The importance of training the rear delts moves past purely aesthetic reasoning. Many training programs overemphasize anterior deltoid development resulting in muscular imbalances in the shoulder and can potentially lead to shoulder injury.
To balance the shoulder muscles, you must target the side delts and rear delts. The rear delts are one of the most neglected muscles among bodybuilding enthusiasts. If you want bigger shoulders, you must prioritize the rear delts.
Before I dive into the best rear delt exercises, we must understand basic shoulder anatomy so we can best select exercises to target the correct muscle.
Anatomy Of The Shoulder
The shoulder consists of three muscles:
- Anterior deltoid (front)
- Medial deltoid (side)
- Posterior deltoid (rear)
The rear deltoid provides a 3D look and will make your physique pop when looking from the side. Rear delts are responsible for shoulder extension and horizontal abduction .
Best Dumbbell Rear Delt Exercises For Mass
Dumbbell Face Pull
The dumbbell face pull is a powerful exercise to target the rear delts. You’ll find your upper traps also get destroyed with this exercise giving you a two for one. If you have the option, supporting your chest on an incline bench or your head on the top of a bench is a great option to isolate the rear delts further. 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. Think about leading with the elbows.
- You need to row and externally rotate your arms simultaneously; otherwise, it is like performing a high row.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly
If you don’t have access to a reverse pec deck machine, the bent-over reverse fly is your next best option. You mimic the same motion but with free weights instead. Many lifters will perform the reverse fly to target the rhomboids and mid traps.
We want to reduce the involvement of these muscles while focusing on the rear delts. Here’s how:
- Hold light dumbbells bend over, so your torso is parallel to the floor or close to it. Have soft elbows, so they are slightly bent.
- Perform the reverse fly motion in a wide arc Y shape, not directly to the side. Turn your thumbs slightly down as you perform the movement like you are pouring two drinks from the bottle.
Your shoulder blades should be left as still as possible with only the arms moving. This will isolate the rear delts and reduce the involvement of the mid traps and rhomboids. It will feel like a swinging motion which is perfectly fine.
Seated Dumbbell Bent-Over Reverse Fly
The seated bent-over reverse fly is another variation to target the rear delts alongside the mid and upper traps. This version is lower back-friendly if you have lower back problems that prevent you from doing the bent-over variation.
Because you can’t completely bend your torso over, you’ll involve more traps, which is a less potent rear delt builder. But still a great one to cycle into your training. Here’s how to do it:
- Lying on an incline bench, hold two dumbbells hanging by your side.
- Initiate the reverse fly by raising them to your side with your arms slightly bent. Slowly lower them back to the starting position.
This is a hard exercise to get wrong, so it is excellent for beginners to get extra upper back volume.
Heavy Rear Delt Swings
This is a John Meadows special. It combines heavyweights with high reps. The ultimate combination for packing on rear delt mass. These will be partial reps, and for extra posterior delt stimulation, you can superset them with normal reverse flies. Here’s how to do them:
- Lie on an incline bench holding two heavy dumbbells. Use straps as you’ll be holding these for a while.
- Initiate the reverse fly motion but only halfway up. You won’t be able to get higher anyway due to how heavy the dumbbells are. Continue in a swing-like motion for high reps.
It’s really that simple. Your rear delts will be on fire as you get to ultra-high rep sets.
Chest Supported Dumbbell Row (Elbows Flared)
Rows also hammer the rear delts and allow you to use much heavier loads than when isolating the rear delts. One modification to place more stress on the posterior deltoids is to flare the elbows when rowing. Typically, we keep our elbows tight to the body to grow the lats.
But because the rear delts aid in shoulder extension and horizontal abduction, flaring the elbows satisfies both movements. Here’s how to do it:
- Lying on a low to moderate incline bench, hold two dumbbells with your arms hanging in front of you.
- Initiate the row by pulling the elbows perpendicular to your torso. This will flare your elbows targeting the upper back and rear delts.
Best Cable Rear Delt Exercises
Cable Face Pull
Out of all the face pull variations, the cable face pull is the easiest to perform and has the smallest learning curve in my experience. The dumbbell and barbell variations can be challenging to get right and to create the mind-muscle connection with the rear delts.
The cable face pull is much easier since you’re standing upright and can solely focus on the rear delts pulling the cable. Here’s how to do it:
- Set the cable at nose height or higher. You can vary this by workout if you please. Use the rope attachment.
- Hold the rope with your palms facing down. Initiate the face pull by leading with the elbows by pulling and separating the rope simultaneously toward your nose or forehead.
- The finish position should look like a double bicep pose without the bicep squeeze. Instead, the pulling apart of the rope will activate your rear delts. Without this, it’s just a high row.
Reverse Pec Deck
The reverse pec deck satisfies the exact movement the rear delts are responsible for. So much so that the reverse pec deck elicits the most significant rear delt muscle activation compared to rowing variations [1,2].
