The face pull belongs in your training, no matter your goal. Get your shoulders healthy and your back strong with these tips and variations.
Healthy shoulders are not a given; you have to work for them. And a strong back doesn’t help performance if you’re battling shoulder pain. That’s where the face pull comes in. Here are five ways to improve the exercise, plus a few game-changing variations for upper back strength and shoulder longevity.
The banded face pull is one of the most effective tools for building a thick and functional upper back to support shoulder dynamics.
- Attach the band to something stable like a squat rack at about head height.
- Grab your band with your palms down.
- Drive your elbows back with arms staying around shoulder height.
- Bring the band to your face and drive your hands apart.
- The further the band gets from where it’s anchored, the more resistance you’ll feel.
Many athletes don’t have access to cable stacks or machines, so using a band is practical. But we need to be a little more selective with the kinds of bands we use for the face pull. Those tubular bands with handles on each end aren’t going to cut it.
You need circular bands (on Amazon). Why? It’s all about the “face-pull-apart” when we’re talking about maximal activation and trainability.
This detail is a game-changer for upper back activation, so focus on peaking the contraction as hard as you can, driving the elbows back, and pulling the band apart for a split second before controlling the band back into the starting position.
I program the overhand (pronated) grip more often than the underhand or thumbs-up grip. This is due to the varying degree of external rotation range of motion involved on the backside of the movement pattern. You’d use the underhand grip for a different goal than the overhand grip: activation and corrective movement.
So for this version, follow the same steps, but lighten the load, move at a slower pace, and pay attention to the musculature you’re trying to activate.
Using the thumbs-up grip on a band or cable taps into more corrective-based ranges of motion for the shoulder and upper back. It also helps you learn to stabilize the thoracic spine and shoulder blades during dynamic rotational movements at the shoulder joint itself.
This variation requires lighter loads and slower, more controlled movements to avoid flaring up the shoulders or placing undue stress over the rotator cuff or other acute muscles being loaded. Use the 6-12 rep range with total control and stability, and the activation benefits will become apparent fast.
You can load the face pull for strength and hypertrophy as well. But if you do it standing, you’ll quickly hit a ceiling on the loads you can stabilize without compensating at the torso, hips, or lower body. As the weights get heavy, two key mistakes usually happen.
First, you may lean back and alter the mechanics of the movement. Or you may split your stance and sit into a rotational moment at the hips and spine, negating the “pain-free-ness.”
Sure, some coaches say you should only train loads you can control from a symmetrical standing position, but why not alter the setup to reap the best of both worlds? This is where the seated face pull comes in.
Sitting on a bench or box creates better contact points with the ground, mainly from your butt on the bench and your feet on the floor. From this position, you can stabilize the torso and spine while dialing in the ideal angle of pull that’s stable and actively supported by the musculature of the pillar.
This position also creates a higher angle from which to pull. This ensures that the prime movers (scapular muscles) are targeted and the upper traps and neck don’t take over.
From the seated position, you need to remain highly active by contracting the glutes, adductors, core, and shoulders to achieve a perfect position before initiating a heavy face pull. Do 6-10 reps.
Add face pull variations into your normal programming in superset fashion. Think of it as a restorative range of motion. If you’re doing it right, it’s hard to get too much of it. That’s why I consider face pull variations “pain-free volume” that won’t place huge amounts of mechanical or neurological stress on your body.
So if you struggle with your posture, your pressing power, or your shoulder health, hammer as many face pulls as possible throughout the week. For optimal shoulder health, your weekly pull-to-push ratios should break down to 2:1 for the average person, or up to 3:1 if you sit for prolonged periods of time or have an injury history around the shoulders, neck, or upper back.
How do we fit in that much volume? Supersets. Between sets of pressing or direct shoulder work, do 5-15 reps of banded face pulls to maximize the trainability of the upper back (working into those ratios) while not adding any more joint or CNS stress into the equation.
Adding banded face pulls throughout your dynamic warm-up in superset schemes also skyrockets your overall pulling volume, again without doing a ton more highly stressful pulling movements like rows, deadlifts, or high-angle vertical pulling.
Sprinkling in banded face pulls between your sets also elicits the metabolic pump effect. Any time you can maximize the localized blood flow into the tissue to extend a set without adding any more joint stress, it’s a win for shoulder health.
Closing your eyes during face pulls enhances the feel of this movement pattern and allows you to better tap into your mind-muscle connection. It’s all about sensory input.
The mind-muscle connection (MMC) isn’t just a mythical beast talked about in bodybuilding circles. It’s a real-life neuromuscular phenomenon that many veteran lifters have learned to tap into. But here’s the limiting factor of the MMC: you must know the muscle you’re trying to contract actually exists before you can reap the benefits.
During the face pull, the goal is to maximize the MMC of the posterior delts and other muscles of the upper back, helping move the upper arms into horizontal abduction and external rotation. While nearly 20 scapular muscles influence the shoulder blade’s movement, when it comes to improving MMC, we must focus on just one – the posterior delt.
You must be able to focus on the feel of the muscle contracting on the peaking portion of the movement. Taking a huge sensory player out of the equation by simply closing your eyes enhances this.
Without your visual fields in play, you’ve cut down on the amount of total sensory input feeding into your system. This gives you a better chance to improve your mental acuity and focus.
Give this tip some time to work. It’s not something that happens overnight. Improving the MMC with closed eyes takes practice, so get to it.
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