The 12 Best Exercises for Rear Delts and How to Combine Them

TAGS: pump work, rear delt development, posterior delt training, bodybuilding training method, Vince Gironda, rear delts, john meadows, Alexander Cortes

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John Meadows has legitimately innovated many different bodybuilding training methods in the past decades. One of his most notable has been the targeted training of the posterior delts.

Prior to John's influence on the bodybuilding and fitness community at large, there was little if any talk given to training the posterior delt, or the “rear delts” as they are more commonly called. Some coaches advocated more “pulling to pressing,” but this was never clearly articulated as to what kind of pulling/rowing, and certainly in the personal training realm, there was never any mention of directly targeting the upper back, aside from the usual “pinch the shoulder blades together” cue and to do some generic horizontal rows.


MORE: Bodybuilding Exercises for Powerlifters — Rear Delts Rows


One has to go back a few decades in the literature to find anything specific about rear delt training, to the writings and teachings of Vince Gironda. Vince was a major proponent of doing the “high bench row.” This is a prone row done on an extra high bench, with the body parallel to the floor. Vince suggested this movement as being the best developer the mid and lower traps, teres major and minor, and the posterior aspect of the shoulder.

Aside from this, the other notable example is Rich Gaspari. Gaspari was not known for back width, but over the years he developed a very detailed back through his “multi-angle” rowing. Gaspari used cables to do what we call rear delt flyes or rows today.

The ONE exercise that has been around for many decades is the rear delt lateral raise. Again, while this exercise certainly has been in use for a long time, few lifters frequently utilize it. Front and side raises have always been given more priority. It’s uncommon to find shoulder routines that mention rear delt training.

Out of this atmosphere came Meadows. Since reading his first article on shoulder training over five years ago, I've incorporated rear delt work with ALL of my clients.

And I've learned a few things along the way.

Rear Delt Training Strategies

  • People can completely lack mind-muscle connection of any kind in their posterior delt. It's the age-old problem of the “mirror muscles.” The most effective exercise I have found is the perpendicular pull-apart described below. This movement done for enough reps and with manual palpation will get these muscles engaged in any level of trainee.
  • Rear delts are best trained directly with two to six sets, one to two times weekly, for moderate to high reps in the eight to 50 or more range. The more reps you perform, the fewer sets you need. A single long drop set of prone rear delt flyes or dumbbell destroyers after wide grip rows may be all that is necessary to start growing.
  • Once innervation is created, rear delts are fairly responsive to training, and because they are also recruited when doing any kind of rowing, they receive both direct and indirect stimulus.
  • Rear delts CAN be trained with explosive low reps, and some people can respond very well to this. This requires a decent level of innervation and back development already, as most trainees won't be able to emphasize their rear delt during rowing exercises without a lot of practice.
  • The development of the rear delt is part of the overall shoulder girdle or traps, rotator cuff, deltoids, and rhomboids. Strengthening the rear delts improves scapular mobility and strength of the scapular mobilizers. This improves your shoulder functionality in both overhead and horizontal pressing.
  • Rear delt can be trained FIRST before shoulder pressing, or be done last if they are not a priority. They can also be incorporated on a back training day, or even added in with biceps and triceps. I give examples of my favorite combinations at the end of the article.

Rear Deltoids 

The posterior deltoids are often entirely neglected in training, and this is unfortunate, as not only does this muscle aesthetically create a very three-dimensional look to the shoulder, but also contributes to overall shoulder health. If your chest and front delt development outpace your rear delts and upper back, you are setting yourself up for an injury. The following are the best posterior deltoid exercises.

1. Rear Delt Perpendicular Pull-Apart

This is more of an activation movement than a size-builder, but I need to put it first, as most people have zero mind-muscle connection with their rear delt. You use a red mini band for these. Stand in front of the arm of a power rack or machine — something that you can loop the band around at chest height. Grab the ends of the band with a pistol grip, and back up a bit so your arms are extended at perfect 90-degree angle in front of you, each arm 45 degrees out from your centerline, making a perfect V shape with the bands. Begin pulling it apart as far as you can — you won't get very far. Do this for 30-60 seconds. Your rear delts will come into play about 20-30 seconds in if you’ve never felt them before.

2. Machine Rear Delt Fly

In most gyms, the machine chest fly doubles as the rear delt fly. This exercise is supreme, and is my personal favorite for rear delt movements. You want to set up so that your hands are at or slightly above shoulder height. A palms-down grip works best, although you can also use a neutral grip, which will feel more like an exercise for the mid-back than it will rear delts. The rear delts respond very well to very high volume, so high reps work best. My preferred setup is two sets, one set done for 30-40 reps with as heavy a weight as you can move, and then another set done for 20-30 reps. Drop sets can work very well. Find roughly your 15RM, and then keep dropping a plate a time for three or four drops. Be aware that rear delt soreness can leave your arms useless, so use higher volume intensity techniques sparingly. 

3. Bent-Over Dumbbell Lateral Raises

This movement has oddly gone out of style, but it works very well. Sit on a bench and lean forward so that your torso is almost resting on your knees. With dumbbells in-hand and a neutral grip, wing the arms out, focusing on the posterior delts doing the work. Moderate reps work best for these. These can work well done as a superset with medial and front delt raises. I suggest three to four sets of 12-15 reps.

4. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rear Delt Flyes

This is similar to the bent-over lateral raise, but doing these on a bench is much more stable, and in some cases this doesn't feel awkward like the bent-over lateral raises might. Get the chest positioned high on the bench. Do not sit on it with your butt on the seat. Experiment with pronated, neutral, and supinated grip. If your posture is lousy, use a supinated grip, and work on rear delts and scapular retraction at the same time. A neutral grip works the mid back, while a pronated grip hits the traps more. Perform two to three sets of 15-30 reps.

