Aside from legs, which many guys either don’t train at all—crazy but true—or don’t train as hard as the “show muscles” like chest and arms, rear delts are another very important muscle group that commonly gets short shrift.
On shoulder day most people focus first on some type of overhead press, which is smart. Presses are a compound movement and give you the most mass-gain bang for the buck by far. Next up are usually lateral raises for the medial, or side, heads of the deltoids. That’s also a good idea. Development of the side delts gives your shoulders roundness and width when viewed from the front.
After those two movements some guys add another type of lateral raise using either cables or machines. Then it’s not uncommon for them to perform front raises for the anterior, or front, delts. Personally, I don’t advise doing any direct front-delt work. You get plenty of anterior-delt stimulation in any type of overhead press, and the delts work hard during any compound movement you do for the chest, including all presses and dips. I have yet to see anyone with any amount of shoulder development who had weak front delts relative to the other two heads.
What I do see all the time are underdeveloped rear delts. It’s so common because very few bodybuilders slack on chest training. In fact, most who train with weights do plenty of it, often too much—gotta have a big bench press! On shoulder day, of course, everybody presses, but not everyone does rear laterals for the posterior, or rear, heads.
I confess that for more than half my training career I worked rear delts sporadically. Plus, when do you do them? At the end, when you’re already tired from everything else you did for shoulders. So average trainees, if they’re hitting rear delts at all, do so with hardly any energy or intensity. And it shows. When you look at most guys from the side, you’ll notice that their shoulders seem to slope forward, since the front heads are far bigger than the rear. Theoretically, all three heads of the shoulders should be proportionate. When the front heads are overdeveloped relative to the rear, you’re likely to see posture issues. Guys start hunching forward like a gorilla. So what’s the solution? You could train rear delts first on shoulder day while your energy and enthusiasm are high.
Or you could do something I stumbled on quite by accident. A post on an online forum claimed that strict form on barbell rows worked the rear delts more effectively than the lats. I paid it no mind but subconsciously filed it away for future reference. One day, for a change of pace from barbell and dumbbell rows, I decided to do them on the supported T-bar row device. Because your chest is on a pad, you’re forced to use strict form. I took advantage of that fact by pausing each rep for a full second at the top and squeezing my lats hard. I expected my lats to be very sore the next day—they’d been consistently getting sore from barbell rows. Lo and behold, it was actually my rear delts that started to feel sore later that night, and I was in agony by the time I woke up the next morning.
I should note that the T-bar has two grip options. One has handles going straight across for a wide grip, and that’s what I used. The other set of handles is inside the first one, and they angle outward for a closer grip with more supination of the hands—that is, your palms slightly face in toward each other rather than straight down with the wider grip.
I’d been training rear delts consistently with bent-over dumbbell raises or dumbbell raises performed facedown on an incline bench—or on the machine on which you normally face outward and perform flyes. In all of those movements, though, the amount of resistance is fairly limited. Even with a little bit of swing, the most I can really handle for bent-over laterals and still get decent contractions is a pair of 60s. In contrast, I loaded the T-bar with four 45s and a 25 for my heaviest set. So even though the rear delts were only assisting the lats in pulling that 215 pounds, they were still being worked harder—or least in a way different from how they’re worked in various rear-delt movements.
So if you turn to the side and note that your rear delts suck and need to grow, consider wide-grip supported T-bar rows as an unconventional but highly effective solution. You can do them either on back day or on shoulder day, assuming you don’t hit those two bodyparts on consecutive days. If your rear delts really need to grow in a bad way, it could be even more effective to preexhaust them with a couple of sets of rear laterals before proceeding to heavier work on the wide-grip T-bar. As for the T-bar, I do recommend the supported version rather than a freestanding unit. I feel the strictness of being braced against the pad is what forces the rear delts to work so hard. That’s my tip for those of you out there with crappy rear delts—and I know you’re out there!
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth from 25 Years In the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.