Cable Face Pull Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
April 18, 2022

The cable face pull is a pulley machine based exercise of the isolation type, with an open kinetic chain and a multi-purpose training stimulus that allows for not only high precision muscular hypertrophy but also joint and muscle rehabilitation if performed correctly.

This, however, comes with its own set of drawbacks and issues that make the cable face pull an unsuitable exercise for certain situations, training goals, or individuals with shoulder joint related injuries that make the cable face pull uncomfortable or dangerous to perform.

Depending on the particular purpose of the cable face pull in the exerciser’s training or physical rehabilitation program, several alternative exercises can act as suitable candidates, removing the need for the cable face pull entirely.

Issues with the Cable Face Pull

The largest issue of the cable face pull - and the primary reason it so often requires alternation in a training program - is in the highly stressful position it can place on the shoulder joint, resulting in significant wear and tear and even cases of impingement if excess resistance is utilized for long periods.

cable face pull

This issue is best remedied through the usage of another exercise that does not place as much force and pressure on the rotator cuff and other structures of the shoulder joint, allowing it to recover and strengthen without interruption.

Other issues involved in the cable face pull are its rather complex form or the fact that it may result in a muscular imbalance of the deltoids if performed without compensating for the medial and anterior deltoid heads as well.

Such a situation, while not necessarily requiring alternation, may easily be fixed by choosing a substitute exercise that trains the rest of the deltoid muscle group as much as it does the posterior head of said deltoid muscle group.

What Muscle Groups are Trained by the Cable Face Pull and its Alternatives?

Being an exercise of the isolation capacity, the cable face pull primarily activates the deltoid muscle group, with the trapezius and rhomboids acting as secondary muscle mover groups that are not stimulated to the intensity that the posterior head of the deltoid muscle group is.

cable face pull muscles

As such, the best possible alternative exercises also train these muscle groups to a similar extent and spread, prioritizing the rear head of the shoulder muscles, with the trapezius and rhomboid muscle groups being included to some extent as well.

In the case that the exerciser wishes for a more intense and wide reaching alternative to the cable face pull, a variety of compound exercises also include the deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids in their muscular activation pattern - fulfilling the exerciser’s training goals perfectly.

How to Substitute the Cable Face Pull in a Training Program

The cable face pull in most bodybuilding and strength training programs takes the place of an auxiliary or preparatory shoulder isolation exercise, usually being performed after more intense compound exercises have already been completed so as to “squeeze out” any remaining hypertrophy and conditioning from the posterior deltoids.

As such, the majority of substitute exercises to the cable face pull will also take a similar form, being isolation exercises of low to moderate intensity that are not meant to make a large scale impact on the musculature of the exerciser but to instead act as a finishing or rehabilitative exercise.

This, of course, does not apply for exercisers alternating out the cable face pull for the very purpose of changing these characteristics, with more intense alternatives or exercises with a wider set of muscle group activation being exempt from the need of such similarities.

Best Alternative to the Cable Face Pull for Posture

One of the primary purposes of the cable face pull is its ability to correct improper upper body posture - in particular, externally or internally rotated shoulders due to a weakness in the various muscle groups connected to the shoulder joint, such as the trapezius and deltoids.

Though it is usually the cable face pull that is prescribed as the best possible dynamic exercise remedy for such postural issues, the seated reverse fly comes in at close second, and is just as capable of fixing externally or internally rotated shoulders as the cable face pull itself.

Seated Reverse Flyes

The seated reverse fly is a variant of the standard dumbbell fly wherein the exerciser places themselves on a bench or similarly comfortable surface as they bend forward, raising the dumbbells at both sides of their body and extending the arms until the elbows are approximately parallel with their bent torso.

seated reverse fly

If performed appropriately, the exerciser should feel significant muscular recruitment along the back of their shoulders and neck, indicating that the exercise is working and that the various postural benefits of the seated reverse fly are being accrued.

Benefits of Alternating Cable Face Pulls with Seated Reverse Flyes

One of the largest benefits to substituting cable face pulls with seated reverse flyes is in the significantly more intense posterior deltoid head recruitment due to the nature of free weight exercises, wherein the muscle is forced to stabilize the weight as well as move it in a dynamic fashion - thereby resulting in greater training stimulus.

In terms of posture improvement and rehabilitation, this can equate to the exerciser attaining muscles capable of retaining proper shoulder positioning at a faster rate - and in a manner that equates to a lower chance of the exerciser developing muscular imbalances.

Though not necessarily a drawback or a benefit, the seated reverse fly also makes use of free weight exercise implements such as dumbbells or kettlebells, thereby removing the need for a bulky and rather expensive cable pulley machine, something many home gym exercisers cannot afford to purchase.

Drawbacks of Alternating Cable Face Pulls with Seated Reverse Flyes

Though the cable face pull and the seated reverse fly are quite similar in muscular activation pattern and relative complexity, the difference in equipment used can lead to an intensity and training stimulus distinction that may aggravate any shoulder and elbow joint related injuries, placing the seated reverse fly at a somewhat higher risk of injury than the cable face pull.

This, of course, will depend on the exerciser’s own training experience, their knowledge of proper form mechanics and how much total weight they are moving - all factors that can contribute to the relative risk of injury involved with the seated reverse fly.

Apart from the possible safety risks associated with the seated reverse fly, there is also the fact that it generally requires the exerciser to place themselves in a seated position so as to retain bodily stability while bending forward, something that the cable face pull does not need.

Best Alternative to the Cable Face Pull for Rehabilitation

Among one of the many uses of the cable face pull is its capacity to rehabilitate minor shoulder and scapula injuries, giving the body much needed stimulus in order to initiate muscular and connective tissue recovery, or even tissue reinforcement if recovery has already been completed.

