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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
May 10, 2022
Face pulls have long been a staple in powerlifting and more recently they have gained popularity in bodybuilding. Heralded as a way bulletproof your shoulders, improve your posture, and blow up your upper back and rear delts, they quickly became commonplace in many programs. However, they have some limitations and might not be the most efficient way to improve your physique. This article will outline the anatomy and functions of the muscles used in the face pull exercise before providing you with a range of exercises that can be used to replace or supplement them.
The face pull targets the upper back around the scapula and rotator cuff. The primary movers of face pulls are the mid-traps, rhomboids and rear deltoids supported by some smaller muscles in the rotator cuff. The involvement of the teres minor and infraspinatus in the rotator cuff is heavily influenced by what technique you decide to use.
Located on the back of the shoulder, rear deltoids are the most posterior of the 3 heads of the deltoid. Well-developed rear deltoids provide stability to the shoulder joint and, as the most superficial muscles, give your shoulders a 3-D look from all angles. This muscle is often overlooked compared to the anterior (front) and lateral (side) delts. The front delts get hammered during push training. While the side delts are often specifically targeted with isolation exercises such as lateral raises.
Origin: The rear delts originate from the spine of the scapula, which is the ridge running along the top of the shoulder blade.
Insertion: Despite varied functions and origins, all deltoid heads insert in the same place: the aptly named deltoid tuberosity. This is around halfway down the humerus on the outside of the upper arm.
Function: The rear delt is a non-pennate muscle, which causes the fibers to pull directly from the origin to insertion. The primary function of the rear delts is shoulder extension, both in assisting the lats and in horizontal extension. They are activated when extending the shoulder from many angles and in a multitude of movements, including narrow grip rows when the arms are tight to the body and reverse flyes with the humerus closer to 90 degrees. Contracting the rear delts also externally rotates the shoulder joint, pulling the insertion on the outside of the upper arm towards the origin on the shoulder blade, which occurs during the face pull exercise. This makes rear delts a common target for those looking to improve poor posture and internally rotated shoulders.
Made up of the major and minor parts, the rhomboids sit underneath the trapezius. While they are not completely visible, their development increases the thickness of the upper back.
Origin: The minor originates at the lowest vertebrae of the cervical spine (C7) and in the first vertebrae of the thoracic spine (T1), where the bottom of the neck meets the upper back. Just beneath this, the major originates from T2 and T3 of the thoracic spine.
Insertion: The minor inserts at the medial end of the scapula spine and the major along the scapula's medial border. As medial means "towards the middle", these are located on the inside of the scapula closest to the spine. The major inserts along the inside ridge of the scapula, and the minor to the innermost corner of the ridge on the top of the scapula.
Functions: The primary function of these muscles is to retract the scapula, bringing them together closer to the spine, an important action in the face pull. As the origins are slightly higher than the insertions, the rhomboids also cause slight elevation of the shoulder joint. Like the rear delts, the rhomboids are often targeted to improve posture and stability at the shoulder joint and prevent scapula winging.
The traps are the most superficial muscle of the upper back, with three distinct sections with varied functions. The mid traps give the upper back a thick and detailed look when well developed and are key in a well-rounded physique.
Origin: This section of the traps originates - like the rhomboid - on the processes the cervical and thoracic vertebrae (C1-T3).
Insertion: The mid traps insert on the acromion and superior crest of the scapula spine, which are the furthest tip and top border of the scapula respectively.
Function: Their primary function is retraction of the shoulder, pulling the shoulder blades together, which occurs during the face pull. The origin and insertion run almost perfectly horizontally across the upper back so mid trap contraction caters almost exclusively to this function.
Teres Minor and Infraspinatus:
These two muscles of the rotator cuff can be involved in face pulls, but it depends on the technique. Rotator cuff strengthening is commonplace in rehab and prehab to improve shoulder stability and health.
Origins: These muscles originate on the scapula, with the teres minor on the lateral (outside) border and infraspinatus on the infraspinous fossa below the scapula spine.
Insertions: These both insert on the outside of the humerus on its greater tubercle, located at the top of the bone on the outside.
