Tell me if you suffer from a few of these ailments:
- Neck pain
- Back pain
- Hunched shoulders (aka you have the posture of a turtle)
- Stalled strength in your bench press
Okay, you can deal with a headache or some neck pain. But not bench pressing more weight? That’s a travesty. And something you will not stand for.
But it happens to all of us. And when it happens, you scour the Internet for tips and tricks about moving past your bench press plateau. Except, the problem you’re trying to correct isn’t going to be fixed by adding in a new bench press variation. What’s preventing you from bench pressing more weight is that you’ve ignored, or flat out never directly trained, your rear deltoids.
The Teacher Rear’s the Student
Your shoulders are comprised of three muscles: the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids. For the most part, you work your front and lateral deltoids with all the overhead pressing and lateral raises you rep out every week. But how often are you directly targeting your rear delts? Are you only hitting them at the end of a shoulder workout?
When it comes to building bigger and better mirror muscles like the pecs, lats, traps, or pushing your bench press strength far past 225, you can’t overlook training your rear delts. Ideally, you’ll want to train them more than once a week, too.
But first, let’s cover how your rear delts assist a movement like the bench press and what their general mechanical functions are. The rear delts function to:
- Extend your shoulder
- Rotate your shoulder externally
- Extending in the transverse plane (i.e., moving your arm away from your chest with flared elbows)
- Abducting in the transverse plane (i.e., machine delt fly)
The rear delts aren't prime movers in the bench press like the pecs or the anterior deltoid. But shoulder extension happens when you lower the bar to your chest. And if your rear delts aren't strong enough to stabilize the weight on the bar, you'll sacrifice control, and that loss in stability could put you at risk for rotator cuff injuries.
It may be cliché, but you're only as strong as your weakest link; and too often, it's your underdeveloped and underworked rear delts that are stagnating your bench press.
A stagnant bench press can destroy your confidence. And if you have the turtle-like posture — hunched shoulders, sunken chest, rounded upper back, and forward head — those glorious pecs you continue to pound in the gym will never look their best.
Here’s a list of people who suffer from terrible posture:
- People with desk jobs
- Truck drivers
- Internet entrepreneurs who spend too much time writing online (oh, that's me)
- And YOU. If, you're reading this on your mobile device right now. You’re posture probably sucks.
Piss poor posture weakens the muscles of your upper back and shoulders. Even if you perform rows or pull-ups, if you’re not targeting the rhomboids, traps, and rear delts, you’re leaving a ton on the table. Including improving your mental health.
According to one study from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, sitting up straight can help reduce overall stress. But that’s just one study of numerous others carried out all over the world, that show that posture affects things like confidence, memory, and your personality type.
Posture is important. So how do you improve your posture? Well, the first step to improving your posture is to remain cognizant of the position in which you stand or sit. Boring, I know. But it works.
The second step is to perform horizontal pulling with slight external shoulder rotation. And what muscle is responsible for that? Yep, the rear delts.
Posture: The Key to Being More Awesome
If vertical pulling motions like lat pulldowns, pull-ups, or chin-ups are the bulk of your direct back work, stop what you’re doing and add in more horizontal pulling motions. Spend more time doing exercises like incline rows, batwing rows, T-Bar rows, or scapular push-ups.
Horizontal pulling motions require you to go into shoulder extension, which, if you remember from above, is one of the functions of the rear delts. So you’ll be hitting those rear delts with compound horizontal rowing movements.
Here’s the thing about rear delts, though.
Your rear delts respond best to more volume and lower weight. And because your rear delts respond best to more reps, that means you should train them more than once a week. Not only will this improve overall shoulder health, but it will lead to more strength gains.
High rep training of your rear delts provides numerous aesthetic benefits:
- Shoulder that look three dimensional
- Larger and wider looking back
- And because of where the rear delts attach on your shoulder, bigger rear delts give the illusion that you have more massive triceps.
You want "more massive" looking arms, right? Of course you do. So now that I’ve covered why training the rear delts is effing important—outside of improving your bench press—let’s go over when and how you should train those bad boys.
How and When to Hit the Delts
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: any day that you train back, chest, or shoulders, you will engage and use your posterior deltoids. Taking your rear delts to the next level means isolating them 3-4 times a week with different exercises and at different angles.
