Rear Delt Exercises: The Ultimate Guide!


The rear delts are one of the most important muscle groups in the upper body. They play a huge role in keeping your shoulders healthy so that you can bench press and overhead press heavy weights. They also give the shoulders that capped, “3-D” look when fully developed.

If you want to build a big, strong upper body then you have to start using the best rear delt exercises!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises
  • Part 2: Rear Delt Barbell Exercises
  • Part 3: Rear Delt Cable Exercises
  • Part 4: Rear Delt Band Exercises
  • Part 5: Rear Delt Machine Exercises

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you 14 of the best exercises to build bigger, stronger rear delts. Many people find it nearly impossible to develop their rear delts. No matter what they do their rear delts lag behind their front and side delts.

There are 3 main reasons why most people have lagging rear delts:

  • They have a poor mind-muscle connection
  • They use the wrong rep ranges
  • They use they same exercises all the time

Many trainees have a very poor “mind-muscle connection” with their rear delts. In other words they have a really hard time recruiting this muscle group during compound movements.

Research has shown that when it comes to training the rear delts isolation exercises tend to work better than compound exercises (1). If you have a hard time “feeling” your rear delts working then using at least some isolation exercises like rear delt flys, band pull-aparts and the reverse pec dec machine is a great idea. 

Here is a great video of IFBB professional bodybuilder Ben Pakulski showing how to really isolate your rear delts during a rear delt fly:

Of course compound exercises are also great for developing the rear delts – you just have to be creative. Exercises like snatch grip deadlifts and “Meadows rows” are 2 extremely underrated compound exercises for overloading the rear delts. 

The second biggest mistake most trainees make with their rear delts is they use the wrong rep ranges. Research has shown that overall the deltoids are made up of a 50/50 mix of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers (2). However, the rear delts are mostly made up of slow-twitch muscle fibers.

If you want to build big, strong rear delts then you need to focus on higher-rep sets. Nick Mitchell of ultimate performance believes that you can use up to 100 reps per set to make your rear delts grow!

Here is the world class bodybuilder / powerlifter Matt Kroc performing a rear delt set that lasts almost 5 minutes long!

You don’t need to go this crazy but using sets in the 10-30 rep range to train your rear delts is a great idea.

The last issue most trainees run into is they use the same-old, same-old rear delt exercises all the time. This is a huge mistake! The deltoids are one of the most complicated muscles in the body. Most people believe that the delts are made up of 3 separate muscle heads: 

  1. The front delts
  2. The side delts
  3. The rear delts

In reality research has shown that the deltoids are actually made up of 7 different muscle heads (1)!

The rear delt actually has 3 separate muscle heads that work together to extend your shoulders. If you want to really train all 3 heads of the rear delts then you need to use a wide variety of compound and isolation exercises.

Some of the best rear delt exercises include bent over rear delt raises, face pulls, snatch grip deadlifts and chest supported rows. Some unconventional rear delt exercises like the “Meadows row” actually work better than more traditional exercises.

Here is a great demonstration of the Meadows row:

In this guide I will teach you 14 of the absolute best exercises for building big, strong rear delts. All of these exercises are backed up by the scientific literature and used by some of the best bodybuilders and powerlifters in the world. I will also teach you some of the best strategies for incorporating these exercises into your workout routines.

Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: The Best Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises

Loaded Stretching

Let’s start our discussion by covering the 3 best dumbbell exercises for building up your rear delts. Here they are in no particular order:

  • DB Exercise #1: The Rear Delt Fly
  • DB Exercise #2: Seated DB External Rotations
  • DB Exercise #3: Incline DB Rows

Now let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises.

DB Exercise #1: The Rear Delt Fly

The rear delt fly is one of the oldest and most popular rear delt exercises ever invented. Here is a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

The idea is simple: you perform a dumbbell lateral raise with your upper body bent forwards. This technique is great for targeting your rear delts instead of your side delts. The scientific literature has shown that this is easily one of the best rear delt exercises you can perform in the gym.

EMG research performed by Bret Contreras shows that the rear delt fly recruits the rear delts better than almost any other exercise (4). This was confirmed by many other studies (5).

For this exercise you can either keep your arms straight or bent at the elbows. Real-world experience has shown that the bent-arm version is far superior for targeting the rear delts.

When you bend your arms you can drive your elbows further behind your body. This helps you to get a MUCH stronger contraction in your rear delts in the top position of the exercise.

