Cable face pulls are an effective upper body exercise that help to strengthen the rear deltoids and trapezius.
The exercise is really second-to-none when it comes to activating the rear deltoids and building muscle this part of the body.
Stronger rear deltoids play a vital role in improving posture and combatting rounded, hunched shoulders, as well as improving athletic performance by creating more strength in the upper back and shoulders.
Cable face pulls also help to address muscular imbalances for those who naturally do a lot of pushing/chest exercises in their fitness routine.
Although the movement is often underused by gym-goers, there are serious benefits in doing them.
It is, however, important that the exercise is performed properly to maximize the benefits and reduce the risk of injury. In this exercise guide, we outline everything you need to know about cable face pulls, including how to do them, benefits, muscles worked, variations and potential alternative exercises that target the same muscles.
What are Cable Face Pulls?
Cable face pulls involve pulling a cable, usually with a rope attachment to allow for better range of motion, towards your forehead. By doing so, you activate the rear deltoids, trapezius and upper back muscles, helping to strengthen and build muscle in these muscle groups.
The movement also requires good stability and uses core stabilizing muscles to keep you balanced during the movement.
The adjustable height and ability to hold a cable rope in different grips also means there are actually many different ways of doing face pulls and lots of variations you can try (although changing the grip may be detrimental in terms of activating the rear deltoids).
Doing face pulls using a cable pulley machine is the easiest way to add load to the movement and progress over time.
No access to a gym?
As we discuss further down this article, if you don’t have access to a gym and cable pulley machine, a resistance band face pull is a worthy alternative. You can’t progressively overload the exercise like you can with a cable machine, but the resistance will still allow you to activate the rear deltoids and upper back effectively.
How to Perform Face Pulls Properly
To perform the standard face pull, follow the steps below. Heavy duty resistance bands can be used (see variations) but the preferred option is a cable pulley machine.
- Step 1. Secure a rope attachment to cable pully machine. A bar could be used but the range of motion and movement path isn’t as effective for targeting the rear deltoids.
- Step 2. Set the anchor high, slightly above your head height so that you will be pulling slightly down.
- Step 3. Set the appropriate weight resistance for the cable pulley. Always start lower than you might think as the emphasis will be on slow, controlled movements.
- Step 4. Stand square to the machine, feet hip-width apart.
- Step 5. Using an overhand grip, reach and hold the rope handles with your palms facing in.
- Step 6. Step back from the machine until your arms are almost fully extended. By not fully extending your arms you avoid engaging biceps too much.
- Step 7. Engage your core for stability, roll your shoulders back, lift your chest and lean slightly back.
- Step 8. Pull the rope towards your forehead until your hands are either side of your face, just in front of your shoulders with your elbows pointing outwards. You should feel the movement in your rear deltoids as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and you shouldn’t require momentum to pull the cable towards your face.
- Step 9. Return to starting position in a controlled, slow movement. Do not allow your body, shoulders or chest to be pulled forward – you may need to lighten the weight if this is happening.
- Step 10. Repeat movement, maintaining a good posture without allowing the weight to rest on the pulley to rest until you have completed a set.
Coach’s Tip – To perform this exercise, stability and posture is key. Our step-by-step guide on how to perform face pulls helps to ensure the correct form for face pulls, allowing you to slowly but surely strengthen the powerhouse muscle groups in your shoulders, upper body and core.
Face Pull Variations
It’s easy to mix up and add variation to face pulls. Some ideas to get started with include:
Use heavy-duty resistance bands over a high attachment point such as a tree or back of a doorframe and follow the same steps. Remember bands will provide less resistance than a cable pulley so this is a good choice for those new to training their rear delts but may not provide enough challenge once you’ve built your strength.
Due to the resistance in these bands growing the further they are pulled, you may find you need to stand slightly closer to the attachment point so that you can pull them into position either side of your forehead.
It’s possible to still work the same shoulder muscles with this exercise whilst kneeling, which may help you maintain your balance and posture.
Whilst a square stance is usually recommended, a staggered stance can be used to help reduce the chance of relying on your lower back too much to maintain your posture.
Choice of Weight
Always start with small weights even if you are used to exercising with more. The face pull targets muscles that many other weight exercises do not, so you need to slowly build the strength to avoid injury and allow you to perform the exercise with the correct form. If you’re having any difficulties, decrease the weight and of course, if you feel any pain, stop.
Increase the weights
To up the challenge, of course you can begin to increase the weight resistance as you feel your muscles strengthen. This makes face pulls a great choice for a muscle building exercise.
Change starting position
To further target your shoulder muscles, you could use a seated position rather than standing to prevent you from using your hips and lower body so that the increased load is predominantly on your shoulder muscles.
Muscles Worked During Face Pulls
Face pulls engage and build strength in your posterior (also known as ‘rear’) deltoids, a muscle group often neglected when focusing on pushing and pressing exercises. These shoulder muscles are key to allowing almost any overhead actions. Your upper trapezoids will also be activated giving you strength in your upper back, whilst your rhomboids will also be engaged to help squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
Your core will also be engaged throughout to create stability during the movement.
Cable Face Pulls Benefits
Strengthen Shoulders and Upper Back
As mentioned, the rear deltoids are the key muscles required for almost any over-head movement and actions. Strength here allows a greater ease for many daily activities particularly those involving lifting, pulling or reaching.
Prevent Shoulder Imbalance and Poor Posture
Face pulls target the rear deltoids many other shoulder exercises fail to engage. Without strengthening both the front and rear deltoids, you may find the muscles groups in your shoulders are imbalanced, which in turn can lead poor posture and a hunched forward stance.
As face pulls are performed whilst standing, your core muscles are engaged as well as your upper back and shoulders. Strength in your core is frequently linked by research to greater stability and balance.
Injury Risk of Shoulder Injuries
Muscular imbalances in the shoulders can lead to injury so ensuring you are doing as much “pulling” movements as “pushing” movements from the shoulders helps to combat this.
Some effective alternatives to cable face pulls include:
- TRX Row
- Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- Inverted Bar Row
- Rear Deltoid Machine
- Banded Pull-Aparts
- Hand Release Push Ups
- T Raises
If you’re looking for exercise alternatives, we’ve found the app Alpha Progression is very good at creating workout programs based on exercises you want to include/exclude. Simply by selecting the muscle group you want to target or a relevant exercise, it will suggest appropriate alternatives. We’ve found these suggestions to be very useful and accurate.
If you experience back or shoulder problems, face pulls are not recommended without first consulting doctor or physical therapist first. Always start small with any new exercise and gradually build the duration and amount of weight resistance.
As this is an isolation exercise, targeting specific muscle groups, make sure you vary your routine with exercises for other muscle groups as well as cardiovascular activities for a greater overall level of fitness and health.