While working out your pecs, lats, delts, biceps, and triceps takes up most of your upper body days in a fitness routine, spare a thought for the one muscle that connects all those and more. The rear, or posterior deltoids, are critical muscles to maintain. And maintenance doesn’t just mean building it but also making sure they are functional, activated, and not tight.
The location of the rear delts is what makes it such a vital muscle. They’re just behind the shoulders but start at the scapula (also known as shoulder blades) and latch onto the upper arm muscles while passing through the lats and front delts.
The primary job of the rear delts is to make sure your shoulders get pulled back rather than hunch forward. If your rear delts are weak, it will damage your posture and add an extra load to your shoulders and back to keep you upright. And excessive load means a higher possibility of injury.
An article on fitness company Auster’s blog on the importance of rear delts goes as far as suggesting that one should work out this muscle more than the chest.
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“The ‘desk job’ posture is where most people spend most of the day hunched over their computer with poor posture. A rounded back and hunched shoulders are a recipe for long-term hunching and injury. Overtraining the frontal plane by doing too many chest days leads to excessive hunching. By increasing the size of the anterior muscles relative to the posterior, the upper body becomes hunched over. The back muscles become relatively weaker than the front muscles and are unable to pull the shoulders back.”
There are advantages for those looking to bulk up as well. Working on the rear of the shoulder will give you a fuller look if that is one of the goals. The added advantage for overall shoulder health means you should be doing these exercises to make the most of your workouts.
So enter face pulls. By far the best exercise for rear delts, advocated by most of the top fitness experts, and doable in multiple ways. Those with access to a gym need to use the rope handle and pulley to set it up, and if you don’t, then resistance bands will also do the trick. But here’s the magical part about this exercise. There are so many variations, and all of them are worth doing. Here’s listing a few: hammer grip face pulls, palm down face pulls, lying down face pulls, chest supported face pulls, and even Aussie Rows, which are basically facing pulls done by gripping a rope on a smith machine bar while in inverted row position. An excellent Fitness Maverick article on the ten best variations of the face pull also has tutorials on how to do them all.
A few tips here, though: make sure you are bringing the shoulder blades together at the end of every rep and hold it there for a couple of seconds before releasing the weight. It would be more effective to pick a weight which does not require you to release the stack of weights before every rep, instead maintaining a constant time under tension through your full set.
According to a Verywellfit article titled How to Do Face Pulls: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes, this is the biggest thing to take care of: “Pull the handles of the attachment straight toward your forehead. Keep your palms facing in as your elbows flare outward toward the sides, engaging the rear delts.” Too many people get this wrong, and the exercise ends up being pointless.
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Working on the rear delts is not limited to face pulls. The bent-over lateral raise, which is a regular shoulder day exercise, can be slightly tweaked to work the back of the shoulder too. Slightly bend at your hips, keep the knees and elbows soft and use two dumbbells with palms facing each other and do a lateral raise. Jeff Cavaliere, who is a perfectionist with how minor tweaks can make or break an exercise, has some tips on this exercise in the video below.
It is smart to add some correctional work to your rear delts too, along with stretches. The side-lying external rotation takes away the prize for those suffering from shoulder issues looking to get gradually stronger. “This exercise focuses on the external rotation motion that the rear deltoid performs. It also targets some of the rotator cuff muscles,” says a Healthline article titled 6 Exercises to Improve Posterior Deltoid Strength.
And finally, the Association of Clinical Exercise brings you this video to release tightness in the rear delts. Using a ball or even a foam roller if you are a beginner (the ball is better), it is vital to make sure the rear delts are functioning properly for overall upper body health.