Best Rear Delt Exercises

Barbell Medicine
January 16, 2024
Reading Time: 22 minutes
Table of Contents

    The rear or posterior deltoids (“delts”) are muscles nestled at the back of your shoulders. They help stabilize the shoulders and participate in movements of the arm about the shoulder joint. Training your rear delts is as important as training any other muscle for improving strength, size, and overall function.

    While there are many ways to train the shoulders as a whole, incorporating exercises that directly target the muscles of the upper back, to include the rear delts, is likely a good idea for most. Our top-recommended rear delt exercises that we’ll cover today are: Pendlay/barbell row, wide grip lat pulldown, 1-arm dumbbell row, bent over dumbbell flyes, reverse pec deck fly, and face pulls.

    Rear Delt Muscles Anatomy

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: the rear delt muscles of a human.

    The deltoid a triangular muscle that arises from the scapula (shoulder blade) and the clavicle (collarbone) and inserts into the humerus as part of the shoulder girdle. [1, 2] The shoulder girdle is made up of the proximal humerus, scapula, and clavicle. [3] In addition to the deltoid muscle, the shoulder girdle also encompasses the rotator cuff, trapezius and other periscapular stabilizing muscles, triceps, latissimus dorsi, and pectoralis major and minor. [4, 5, 6, 7, 8].

    The deltoid is made up of three distinct sets of muscle fibers — anterior, middle (or acromial), and posterior. [9] Its base connects to the spine of the scapula and the lateral third of the clavicle.

    The deltoid as a whole is a multifaceted muscle which has several roles, such as lifting the arm, rotating it externally, and stabilizing the movements of other muscles in your arm and back. Specifically, the posterior fibers of the deltoid muscle stabilizes shoulders and primarily aids the latissimus dorsi to extend the arm while walking.

    Rear Delt Exercises

    • Pendlay/Barbell Row
    • Wide grip lat pulldown
    • 1-arm dumbbell row
    • Bent over dumbbell flyes
    • Reverse pec deck fly
    • Face pulls

    Many people wonder whether different exercises produce different results.  A research study comparing various upper-limb strength training exercises based on the electromyographic  activity of the three portions of the deltoid muscle discovered the following: the anterior deltoid was activated in the same way during the smith machine shoulder press, bench press, and peck deck, but EMG activity was significantly higher in the smith machine shoulder press as opposed to during other exercises.

    The middle (or acromial) deltoid had similar electrical activity during lateral raises, reverse pec deck, and seated row, whereas the posterior deltoid exhibited similar activity during reverse pec deck, incline lat pull-down, and seated row, and was much more activated in the reverse pec deck as opposed to during other exercises. [10]

    Another study compared deltoid muscle electrical activity during multi- and single-joint exercises. The following exercises were included: the bench press, dumbbell fly, shoulder press, and lateral raise. The results suggest that the posterior fibers of the deltoid had a lot of electrical activity during the reverse pec deck (a single-joint exercise) compared to the seated row and inclined lateral pull-down (multi-joint exercises). Furthermore, the middle portion of the deltoid had the highest level of electrical activity during the reverse pec deck and the seated row as opposed to during the inclined lateral pull-down. Last but not least, the anterior portion of the deltoid was found to have relatively low levels of electrical activity during these exercises. [11]

    That all being said, these studies and others investigating the electrical activity, e.g., “excitation” of the various fibers of the deltoid shouldn’t be taken as gospel. While the EMG differences are likely real, existing data doesn’t show that the differences are predictive of actual outcomes, e.g., differences in muscle size and strength when using one or more variation(s) over the other. In other words, it’s not clear that using EMG data alone to select an exercise yields better results than making sure the exercise actually loads the muscle or muscles of interest.

    Last but not least, keep in mind that to target your rear delts as efficiently as possible, make sure that you aren’t unintentionally allowing other muscle groups to take over the movements; so don’t forget to mindfully engage the right muscles. [12]

    1) Pendlay/Barbell Row

    Barbell Row

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a Pendlay/barbell row

    Movement category: Primary or Secondary

    Programming: 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 10 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 2 to 3 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 7 to 8.

