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9 Effective Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises

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The rear delts (little muscles at the back of the shoulder) are mini but mighty. Whilst they’re not very big, they’re incredibly important to train well. These rear delt dumbbell exercises will show you how to train them. The rest of the article will explain why to train them.

When most people think of training their shoulders, they automatically think of different ‘push’ exercises. Military presses, dumbbell shoulder presses, push presses, Arnold presses, and the like.

In fact, I’ve covered the 27 most important push exercises in a separate article.

The thing is, push exercises are only half the options when it comes to shoulder work. It’s like thinking a car only has forward gears.

When we look at basic shoulder anatomy and movements, you’ll understand the importance of rear delt dumbbell exercises. You’ll also be given an array of new movements to use in your workouts. 

These movements will build your shoulder capacity, your strength, your size and reduce your injury frequency.

Your training is about to be upgraded…

Steve targetting his rear delts using dumbbells and a bench

Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises: 3 Outsized Benefits

How simple exercises can transform your training results and shoulder health

When thinking of your training, remember this… A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. 

If that weak link happens to be in your shoulders, there’s not much more to say than… you’re screwed!

It’ll stop you from performing your upper body lifting, it’ll make holding a barbell for squats and lunges a problem, and it might even stop some ab work. One small area will have an outsized impact on your training.

Let’s look at getting that fixed.

No muscle group, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant it may be, should be neglected in your training if you want to build the strongest, fittest and most injury-resistant body you can.

Here are 3 outsized benefits to rear delt dumbbell exercises…

Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises Benefits

Benefit 1: Overall lifting will be improved

There’s nothing bad that can come from being stronger. Nothing that I can think of anyway. 

By hitting your rear delts properly, you’ll improve the health and function of your shoulder. When you get this right, and the muscles are all working together properly, your lifting will be improved. 

You’ll be stronger. You’ll have a better range of movement. Your control of the weight you lift will be better. It’ll improve technique. Your mind-muscle connection will be more dialed in, and you’ll feel each lift better.

With stronger rear delts, you’ll also be able to retract your shoulder blades more effectively. This means your pulling exercises will be better and more effective. Your rows, pulls, olympic lifts and the like will all be much improved.

Benefit 2: Reduced injury frequency

This one is massive. 

The role of the shoulder joint in all upper body cannot be understated – as the primary joint of the upper limb, ANY upper body exercise involves the shoulder to a degree. Whether that’s as a prime mover of a weight, or as a stabilizing element for other muscles, the shoulders are involved.

By strengthening your rear delts, you’ll reduce the injury frequency dramatically.

An example of how rear delt weakness contributes to shoulder injury can be found in research by Phil Page. His 2011 study titled ‘Shoulder muscle imbalance and subacromial impingement syndrome in overhead athletes’ found that…

‘Functional impingement may be associated with muscle imbalance; therefore, careful examination of flexibility and strength of important muscles about the shoulder complex is vital to understanding the root cause of impingement and prescribing effective treatment.’

In English, this conclusion means that impingement in the shoulder is often down to strength imbalances. 

Shoulder strength imbalances are often found in the rear delts. Further research shows that this effect can spread, which has an impact on the muscles of the upper back and therefore shoulder stability and function. 

Strengthen your rear delts and you’ll reduce the chances of developing a shoulder impingement.

Benefit 3: Improved athleticism

Let’s start with the obvious…

Stronger shoulders will make you a stronger, more powerful athlete when it comes to anything requiring upper body strength and power. That’s a given. 

If we dig into more detail, we find that the primary (more on this later) role of the rear delt is a retraction of the shoulder. This is a key component of so many athletic skills.

Think of the movement before throwing a ball, a javelin, or a discus… the shoulder retracts as the arm is pulled back. The same thing happens when throwing a punch.

If we look at rear delt activation in a wider context, it’s integral to any movement where there’s shoulder or shoulder blade retraction. This means it’s involved in almost every single sport in some sense.

Swimming, running, basketball, baseball, soccer – even when jumping you use your arms for leverage.

But that’s not all it does. There’s a secondary, yet significant role in shoulder extension from the rear delt which a lot of people don’t appreciate. A 2013 study by Crouch et al revealed…

‘In the unimpaired limb model, teres minor and posterior deltoid accounted for 16% and 14% of the total isometric shoulder extension and external rotation joint moments, respectively. During the 3 movement simulations, posterior deltoid produced as much as 20% of the mean shoulder extension moment.’