This is personally my go-to movement when targeting the rear delts as it’s easiest to get the mind-muscle connection. Here’s how to get the most out of the reverse pec deck:
- Adjust the seat so your arms are at shoulder height when holding the handles.
- Don’t hold the handles where you would for chest flies. Place your hands palm down on the inside handle and keep them relaxed.
- With your arms slightly bent, lead with the elbow and push the handles with your pinky fingers.
- Reverse fly until your upper arms are pointing directly to the side of your body.
- Control the handles back to the starting position.
Cable Reverse Fly
If you have access to a double cable column, this is a great exercise to use in conjunction with a dumbbell reverse fly. The cable reverse fly loads the rear delts in a stretched position where a dumbbell reverse fly doesn’t. This is what makes them complementary exercises. 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.
Cable Cuban Press
This can be classed as a rotator cuff or typical rehab-style exercise. However, it hammers your rear delts, and you’ll be surprised how tough it is when you first try it. It acts as an intense isometric contraction on the rear delts through the second half of the exercise. It will improve your overhead strength and stability dramatically. 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.
Cable Y Raise
The cable Y raise is a more challenging reverse fly variation. Instead of pulling horizontally, you’re pulling from low to high. As you finish with your arms in a Y position, it’s a Y raise. 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.
Best Barbell Rear Delt Exercises
Bent Over Barbell Face Pull
I prefer the barbell version if I’m picking between the dumbbell and barbell face pull. It’s easier to control and target the rear delts in my experience, and feels more natural. 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.
Chest Supported Barbell Face Pull
Resting your chest on the top of a bench is an easy way to reduce the need to support yourself. Helping you isolate the rear delts and maximize their recruitment. Here’s how to do it:
- Lie with your chest over the top of an incline bench. Grab your barbell and let it hang.
- Initiate the movement by pulling with your rear delts. You should pull up and slightly out, which will help rotate the arms externally.
Best Band Rear Delt Exercises
Band Face Pull
If you train at home with minimal equipment, the band face pull is a great rear delt exercise and face pull alternative. The tension peaks when you squeeze your rear delts at the end of the movement, so the band marries well with the strength curve. 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.
Band Pull Apart
The band pull apart is the poor man’s reverse pec deck. With band resistance, you train the exact horizontal arm abduction motion to trash the rear delts. The most beneficial thing about this exercise is you can do it anywhere, any time. If your rear delts are lacking, have a band by your desk and reach 100-200 reps per day.
Or in between every set of pressing in the gym, perform 20 band pull aparts. You can get massive volumes for your rear delts with little to no fatigue and no detriment to your performance. 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.
Best Machine & Bodyweight Rear Delt Exercises
Reverse Pec Deck
The reverse pec deck is the king of rear delt exercises. It activates the rear delts close to their maximum isometric contractile ability and outperforms a range of other compound and isolation exercises .
In my experience, it’s the most straightforward exercise to feel the mind-muscle connection with the rear delts. You don’t need to grip a handle or stabilize free-weight equipment. Here’s how to maximize rear delt recruitment:
- Place your hands inside the machine columns. This allows you to keep your hands open and relaxed and to push against the outside of your hands.
- Spread the machine in a reverse fly movement with your arms slightly bent. Always keep your elbows in line with your wrists. Don’t let them drop and point toward the floor.
Many lifters get this exercise so wrong when targeting the rear delts. Firstly, holding the handles where you would chest fly causes the arms to have too much tension and take over. Placing the hands on the handles with the palms down targets the rear delts and keeps the arms relaxed.
Secondly, you shouldn’t intentionally move the shoulder blades like other reverse fly movements. Everything should be solely focused on the rear delts performing the work. Which means you can’t pull the handles past your body.
The seated row is not far behind the reverse pec deck in rear delt muscle activation. I prefer the Hammer Strength Low Row Machine, which is, in my experience, the best back machine ever made.
However, the seated cable row works just as well. Here’s how to do it:
- Lean forward slightly to create a greater stretch of the upper back and lats. As you pull leading with your elbows, pull back and sit upright.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your elbows close to your ribs. You can flare your elbows to target your upper back and rear delts further.
TRX Reverse Fly
If you like using your bodyweight as resistance or have minimal equipment, the TRX or suspension trainer reverse fly is brutal. Your body is much heavier than the 5 lb dumbbells you might use for dumbbell reverse flys creating a massive challenge. Here’s how to do it:
- Hold your suspension trainer and lean back, supporting yourself with straight arms. The more parallel you are with the floor, the harder the exercise will be. I recommend setting up, so you’re close to upright when finishing the reverse fly.
- Pull your hands and arms to the side with the elbows slightly bent from leaning back. Control the movement back to the starting position.
TRX Reverse Cross Isometric Hold
Fancy making the TRX reverse fly harder? Try holding the flexed position as a standalone exercise or at the end of a set. Here’s how to do it:
- The setup is the same as the TRX reverse fly. However, you will hold the flexed position instead of performing reps for an allotted time.