Unlike your standard plan of hitting your rear delts at the end of your workout, you’re going to vary not only the rep ranges, angles, and load, but you’ll also hit the rear delts at different times during your workout.
On Chest Day
Everyone knows that Monday is International Chest Day. And since your rear delts are stabilizers for the bench press, before you ever grab the bar to bench your heart out, get the blood pumping in your rear delts.
Grab a small resistance band and wrap it over the top of a rack. Perform 2 to 3 sets of 12 reps, pausing at the top of the movement for one second and squeezing your rear delts. Keep rest to no more than 30 seconds here. You’re chasing a small pump on these warm up sets and getting the muscles ready for the coming onslaught.
Tip: make sure to keep your elbows slight higher than your shoulders when you pull the band toward your face, and with a slight external rotation of the shoulder joint.
Now that your rear delts have some blood flow in them, you can continue with your normal bench pressing routine. And once you’ve finished pummelling your pecs on International Chest Day, you’re going to finish your workout with one more rear delt isolated exercise.
And since you’ve hammered your chest with heavy weight today, you’re also going to isolate those rear delts with a bit more weight than normal. Just because your rear delts respond very well to tons of volume and light(er) weights, doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally hit them with more weight.
Exercises like the rear delt raise and even the face pull, allow you to swing weights or engage other parts of your body to “assist” moving the weight. That’s not the case when you perform them supine.
The supine version of the face pull, versus a standing version, allows you to pull more weight while 100% isolating your rear delts. Go for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps with 60 seconds rest between sets. Check the video out below for details on how to perform this variation of the face pull.
On Back Day
If you do a ton of horizontal pulling motions, you’ll hit more of your rear delts on this day than any other. So this is the day you want to hit those tiny little deltoids with lighter weight, more reps, and constant tension.
This is when using machines or cables are the most ideal. And besides heading over to old faithful, the rear delt fly machine, one of the best ways to finish off your rear delts on back day is to hit them at a slightly different angle, and pull weight from a low to high.
Keep the weight light here and focus your mind on feeling the squeeze in your shoulders. Perform 1-2 sets of either 20-25 reps or as many reps as possible with 60 second rest periods between sets.
On Shoulder Day
If you want to read more about how to build superhero sized shoulders, you can read that post here. But if you’re like most lifters, you save hitting rear delts until shoulder day. Now, that’s not a bad thing. But remember, your rear delts respond best to volume. And if you’ve been training them once a week, then it’s time you turn the volume up for a few weeks and hit these bad boys in shoulder day as well.
Word of caution: Because your rear delts are used a lot in back exercises, keep your designated back and shoulder days separated by at least 48 hours. This provides ample time for complete recovery.
When it comes to training rear delts on shoulder day, for myself and my online coaching clients, this is when I use the power of supersets and trisets to truly test the work capacity of my shoulders. Here’s a few examples of how you can do it as well.
After a set of overhead presses, grab a resistance band and do 10-12 reps of band pull aparts. Keep your arms straight and elbows locked to isolate your rear delts even more. You can also do my favorite triset to end your shoulder day. A little burnout finisher that will help you build boulder shoulders bigger than Darunia.
Or if you have access to a TRX or some other suspension trainer, you can strengthen the external rotation function of your rear delts by doing TRX Rear Delt Flys. It’s a great exercise to superset with any variation of shoulder presses or lateral raises. It is not an easy exercise, either. So don’t go into it thinking because you’re only using your body as the form of resistance that this will be easy.
The Party's in the Rear (Delts)
Look, I get it: the rear delts aren’t show muscles. You don’t see these muscles in the mirror, so why should you give a damn about them? Because stronger and more developed rear delts means bigger bench press numbers, and more importantly, a more eye-catching physique.
And that’s what you’re really after isn’t it? A more eye-catching physique? Good, then get out there and spend some time partying with your rear delts; they’ll never let you down if you do.
About The Author
Robbie Farlow, King of the Gingers and Protector of the North, is an uber nerd who loves all things Star Wars, video games, Marvel, and 90s music. Oh and tacos and whiskey. When he isn’t hosting his podcast, Side Quest Podcast, where he interviews the smartest people in fitness, or helping his online coaching clients discover their inner superheroes, or fighting white walkers, you can find him playing video games, deadlifting, munching on tacos, or living by his motto: Scotch and Squats.