Functions: The teres minor and infraspinatus have similar functions: providing glenohumeral stability and externally rotate the upper arm. If you perform face pulls by eternally rotating the shoulder as you bring the rope attachment towards your face, with hands higher than the elbows, these muscles provide a helping hand to the rear deltoids. Like the other muscles in this list, these are often strengthened to improve shoulder health.
1) They counter internal rotation:
Internal rotation of the shoulders can be caused by overemphasis on muscles like the chest, anterior delts and lats. When short and tight, these muscles cause internal rotation - exacerbated by extended periods of sitting, increasingly common in modern life. As you might have guessed from the functions of the muscles used during face pulls, one of their main benefits is they strengthen the muscles involved in external rotation - preventing common injuries like impingements. Additionally, good posture shows off the muscles you’ve worked hard to build.
2) Prevent scapula winging:
You might have also guessed the second benefit of face pulls following the muscle function section. Just like their ability to strengthen external rotators, the face pull strengthens muscles like the rhomboids to prevent scapula winging. Scapula winging can be caused by repetitive movements and can negatively impact more than just your training, hindering your daily life if untreated.
3) Stabilize the shoulder joint:
Both of the above benefits lead to this one. Face pulls don’t just train the superficial muscles. When performed with external rotation they strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, which stabilize the shoulder joint. A stable shoulder joint is crucial when looking to develop your back and the rest of your upper body, giving you a solid foundation to make the most of your training.
Now for the fun stuff - hypertrophy. Compound exercises should, most likely, make up the brunt of your training - providing the best bang for your buck and hitting a range of muscles at once. However, isolations allow you to add volume to muscle groups without undue systemic fatigue from which you might be unable to recover or straining supporting muscles that could cope with the extra workload. The cable face pull does just this. They add volume to your upper back and external rotators without adding volume to your lats or requiring support from the lower back.
5) Constant tension:
Although not unique to face pulls, the cable machine allows you to redirect tension. This can increase the amount of time during a rep that a muscle is under keep tension. During face pulls it is possible to place a significant amount of tension through the working muscles for the entire range. The muscles are working through a full range, making sure as many fibers as possible are trained. More tension over a full range equals a greater training stimulus that adds up to increases in both size and strength.
One key area for consideration during exercise selection is the ability to progress with exercise while maintaining the same form. Unstable exercises or exercises requiring you to fight to maintain position can make this exceedingly difficult. With face pulls, as you increase the weight, you have to fight to prevent the cable machine stack from pulling you over to maintain an upright posture - especially an issue for lighter, stronger lifters. Light face pulls are a great exercise, but as you get stronger they can quickly morph into a battle to stay upright instead of upper back isolation.
2) Strength curve:
Although we discussed constant tension, we didn't say it was consistent. Muscles are typically weakest at their shortest position, followed by the longest and strongest in the middle range. However, face pulls exacerbate this by including a rope to pull apart, increasing the moment arm, making the exercise even harder at the shortened position. The cable face pull exercise will likely under-stimulate the muscles at the long and middle lengths or be too heavy for the final range.
3) Technique, impingement, and hypertrophy:
This section covers a sticking point with face pulls. What is their purpose? If your purpose is to strengthen external rotators, you want to keep your hands high above the elbow. One issue with this is that external rotators are smaller and weaker than the muscles of the upper back involved in retraction. The external rotators will fatigue first, limiting stimulus to the mid traps and rhomboids. If you perform face pulls with the elbows and hands in line with one another, you place less stress on the rotator cuff muscles and more on the upper back, but the repeated internal rotation can leave you open to impingement, with shoulder pain being a common complaint.
Here are the best face pull alternative exercises to target the same muscle groups.
Just like face pulls, reverse dumbbell flyes are often a staple in programs. Their first benefit is their accessibility. The rise in home training means people often look for ways to mimic gym movements at home, using more accessible equipment like dumbbells. Secondly, as dumbbells are independent, this exercise facilitates flexibility regarding their range of motion and wrist and upper arm position.