Best Rear Delt Workout For Huge Shoulders
A1) Reverse Pec Deck 4 x 15-20 @9 RPE
B1) DB Lateral Raise 3 x 10-15 @9 RPE
C1) Seated Row 3 x 8-10 @9 RPE
D1) Cable Face Pull 3 x 10-15 @ 9 RPE
How To Maximize Posterior Deltoid Mass
While having a list of exercises and an example rear delt workout is excellent, adhering to the four principles below will help you develop 3D deltoids and improve overall shoulder health.
Train The Rear Delts First
Start training the rear delts first when you have an upper body pressing exercise as your main movement. This rule stands true if you train with a body part split or full body split. Shoulder emphasis days should begin with hitting the rear delts.
Not only does it act as a great warm-up, but you also don’t neglect the small rear delt muscles. Further, the fatigue won’t interfere with the rest of your workout because they aren’t prime movers when pressing.
Because you’re fresh, you won’t skip them, which can potentially happen if they are placed at the end of a grueling shoulder workout.
Don’t Neglect Heavy Rows
The rear delts assist in shoulder extension. Rows extend the shoulder and allow much heavier loads than a rear delt isolation movement. If you can barbell row 225 lbs for strict reps, you’ll have exposed your rear delts to a huge stimulus.
Add rear delt isolation exercises like the ones mentioned in this article, and you have a recipe for boulder shoulders.
Flare Your Elbows When Rowing To Target The Rear Delts
One trick you can use when rowing if you want to target the rear delts further is to flare your elbows. For example, performing a 1-arm DB row with the upper arm perpendicular to your torso. While I wouldn’t advise performing all of your rowing movements like this, it can be a helpful trick for more rear delt stimulus.
Effective volume is the name of the game for growing massive rear delts. If you’re already performing multiple sets of rows, you already have some rear delt volume. However, the rear delts can take a beating. You want to progress from approximately 7 sets per week up to 20+ sets per week of rear delt training volume.
These sets should be taking close to or to failure. You may wonder how you can perform 20+ sets of rear delts in a workout and still get anything else done. You’d spread the volume over multiple workouts and start your workout with a few sets of rear delts or superset with non-competing muscle groups.
For example, you can superset bench press with band pull-aparts. Or even leg extensions with dumbbell reverse flys.
Frequently Asked Rear Delt Questions
What Exercise Has The Most Rear Delt Activation?
The research shows that the reverse pec deck is one of the best exercises for rear delt activation. From an anecdotal standpoint, I’ve found the reverse pec deck to be the easiest to feel the rear delts working.
Mainly because you can perform it with an open hand and relaxed arms.
Should Rear Delts Be On Push Or Pull Day?
If you’re following a push/pull/legs split, place rear delt training on your pull day. But to increase your posterior deltoid training volume, you’ll need to sprinkle a few sets throughout other training days if growing the rear delts is a priority.
Do Shrugs Work Rear Delts?
Shrugs do not work the rear delts as scapula elevation is not a movement the rear delts assist with. However, shrugs will help grow your upper traps rounding out your shoulder development.
Do Deadlifts Grow Rear Delts?
Relying on the deadlift to grow your rear delts is not a good idea. Sure, it will build a dense upper back, but it won’t fill and cap the delts. There’s no reason you can’t perform isolated rear delt training after a deadlift workout.
Are Rear Delts Hard To Grow?
Rear delts are one of the more challenging muscle groups to grow. They sit behind you, so they are not part of the easy-to-train and develop “mirror muscles.” This makes them harder to activate voluntarily (try tense your rear delts while you’re reading this) and, therefore, harder to build the mind-muscle connection with.
How Many Times Should You Train Rear Delts?
How often you train your rear delts depends on your training goal and split. If you are not specializing in shoulder development, then training them once a week on top of heavy rows during your back workouts is more than enough.
However, if you want to prioritize rear delt development, train them 3-4 times per week to get the necessary volume for them to grow. They recover relatively quickly, so training them on subsequent days is no problem.
Are Face Pulls Enough For Rear Delts?
While face pulls are the most common, if not the most popular rear delt exercises, I wouldn’t rely solely on this exercise to develop massive rear delts. Adding a horizontal abduction exercise like a reverse fly would round out your rear delt training.
The best rear delt exercises target the shoulder extension or horizontal arm abduction as these are the primary movements the rear delts facilitate. While compound exercises like rows have their place, you must perform isolation exercises like the reverse fly to maximize rear delt muscle growth.
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2. Botton, C. E., Wilhelm, E. N., Ughini, C. C., Pinto, R. S., & Lima, C. S. (2013). ELECTROMYOGRAPHICAL ANALYSIS OF THE DELTOID BETWEEN DIFFERENT STRENGTH TRAINING EXERCISES. Medicina Sportiva, 17(2).
3. Franke, A. R., Botton, C. E., Rodrigues, R., Pinto, R., & Lima, C. (2015). Analysis of anterior, middle and posterior deltoid activation during single and multijoint exercises. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 55, 714-721.