Most of us break our exercise program down to its key elements: legs, chest, shoulders, arms and back. But, of all of them, the shoulders (namely the rear deltas) are the area we know the least about.
Comprised of the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior (or back), the shoulder not only adds volume to your silhouette, but is important for everything from moving your arms to balance. “The main function of the back deltoid is shoulder extension, which means it helps pull the arms back,” explains Chris Antoni, founder of Tailor Made Fitness. Most importantly, Antoni says the rear delts “help stabilize the shoulders and work with the muscles in the back to prevent your shoulders from bending forward.”
In other words: treat them right and these little muscles will benefit immensely. “Even though the rear deltas are quite small muscles, they play a huge role in building a stronger back by helping to activate and stabilize the large muscles found in the upper back, chest, and shoulders,” adds Antoni. Don’t know where to start? We’ve got your back.
How rear deltas help in everyday life
Antoni points out that rounded shoulders create a ‘3D’ look that can add size to your body and, by association, make your chest and arms appear larger. Stronger shoulders will also help stabilize you in heavy lifts, such as the incline bench press or other unstable exercises where the dumbbell and bench meet.
“Strong rear delts can help correct the slumped desk posture we all suffer from,” adds personal trainer Niko Algieri. “Strengthening the rear deltas balances the usual dominance of the front deltas and chest, allowing the shoulders to be set back in a more neutral posture. And, by strengthening your rotator cuff, you’ll prevent exercise injuries, and the awkward movements that lead to impacted shoulders.”
Do I need a special delta day in the gym package?
You’ll be happy to know that spending the entire session focusing on relatively small muscle groups is overkill. But there are benefits to doing at least one isolated back delta exercise while you’re working your shoulders.
“We have to use isolation and compound movements to work the rear deltoid,” explains Algieri. “Compound exercises — like bent-over rows — will hit the deltas, but you can get more gain by adding in some more focused exercises to encourage greater muscle fiber engagement.”
Avoid making your back pain worse
A tight upper back is a symptom of sitting too long. Working the rear deltas can help loosen tight muscles and prevent future injuries. But as Algieri points out, there are some common mistakes with the shoulder, which are doing too many pushing exercises, and forgetting that the shoulder is made up of three muscle groups that can move through different ranges of motion.
“The main mistake is limiting your shoulder exercises to just pressing,” he says. “It’s more effective to get each shoulder muscle to do what it’s designed to do by adding in some lat raises, front raises, and rows, for example. I’ve also seen men shrug to build up their shoulders, but the shrug actually targets the trap.”
In other words: a well-rounded routine = a well-rounded physique.
With that in mind, Algeri has provided an exercise designed to get your rear deltoids engaged as they should be, leading to bigger, pain-free shoulders and a firm upper back. Let’s start by loosening.
Rotator cuff activation – 2 x sets of 15 reps, minimal rest
“Sit on a bench, one leg on top with the knee bent, the elbow of the same arm resting on the knee so your elbow lifts out to the side. With a light dumbbell in hand, slowly raise your arms from chest height until the weight is in line with your head. You should feel movement almost exclusively through the rear delts. After 15 reps, change hands and continue again.
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press – 4 x sets of 10 reps / 70 seconds rest between sets
“Choose a weight that you struggle with as you approach the last rep. Start with a dumbbell at head height, then extend your arms overhead to increase the weight.
Sit Arnold Press – 4 x sets of 10 reps / 70 seconds rest between sets
“This is similar to a standard shoulder press, but this one also incorporates the rear deltoid. Lower the weights down and, in a seated position, you will lift the weights up, rotating your wrists so that your palms are facing you. Roll back the other way while you lower the weight for one.
Standing Lateral Lift – 4 x sets of 10 reps / 70 seconds rest between sets
“Hold dumbbells on either side of your hips. Raise your arms to your sides to shoulder height, resisting the temptation to shrug as you do. Lower the weight slowly back to your hips one time.
Rear Delts Prone Fly – 4 x sets of 10 reps / 70 seconds rest between sets
“Set the bench at 30 degrees. With light weights in each hand, lie back on a bench with your chin directly above. Raise your arms up and to the sides and then slowly lower them. You’ll know if you’re heavy enough if you start to feel your rear deltas kick in at about rep four.
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