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Unleash Shoulders of Steel With the Face Pull: Muscles Worked & Variations

Face Pull Muscles Worked

If you’re ready to add some shoulders of steel to your muscle repertoire, face pulls should be your first step. They’re easy to perform, and within no time, you’ll see broader, more defined shoulders with powerhouse strength to boot! 

Maybe you don’t know what a face pull is. No worries. I’ll tell you all about it. 

Maybe you know about the face pull but you’re wondering: What muscles are worked during a face pull? You’re in good company. 

Today, we’ll go in-depth about the specific muscles you can expect to feel the burn during the face pull–and reap the benefits of bulking up after the face pull. If you’re ready to pull your way to stronger shoulders, you’re in the right place. 


Wait a Sec…What is the Face Pull? 

If you’re wondering– What the heck is a face pull? –no worries! I’ll slow down and explain. 

The face pull is an isolation exercise–meaning it only targets one specific muscle group or joint. This means that adding a face pull into your workout routine will help give you that extra push to work those shoulders and upper back.  


How to Perform a Face Pull

We’ll start with instructions for how to perform a basic face pull: 

  1. Set the pulley at a cable station to a height slightly above your head. 
  1. Attach a rope handle to the pulley. 
  1. Face the cable machine with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  1. Using a neutral grasp (palms facing inward), grab each end of the rope attachment. 
  1. Take a step or two back from the cable machine, fully extending your arms. 
  1. Before the motion, lift your chest up, pulling your shoulders back and keeping your core engaged. 
  1. Keeping your elbows up, pull the rope toward your face until both hands are back by your ears/shoulders. You should form a right angle with your arms. 
  1. Squeeze your shoulder blades with this motion, pausing for a few seconds. 
  1. Slowly return to the starting position, keeping elbows slightly bent. Then repeat. 


Don’t Be One of “Those People” - Common Mistakes

Face pull muscles worked cable machine

I always like to read up on common mistakes made during any new exercise I add to my routine. This way, I avoid being “that guy” who’s just butchering the movement. 

When it comes to face pulls, it pays to know some common mistakes you’ll see people make. 

Check Your Form

It’s all in the elbows: Keep those bad boys up while performing your face pull; otherwise, the muscles worked during your face pull will be different–moving the focus from the shoulders to the biceps or forearms. Remember the 90-degree angle rule here, and you should be fine! 

Aim for the Head: Pulling the rope down to your chest, neck, or chin will feel easier, but don’t be tempted. Again, the wrong muscles will get worked with this slight shift in position. 

Palms In: Don’t let those palms flare out during the motion. Keep a neutral grasp on the rope to ensure good form. This will put undue strain on your wrists, and we don’t need that! 

No Need to Show Off With Too Much Weight

Don’t let the weight jerk you around: This move is not about showing off with tons of weight. Since we’re targeting a smaller muscle group here, you’re gonna want to avoid any heaving, jerky motions, relying on a slow, controlled movement when returning the weight back to the starting position. 

Controlled movements are clutch: If, as you return the weight, you’re not able to control the weight, and you feel it jerking your body around, that’s a sign that it’s time to slow your roll and choose less weight. You're actually working your muscles more by making this choice.

Stagger that stance: Your lower back is not one of the muscle groups that should be working during a face pull: let it chill out. If you feel it engaging too much, a great way to fix this is to stagger your stance or go down into a kneeling position. This will help target the right muscles. 

Face Pull Muscles Worked

Face Pulls Work Many Muscles, Including the Deltoid

Okay, so you know how to perform a perfect face pull without making any rookie mistakes along the way. You’re really gonna look like a pro. 

But to be a pro, you need to know what muscles actually get worked when you perform a face pull. So, let’s get technical. 

Well…a little technical at least. We won’t get too crazy.

Face Pull Muscle Worked: Rear Deltoid

What is the Rear Deltoid?

Also called the posterior deltoid, the rear deltoid is the primary muscle worked during a face pull. Basically, this isolation exercise is all about the delts. 

These little guys can be found at the back of your shoulders, and the role they play is not so little at all. 

How Does This Muscle Work During a Face Pull? 

During the face pull itself, the rear delts help your shoulders retract and rotate. 

Benefits of Working This Muscle During a Face Pull

Better Posture: When translating to daily life, stronger rear delts lead to better posture, preventing your shoulders from rounding forward. 

Less Risk of Shoulder Injury: Stronger rear delts can give you those bulletproof shoulders you've always wanted, reducing the risk of injury, such as shoulder impingements and rotator cuff issues. (Also check out our page on exercises for rounded shoulders!)

Stronger Workouts: By working out your rear deltoids, you prime yourself to have maximum strength during pulling movements, aiding in compound movements like rowing, lifting, and bench presses. 

Aesthetic: Broader, more built shoulders directly result from working out your deltoids. This makes face pulls a great choice if you’re trying to bulk up your shoulder width! 

Face Pull Muscle Worked: Trapezius

What is the Trapezius? 

