Top 8 Face Pull Exercise Alternatives & Subtitles

Can you build a healthy upper back and shoulders without face pulls?

Or are you stuck, sliding towards injury with flaccid rotator cuff muscles?

We’re talking about the best face pull alternatives, what they train, and how you can get the same benefits with other exercises.

Essentials: What Does The Face Pull Train? How Do The Shoulders Work?

The face pull trains the upper back muscles and various movements of the shoulder blades (scapula) and shoulder joints. Understanding these 3 things makes it easy to spot a good alternative – and get the most out of it.

The muscles we’re talking about are around the scapula – the shoulder blades. 

This segment pulls the shoulders back, as well as elevating or depressing them. Getting strong in all of these movements is key – but most people only train the front of the body, leaving significant weaknesses.

1. Rear delt fly

The rear delt fly isolates the rear delts and traps, making it one of the best face-pull alternatives. It does all the most important things the face pull does without a cable machine.

If you have light weights, you can – and should – train rear delt flyes. They’re a great finisher for any workout with the upper back and pair perfectly with pressing movements in supersets.

This is one of the best and most versatile exercises to train your upper back. It’s a major piece in any upper back muscle-building program and a key movement for beginners to feel the proper function of the muscles.

How to

  1. Take a weight in either hand – a dumbbell or plate
  2. Bend over at the hips or position yourself on a chair for support between 45 and 90 degrees
  3. Keeping your arms as straight as possible, draw a big arc, bringing the arms out and backward as far as possible
  4. Hold the top position for 1-2 seconds before lowering under control

Pro tip: think about moving the elbows or hands behind the shoulder and squeezing the shoulder blades together. 


Training the reverse fly is simple – you add reps or sets and add weight only where you can keep the technique the same. Adding weight to the reverse fly will be uncommon and take a while – because it’s so susceptible to getting the form wrong.

You can use momentum to cheat this exercise, but it is far less effective. You need to focus on control and precise movement at a premium.

2. Cable scarecrow

The cable scarecrow is a highly-adjustable cable reverse fly. The constant tension of cable machines is one of the best ways to train the upper back, building postural strength., It’s also an easy way to add more volume to the upper back to build more muscle.

This is even more effective when you exaggerate the movement of the shoulder blades. The constant tension helps you build more muscle using stretch-mediated hypertrophy.

This is one of the best ways to replace the face pull with more direct training and a less stressful shoulder exercise.

How to

  1. Take a cable handle in either hand with the anchors or pulleys set around shoulder height or just above
  2. Step away from the cable machine until there’s tension on the handles
  3. Begin with your arms at shoulder level, straight, and forward toward the cable machine
  4. Start the movement by retracting the shoulder blades and pushing the hands out to the sides
  5. Draw a large arc with the arms until they’re in line with – or behind – your shoulders
  6. Hold this end position for 1-2 seconds before slowly returning to the start position (4)


The cable scarecrow is like the rear delt fly – it’s a slow exercise to progress and demands more time than most. You can add pauses or slow eccentrics (the lowering phase) to add more challenges without adding more weight.

You can use both the standing and seated variations, but standing is more comfortable for most people.

3. Pendlay row

The Pendlay row is a bent-over row variation focusing on rear delt and trap action. It reduces the amount of arm you use relative to other versions, building more upper back mass and strength.

This is one of the best heavy movements for your upper back and can be performed with either barbell or dumbbells. 

This is a ‘big’ exercise that you can build a whole pull session around and a perfect main movement to load up for your upper back. 

How to

  1. Set up with a barbell on the floor in your normal deadlift stance so you can bend over comfortably with a flat back.
  2. Bend the knees slightly and hinge the hips backward so that you can reach the bar while it is below the chest (not close like a deadlift)
  3. Grip the bar with a mid-narrow grip and begin the movement by bending the shoulder and elbow, pulling the bar towards your lower chest or upper abdomen
  4. Hold the bar close to the body for 1-2 seconds, squeezing the shoulder blades together and down.
  5. Lower the bar back to the floor under control, making sure it rests on the floor between reps.

Pro tip: let the bar move forwards on the way down and ‘sweep’ it towards your hips as you row it. This improves lat engagement and helps you get more growth from the movement without cutting out the other muscles.


The Pendlay row is one of the biggest and most effective movements for your upper back. It should be used before other upper back exercises while you’re fresh and with lower reps – something like 6-12 reps per set.

This lets you use more weight and overload the lats, traps, rhomboids, and smaller muscles. You’ll probably fatigue relatively quickly, so be willing to change weight between sets.

4. Inverted row

The inverted row is the bodyweight equivalent of the Pendlay row with a rear delt focus. It’s mostly used for people who can’t do pull-ups to train similar muscles, but it has its own benefits.

As a beginner, it’s the most effective upper-body pulling exercise you can do. As an intermediate or advanced trainee, it’s a perfect lower-load rear delt and lower trap exercise.

How to

  1. Set up a barbell in a rack, smith machine, or other raised and stable surfaces – you can also use rings or a suspension trainer if you have them.
  2. Place your feet on the floor in a position suitable for your strength and experience. Closer is easier (more upright), while further away is more difficult (disadvantageous).
  3. Suspend your bodyweight on your arms and support with your feet, starting with locked arms and a straight torso (head, hips, and knees in a line)
  4. Row yourself to the barbell, bending the elbows and extending the shoulders until your chest touches the bar (you may need to adjust your grip)
  5. Hold the top position for 1-2 seconds before lowering back down under control, completing the rep.