    The barbell row, also known as the bent-over row, strengthens your shoulders, back, and arms. It’s one of the first exercises that lifters typically learn in order to train the muscles of the upper back. Research comparing the standing bent-over row, the inverted row, and the standing 1-arm cable row suggests that the bent-over row exercise engages the large muscles of both the upper and lower back. [13]

    The Pendlay row is named after Glenn Pendlay, a US Olympic weightlifting coach who created it. It’s an upper back exercise and a variation of the regular barbell row that starts and ends at the floor. Still, both the barbell row and the Pendlay row work the same muscles: lats, trapezius, rhomboids, rear delts, and biceps.

    Both exercises are useful in their own right — when it comes to choosing which one to do, it’s mostly personal preference. The Pendlay row has a more consistent range of motion compared to the traditional barbell row, as it starts and ends on the floor. That said, both exercises are likely to generate similar results.

    Pendlay/Barbell Row Instructions

    While the differences between the barbell row and the Pendlay row are quite subtle, they still matter. The biggest difference between the two is the beginning position — to do a barbell row, you begin with the bar just below your knees, that is, your torso is positioned at ~45 degrees relative to the ground; to do a Pendlay row, you start from the ground, which means you need to bend over more at the hip forward to grab the bar, so your torso is fairly horizontal, likely near-parallel to the ground.

    Now let’s see how to do each one separately.

    To do the barbell row:

    • Stand with your legs hip-width apart with the middle of your feet right below the bar. Ensure your torso is at ~45 degrees relative to the ground.
    • Bend over and pick up the bar in a medium grip.
    • Hinge your hips back and lift the barbell until the weights reach knee height.
    • Engage your core and maintain a neutral spine.
    • Lift the weight upwards to reach your lower chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
    • Lower the weight until your arms are fully stretched.

    The Pendlay row has a similar setup as the barbell row, however, the body position differs. To perform the exercise:

    • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with the middle of your feet just below the bar.
    • Bend over and pick up the bar with a shoulder-width grip. Your torso should be pretty close to parallel to the ground.
    • Keeping your hips, lower back, and legs relatively still, pull the bar to your chest using your arms and upper back, squeezing your shoulder blades together. The bar should touch you near the sternum.
    • Lower the bar to the ground.

    Pro Tip:

    Whether you go with the Pendlay row or the barbell row, stay mindful of your form. Keep rowing the barbell until your elbows pass the torso and maintain a tight upper back throughout the activity.

    2) Wide Grip Lat Pulldown

    Wide Grip Lat Pulldown

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a wide grip lat pulldown

    Movement category:  Secondary

    Programming: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 2 to 3 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 7 to 8.

    The wide grip lat pulldown is a seated exercise using a high pulley machine where you pull a hanging bar toward yourself until the bar gets below your chin and near your chest. As you reverse the motion and the bar upwards, maintain control in the movement rather than allowing it to slingshot back. It’s a variation of the lat pull down that uses a wider grip placement, which shifts some of the tension away from your biceps and mid back onto your lats. Besides your lats, the wide grip lat pulldown works your posterior deltoid and other muscles of the upper back.

    There are many studies exploring the muscle activation during numerous lat pulldown variations. [14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19] That said, there’s one which examines the differences in muscle activations among distinct grip widths in the overhand pull down, the most common variation of the activity. [16, 17] Namely, the muscle activation was observed with four distinct grip variations — wide vs. narrow, and pronated vs. supinated grip. The findings showed similar muscle activation in the latissimus dorsi, the middle trapezius, and the biceps brachii between narrow and wide grips. [16]

    Another piece of research suggests a higher electrical activity of the latissimus dorsi with a wide grip as opposed to other grips using 10RM loads. [17] Yet another study suggests that there are no major differences in the muscle activation for latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, infraspinatus, and trapezius while doing 6RM in the overhand lat pulldown with medium, narrow, and wide grip widths. The lifted 6RM load was lower when a wide grip was used as opposed to small/medium grip, though. [20]

    That said, there is no definitive difference between wide grip and standard lat pulldowns in terms of effectiveness — different muscle groups are likely accentuated by different grip placements, which is why the variation you choose should be in line with your current fitness objectives. Again, we wouldn’t place too much emphasis on EMG studies for selecting exercises. Equipment-wise, you need a lat pulldown cable machine setup.