More of a secondary muscle worked during a face pull, the traps still play a crucial role during this exercise. Starting at the base of the neck, your traps extend across your shoulders and down to the middle of your back. 

How Does This Muscle Work During a Face Pull? 

Specifically, the middle and lower parts of your traps engage during a face pull to draw the scapulae together and downward–helping maintain shoulder form and stability during this motion. 

Benefits of Working This Muscle During a Face Pull

Better Posture: Just like your delts, working out your traps can directly improve your posture. 

Less Risk of Injury: Working out your traps minimizes your chances of having pain or injuries in your upper back and neck. 

Aesthetic: Trap workouts tend to really broaden that back–giving you a thicker appearance in your shoulders and upper back.  

Face Pull Muscle Worked: Rhomboids 

What is the Rhomboid

Located just between your shoulder blades, the rhomboids are smaller muscles responsible for drawing your shoulder blades together. 

How Does This Muscle Work During a Face Pull? 

At the top of the face pull motion, you get the most bang for your buck when you really squeeze those shoulder blades together, which–you guessed it–engages the rhomboids. 

Benefits of Working This Muscle During a Face Pull

Better Posture: I know it’s getting repetitive, but hopefully, you’re seeing all the ways face pulls work muscles that directly link to helping you stand tall and proud. With the rhomboids strong, your shoulder blades can pull back in a manner that directly impacts better posture. 

Less Risk of Shoulder Injury: Since this muscle works to stabilize your shoulder blades, adding strength to the rhomboids prevents the risk of shoulder injury. 

Face Pull Muscle Worked: Rotator Cuff

What is the Rotator Cuff? 

These muscles surround your shoulder directly, helping keep your shoulder in place. 

How Does This Muscle Work During a Face Pull? 

Rotator cuffs come in clutch during a face pull, making sure your shoulders remain stable and centered. Basically, without these, your shoulders would be moving all over the place during a face pull. 

Benefits of Working This Muscle During a Face Pull

Less Risk of Shoulder Injury: This one helps prevent injury directly by ensuring proper joint positioning. (Check out our page on shoulder impingement exercises.)

Stronger Workouts: Bench presses and push-ups can directly benefit from working out your rotator cuffs.  


Variations of the Face Pull

Face Pulls come in many variations and work similar muscles

So, let’s say you’re ready to spice up your face pull game and add some variety in to the mix. The good news is: there are a few variations you can use as a substitute for a regular face pull at a cable station. 

1. Banded Face Pull

If the gym is not your jam, the banded face pull provides flexibility of location while still working the same muscles. By using a resistance band or two, you can bring the face pull home to you. 

If you use a looped resistance band, you won’t be able to pull your hands as far back above your shoulders as you need to because the band will literally hit your face in the process, which is annoying, uncomfortable, and also not conducive to proper form. 

As an easy fix, I recommend using a band with handles (not looped). 

How to Perform a Banded Face Pull

This one works very similarly to a regular face pull!

  1. Attach a resistance band to a stable post at eye level. 
  1. Grab each side of the band with a neutral hand position (just like a regular face pull). 
  1. Keeping elbows up, pull the ends of the band toward your face, extending your hands out past your shoulders. 
  1. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Pause for a few seconds. 
  1. Slowly return to the starting position, and repeat. 

If, for some reason, you only have looped bands, there’s a way around this: 

  1. Attach a looped band to a stable post. 
  1. Then, attach another looped band to the end of the first band, basically creating your own rope attachment. 
  1. You’ll now have full flexibility to bring both ends of the second band as far back as you need to during the face pull motion. 


2. Bodyweight Face Pull

Let’s say all the cable machines are taken. It happens–probably more often than I’d prefer to have happen at my gym. Hold up: before you call it quits for doing your daily face pull, there is an alternative option in the bodyweight face pull. 

This version is fun because it uses gravity! 

How to Perform a Bodyweight Face Pull

  1. Find a barbell or a Smith machine station. 
  1. Set the bar low-ish–not for your workout quality but literally, the bar needs to be low enough, so you can lower your body to the ground at the end of the set. 
  1. Wrap a rope attachment around the center of the bar. 
  1. Position yourself underneath the bar–with your hands grasping the rope handle in a neutral position. Your chest should be just underneath the rope handle, and your heels should be on the floor. 
  1. Keeping your heels on the floor, pull your body towards the bar. Keep your whole body in a straight line and your elbows up during this motion, and bring the bar to your face. 
  1. Slowly lower back down, and then repeat. 


3. Bent-Over Dumbbell Face Pull

If you prefer dumbbells–or that’s just what you have easily accessible–there is a dumbbell version of face pulls as well, which works all the same muscles.

How to Perform a Bent-Over Dumbbell Face Pull 

  1. Stand holding two dumbbells with your feet shoulder-width apart. You’ll want to go light with the dumbbell weight here. 
  1. Hinge at your hips, allowing your torso to become parallel to the floor. 
  1. Using the motion we know and love by now, bring the dumbbells up by your ears, keeping your elbows pointed out and parallel to your body. 
  1. Slowly return to the starting position, and repeat. 


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Happy face pulling! 

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