The face pull is popular among strength athletes. Especially Powerlifters. Mainly because Powerlifters spend a lot of time on the bench press. This high volume and heavy loading of the main bench press muscles develop serious chest and shoulder mass.
Unfortunately, the rear delts and upper, mid, and lower traps don’t get much love. This is why the face pull is commonly prescribed to counteract all of the bench pressing. But the face pull is done using a cable that you may not have access to. So, I’ve listed twelve of the best face pull alternatives that you can do at home or with a cable column.
Table of Contents
- Face Pull Alternatives At Home
- Band Face Pull
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Face Pull
- Bent-Over Barbell Face Pull
- Band Pull-Apart
- Seated Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Fly
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
- Barbell Row To Chest
- Elbow Flared 1-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Face Pull Alternatives With Cables
- Seated Cable Row To Chest
- Cable Reverse Flys
- Cable Y Raise
- Cable Cuban Press
Face Pull Alternatives At Home
The face pull is an excellent exercise to train the posterior deltoids (shoulders), upper traps, and the external rotators of the shoulder. The external rotators and rear delts don’t get much love in traditional training routines.
To provide upper body structural balance and reduce the risk of a shoulder injury, the face pull is often prescribed for these reasons. But what if you don’t have a cable machine because you train at home? I’ve got you covered with these eight face pull alternatives.
Band Face Pull
An elastic band is a go-to substitute for the cable column. You can tie it onto anything sturdy and perform any exercise that you’d typically perform with the cable. However, you will have less tension when you’re in the stretched position with your arms straight. Here’s how to do it:
- Face the band and hold it in your fingertips. You want to think about your fingers being hooks as grabbing the band will increase the tension in your arms, which you don’t want.
- Pull the band to your nose by pulling toward your face and slightly out to the side. You will finish in a similar position to the double biceps pose.
You can pull each rep, each set, or each workout to varying heights. The higher you pull, the greater the upper back and rear delt activation. The lower you pull, the greater mid and upper back activation. I typically use the forehead and chin as the highest and lowest points to pull.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Face Pull
Using dumbbells as a face pull alternative isn’t so common. But give this a try, and you’ll feel it light your upper traps and shoulders up. It requires some coordination to perform this movement correctly, so don’t give up after the first try. Here’s how to do it:
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, perform a Romanian deadlift and hold the bottom position. This is where you will remain for the entire exercise.
- Have the dumbbells hang with your arms vertical. Initiate the movement by pulling with your rear delts. You should pull up and slightly out so the dumbbells are on either side of your head.
- You need to row and externally rotate your arms simultaneously; otherwise, it is like performing a high row.
You’re not limited to performing the dumbbell face pull bent over. You can also do them chest-supported if you have the equipment and find them more comfortable.
Bent-Over Barbell Face Pull
In my experience, the barbell face pull feels much more comfortable than the dumbbell variation. The barbell provides more stability, so you get less swing. You can also hold the barbell in your fingertips which is more difficult when holding dumbbells. Here’s how to do it:
- Holding a barbell with both hands, perform a Romanian deadlift and hold the bottom position. This is where you will remain for the entire exercise.
- Have the barbell hang with your arms vertical. Initiate the movement by pulling with your rear delts. You should pull up and slightly out, which will help rotate the arms externally.
Same as the dumbbell face pull, you can do this chest supported.
While the band pull-apart doesn’t involve shoulder external rotation, you get great rear delt and mid trap activation. The band pull-apart is often prescribed as a face pull alternative that you can do anywhere. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold a band with your arms straight in front of you. Your grip should be slightly outside shoulder width.
- Pull the band apart, so it touches your chest. Squeeze your mid-back and slowly move back to the start position.
I prefer to keep my arms slightly bent and lead the pull apart with my elbows. This creates a better mind-muscle connection with the muscles of the back.
Seated Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Fly
The seated dumbbell bent-over reverse fly heavily targets the upper back through the traps and rear delts. Because you will not be bent completely over, the upper traps take plenty of stress compared to a reverse fly where you are standing upright or bent parallel to the floor. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit on the edge of a bench with the dumbbells hanging next to your thighs. Bend over while sitting so your stomach is resting on your legs. Keep the dumbbells under your thighs, so they are behind your calves.
- Raise the dumbbells directly to the side until your arms are parallel with the floor.
