August 7, 2011

The Rear Delts - Small Muscle That Plays A Large Role, Regardless Of Your Goal

Of the three deltoid heads, the rear delts are without a doubt the most neglected, which is unfortunate because, when developed, this relatively small muscle adds an impressive three dimensional look to any physique.

The primary reasons for neglect are:

1.    Location – Because they are only visible from the back, and to a lesser extent from the side profile, they are put on the back burner in favor or muscles that can be seen in the mirror.
2.    Strength/ego – Because they are relatively weak in comparison with the other shoulder heads, as well as pretty much every muscle in the body, they are essentially left for dead.
3.    Education – Because most people don’t know what exercise target the rear delts, or if they do they don’t know how to do them, they don’t bother trying to figure it out in front of an audience in the middle of the gym floor.
4.    Value – Because people don’t understand the importance of being structurally balanced, they don’t realize that a weak link in the chain can become a limiting factor.

The primary reason why they should not only, not be neglected, but rather they should be prioritized are:

1. When developed, they are extremely impressive from an aesthetic point of view. In fact, most would argue that nothing is more impressive, in terms of shoulder development, than a set of rear delts that just pop off the back of your upper arm! Case in point Flex Wheeler.

In 1998, Flex Wheeler was the favourite to win the Mr. Olympia, since the reigning champ, Dorian Yates, had decided to retire. Unfortunately for Flex, a bodybuilder named Ronnie Coleman had seemingly come out of nowhere, and crushed his lifelong dream of being crowned Mr. Olympia.

Then, in 1999 Flex was so determined to win the one contest that he'd come so close to winning the previous year, that it is alleged that he injected Synthol into his biceps and rear delts to give himself a competitive edge over the competition, specifically the man who beat him the previous year, Ronnie Coleman.

Of all the muscles, why only the biceps and rear delts? It isn’t like he lacked development in these areas in relation to the rest of the body, as the numerous photos and videos available from previous competitions are evidence that he definitely had spent a great deal of time developing all the muscle to their capacity.

The reason, if he did in fact use Synthol on his biceps and rear delts, is likely because a set of rear delts that made it look as if he came with a set of built-in shoulder pads would set his physique apart from that of the other competitors (in a good way).

In bodybuilding, it’s not always about how strong your strong points are that set you apart, but rather how your strengths expose others’ weaknesses. Since the rear delts are generally a weak point for most in relation to the rest of the shoulder, a set of enormous rear delts can really put you above the rest.

Now, I don’t personally know Flex, and have never met him, or was I even at that show (I was only 15 years old at the time), but based on the photos and video footage (which is readily available on youtube), it’s not too farfetched to assume that there may have been something else playing a part in the development of his rear delts aside from genetics.

This is not to take anything away from Flex, as the writer personally considers him to be one of the best bodybuilders, with one of the most complete physiques, to ever live. His example is simply used to demonstrate the point, which was that a set of rear delts that look like you’re wearing shoulder pads for football is extremely impressive. Search ‘Flex Wheeler 1999 Mr. Olympia’, to see what I mean.

2.    The rear delts play a pivotal role in providing the shoulder with stability for all other exercises that you do, and a relative weakness will ultimately hold you back from moving forward in other lifts that you care about.

For example, bench press numbers generally stagnate, not due to a lack of volume, but rather a lack of balance. What most don’t know, or realize, is that the brain will govern the amount of force that the prime movers involved in the bench press can generate if it fears that the stabilizers are not strong enough to provide the stability necessary to support greater loads.

Practical solutions

Stop beginning every single shoulder workout with various pressing exercises. That’s not to say that overhead pressing is not important, but rather that it is not the only movement that is important. Try alternating between starting with the rear delts when you are fresh so they can receive greater stimulation than simply performing 2-3 sets at the end of a workout using the lightest dumbells in the gym with sloppy form because you’re fatigued and just want to go home.

Aside from performing rear delt work when you are fresh at the beginning of a workout, you could also increase the frequency in which they are trained (or decrease in the event that you are overworking the muscle). Since the rear delts are relatively small in comparison to larger muscle groups like the chest, or back, it’s not necessary to devote an entire day to training them. In this case you could:

1.    Stagger them between sets of bench presses, or shoulder presses (which will increase pressing performance due to the elevated level of motor unit activation that comes from working the antagonist prior to the agonist.
2.    Train them at the end of your back workout since they take on a great deal of tension for most back movements.
3.    Train them before or after your arm workout – before since they won’t likely take away from your arm workout, after since your arm workout likely isn’t as physically demanding as other bodyparts so you’ll still have energy to hit them hard.

In terms of exercise selection, it’s important to choose more than one exercise when training the rear detls because of the nature of the muscle group. To maximally develop a muscle, it needs to be stimulated through various planes and ranges of motion, and because of the uniqueness, and versatility of the shoulder joint, multiple exercises are needed, as many fail to provide optimal tension through a full range of motion.

Generally, the more popular rear delt exercises are done with free weights, in a bent over position, and this position fails to provide any tension whatsoever at the beginning range when the muscle is in a lengthened/stretched position, but provides a significant amount of tension at the end range due to the length of the lever arm, thus severely limiting the amount of weight that can be used through a full range. This means the muscle is not optimally stimulate through the first ¾ of the range of motion, thus increasing the value of cable exercises, the reverse pec deck, and the use of partials to overload either the beginning, or end, ranges of motion, as a primary means for developing the rear delts.

Some of the more common exercises to build the rear delt are:

·         Bent-over lateral raise (some people opt to do this exercise seated as well)
·         High-cable reverse flye
·         Reverse pec-deck
·         Bent-over wide-grip barbell row to neck
·         One-arm dumbell row to side (let the elbow flare out to the side as opposed to keeping it tight to the body)
·         Overhand wide-grip cable row to neck

Training tip

To maximize recruitment of the rear delt, you want to minimize recruitment of all the other muscle groups that contribute to the movement. In the case of the rear delt, the major players assisting are the rhomboids, and triceps, so to minimize their contribution, perform rear delt exercises with the elbow completed lengthened (this takes the triceps out of the movement), and the shoulders completed protracted (this takes the rhomboids out of the movement). The reason for this is because muscles are their weakest, and most incapable of contributing high levels of force in their shortest, or longest positions, and by locking out the arm and protracting the shoulders, the major assisting muscle groups are in a position of great disadvantage, so by default the rear delts are left with a greater percentage of the load.

In terms of detecting balance, two moves are used. These exercises provide their greatest level of tension when the muscle is either in the lengthened position, or the shortened position, and are done unilaterally for accuracy purposes, and should also be used separately to correct any imbalances that there may be. They are:
·         Flat Powell Raise (this exercise places the most amount of stress on the rear delt in the lengthened range)
·         Single-Arm Bent-Over Raise (this exercise places the most amount of stress on the rear delt in the shortened range)

Those two movements, if done properly, will give an accurate reading to whether or not there is an imbalance, as they have completely opposite strength curves (the Flat Powell Raise gets easier, and the Single-Arm Bent-Over Raise gets harder, as you progress through the movement.

To be declared balanced, you should be able to:

Flat Powell Raise roughly 10% of what you close grip bench press, for 8 reps.

Single-Arm Bent-Over Raise roughly 8% of what you close grip bench press, for 8 reps.

If you have any questions about how to effectively train the rear delts, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

1 comment:

  1. Very good article. I enjoyed reading about the ronnie and flex battle. Thank you