    Wide Grip Lat Pulldown Instructions

    • Sit on the pulldown seat with both feet flat on the ground. Check the bar’s height — if necessary, adjust the height by lengthening/shortening the cable. Adjust the machine so that your thighs fit under the leg pads. Choose your preferred weight.
    • Stand up and grab the bar with an overhand grip. Place your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Sit down again.
    • Lean back a bit but keep a relatively vertical spine and both feet flat on the ground. Now, pull the bar down toward your upper chest by pulling your elbows down and back.
    • When the bar reaches just below chin height, gradually bring it back to the beginning position by straightening your arms.

    Pro Tip:

    Don’t let the head jut forward while you pull.

    3) 1-Arm Dumbbell Row

     1-Arm Dumbbell Row

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a 1-arm dumbbell row

    Movement category: Tertiary

    Programming: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 2 to 3 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 7 to 8.

    The 1-arm dumbbell row is a multi-joint or compound exercise used to build strength and muscle mass. Certain studies have found that single-joint exercises are better for increased muscle hypertrophy, as they’re easier to learn, requiring less skill and technique to perform properly. [21, 22] That said, other experts claim that multi-joint exercises are the ones that maximize muscle strength, as they allow for more weight to be lifted. [23, 24] Another piece of research analyzing these claims concluded that the selection between single-joint and multi-joint exercises should depend on individual preferences, equipment availability, movement specifications, and time constraints. [25] This echoes how we feel about exercise selection outside of sports-specific applications.

    Rather than doing all single-joint (isolation) or all multi-joint (compound) exercises, both can be useful. Some studies suggest that both single-joint and multi-joint resistance exercises contribute to a similar strength increase in trained men. [26] Yet others have found that single-joint exercises result in higher hypertrophy of elbow flexors than multi-joint exercises after eight weeks of resistance training. [27]  Both types of exercise have their place and most good training programs will include a combination of isolation and compound exercises.

    In any case, the 1-arm dumbbell row works the lats, the back, shoulders, and arms, the trapezius, rhomboids, teres major and minor, deltoids, infraspinatus, biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis, and pecs. To perform the exercise, you need a dumbbell and a bench.

    1-Arm Dumbbell Row Instructions

    • Place your left hand and knee, tucking your toes under, on a bench. Your right foot remains on the floor.
    • Pick up a dumbbell in your right hand. Make sure your left hand is under your shoulder and knees are under your hips. Contract your core muscles to tighten your torso. Your back should be flat. Retract your scapulae without arching the lower back and maintain this position during the entire movement. Straighten your right arm, the one holding the dumbbell, toward the ground. This is your beginning position.
    • Begin pulling the dumbbell slowly upward, as you flex your elbow and pull your upper arm backwards. Keep your arm close to the side of your body and resume pulling the dumbbell up until you’re not able to lift it any further without rotating the torso.
    • Slowly lower the dumbbell to the starting position with a flat back and a retracted-shoulder position.
    • Repeat an equal number of reps on both sides.

    Pro Tip:

    Avoid incorrect posture — make sure your back is flat during the exercise. If you round your back or dip your lower back and push out your chest, you’ll end up removing the tension from your lats. Also, don’t flare out your elbows. Keep them close to your side — if you flare them out, you’ll lower lat participation and increase the engagement of the scapula.

    4) Bent Over Dumbbell Flyes

    Bent Over Dumbbell Flyes

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a bent over dumbbell flyes

    Movement category: Tertiary

    Programming: 2 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 0 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 10.