To many people, this will be astonishing. They won’t have realized quite how much the rear delts contribute to shoulder extension. Imagine your bench press suffering because of weak rear delts!

So training your rear delts also helps to improve shoulder function going forward as well!

Steve working out using a weight bench and a set of adjustable dumbbells

5 Steps to effectively train your rear delts with dumbbells

Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises General Infographic

The rear delts are a muscle that’s involved in a lot of pulling movements, but to really engage and isolate it, we have to really move deliberately. The focus here is on maximizing the contraction of the muscle, so follow these tips to ensure it happens…

Step 1: Really dial in on technique

Technique and form is important on all exercises, but when you’re really trying to force a muscle to work effectively it takes on an even greater role. The reality is the rear delts aren’t the easiest to switch on, you have to focus on the technique.

The mind-muscle connection idea was made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s. 

For a long time there were certain circles of the fitness world who thought it was nonsense, but a 2015 study titled ‘Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training’ by Calatyud et al proved it was effective.

Their research showed…

‘Resistance-trained individuals can increase triceps brachii or pectoralis major muscle activity during the bench press when focusing on using the specific muscle at intensities up to 60 % of 1RM. A threshold between 60 and 80 % appeared to exist.’

So by focusing on the muscle you’re ‘aiming for’ when lifting weights, you can increase muscle activity. It’s an easy way to make resistance training more effective. 

Step 2: Slow your movements down

Another effective way to really focus your attention on a muscle is to slow your movements down. When you really slow the exercise down, you truly feel every element of the exercise. When targeting a small muscle such as the rear delts, this is important.

The other reason for slowing down is because you maximize time under tension (TUT), which research shows helps to improve strength and size gains in muscle tissue.

The longer the muscle tissue is exposed to mechanical tension, the greater the increases in strength and capabilities of the area.

A lot of the exercises you see in this list would be best executed with a 5 seconds lift, 5 seconds lower tempo, with constant focus on a contraction of the relevant muscle groups around the upper back and rear delts.

Step 3: Reduce the weights you lift

Following on from the previous points, one of the ways to help you improve technique, slow down your lifting and get better results is by reducing the weights you lift.

With a couple of decades working in the fitness industry, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that ego lifting can rob you of your deserved progress. By giving your ego a rest, reducing your weights and lifting properly, you’ll benefit far more.

You’ll execute better technique, which will activate the target muscles more.

When you spend your time lifting properly and forgetting your ego, you’ll make faster progress and actually achieve what you set out to do in the first place. That doesn’t mean you don’t seek to add weight by the way, you really do.

You just build strength based on great technique, rather than rushed, poor quality reps.

Step 4: Multi directional movements

The shoulders (as I’ve already been over in my shoulder exercises article) have the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body. They are capable of 8 different movements, and they are acted upon by 18 different muscles. The shoulder joint itself contains 4 different bones.

This is a long-winded way of saying the shoulders are a complex joint, and they need to be trained in several different movement directions. This is why the exercises in this list will require movements in different directions.

It helps to tick all of the movement and capability boxes of the rear delts.

We’re also using dumbbells in this list because it removes any element of strong-side bias from the exercises. Forcing both sides to lift properly ensures the exercises are as effective as they can be.

Step 5: Think frequency, not duration when it comes to rear delts

We’re training a very small muscle here, and anyone who has tried to blast a small muscle will know how quickly they fatigue (biceps, I’m looking at you). You simply won’t be able to hit set after set of high quality reps for such a small muscle group.

The way around this is to hit the rear delts frequently, so throw a couple of the exercises you’ll read today into every workout. Perform 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps for each, hitting fatigue each time.

This will make sure you’re training the rear delts every workout, rather than relying on a pointless split routine.

Not only will this mean you won’t take up too much of your workout time on a small muscle, it also means you’ll be training them with a much higher frequency, allowing them to get stronger and healthier in a shorter time frame.

Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises Warm Up

Equipment needed for these exercises

9 Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises

Here’s the list of my favorite rear delt dumbbell exercises. You’ll see there are 9 exercises, whereas other rear delt dumbbell exercise articles out there have more. 

You want to know why? 

Because I don’t believe in wasting your precious time reading about exercises that are basically the same as one another, with a tiny variation within them.

Every single exercise here is legitimately different from the others.