Keep your palms facing down to the floor at the top of the exercise for maximum upper trap activation.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
The bent-over dumbbell reverse fly targets the mid and lower traps more than the seated variation. But the bent-over variation has more than one way of doing it. You can reverse fly to target the rear delts or the mid and lower traps. Here’s how:
- Perform a Romanian deadlift while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Let your arms hang vertically when fully bent over.
- To target your rear delts, reverse fly in a slight Y shape with your arms. Turn your hands like you are pouring two drinks so your pinky finger will be higher than your thumb.
- To target your mid and lower traps, reverse fly straight to the side with the palms facing down.
When targeting your rear delts, only your arms will move. Your shoulder blades will remain as still as possible. When targeting the back, your shoulders should squeeze at the top of the movement.
Barbell Row To Chest
This is one rowing variation that allows you to target the upper traps and rear delts more so than your lats. While you don’t get the shoulder external rotation, this will enable you to load the rear delts and upper back far more than the other face pull alternatives. Here’s how to do it:
- Set up how you would for a barbell row. That is bent over with the arms vertical. Take a slightly wider grip than you would for a regular barbell row.
- Pull the bar to your chest. You want to aim for nipple height or higher. You will flare your elbows to the side.
I prefer pulling the bar from the floor for each rep. You get more control, and it’s far easier on your lower back.
Elbow Flared 1-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is the single-arm version of the above exercise. This will trash your rear delts and allow you to load them heavily. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold the dumbbell in one hand and support yourself with the other hand on a bench. The setup will be the same as the traditional dumbbell row.
- Instead of rowing with your elbow by your ribs, you will flare your elbow to the side, so it is perpendicular to your body. This is what will target the rear delts instead of the lats.
Make sure you allow the arm to hang and stretch at the bottom of the movement, so the mid-back and rear delts are put through a full range of motion.
Face Pull Alternatives With Cables
Maybe you’re bored of doing face pulls. Then try these face pull alternatives with your cable column.
Seated Cable Row To Chest
Like the barbell row to the chest, the seated cable row is your alternative with a cable column. Instead of rowing the cable to your belly, row the cable to your chest. Doing this will smoke your mid and upper back. Here’s how:
- Use the straight bar attachment on the seated cable row. The pronated grip will allow you to get the best feeling of hitting the upper back.
- Row toward your sternum with your elbows flared to the side. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
You can’t do this exercise effectively without a straight bar attachment. The attachment from the lat pulldown is excellent.
Cable Reverse Flys
For the cable reverse fly, you’ll need dual cable columns. The difference between these and the dumbbell version is you’ll get a far more significant stretch at the end of each rep. More tension in the stretched position is a great thing for building muscle. Here’s how to do it:
- Facing the cable column, grab the left cable with your right hand and the right cable with your left hand. Take a couple of steps backward so the plates are off the stack and there is tension.
- With your arms crossed in front of you, pull your arms apart and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Slowly return to the stretch position.
You can vary the height of the cable to place further emphasis on different muscles groups. For example, a higher attachment will target the lower traps. In comparison, a lower attachment will target the mid and upper traps.
Cable Y Raise
This cable face pull alternative is one of the closest to the face pull you’ll get. The Y raise scorches the rear delts and upper traps better than any reverse fly. Here’s how to do it:
- Facing the cable column, grab the left cable with your right hand and the right cable with your left hand. You should place the attachment at the bottom. Take a couple of steps backward so the plates are off the stack and there is tension. You will need to use handles for this one.
- Start with your hands next to each other. Perform a reverse fly with your hands ending in a Y formation above your head.
Squeeze at the top of this movement to get the most out of it for your rear delts.
Cable Cuban Press
The Cuban press is one of the only other face pull alternatives that incorporate external rotation of the shoulders. The cable Cuban press should be your face pull alternative if shoulder health is your priority. Here’s how to do it:
- Grab the left cable with your left hand and the right cable with your right hand. Step back from the cable column, so the plates are off the stack. The attachment should be at shoulder height.
- Row with your elbows flared to the side, so your arms are parallel with the floor. There should be a 90° angle at your elbow.
- Externally rotate your arm by pulling your forearms into the vertical position.
- Press overhead while maintaining shoulder position. Reverse the movement slowly.
This is a difficult movement to master. It requires great scapula control and posterior shoulder strength. Start light and progress from there.
These face pull alternatives will keep you busy for many training cycles. Make these substitutes when you don’t have the required equipment or get bored of the cable face pull. The closest you’ll get to the face pull is the exercises that involve shoulder external rotation.
About the Author
I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.