This adaptability lets you find the best mind-muscle connection, focusing on the muscles you’re looking to grow. Finally, although you’re in a bent-over position, the bigger moment arm is caused by the spread arm position. This means you can use less weight and still put the muscles under tension, making the unstable bent-over position less concerning.
To perform this exercise, hinge at the hip so your upper body is just above parallel to the ground. Hold the dumbbells with a neutral or pronated grip, depending on what feels best for you. Let your arms hang down with slightly bent elbows. Maintaining this elbow position, pull your shoulder blades together separating the dumbbells until they are about 90 degrees from your shoulder. Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
One consideration for these is the strength curve. Like the face pull, the reverse dumbbell flye is very difficult at the contraction and easy at the bottom. Reverse dumbbell flyes should complement other exercises in your training that stress the muscles at longer lengths.
This rear delt fly variation lets you fully stretch and contract the upper back musculature under tension while providing greater freedom and range of movement than face pulls. Like the dumbbell alternative, the widespread arms cause a larger moment arm, reducing the weight required to put tension on the muscles. This makes stability less of an issue than face pulls, and the upright position is easier to maintain than the bent-over variation.
Set the cable up in line with your upper chest with standard handles attached. You can also set it higher as pictured above for a high-to-low form. Grab each handle with the opposite hand and stand tall with the shoulder protracted. Keep your elbows slightly bent and at around shoulder height. Retract the scapula, squeezing them together and pulling the cables apart. Once you’ve reached full contraction, slowly lower and bring the weights back to the start.
This might seem like an obvious addition following the first two face pull exercise alternatives, but they are an important addition to the list. Providing all the benefits mentioned above and removing any momentum and concerns over instability by supporting your upper body on the bench. This can let you focus on the muscles you want to grow and not expend unnecessary energy just trying to stay in place.
These can be performed with either dumbbells or a cable machine. For the dumbbell variation, set the bench on the lowest incline available but still allow your hands to hang freely without touching the floor. Line up your chest with the top of the bench, straddling the bench with feet on the floor on either side. Perform reverse flyes just as outlined above. For the cable variation, you’ll need the narrow set cables.
Put the cables on the bottom rung, with a bench in line with the center. The bench needs to be set on an incline, meaning when you perform the reverse fly the cables are moving in a straight line, in line with the direction of pull of your mid traps. This might take a bit of practice! Like the dumbbell variation, straddle the bench and lie with your chest at the top of the bench and feet on the floor on either side. Perform the reverse flyes just like the cable fly version with more stability!
If you’re looking to blow up your rear deltoids, look no further. If you’re using face pulls to grow your rear deltoids, then swapping them for or supplementing them with a pec dec is a no-brainer. This machine isolates the rear deltoids, allowing you to focus on an often-lagging area. On the flip side, this means supporting muscles - like mid traps, rhomboids and external rotators - won’t be getting trained. Makes sure you don't end up neglecting these muscles too!
Set the seat so you’re facing the machine with the handles at chest height. With a tall chest and overhand grip pull the handles apart with a slight bend in your elbows. Once your upper arm is about in line with your shoulder return to the starting position.
The point of this exercise is to attack the rear delts, so aim for most of the movement to come from the shoulder girdle and not from trying to squeeze your shoulder blades together too much.
As I mentioned under the reverse dumbbell flyes, more and more people are starting to train at home with access to equipment limited. Bands allow you to mimic some gym exercises at a fraction of the cost and without giving up your living room for a home gym. Band pull aparts target the upper back musculature, being particularly difficult in the short range as the tension increases. While the strength curve isn’t perfect, it does allow you to add some volume or warm-up the upper back easily and effectively.
Hold the band in both hands with your arms raised in front at shoulder height and with slight tension on the band. With your elbows slightly bent, pull your shoulder blades together keeping your chest up. Once you’ve fully contracted your upper back, slowly bring your hands back to the starting position.
One thing to bear in mind is that this is a difficult exercise to track and progress. You can increase reps, add pauses, increase the band tension through a heavier band or greater tension at the start. This is an exercise you’re likely to have to go by feel, taking sets close to failure with standard progression metrics at the back of your mind.
A resistance band can also be used as a face pull variation.
