When it comes to posture, upper back strength, and completing the rounded “cap” of the deltoid, you can’t get any better than the face pull.
And the truth is, it’s a neglected movement that very few people practice in the gym – at least where I’m from.
Let’s face it – most people are concerned with the mirror muscles; the stuff they (and everyone) can see when they’re standing face to face. That’s what makes bench press, shoulder press, ab exercises and curls such classic movements in the gym.
The muscles they can’t see take second place to these, and it ultimately results in a physique and performance level that could stand to improve.
Muscle groups like the mid and lower traps, the rear delts, the rhomboids, and the teres minor are all worth their weight in gold for developing the mid back, creating better posture and an imposing presence, and improving the health and performance of the shoulder capsule.
A move that attacks that in one shot is the face pull.
Focus on Feeling the Face Pull!
The truth is, this is a humbling movement that doesn’t take much weight to really feel, especially when you’re doing them right. This isn’t a movement that you should be stacking the plates on the cable machine with.
Instead, focus on really feeling each rep, and you’ll get better results. Assuming a bilateral stance with a cable pulley situated squarely in front of you and just above head level, hold a rope pulley with your knuckles facing in.
Maintain all posture and pull the ropes with your fists until they finish beside your ears. Remember to keep wide elbows the entire time and retract the shoulder blades on each pull.
Why THIS Face Pull Technique Works
Some people instruct face pulls to be done with an overhand grip and pulling to the neck or mouth level. In my opinion and experience, that doesn’t do as great a job to isolate the muscles of the upper back, especially the rear deltoids.
We have to remember that in the case of the rear deltoids, from a biomechanical perspective, there’s also a rotary component to their list of actions they’re responsible for. Holding the weight with a palms-in grip and pulling to the neck is still great to use the mid traps and rhomboids, but hardly does anything to really tax the rear deltoids due to this lack of rotation.
Instead, pulling higher with a more internally rotated starting position will engage the rear deltoids as well as all of the other muscles in question.
There’s another thing, too. When using this method, many lifters will notice whether there’s a serious deficiency in terms of rotary capacity – not just strength. In other words, if you’re lacking mobility at the shoulder joint, you’ll be able to see based on how far behind your head you can get your hands when they’re put under load.
If your neck cranes forward on each rep or your lower back goes into a serious overarch to pull the movement off, you’ve either used weight that’s too heavy or you have restricted shoulder mobility. Or both.
In this case, there are some key stretches and drills that would serve you well to help open up your shoulder rotation. Remember – mobility is a combination of strength and flexibility, so if you’re tight, you need both sides of the coin to be taken care of.
Scapular Wall Slides
If you can’t perform this movement, you’re not in a good starting place for face pulls to “take” as best they could.
Stand against a wall with your heels, butt, upper back, shoulders, elbows, and hands completely against it. Slowly slide your arms up and down the wall, as though you’re doing a press pattern.
Make sure to maintain contact in all the above points as you do this. This will create a good dynamic stretch for the shoulders and pre-activate the rear deltoids.
Hold a dowel or broomstick at each end with an overhand grip.
Keeping straight elbows, rotate the bar around to the other side of the body, so it contacts the top of the butt.
Return to your start position. Focus on 6-8 passes in each direction. If it becomes too easy, simply move the hands in by a couple of finger widths.
Med Ball Tomahawks
This can serve as a great regression to the face pull, since you’re dealing with gravity and a lighter overall load.
Keeping wide elbows on the med ball while lying face down, focus on touching the ball to your upper back. Keep the chin tucked, and move everything possible away from the ground on each rep.
Focusing on sets of 10-15 reps is ideal.
Why High Reps Matter for Face Pulls
Remember – we’re dealing with the postural muscles here. Muscles that are being asked to maintain an erect spine for long periods at a time. With all things equal, it doesn’t serve them too much to train them for heavy maxes or sets of 3-6.
For performance, development and improvement, it’s best to assume that these muscle groups are jam packed with slow twitch fibers (which makes logical sense based on what I mentioned above).
Sets of 12-20 reps have always been a directive I preferred giving to clients, and practicing myself. I haven’t seen any reason to deviate from that either.
One More Thing: For the Big Dogs
If you’re big and muscular, have long arms, or both, it may prove difficult to hold a small pair of ropes and often creates a tighter than desired elbow angle when performing the lift.
This can get in the way of fully being able to open up the ribcage or engage the rear deltoids when doing face pulls. Shorter armed lifters may have the necessary angles (close to 90 degrees) using one rope, but in truth, bigger, longer or tighter guys may benefit from using two.
Attaching 2 ropes to one carabiner and pulling them long is the instant solve to this, and should be practiced, as long as they’re available for use. You’ve instantly doubled your pull radius, which means it also won’t take as much weight to get the burn.
If it hasn’t been made clear by now, this should summarize things: Face pulls are important for your posture, mobility and shoulder health, and they will refer you to much more pressing strength and stability if they’re in your workout plan.
There’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be practiced, especially if you’re one of the people who really needs them. Chances are, you are.
Make the necessary ego check, stand tall, and get to work.