What are Face Pulls?

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  • Written By: Shelby Miller
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 09 January 2020
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Face pulls are a strength-training exercise intended to increase mobility in the scapulae, or shoulder blades, and strengthen the muscles that upwardly rotate these bones, namely the trapezius muscle in the back. They require a cable machine with an adjustable pulley set to face height and a rope handle and involve pulling either end of the rope to either side of the face by contracting these upper back muscles. Specifically, face pulls target the rear deltoids on the back of the shoulders as well as the trapezius, with the form dictating optimum recruitment of fibers from the weakest part of the muscle, the lower trapezius.

Traditionally, face pulls are performed with the pulley at face height, making it a type of exercise known as a horizontal pull. Horizontal pulling exercises like rows, reverse flies, and face pulls are performed perpendicular to upright posture, whether the exerciser is actually standing upright, leaning forward, or in a face-down position, and involve pulling backward relative to the body. These exercises target the upper back and rear deltoids, the most posterior portion of the shoulder muscle.


A true face pull is performed facing the cable pulley and standing upright a few feet back from the pulley. Using a rope handle, a type of cable attachment that features a length of rope with knotted ends attached to the pulley at its midpoint, the user grasps either end of the rope with arms extended in front of him and palms facing inward, thumbs toward the ceiling, and the ends of the rope tilted upward. He then contracts the upper back muscles to retract or draw posteriorly the shoulder blades while pulling the elbows backward in a horizontal line until they are on the same plane with the shoulders. At the same time, the exerciser pulls the rope toward his face, pulling the ends of the rope apart as it gets closer, so that the hands are roughly level with the top of the head and the palms face inward. This position resembles a bodybuilder flexing his arms in the classic strongman pose.

Proper form for face pulls may be slightly altered to better target the lower portion of the trapezius, typically the weakest part of the muscle. While the trapezius as a whole is a diamond-shaped muscle spanning most of the upper back, the lowermost fibers form a triangular muscle originating on the fifth through 12th thoracic vertebrae in the mid-back. These fibers run at an oblique angle upward and outward, converging to attach to the backs of the shoulder blades just behind the shoulder joint. The lower trapezius acts to upwardly rotate the scapulae, simultaneously spreading them apart while drawing their lower ends upward and outward toward the shoulders.

To best target the lower trapezius with face pulls, the exerciser must take care to externally rotate the shoulders as he pulls the rope backward. In other words, the hands should not be allowed to drop forward as the rope approaches the face, a signal that the shoulders are rotating inward. The hands should end up to either side of the face in the same plane as or slightly behind the elbows, if the user has enough flexibility in the shoulders, before returning to the start position.


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