The exercises above are all great when it comes to training the mid traps, rhomboids and rear delts. However, they all neglect active external rotation - a key component of face pulls (if the hands come above the elbows). Cable external rotations address this, targeting the teres minor and infraspinatus in the rotator cuff and rear delts.
This movement is often used to treat shoulder injuries or poor posture and can be a great way to keep injuries at bay. An additional benefit of these is that they’re single arm. This can be particularly useful when training smaller muscles as it allows you to focus on the target area.
Set the cable up to elbow height with a standard cable handle attachment. Stand perpendicular to the handle, holding the cable with the opposite hand (i.e. if your left shoulder is closer to the cable hold it with your right hand). Bend your elbow to 90 degrees and use a neutral grip. Stand far enough away that you’re holding the weight off the stack. Set your shoulder blade back and down by retracting and depressing it. Externally rotate the upper arm. Make sure your shoulder stays set in place. Once you’ve externally rotated as far as possible, slowly go back to the starting position. You’ll likely need to start light. You should feel this around the shoulder blade as a “pinch”, and you’ll feel it in the shoulder too.
This targets the same area as face pulls and benefits from being a big compound move. As a rowing variation, you can use more weight providing greater stimulus to the whole body. Muscles like the lats, lower back, hamstrings, glutes and biceps all have to pitch in to support. This makes them a time-efficient way to train and can be a staple in a program with or without smaller complementary exercises.
With a pronated grip about 6 inches wider than shoulder width, hinge at the hip so you’re just above parallel to the ground. Start with protracted shoulders and row the bar into the middle of your chest with elbows flared to about 80 degrees, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slowly lower the bar back down, maintaining the elbow position.
Compounds are a great addition to your training. It is important to remember that by taxing more muscles they produce more fatigue, so be careful when replacing face pulls with wide grip barbell rows. This is especially true for those close to their limits of systemic fatigue and if supporting muscles are close to their maximal recoverable volume.
This barbell row variation lets you target the upper back and rear delts, without your wrist and shoulder position being dictated by the barbell. The addition of the handles also forces you to move slowly and carefully, without momentum, to make sure the bar sits balanced on the handles. This means you must focus more on the target muscles and contracting them with purpose. The handles also increase the range of motion, letting you pull your elbows further back before the bar hits your chest.
This variation is almost identical to the wide grip row outlined above. The only differences are that you’ll need to slide a barbell into two standard non-metal stirrup cable handles set at about 6 inches wider than shoulder width. The barbell obviously won't fit in the carabiner clip so you will slide it into the actual handle itself. You can twist the handles to a neutral grip, semi-pronated or pronated grip depending on what feels best.
Like the wide grip barbell row, hinge at the hips to just above parallel. Go from protracted to retracted shoulder blades as you row the bar into your sternum. Keep your elbows flared and squeeze your shoulder blades before slowly lowering the bar back to its starting point.
We would feel remiss if we didn’t include one way to upgrade your face pulls. By using a long rope attachment, two long handles or two ropes at once, you can increase the range of motion. This allows you to externally rotate further and stops the movement from being limited by the rope length.
While this isn’t a perfect solution, it does provide some extra freedom of movement which can be the boost you need to get more from the exercise.
As mentioned before in the article, the bulk of your training should be compound movements. This ensures all the main muscle groups are hit and is an efficient way to approach your training. Face pulls can be used to supplement these without adding too much more systemic fatigue and train muscles focussed on external rotation.
The isolation moves in this article should be viewed in the same way, as an accessory to the larger movements. The compound moves on this list can either replace the face pull or if face pulls are considered essential for your goals, used alongside them.
Remember, the extra fatigue accumulated from compounds means they’re best utilized if your systemic and supporting muscular fatigue is lower. One thing to be aware of is that by replacing face pulls, which target the external rotators when performed with high hands, you're reducing volume on these muscles. You’ll likely have to add in external rotations to replace this.
If you have any questions about the face pull or its alternatives, please let us know in the comment section below. We hope these exercises can help you build an impressive upper back and upper arms!
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
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June 08, 2023
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