse dumbbell flys all target the delts from different angles. This is important to realize because the delts actually 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, including overhead dumbbell presses, chest presses, incline presses, and pushups. The rear delts, by comparison, are often neglected. This is a shame because 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.

"Face pulls are a great exercise for the rear delts, traps, and upper back," says Robert Herbst, a 19-time World Champion powerlifter, personal trainer, and wellness coach. "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." 

Performing a Face Pull Correctly

The good news is that face pulls aren't hard to do as long as you pay attention to your form, but they do require access to a cable pulley machine for best results. Here's how to perform the exercise correctly:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. This is your starting position. From here, use your rear delts and traps to pull the handles of the attachment straight toward your forehead. The trick is to keep your palms facing in as your elbows flare outward toward the sides of the room, really engaging the rear delts. "The arms should be out to the side at a right angle to the body to prevent the exercise from turning into a pull-down," Herbst says. "You want to minimize biceps and lat involvement."
  1. From here, 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.

Sets and Reps

Herbst suggests adding two sets of 20 reps of face pulls to the end of a back workout. "This will really light up the rear delts," he says. Keep in mind, doing two sets of 20 signifies that you don't need to load up the weight to get results. Go a little lighter than you think you need to and really focus on slow, controlled motions.

Avoid Common Mistakes

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.

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.

Exercise Alternatives to Face Pulls

"Face pulls are hard to duplicate without a cable machine," Herbst says. That said, 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. The trick is finding bands that provide enough resistance to keep the exercise challenging.

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.