5. Flared Grip Dumbbell Rear Delt Rows

These are done heavy and explosive. The rear delts can respond very well to explosive and heavy loads, but you MUST have a strong mind-muscle connection to benefit from doing these. Get your chest high on the bench, and strap up with the dumbbells. With the elbows flared out, explosively row with the rear delts as the initiator. Aim for four to eight reps a set. Done properly, these produce a powerful rear delt contraction. Done poorly, they are just a badly performed row. Aim for four to six sets of four to eight reps.

6. Dumbbell Heavy Rear Delt Swings

An awesome Meadow’s movement, but one you NEED solid innervation to benefit from. These are basically cheating rear delt lateral raises, done with very heavy dumbbells. If you do these standing, use a belt and get into a forward gorilla lean, similar to how you would perform a hang clean. Retract the shoulder blades, and swing the weight about one-third of a typical range of motion. The swing must be initiated from the rear delts and traps. Squeeze the dumbbells hard and get every spark of contraction you can out of your posterior deltoid. These can also be done chest-supported on a bench. One excruciating set of 40-60 reps works best. Do these at the end of a shoulder workout as a finisher, or pair them with a row for a massive upper back and delt pump. 

7. Rope Facepulls

A great movement for all around upper back development that also works rear delts. Facepulls are a good movement to do before any kind of upper body pressing. They mobilize the shoulder blades, pump up the upper back, and train the necessary muscles that you need to create a platform to press from. Facepulls are best done with a rope and cable station. Set the attachment to about chest height and grab the rope with a neutral grip. As you pull back, keep the elbows at shoulder height and externally rotate the shoulders, spreading the rope apart. Go for concentrated reps when doing these. Three to four sets of eight to 15 reps work well.

8. Barbell Facepulls

I picked these up from Swede Burns. These are done on a 0-90 bench set to 45 degrees. While this may seem awkward to set up, they are incredibly effective and are a hybrid between a regular facepull and a diagonal angle incline role. Aside from the working the rear delts, they are killer mid-back mass builder. 

9. Wide Grip Seated Rows

Use a pulldown bar for this movement. With a wide grip, you want your elbows perpendicular on every rep. Use your mid-back and rear delts to pull the bar towards the chest. Depending on your arm length, you may be able to touch the bar to the chest. Otherwise, pull back as far as you can with your elbows at shoulder height. A pumping cadence works best for this exercise. A movement bodybuilders credit this movement with helping them build great upper back width and size, this exercise might be all some you need for rear delt development. Three to five sets of 12-15 reps works best.

10. Dumbbell I-Y-T-W-L

These are essentially dumbbell rear delt raises, but you work through all the different ranges of motion. You can mix and match these movements, but try the traditional sequence first. Keep the dumbbells light for this series; five pounds can utterly humble the biggest bodybuilder. You will perform these chest-down on a bench, set to a 30-45 degree incline. With the arms hanging straight down, and holding the dumbbells with a pronated grip, you will raise your arms straight overhead to an I position. Bring them back down, then raise them out at an angle to a Y position. Following that, raise them up with bent elbows to a W. Lastly, angle the arms back for the L raise, as if you are performing a stiff-arm triceps kickback. As one complete round is five reps, aim for five to eight rounds for two to three sets. These can get tiring fast, but when you are done, you have phenomenal mind-muscle connection through every part of your upper back. Additionally, you can pick and choose your worst “letters” and work on those exclusively.

11. Butterfly Rear Delt Raises

I picked these up from Eugene Levrone Teo. They are essentially a weighted “butterfly” style swim stroke done chest-down on a bench set to low incline. This is a movement you have to watch a video to grasp how it done. I love this exercise because of how well it works the rear delt and mobilizes the scapula. It reinforces scapular depression and circulation. Because the tempo is slow, two to five sets of eight to 10 reps works best.

12. Chest-Supported Rear Delt Upright Rows

Very similar to a traditional upright row, but by doing these on an incline bench, you target the rear delt and the medial delt. These are done strict, with a pronated grip, arms hanging straight down. Retract the shoulder blades and do not round over in your upper back. You want to maintain a neutral spine the entire time. Pull the elbows up perpendicular, to exactly 90 degrees, and then back down again. These are best done on a smooth tempo: two seconds up, hold, two seconds down. Aim for two to four sets of 10-15 reps.

Most Effective Rear Delt Combos

The following are favorites of mine I've used over the years. Supersetting rear delts with other complementary movements increases training density and results in a phenomenal pump.

Combo 1: Lats and Rear Delts
 

  1. Machine Rear Delt Fly: 3 sets x 20 reps
  2. Stiff Arm Lat Pulldown: 3 sets x 15 reps

Combo 2: Triceps and Rear Delts

  1. Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly (Chest-Supported): 4 sets x 15 reps
  2. Pronated Triceps Kickbacks: 4 sets x 15 reps 

Combo 3: Upper Back and Rear Delts

A. Explosive Rear Delt Dumbbell Rows: 4 sets x 6 reps
B. Wide Grip Seated Cable Rows: 4 sets x 15 reps

Combo 4: Forearms and Rear Delts 

  1. Pronated Dumbbell Curls: 3 sets x 20 reps
  2. Bent-Over Rear Delt Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 15 reps

Combo 5: Activation and Compound Movement

  1. Rear Delt Perpendicular Band Pull-Apart: 3 sets x 30 reps
  2. Barbell Facepull: 3 sets x 10-12 reps

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