The rear delt is a tricky muscle, definitely the most common muscle that people have underdeveloped. This can lead to a lot of shoulder problems, muscle imbalances, and general unaestheticness. If you’re lucky enough to have big rear delts naturally then stop reading here. For those of you who aren’t so gifted, keep reading.
My rear delts were a chronically lagging bodypart. When I was 9 years old I started doing push ups, I could do 60 push ups when I was 10. When I first started lifting I only did bench press and curls for the first year and a half, and for the next year and a half I only half assed my pulling exercises. This all lead to me having an insanely overdeveloped pair of front delts, a decent chest, even some decent traps, but no rear delts. My front delts got so big and inflexible that I couldn’t even feel my rear or side delts or contract them because my fronts got in the way. When I started doing barbell rows and face pulls “moving weight style”, it helped a little, but my shoulders were definitely unbalanced. They still are a little bit, but I’ve worked my ass off this last year to bring my rear delts up, and I think I’m doing a great job.
Let’s look at the 3 biggest mistakes I see people doing when they try to train rear delts:
- Moving Weight: If you’re a beginner you can pretty much ignore this point, you should be focusing on getting your strength up on the big compound lifts, especially if you are skinny and have no mass to contract in the first place. If you’ve got some decent meat on your bones though, you should start trying to feel, squeeze, and contract your muscles, especially on isolation exercises. The point of strength movements like barbell rows and pull ups is to move weight, so contracting isn’t so important, but if your rear delts are doing nothing at all, you may want to lower the weight a bit and get them active on strength movements, in the long run your strength will rise from involving more muscle groups. On compound movements that aren’t necessarily for strength but still multi joint exercises, aka face pulls, you should focus more on contracting the rear delt than moving the weight. I don’t go any heavier than 120-130 on face pulls because then I start focusing more on moving weight than contracting my rear delts. Even 120-130 is pushing it.
- Only Doing Face Pulls: While I respect the minimalist attitude of a lot of powerlifters, that is, the idea to get the most out of only a few movements, all of them being compound movements, sometimes you have to switch it up and do some isolation exercises, maybe even throw in machines (again ignore that if you are a beginner). Rear delt flyes, machine rear delt flyes, across the body cable rear delt flyes, barbell rows, rope grip cable pullovers, the list goes on and on, there are plenty of compound and isolation exercises to hit the rear delts, not to mention there’s at least 5 different ways to do rear delt flyes with dumbbells. Just doing 5×10 face pulls at the end of your “Max Effort” bench day isn’t gonna build your rear delts up as much as your front delts that are getting tons of work from heavy benching and overhead pressing. Do a variety of movements, heavy, light, high rep, low rep, compound, isolation, build up that rear delt every way possible!
- Arbitrary Range of Motion: It seems like everything people do wrong comes back to face pulls. When people think of face pulls, they think of an arbitrary range of motion of pulling towards the face. Many instructional videos and articles on face pulls will tell you to pull it to your forehead, nose, mouth, completely ignoring the individual lifter’s body mechanics and what range of motion helps them hit their rear delts best. The point of face pulls is to pull from a high pulley cable to a high position on your body. Personally, I get the best contraction in my rear delts pulling towards my neck/collarbones, kind of a low face pull, of course with my elbows still flared out. Experiment and find what works best for you. The same goes for rear delt flyes and pretty much any other rear delt movement, don’t do what somebody else does, find what gets you the best contraction in your rear delts.
There’s a lot of other mistakes people make but if you fix these 3 things: learn to contract, use a variety of movements, and find the best range of motion for you, you are well on your way to getting your rear delts as big as your front delts.
A note on learning how to contract: Sometimes this can be tricky, especially if your rear delts are sleeping as badly as mine were. They can be a really dead muscle. When your front delts are so big they get really tight and get in the way of training rear delts (pro tip: stretch). There’s a lot of information out there about how to learn to contract your muscles, some of it illicit like smoking weed before lifting. But don’t worry, if that’s not your thing there’s plenty of legal ways to learn to contract your muscles.
If you’re trying to learn how to contract using the same heavy weights you would use if you’re trying to move weight, it’s not going to work, there’s a reason you can’t contract it and it’s because you’re moving weight. Cut the weight by 25-50%, maybe even 75% if you really cheat on your form, whatever weight is so light you could move it no matter what, even if you actually use your rear delts! (or whatever muscle you’re learning to contract). Which is the point anyways, start really light and gradually increase the weight until you can’t contract your rear delts anymore, then drop it so you can. Continue to do this for a few workouts, get your rear delts sore which will further help increase the mind muscle connection. Nothing will make you more aware of your rear delts than having them be sore all day. And that’s it, just keep working up till you surpass the weight you were at before, this time with your rear delts actually working and getting huge!
That’s most of what I can say at this point in time about rear delts. Comment below if you have more suggestions or if you have any questions.