    The bent over dumbbell flyes are an isolation exercise, as it works a single shoulder joint. That said, the actual movement trains more than one muscle group. It targets the rear deltoids, which are responsible for producing some of the force that enables you to raise your arms to the sides and back. [28] Additionally, this exercise works other upper back muscles, e.g. the rhomboids and infraspinatus. The former are significant for arm movement and help ensure shoulder stability; the latter plays a key role in shoulder extension. [29] There’s data indicating that the exercise engages the middle deltoids to some degree as well. [28, 30] The exercise works great with relatively lighter weights and requires you to use proper technique to feel the right muscles working.

    To perform the bent over dumbbell flyes, you need dumbbells.

    Bent Over Dumbbell Flyes Instructions

    • Take a pair of light dumbbells and stand tall. Position your feet hip-width apart, throw your shoulders back, and straighten your arms.
    • Engage your abs and lean the torso forward. Push your buttocks back. Your upper body should be nearly parallel to the ground. Keep the arms vertical – your elbows and wrists should be below your shoulder blades.
    • Lift the dumbbells out wide to the sides and upwards in a single motion. Your arms should be nearly straight but naturally arching, and should reach a 90-degree elbow relative to your torso at the top of the movement.
    • Once both wrists are at approximately shoulder-level, hold the position for a second and squeeze your rear delts.
    • Lower the dumbbells to the beginning position to finish a rep.

    Pro Tip:

    Make sure your torso’s as parallel to the floor as possible, as this will help you engage your rear delts as much as possible. Also, performing the exercise with a more upright torso increases the engagement of the rest of the back muscles. If you struggle to hinge forward to the optimal torso position, you can perform the activity seated instead.

    5) Reverse Pec Deck Fly

    Reverse Pec Deck Fly

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a reverse pec deck fly

    Movement category:

    Programming: 2 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 0 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 10.

    Also known as the reverse fly, the reverse pec deck fly works is a machine analogue of the bent over dumbbell flye. Similar to bent over dumbbell flyers, the exercise primarily targets the rear deltoids, but also works other muscles of the upper back such as the trapezius (traps), rhomboids, teres major, and infraspinatus. To do the reverse pec deck fly, you need a pec deck machine, which is a machine made up of a seat, a chestpad, and two handles.

    Reverse Pec Deck Fly Instructions

    • Adjust the handles of the machine in the reverse fly setting.
    • Sit and place your chest against the pad.
    • The machine’s handles should be in front of your shoulders.
    • Stretch both arms in front of you and grasp the handles using either an overhand or a neutral grip at shoulder height.
    • Throughout the exercise, keep your elbows slightly bent.
    • Open both arms in a reverse fly motion by contracting the rear delts.
    • At the peak of the movement, your elbows should be behind your torso.
    • Stop for a moment and contract your rear delts before you return to the starting position.

    Pro Tip:

    Doing the exercise using a neutral grip noticeably increases the activity of the posterior deltoid and the infraspinatus. [30]

    6) Face Pulls

     Face Pulls

    Media type: GIF

    Media Content: Someone doing a face pull

    Movement category: Tertiary

    Programming: 2 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

    Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 0 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 10.

    The face pull is a machine-based compound exercise mainly done to isolate the posterior deltoid muscles with the arms in external rotation. Face pulls are great for the rear delts, trapezius, and upper back muscles. [31] Although they primarily work the rear delts, they also target the traps, rhomboids, and the rotator cuff, as they work to stabilize the shoulder joint during this exercise.

    Face pulls are considered by most serious lifters as an accessory movement to offset all the training that normally focuses on the anterior deltoid and chest. While there is no data to support a specific “push to pull” ratio, targeting the rear deltoids directly with this and similar exercises can provide adequate training stimulus to the posterior deltoids and upper back muscles while using relatively light weights, thereby likely reducing the amount of training fatigue generated.  Equipment-wise, you need a cable pulley machine to do face pulls.