Here is the bodybuilding champion Dorian Yates giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

Another advantage of this technique is that it allows you to use significantly heavier weights. As long as your reps are relatively high this can be a great exercise to really overload your rear delts. 

The rear delt fly is so effective for targeting the rear delts that many bodybuilders have invented some unique ways to perform this exercise. One of the most effective variations is called “rear delt destroyers.” This variation was invented by IFBB professional bodybuilder John Meadows.

Here is a perfect video demonstration of this exercise:

John is using very heavy dumbbells and swinging his arms through a partial range of motion. This is an excellent exercise for more advanced trainees to overload the rear delts in their stretched and mid-range position.

In order to maximize the recruitment of your rear delts you should push your shoulders *forwards* as you perform this movement. That will put your traps and rhomboids in a weaker / lengthened position so that the only muscle that can move the weight is your rear delts.

Here is IFBB professional bodybuilder Dusty Hanshaw talking about the importance of protracting your shoulders during the rear delt destroyer:

The range of motion with rear delt destroyers is very short. Because of this you should use very high reps. I recommend you perform 20-50 reps per set for this exercise in order to accumulate enough time under tension.

DB Exercise #2: Seated DB External Rotations

If you are new to weight training then this exercise might surprise you. After all, what is a rotator cuff exercise doing in our list of the best rear delt exercises? Don’t worry, I’ll explain. The rear delt has two main functions:

  • Extending the shoulder
  • Externally rotating the shoulder

The first function is pretty obvious: the rear delt helps you to extend the shoulder joint.

Shoulder extension occurs during isolation exercises like rear delt flys and compound exercises like chin ups and rows. However, the rear delt also helps you to externally rotate the shoulder! This is especially true when your elbow is held out to the side of your body.

If you want to develop big, strong rear delts then you have to train them as shoulder extensors AND external rotators! Here is one of the easiest ways to train the rear delts as external rotators:

This exercise is known as the seated dumbbell external rotation exercise. The world class strength coach Charles Poliquin was a huge fan of this exercise for developing both the rear delts and the rotator cuff muscles.

If your rear delts (and your external rotators) are in balance with the rest of your upper body then you should be able to perform 8 reps with a weight that is 10% of your best close grip bench press. In other words if you can close grip bench press 200 pounds then you should be able to perform 8 reps with a 20 pound dumbbell on this exercise.

If you REALLY want to bring up your rear delts then you can perform this exercise with your elbow pointed directly to the side of your body. For example:

This exercise works well because the rear delt is a strong external rotator of the shoulder when your elbow is fully abducted. Overall the seated DB external rotation is an important rear delt exercise that you should include in your training program.

DB Exercise #3: Incline DB Row

The incline DB row is one of the best compound rear delt exercises that you can perform with dumbbells. EMG research has shown that the incline DB row does a better job of activating the rear delts than most other exercises.

Here is the world-class strength coach Christian Thibadeau giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

If your goal is to recruit the rear delts then you have to be very careful with how you perform this exercise.

To maximally target the rear delts you want to think about shooting your elbows directly out to your sides. If your elbows are too close to your body then your lats will start to take over the movement which will take the tension off of your rear delts.

You can’t use as much weight when you point your elbows out to your sides but you will do a much better job of recruiting the rear delts.

You may also want to play around with using isometric pauses in the contracted position.

Part 2: The Best Rear Delt Barbell Exercises

When most people think of rear delt exercises they think of smaller isolation movements like the rear delt DB fly or the reverse pec dec. These are great exercises. However, compound barbell exercises can also be AWESOME for training the rear delts. You just have to be a little bit creative!

Here are the best barbell rear delt exercises (in no particular order):

  • Barbell Exercise #1: Meadows Row
  • Barbell Exercise #2: Reeves Deadlift
  • Barbell Exercise #3: Snatch Grip Deadlift

Now let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises.

Barbell Exercise #1: Meadows Row

The “Meadows Row” was invented and popularized by the bodybuilding coach John Meadows. In John’s opinion nothing works the entire upper back like this exercise. Here is John demonstrating the Meadows row:

As you can see the Meadows row is a modified version of a t-bar row. You grip the end of the barbell with one arm and then row the weight by pulling your elbow directly out to your side. This angle overload your rear delts, traps and rhomboids in a way that you have to feel to believe.

The Meadows row is unique because it gives you a huge stretch on your rear delts in the bottom position AND a huge contraction on your rear delts in the top position.