Inverted rows can be performed on all kinds of equipment, but the focus is always the same: focus on progressing your feet away from the bar. This leverage is key, and slowly making the exercise harder for yourself makes it more rewarding and lets you try more challenging variations.

You can raise your feet onto a box when you’re ready to add more weight.

Like the inverted row, these aren’t direct replacements for the face pull, but they are more challenging and impactful. Using rings or a suspension trainer is harder but more effective as a face-pull alternative.

5. Single-arm cable row

The single-arm cable row combines the benefits of single-arm shoulder training with the constant tension of the cable row.

It’s a powerful option that does many of the same things as a face pull. However, the focus is less on external rotation and primarily on the extension of the shoulder – which most people neglect.

Training the single-arm cable row can still balance your shoulder joint and improve scapular control. It does these while building your lats, biceps, and lower traps.

How to

  1. Set up a cable machine with a single stirrup handle or similar, comfortable grip
  2. Either sit on the pad or establish a half-kneeling position behind it
  3. Keep your torso and hips square, facing the cable machine.
  4. Begin the row by pulling your shoulder blade back, pulling the elbow back, and bending it to bring the handle toward the body.
  5. Keep the elbow low and bring it ‘around’ the body until you can’t pull it backward any further – holding for a moment
  6. Slowly return the handle back towards the starting position, letting the shoulder blade move forwards and back around to the starting position. 
  7. (3-4)


The single arm cable rows is a simple exercise and can be progressed more quickly than most. 

There is relatively little risk, and this should go between the Pendlay row (e.g.) and the rear delt fly in an upper back training session or ‘pull’ day.

Progress wherever possible, ideal setting new rep maxes in the 8-15 rep range. Slow down the reps as an alternative way of making the exercise more difficult.

6. Single arm machine (lever) row

The single-arm machine row is a plate-loaded version of the single-arm cable row and often has a completely different angle. You can perform this on a high, flat, or low-row machine – each prioritizes different muscles.

This is an excellent choice if you don’t have access to a cable machine or alternating with the cable machine row in your training program.

How to

  1. Set up on the rowing machine with appropriate weight and one handle gripped comfortably.
  2. Keep your hips and shoulders square, maintaining a neutral trunk.
  3. Pull the handle back and around the body, creating as much elbow travel as possible from start to finish, and squeezing the shoulder blade back and down.
  4. Hold the end position briefly before slowly lowering back to the start position.


You can train the machine row like the cable row – heavy and with many reps. Always focus on the quality of reps, but add weight to push yourself when you can.

This is another ‘medium-sized’ exercise that is perfect between heavy rows or pull-ups and finishers.

The machine row is one of the best exercises to ‘cheat’ when you get tired. Start with strict reps for as many as possible, then you can start adding momentum and squeezing more in the end portion.

7. Banded face pull

The banded face pull is a face pull alternative for people without a cable machine. 

The movement is the same, but the change of resistance from constant tension to elastic resistance makes a lot of difference.

Not only is this easier to practice – with how portable and easy bands are to use – but it also improves postural strength in the end range. This makes the banded face pull – especially with a pause – one of the best ways to train scapular retraction and external rotation.

How to

  1. Loop a band over an upright or around a column so that you have stable access to the band and there’s consistent tension through the movement. 
  2. Bend forward slightly at the hips, keeping the back flat and stabilizing the lower body actively
  3. Bring the hands out to shoulder width and begin the movement by pulling the shoulders back and down and pulling the elbows back.
  4. As the elbows pass the shoulders, think about sliding the shoulder blades down the back and externally rotating the shoulders to bring the elbows out and backward.
  5. Hold this position, emphasizing the squeeze, for 1-2 seconds before slowly returning to the starting position (2)


The band face pull is a warm-up and a finisher due to the limited weight and the challenge of elastic resistance. Use this before bench presses for shoulder health or at the end of sessions for higher reps – as a finisher or in supersets.

8. Single arm band row

The single-arm band row combines the postural benefit of the banded face pull with the single-arm focus of the one-arm row. It’s a perfect option for training the upper back with most resistance bands.

These muscles control your spine and scapular, respectively, so the elastic resistance benefits postural strength.

This is also a great warm-up for other rows to ‘activate’ the lats and feel them working!

How to

This is just like the other single-arm rows we’ve discussed today – but you need to set up a band at or above chest height while sitting or kneeling to provide extra support.

Make sure you set up the band so that it pulls the shoulder blade forward at the end of the movement. This protraction is how you get the most from the movement.


This is usually a lighter movement for warm-ups, finishers, and supersets. The band tension can be unstable and uncomfortable in your hand, so focus on more reps and building mind-muscle connection rather than loading heavily.

Focus on the final portion and the ‘squeeze’ in particular – especially as a face pull alternative.

Final Thought

The face pull is one of the most popular corrective exercises and upper back strengthening choices. It’s popular because it works well and targets things most people neglect.

These exercises give you more options to get more from your workouts, even if you can’t practice the classic variation. These give you access to face pull alternatives no matter what kit you have access to or your experience level.

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Chris Thompson
Hi, I'm Chris. I'm a personal trainer, writer & co-founder of OxygenFitnessCT. I've been writing hundreds of articles on strength training & muscle building for several fitness websites & apps since 2017. Our goal with OxygenFitnessCT is to help you pick the most effective, suitable exercises to improve your workout & achieve your fitness goals.

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