    Face Pull Instructions:

    • Adjust the cable pulley machine so that the pulley system is positioned just above your head. Use the rope attachment with two hand-holds to do the exercise.
    • Grab the handles with your hands and your palms facing in. Take a step back until both arms are completely stretched out, then engage your core and lean back a bit (your body should be positioned at an approximately 20-degree angle).
    • Pull the rope toward you as much as necessary to begin lifting the weight from the stack. Engage both shoulders — roll them back to ensure proper posture (avoid having them hunched or rolled forward). This is the beginning position.
    • Pull the handles toward your forehead.
    • Flare your elbows outward to the sides of your body, thus, engaging your rear delts.
    • Reverse the movement and gradually stretch both arms without letting your chest or shoulders roll forward as you stretch.

    Pro Tip:

    According to top trainer Jeff Cavaliere[1] , if you’re using one rope, you’ve already begun the exercise with an error. Using a single rope restricts the movement and prevents your shoulders from opening as wide as necessary at the ending position, which lowers the effectiveness of the face pull. Adding two ropes to the same attachment should do the trick.  Also, pay attention to the attachment height — pull out the rope attachment so that it’s parallel to the ground. The handles should be in line with your eyes. If the attachment is positioned higher, you’ll target the wrong muscles. Finally, consider your elbow width — at the end of the movement, your arms and elbows should be in the “bicep flex position” with a 90-degree elbow bend. [2] 

    Benefits of Exercising Your Rear Delt

    Helps to Relieve Back Pain

    Some exercises such as the wide grip lat pulldown are said to relieve certain types of back pain. A study analyzing the thoraco-lumbar dysfunction (TLD) and exploring the role of latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius discovered the following: although core stabilization exercises are typically recommended for lower back pain, they alone are ineffective in situations where this back pain is linked with TLD. Rather, (concentric) strengthening of the latissimus dorsi, core muscles, and lower trapezius is more effective for pain relief and life quality than only strengthening the first two. [32][3] [4] [5] [6] 

    Everyday Life Benefits [7] [8] [9] 

    Exercising your rear delt has everyday life benefits, too — for instance, when you do the barbell row, you perform a rowing movement through the use of a heavy load, which in turn comes in handy in various everyday situations where you need to pull something toward your torso. [10] [11] 

    According to Ebenezer Samuel, Men’s Health fitness director, rowing movements are great for training one’s back as they offset the horizontal push positions we encounter in our daily lives. For instance, during the day we extend our arms out in front of us when we type at our computers, drive our cars, or open doors. When we row, not only do we hit our lats, but we also build our rhomboids and rear delts — essential muscles that initiate all pushing motions we perform. [12] 

    Improved Strength

    If you do 1-arm exercises such as the 1-arm dumbbell row, you’ll build strength in the arms as you make progress in the movement. [33] Then, there’s the barbell row exercise — one of the best rowing exercises to enhance strength and muscle development in the upper back, posterior shoulder girdle, and shoulder joint muscles. [34]

    That said, when we discuss muscle strength, we shouldn’t only perceive a muscle’s capacity to create maximal force in the gym — actually, it’s been proven time and again that strength training boosts power, endurance, and speed along with muscle adaptation and development. [35, 36]

    Improved (Physical) Health

    Exercising in a way that increases muscle strength and size also lowers resting blood pressure and blood cholesterol, hence, reducing the danger of cardiovascular diseases. What’s more, there are indications that people who become stronger see significant health improvements as opposed to those who lift, but don’t grow their strength as much. [37, 38]

    Engaging in physical activity is frequently linked with a lowered risk of numerous health problems, like cardiovascular disease, cardio-metabolic risk in teenagers, and type II diabetes in middle aged and elderly people. [39, 40, 41]

    Reduced Joint Pain

    Regular strength training helps reduce joint pain and debilitating conditions such as osteoarthritis. Affecting the hips, knees, and hands of middle aged and elderly people, osteoarthritis is a common condition linked to joint pain.