Most exercises only overload one of these points in the range of motion. In order to maximize the stretch on your rear delts in the bottom position you want to stick your hip up on the same side as your working arm. In other words if you are rowing with your right arm then you want to stick your right hip up towards the ceiling.

You can also perform the Meadows row on a t-bar row machine if your gym has access to one. For example:

This variation is just as effective for targeting the rear delts. However, it will overload the muscle in a slightly different way. This is a good thing because the rear delts have 3 seperate muscle heads. You need to use a wide variety of exercises to fully develop each of the 3 rear delt heads.

Barbell Exercise #2: The Reeves Deadlift

The Reeves deadlift might be the most effective rear delt exercise that you’ve never heard of. Here is a young John Meadows giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

The main difference between a Reeves deadlift and a regular deadlift is you are going to hold onto the 45 pound plates rather than the barbell. This ultra-wide grip places a TON of stress on your rear delts. They have to fight like crazy throughout the entire movement to stabilize the shoulder joint and to pull your shoulders back and down.

In the video above John is performing an added shrugging motion at the end of the exercise. This is an awesome way to further annihilate your rear delts without having to use a ton of weight. 

Another exercise that is very similar to the Reeves deadlift is the Reeves row. For example:

This exercise overloads your rear delts in a very similar way to the Reeves deadlift. The big difference is that you are going to row the weight up rather than deadlifting it. This exercise is very challenging to perform. You will not be able to use anywhere near as much weight as you normally can.

Dante Trudel (the creator of DC Training) is a huge fan of this exercise. Whenever someone asks about how to bring up their rear delts as fast as possible his answer is always the same: Reeves rows.

Barbell Exercise #3: Snatch Grip Deadlift

The snatch grip deadlift is easily one of the most underrated exercises you can perform in the gym. The main difference between the snatch grip deadlift and a normal deadlift is you are going to use an ultra-wide grip on the bar.

For example here is Dmitry Klokov demonstrating the snatch grip deadlift:

The snatch grip deadlift is like a regular deadlift on steroids! The wide grip makes all of the upper back muscles including the lats, scapular retractors and rear delts work MUCH harder than normal.

The first time you perform this exercise it is going to feel a little weird. You will feel like your shoulders and your back want to roll forwards as you lift the weight. Don’t let your back and shoulders round forwards! Instead you want to contract your lats and your rear delts by arching your upper back and holding your shoulders back and down.

You won’t be able to use as much weight this way but it will make your rear delts and the rest of your upper back work MUCH harder! 

If you really want to work your rear delts extra hard then you can try the snatch grip rack pull. For example:

The snatch grip rack pull lets you handle way more weight than a regular rack pull. This is an awesome way to overload your rear delts with very heavy loads. Just make sure you keep your lats and rear delts contracted throughout the entire exercise.

The lifter in the video demonstrates absolutely perfect form so feel free to model him.

Part 3: The Best Rear Delt Cable Exercises

Now let’s talk about some of the best cable exercises you can use to target your rear delts. Cables are an extremely valuable tool. They let you overload the strength curve in a completely different way vs regular free weights. They also let you perform some unique exercises that are difficult to replicate with barbells or dumbbells.

In my opinion here are three of the best cable rear delt exercises you can perform in the gym:

  • Cable Exercise #1: Cable Rope Face Pull
  • Cable Exercise #2: Unilateral Cable Reverse Fly
  • Cable Exercise #3: Cable External Rotations (Arm Abducted)

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Cable Exercise #1: The Cable Rope Face Pull

The cable rope face pull is one of the most popular exercises in any commercial gym. I feel like I see someone perform these every time I lift weights. There’s just one problem: nobody performs this exercise correctly! In fact I have NEVER seen anyone perform this exercise correctly in my entire life!

Here is a good video demonstrating proper form on this exercise:

Now THAT’S how you perform a cable rope face pull! Look at how far back she pulls the rope in the contracted position – that is what we are after! There are actually 2 separate motions in this exercise:

  1. Shoulder extension
  2. Shoulder external rotation

The cable rope face pull is one of the ONLY exercises that works these 2 functions of the rear delt: extending the shoulder AND externally rotating the shoulder. This makes the cable rope face pull one of the best rear delt exercises of all time!

To perform this exercise correctly you have to pull your elbows back to your sides and then keep pulling by externally rotating your shoulders. Your hands should be directly over your shoulders in the top position of this exercise.

Here is Charles Poliquin coaching one of his athletes on how to perform this exercise correctly. Check it out:

If you want to strengthen your rear delts and improve your overall shoulder health then the cable rope face pull is probably your best bet. Just make sure you perform this exercise with proper form!

