Face Pulls

One of my go-to exercises for shoulder health, correcting a number of postural imbalances, and all round ‘good hygeine’ as a client of mine calls it – is the face pull.  It’s safe to say if I have been writing programs for someone, they will have become pretty familiar with face pull variations.

Jim Carrey, an outstanding face puller

In my opinion the face pull is a ‘must do’ movement for pretty much everyone, in its simplest form it encourages a posterior tilt of the scapulae, increases the sub acromial space, and encourages activation of both the lower traps, and the posterior cuff – whats not to love!?

 The sub acromial space – there is rarely a lot of it…
A certain amount of ‘impingement’ is inevitable, however, poor shoulder mechanics, less than optimal alignment at the scapula thoracic joint, and poor centration of the glenohumeral joint can all contribute to decreased sub acromial space, increased impingement, and hurty shoulder

To set up for the standard face pull there are a couple of key cues to remember

– cable column should be set to head height

– adopt a split stance to minimise the chance of achieving the movement through excessive lumbar extension (lock this down even further with a good squeeze of the glute on the back leg)

– pull the lower ribs down and get a solid brace through the anterior core

– pull the rope grip towards your face (towards, not into – I have seen it done trust me).

– ensure the shoulders stay away from the ears, and the elbows draw up higher than the shoulders

– smile


I like to program face pulls for medium to high reps – so anywhere in the 12-25 bracket.  I’m rarely looking to develop a great deal of force production in a movement like this, its much more about creating good movement and ‘feeling’ the exercise.  As for where they sit in a program, this is usually a C2 and acts as a ‘filler’ between working sets on secondary assistance movements, I also occasionally use it as a D2 to round off an upper body lifting session thats had a lot of heavy pressing, or even as part of the dynamic warm up for those folks ‘stuck’ in internal rotation and with a heavy kyphosis. 

Like all the best things in life, face pulls have variations to suit different needs ,  our job as coaches is to select the most appropriate version.  I have listed a few variations that feature most often in my programs – its by no means exhaustive  – but should serve as a decent starting point:

Face Pull to External Rotation (Supinated Grip)

Most useful for those wanting to throw a bit more stress on to the posterior cuff,  easiest to cue this one as two movements – the first pull, and then the external rotation.  Clearly loads will need to be reduced vs the conventional set up otherwise there is a tendency to shrug the weight back rather than engage the cuff (yes I know I totally need a haircut)

Half kneel face pull

I like to use this variation for those with an exaggerated kyphosis, the downward moment of the pull really encourages the posterior tilt these folks can often struggle with.  I will more likely use this variation with a newer trainee to help them understand what it feels like to have the low traps work and open out the chest.

Less useful for the ‘athletic meathead’ posture of shoulder blades stuck in downward rotation  – with these guys this variation could actually make them worse so make sure you conduct a thorough evaluation and assessment.

Low to High Face Pull

I love this movement for encouraging upward rotation of the shoulder blades.  Ideal for those guys who have deadlifts for breakfast lunch and dinner and find the shoulder blades stuck in downward rotation.   The upward moment on the pull will cause you to initiate a shrug as the arms pass horizontal.  For those with a really aggressive down slope on the collar bone, you may want to cue some upper trap recruitment at this point (yes we need upper traps too).

As above this movement will be great for some, and less so for others – if your client or athlete presents with abducted (winging) and anteriorly tilted shoulder blades,  and upper trap ‘dominance’, then this one may not be for them.


The face pull, and its derivatives are an excellent way to keep your shoulders healthy and pain free, improve posture, and allow you to go heavy on the bench press more often (which is the whole point right).

However, and there is always a however, we must must must choose the most appropriate version for the situation in front of us.  As I have alluded to above, the key to designing any form of training program is the assessment – there is no way we can get from point A to point B unless we know where point A is.  And although the face pull is as close a thing as I have seen to a silver bullet for many common shoulder niggles we must choose the correct tool for the job.  To quote the genius that is Eric Cressey if you aren’t assessing you’re just guessing.

No massive relevance to the article, but there are probably silver bullets in this gun. And who doesn’t love Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale.

2017-05-02T21:38:33+00:00October 7th, 2015|0 Comments

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