    Consistent training is said to produce noticeable improvement in muscle strength, functional capacity, and pain score, even in cases with advanced disease. [42] Furthermore, beginning to exercise early on appears to not just reduce the loss of strength connected with the disease, but also slows down the development of osteoarthritis or completely stops it. [43]

    Better Mental Health

    Consistent training is said to alleviate the symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety or depression. This fortunate side effect occurs irrespective of whether the trainees grow their strength or not. However, the mechanism behind it is unknown at this time. [44, 45]

    What’s more, strength training is said to improve a person’s sleep quality, which is a nice bonus, considering how important sleep is for our mental health. [46]

    Final Thoughts

    To sum up, the best rear delt exercises are:

    • Pendlay/Barbell Row
    • Wide grip lat pulldown
    • 1-arm dumbbell row
    • Bent over dumbbell flyes
    • Reverse pec deck fly
    • Face pulls

    Training your rear delts is essential to building balanced shoulders in terms of stability, size, and strength. Now that you know the best rear delt exercises, sticking to an effective workout program is key. If you’re a beginner, you can try our Beginner Template; if you have some previous experience in training, opt for the Strength I Template; and if you’re a pro trainee, check out our Strength III Template.

    That said, many people prefer an individual approach. If this is you, and you’re looking for an experienced team to guide you, we have you covered. Our team of professionals can tailor-make high-quality programs that suit your needs and goals. We’ll stay by your side as you move forward and modify your customized program according to your changing fitness needs.

    But don’t take our word for it – hear what our other clients have to say.  Log onto our forum and follow our social media accounts —  Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also have a look at our growing YouTube channel, where we share fitness tips, discuss workout routines, provide how-to guides and much, much more – all backed by the latest research in sports medicine.

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    absolutely under no circumstance will we ever link to Athlean X. Not an expert, spreads misinformation, etc.

    would delete all of this. Rather would say something about focusing on using a controlled tempo, focusing on the squeeze at the end of the range of motion, etc.

    Would not make this claim at all. The study cited does not support this claim. I would delete this section entirely in this article, unless you wanted some general low back pain stuff, e..g.:

    While many studies focused on core strengthening exercises for the management of chronic low back pain have generated mixed or negative results, there is favorable evidence for resistance training. In a study of 45 adults with chronic low back pain, patients managed with a 16-week, whole-body, progressive resistance training program using a variety of free weight and machine-based exercises demonstrated improvements in strength, pain reduction, and quality-of-life measures not seen in patients managed with aerobic training. 

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20093971/

    paraphrase, confusing

    I find the original to be confusing as well, here it is: “core muscles, latissimus dorsi along with lower trapezius strengthening alone is more effective in relieving pain and improving life than strengthening of core muscles and latissimus dorsi alone.” :/ 

    and then in the other summary: 

    Concentric strengthening oflatissimus dorsi and core stabilization exercises together are very effective but latissimus dorsi and corestabilization exercises along with Lower trapezius ismore effective then former alone

    OK I tried to simplify it, Jordan can check if it’s correct.

    not sure, these “functional fitness benefits” sections always feel hollow

    If the whole thing with Men’s Health and the explanation is confusing should we delete it?

    Let’s check with Jordan – shall we get rid of this section?

    is men’s health an accepted source?

    We removed it in a previous article, but I already had this written – it’s not a statement that necessarily requires a source, I think (at least in the first part)

    For the second quote, I have no way of including something similar – they are all competitors and sell programs… can we ask Jordan about such websites? They’re useful for such explanations because not everything can be solved with research studies; they come in handy when we make such claims or provide advice, yet we wish for it to be backed up by a source

    I would delete the part from Men’s health entirely. humans aren’t symmetrical from a muscular development or strength standpoint, but the muscles should be trained. Not sure I would claim “everyday life benefits” from rear delt training. Rather, would likely focus on improved shoulder and upper back strength from training it.

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