Cable Exercise #2: Cable Reverse Fly

The cable reverse fly is another AWESOME rear delt exercise. One of the great things about this exercise is that there are many different ways that you can perform it. Here is John Meadows demonstrating a bilateral version of this exercise:

This exercise is very similar to the dumbbell reverse fly covered at the very beginning of this article. The cable resistance gives this exercise a completely different feel. Many trainees who have a hard time feeling their rear delts working with dumbbell exercises find that they immediately feel their rear delts working with this cable version.

I mentioned earlier that there are many different ways to perform this exercise. Here is a way to overload your rear delts in the stretched position. Check it out:

Most rear delt exercises are actually hardest in the contracted position when your arms are fully extended. This exercise is the total opposite: it is hardest when your arms are out in front of you and your rear delts are stretched!

We know that overloading different parts of the strength curve is one of the keys to increasing muscular size and strength as quickly as possible. This makes this reverse cable fly variation an extremely valuable tool that you can use in your training program.

Cable Exercise #3: Cable External Rotations (Arm Abducted)

Earlier in this article I showed you a few ways that you can isolate the external rotation function of the rear delt with dumbbells. Well, you can also do this with cables!

As I discussed earlier the rear delts perform shoulder external rotation when your elbows are pointed away from your body. Here is how to mimic this setup with cables:

This exercise may be a little bit uncomfortable for you at first depending on your overall shoulder health. If you are able to perform it without pain then it is an AWESOME exercise for your rear delts.

Unlike the seated DB external rotation this exercise actually overloads your rear delts in the bottom position when they are stretched out. That makes this exercise a fantastic way to overload a different part of the strength curve and to keep your body off balance.

I highly recommend you rest your elbow on an adjustable incline bench or some other fixed object as demonstrated in this video. It will make the exercise much easier to perform and you will have an easier time isolating your rear delts.

Part 4: The Best Rear Delt Band Exercises

The powerlifting guru Louie Simmons was the first person to use resistance bands in the gym to build muscle mass and strength. Louie started adding bands to exercises like squats and bench presses in the early 1990s. He was shocked at how well they worked!

Nowadays bands are used on all kinds of exercises to build muscle mass and strength. World-class powerlifters and even some creative bodybuilders like John Meadows have found some unique ways to use bands to train the rear delts.

Here are three of the best rear delt band exercises that you can perform:

  • Band Exercise #1: Band Pull-Apart
  • Band Exercise #2: Band Face Pull
  • Band Exercise #3: Rear Delt Band Pulls

Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises.

Band Exercise #1: Band Pull-Apart

The band pull apart is one of the oldest and most popular band assistance exercises. The idea is simple: you grab a resistance band with two hands and pull the band apart by extending your shoulders.

Here is John Meadows giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

This is an exercise that you just have to try for yourself. It feels UNBELIEVABLE on your rear delts!

In the fully contracted position the band tension is off the charts! The band is pulling your hands back together as hard as it can. You have to use your rear delts to hold the contracted position and then slowly return to the starting position. This is one of the only exercises that overloads your rear delts in the stretched position AND the shortened position!

If you are a powerlifter then you probably already know about this routine. It has been a staple bench press assistance exercise for many powerlifters for a long, long time.

For example here is the world champion powerlifter Matt Kroc demonstrating this exercise:

Regardless of your training goal you should be performing band pull aparts in your program. It is easily one of the best exercises that you can perform to build your rear delts and rapidly improve your shoulder health.

Band Exercise #2: Band face pull

The banded face pull is another AWESOME rear delt exercise that you should use in your training program. This exercise is performed exactly like a regular cable rope face pull. The only difference is that you are using a band instead of a cable for resistance.

Here is powerlifting guru Matt Wenning giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

EMG research performed by Brett Contreras shows that the band face pull is one of THE best rear delt exercises that you can perform (4). It overloads your rear delts extremely hard in the fully contracted position.

I strongly recommend you perform 1-4 second isometric holds in the contracted position. This will help you get the most out of this exercise.

For example you might perform 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps using a 2/0/1/2 tempo. That is, you would lower the weight over 2 seconds, pause for 0 seconds in the stretched position, lift the weight over 1 second and perform a 2-second isometric pause in the contracted position.