By extension of this, the cable face pull is also regularly performed for the purposes of expanding an exerciser’s own range of motion in the event that they have managed to reduce it with underuse, overuse, or injuries.

As such, choosing to substitute the cable face pull within this particular context will not require a resistance type exercise, but in fact a static hold exercise that is quite common in the physical art of yoga.

The Cat/Cow Pose

Performed by the exerciser or yoga practitioner resting on all fours and arching their back prior to lowering their chin to their chest and rounding the shoulders, the cat or cow stretch is one of the most common yoga stretches for individuals with range of motion and flexibility issues in their shoulders and upper back.

cat pose

It may act as a lower impact alternative to the cable face pull for the purposes of low impact physical rehabilitation as well as extension of the shoulder and scapula’s range of motion without risk of worsening the exerciser’s condition.

Producing little to no training stimulus due to a lack of resistance, however, will generally result in the cat or cow pose inducing little to no muscular hypertrophy in any of the muscle groups involved during the movement, something that is unlikely to be a goal for individuals performing the cable face pull as a rehabilitory exercise.

Best Alternatives to the Cable Face Pull for Posterior Deltoid and Trapezius Training

Dumbbell Rows

The dumbbell row is a classic compound exercise that shares quite a few form mechanics with the cable face pull, alongside other similarities such as significant muscular activation of the posterior deltoid, trapezius and rhomboid muscle groups.

dumbbell rear delt row

As such, the dumbbell row makes an excellent - if not more intense - substitute to the cable face pull for the purposes of inducing significant muscular hypertrophy, strength conditioning, and connective tissue reinforcement in all relevant areas of stimulus.

Benefits of Alternating Cable Face Pulls with Dumbbell Rows

The primary advantage of the dumbbell row in comparison to the cable face pull is in regards to the intensity of the training stimulus it may provide to the exerciser, inducing far more muscle gains and central nervous system adaptation in a lower volume of repetitions due to its nature as a heavy free weight resistance exercise.

This is in combination with the fact that the dumbbell row is usually performed bilaterally - that is to say, with only one side of the body, allowing the exerciser to focus more on the activation of their muscle groups throughout the movement.

In addition to the bilateral nature of the dumbbell row, the angle at which the exerciser bends their torso during the exercise will also allow for a more natural set of form mechanics to occur, with individuals of varying bodily proportions and biomechanics being able to shift the weight and their own body to a more comfortable manner, something impossible with the relatively fixed angle of resistance of the cable face pull.

Drawbacks of Alternating Cable Face Pulls with Dumbbell Rows

Due to the free weight nature of dumbbell rows and the larger strain it places on the elbows and shoulderblades, there is a somewhat increased risk of injury in individuals susceptible to such issues, or in exercisers performing the dumbbell row with improper form.

As a direct extension of this, the dumbbell row is also capable of activating muscle groups that are not otherwise involved in the cable face pull, such as the latissimus dorsi and the brachialis muscles - requiring subsequent reprogramming of the training routine if the exerciser chooses to make such a substitution.

Barbell High Rows

A unilateral counterpart to the dumbbell row, barbell high rows are a variation on the standard barbell row wherein the exerciser will raise their torso at a more upward angle, forcing more of the deltoids and trapezius muscle groups to activate than with its more traditional variation.

This has several key advantages over the cable face pull, most of which are to do with its significantly improved intensity and training stimulus.

As such, the barbell high row is yet another excellent alternative for the purposes of achieving significant muscular hypertrophy and strenght gains in the muscle groups normally involved in a set of cable face pulls - alongside several other muscle groups, that is.

Benefits of Alternating Cable Face Pulls with Barbell High Rows

The benefits of the barbell high row are mostly in concern to the significantly increased muscular activation intensity throughout the exercise, with its free weight unilateral compound training stimulus resulting in greatly increased levels of resistance and subsequent muscular hypertrophy in the trapezius, posterior deltoid, rhomboids and biceps.

This is in combination with the fact that the barbell high row is among one of the best possible exercises for promoting bodily stability via isometric contraction of the erector spinae, core stabilizers, and oblique muscles - all of which are directly responsible for healthy posture, protection against injury, and general stabilizing purposes.

Drawbacks of Alternating Cable Face Pulls with Barbell High Rows

Just as is the case with the dumbbell row as a cable face pull alternative, with significantly more strain and pressure being placed on the various connective tissues brought into play during the barbell high row, such as that of the shoulder joint, lower back and elbow.

This particular drawback is in connection with the fact that the barbell high row activates muscle groups that are not normally trained by the cable face pull, requiring changes to the workout program in order to prevent overtraining or excessive muscular fatigue.

References

1. Franchi Martino V., Reeves Neil D., Narici Marco V. “Skeletal Muscle Remodeling in Response to Eccentric vs. Concentric Loading: Morphological, Molecular, and Metabolic Adaptations”  Frontiers in Physiology VOLUME 8  2017(https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphys.2017.00447)  DOI 10.3389/f phys.2017.00447 ISSN 1664-042X  

2. Campos YAC, Vianna JM, Guimarães MP, Oliveira JLD, Hernández-Mosqueira C, da Silva SF, Marchetti PH. Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct 31;75:5-14. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2020-0033. PMID: 33312291; PMCID: PMC7706677.

3. Escalante, Guillermo DSc, MBA, ATC, CSCS, CISSN1; Fine, Daniel SPT, CSCS2; Ashworth, Kyle SPT, CSCS2; Kolber, Morey J. PT, PhD, CSCS2 Progressive Exercise Strategies to Mitigate Shoulder Injuries Among Weight-Training Participants, Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2021 - Volume 43 - Issue 1 - p 72-85 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000547

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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