The History of the Face Pull

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I grew up in the age of rotator cuff injuries. Whether or not the danger was as real as people believed, it didn’t matter. I, like many others, spent the first five years of training involved a series of mind numbingly boring shoulder exercises as part of our warm up. Taking light dumbbells, we would wave at one another in a variety of stilted poses and directions. Slowly but surely our coach’s obsession with shoulder injuries lessened but I still remain convinced that a shoulder injury was just one sloppy set away. Some time ago, I was told that the face pull was the answer to my fears.

The face pull has existed in a variety of forms over the past century but in my developmental stage of training, the exercise gained a remarkably important stature. We were told that, done correctly, this exercise would add mass to our backs, ensure we remained injury free and keep us standing upright, which admittedly is a tall task of any teenager.

In homage to an exercise which has taken up hours of my time, today’s post looks at the face pull. We’re going to examine its origins and, perhaps more importantly, how it came to be popularised among the lifting populace. Aside from the prowler, it is probably fair to argue that the face pull was one of the first real exercises to benefit from a mass internet exposure.

Precursors and Beginnings

As Chaos and Pain’s old series went, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun‘ when it comes to training. So in that spirit, I decided to examine some of the precursors to the face pull. These exercises were not done to strengthen the rotator cuff, which annoyingly became all the rage during the noughties. No instead they were done to strengthen the upper back and build some muscle while you were at it. From a fairly scattergun research approach, I stumbled across two exercises of interest to the present article: the front pull and the reverse fly.

The front pull is a term only our strand pulling aficionados will be familiar with. Strand pulling itself dates to the mid-nineteenth century when it was sold as a medical device. Nowadays strand pulling is largely the preserve of a small but dedicated group of trainers. Nevertheless, it was a popular exercise during the early to mid-twentieth century among physical culturists and bodybuilders. The Front Pull exercise with the strand puller looks to me to be a precursor to our face pull movement.

While some may claim that this is a simple pull apart movement now used with resistance bands, strand pullers pre-date bands, thereby adding some credence to our claim that they came first.

The second exercise is a fairly standard bodybuilding movement, but one that I rarely see practised these days – the bent over dumbbell lateral raise. Shown below by Scott Hermann, the bent over lateral raise was a favoured exercise of bodybuilders in the 70s and 80s. While admittedly not the same movement as the face pull exercise, it still indicated that lifters were aware of the need to isolate the upper back.

Enter The Face Pull

So despite my best efforts, I was not able to discover the inventor of the face pull. The earliest references I found dated to the 1990s, such as the following article Powerlifting USA, published in 1998. The powerlifting community appear to have been particularly fond of this exercise, as evidenced by Westside Barbell owner Louie Simmon’s promotion of face pulls in the early 2000s. We cannot yet pinpoint an inventor of the movement but we can say with some certainty that it emerged among powerlifters.

Simmons and those of his ilk were not, however, the lifters responsible for promoting the exercise to a wider audience. That appears to have been  Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman’s 2007 T-Nation article entitled ‘Push-Ups, Face Pulls, and Shrugs‘. Coming at a time of increasing internet exposure, the T-Nation article promised office workers and lifters the very best ways to stabilise their shoulder joints and enjoy longevity in their lifting careers. In meticulous detail the authors described the importance of the face pull exercise to the extent that the article became something of an instant classic.

Anyone who remembers the halcyon days of Bodybuilding.com‘s forums, including the infamous misc section, will have encountered dozens of posts from the late noughties asking about the face pull. Time and time again, Robertson and Hartman’s article was brought up.

What was significant about their article was that it spoke to both lifters and the general public. Whereas the powerlifting community promoted the face pull exercise as a preventative measure to continue pushing copious amounts of weight, Robertson and Hartman discussed its value for the common office worker. Reacting against stationery occupations, in which workers stereotypically curled over their desk for hours on end, the face pull exercise was presented as a necessary movement in combating the dangers of desk work. A subsequent follow up article by Robertson, again in T-Nation, was titled ‘Heal that Hunchback‘, for a reason.

Growing Popularity

Aside from Robertson’s blog, where we have some early indication of his co-authored article’s popularity, his explanation of the face pull exercise began to gain a much greater traction. Just as Bret Contreras managed to specialise early on as ‘the glute guy’, Robertson began a go to figure for shoulder rehabilitation, writing in popular magazines like Men’s Health.

More importantly, Robertson and Hartmans’ article, which was shared widely, tapped into a broader training concern with ‘functional training‘. While this term often referred to frankly ridiculous exercises using bosu balls or balancing boards, it was also used for rehabilitative exercises like the face pull. Couple this with the fact that desk work was coming under increasing criticism for its negative impact on the human body and it is easy to see why people became interested in the face pull.

Since 2007, the face pull exercise has become an unquestioned inclusion in many lifter’s programmes. What’s staggering to me is the exercise’s relatively recent birth. To my mind, few exercises, with the exception perhaps of hip thrusts, have taken the lifting community by storm in such a quick fashion. That the face pull is easy to incorporate into your routine undoubtedly helped its popularity. That it was shared widely through social media and traditional magazines even more so.

Did the face pull help my creaky shoulders? No, but they’re a lost cause anyway. Did they become a part of my warm up? Yes, and like many lifters, they’ll remain part of my training for the foreseeable future.

As always … Happy Lifting!

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