Band Exercise #3: Rear Delt Band Pulls

The rear delt band pull is performed exactly like a cable reverse fly. The big difference is that you are using a band instead of a cable for the resistance. Here is John Meadows giving a perfect demonstration of this exercise:

I really like this exercise because it overloads your rear delts in BOTH the stretched position AND the shortened position of the strength curve. Again this is one of the only rear delt exercises that really overloads both parts of the movement like this.

One of the downsides to this exercise is that it is very hard to measure your progress over time. In other words it’s difficult to measure if you are stronger on this exercise from one workout to the next.

For this reason this exercise works best as a “finisher” movement performed for high reps at the end of your workout. Something like 2-3 sets of 20-30 reps performed on a 1/0/1/1 tempo would be perfect for a bodybuilder.

Part 5: The Best Rear Delt Machine Exercises

Finally let’s talk about the best machine rear delt exercises that you can perform. In my opinion there are only 2 machine rear delt exercises that you need to know about:

  • Machine Exercise #1: Rear Delt Pec Dec
  • Machine Exercise #2: Chest Supported Row

Let’s take a closer look at both of these exercises.

Machine Exercise #1: Rear Delt Pec Dec

The reverse pec dec is one of THE BEST rear delt exercises that you can perform. Here is a good demonstration of this exercise:

Numerous studies have shown that the reverse pec dec overloads the rear delts incredibly well (8). In fact studies show that it is far superior to other compound exercises like the lat pulldown and the machine row for targeting the rear delts (9).

Unfortunately most trainees don’t know how to perform this exercise with perfect form. The tricky part about this exercise is that there are three muscles capable of swinging your arms back:

  • The rear delts
  • The traps
  • The rhomboids

If your goal is to overload your rear delts then you have to stop your traps and rhomboids from moving the weight. There are a couple of ways to do this.

The first way is to push your shoulders as far forward as you can before initiating the exercise. This stretches out your traps and rhomboids and prevents them from firing during the exercise. This means your rear delts perform nearly 100% of the work.

Here is IFBB pro Ben Pakulski demonstrating how to do this:

The other strategy you can use is to pinch your shoulder blades back and together as hard as you can before starting the movement. Because your traps and rhomboids are already retracting your scapula as hard as possible they won’t be able to help you move the weight.

Once again this means that your rear delts will be solely responsible for moving the weight. 

Machine Exercise #2: Chest Supported Row

The other machine rear delt exercise that you should know about is the chest supported row. Research shows that the chest supported row is right up there with the rear delt dumbbell fly as one of the best rear delt exercises (4).

Here is a great demonstration:

The key to targeting your rear delts with this exercise is to point your elbows out to your sides as you pull the weight back. This takes your lats out of the movement and focuses all of the tension on your rear delts and scapular retractors.

Many powerlifters such as Dave Tate and Jim Wendler are huge fans of this exercise. If your gym has this particular machine then I strongly recommend you give it a try.

Conclusion

The rear delts are one of the most under trained and underdeveloped muscle groups in the entire upper body. If your rear delts are lagging behind the rest of your body then the first thing you should do is start using the best exercises.

You now know how to perform 15 of the best rear delt exercises ever invented. I recommend you try all of them and figure out which ones work best for your body.

Remember, we are all built differently. An exercise that works great for me might not work for you at all. If you try all of the rear delt exercises covered in this article then I guarantee you will find at least a few that work awesome for you.

So what are you waiting for? Get back in the gym and start training your rear delts like you mean it!

“What we face may look insurmountable, but what I learned is we are always stronger than we know.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!

References

  1. https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/70129/Sweeney_Samantha_Thesis.pdf?sequence=1
  2. Mandroukas A. et al
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3042752/
  4. (Contreras research)
  5. https://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/70129
    1. (rear delt raise is great)
  6. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/september-2014/4972/dynamite-delts-ace-research-identifies-top-shoulder-exercises/
    1. Incline DB row
  7. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/september-2014/4972/dynamite-delts-ace-research-identifies-top-shoulder-exercises/
    1. (rear delt raise is great study 2)
  8. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjzmrHhsMLvAhXO-ioKHYh7BrQQFjAEegQIEBAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Fedisciplinas.usp.br%2Fpluginfile.php%2F3887013%2Fmod_folder%2Fcontent%2F0%2Femg_deltoide_diferentes_exercicios_silveira_lima_2013.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3KEV0DDUCddhfAIJK6msna
    1. Emg reverse pec dec
  9. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/september-2014/4972/dynamite-delts-ace-research-identifies-top-shoulder-exercises/
    1. Reverse pec dec

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

Recent Posts