There’s no additional place for a small tweak of an exercise, such as taking a movement pattern, then claiming the single arm (or double arm) version of it as a different exercise! We’re here to educate, not confuse.

Here’s the list of rear delt dumbbell exercises I’ll share with you in this article…

Reverse Fly415
Dumbbell Thread the Needle410 (per side)
Y Raise410
T Raise410
W Raise410
Dumbbell Snatch High Pulls420 (10 per side)
Gorilla Rows420 (10 per side)
Renegade Rows420 (10 per side)
Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises Infographic part 1

1. Reverse Fly

Reverse flyes are like face pulls in the sense that the value doesn’t lie in the weight you lift – it lies in the quality of the movement execution.

Your focus should be on full scapular control, activating the muscles of the upper back and rear delts, and achieving a full muscle squeeze at the top of the movement. Weight isn’t everything – movement quality is important too.

Equipment needed for reverse flyes:

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do reverse flyes:

  • Bend forward at the hips, keeping your back straight
  • Start with your arms pointing down directly underneath your chest, with a slight bend at the elbow
  • Lift the hands out to the sides, squeezing your shoulder blades as you do
  • At the top of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly to finish
  • Lower the arms back to the start position and repeat

2. Side Plank Dumbbell Thread the Needle

I like this movement because it’s a way to engage the core as well as make the shoulders work. It’s very effective because both shoulders work at the same time. One shoulder is working on stability, whilst the other one works on rotational movement.

Both of these exercises engage the rear delts, so it’s super effective as an movement. 

Equipment needed for side plank dumbbell thread the needle:

How to do side plank dumbbell thread the needle:

  • Start in a side plank – lie sideways with your weight supported on your forearm
  • Keeping your feet on the floor, lift your hips away from the floor, creating clear space between your hips and the floor
  • Take hold of a dumbbell in the opposite hand
  • Push the dumbbell under your hip closest to the floor, keeping it off the floor
  • When the you have rotated as far as possible with the dumbbell, rotate the dumbbell back around and extend over your body in a straight arm position
  • Repeat as many times as required, then switch sides

3. Dumbbell Y Raise

The dumbbell Y raise is one of the three main ‘shoulder rehab’ exercises that are a go-to of physical therapists. They’re an opportunity to engage the shoulders through a controlled and deliberate range of movement.

This movement engages all of the delts, so is a great shoulder exercise. 

Equipment needed for dumbbell Y raises:

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

How to do dumbbell Y raises:

  • Lie chest down on an inclined bench, with a light dumbbell in each hand with your thumb side facing the ceiling
  • With your arms straight, slowly and deliberately lift them up and out slightly outwards, squeezing the shoulder blades together as you go
  • Slowly return to the start position
  • Repeat as many times as required

4. Dumbbell T Raise

The next exercise of the YTW complex, dumbbell T-Raises are similar to reverse flyes. The difference here is that the T-Raise has your chest supported on a bench.

The exercise here is designed to really isolate the rear delts, so engage that mind-muscle connection fully and really maximize the contraction. Hit your rear delts hard with these.

Equipment needed for dumbbell T raises:

How to do dumbbell T raises:

  • Lie chest down on an inclined bench, with a light dumbbell in each hand
  • Slowly lift the arms up and to the sides, keeping your arms straight and you lift into a ‘T’ shape
  • Squeeze the shoulder blades together as you go
  • At the top of the movement, pause and slowly return to the start position
  • Repeat as many times as required

5. Dumbbell W Raise

This is the final of the three main YTW lifts. It’s designed to train the medial (middle) and rear delts. It does so through the range of movement, and the top contraction of the muscle. This is another exercise where the mind muscle connection plays an important role.

In addition, the contraction at the top of the movement helps to engage the muscles surrounding the rear delts, increasing the effectiveness of the movement. 

Equipment needed for dumbbell T raises:

How to do dumbbell W raises:

  • Lie chest down on an inclined bench, with a light dumbbell in each hand 
  • Slowly lift the arms up and to the sides, bending your arms, so your elbows pull back into a ‘W’ shape
  • Squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top of the movement
  • Pause and slowly return to the start position
  • Repeat as many times as required

Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises Infographic part 2

6. Single arm dumbbell snatch high pull

This is the first of our two power movements. It’s designed to work on explosive power, the kind of which you’d use in a sporting context. It’s also a perfect way to combine several body parts in a single movement, with the shoulder doing most of the work.

Finally, it’s a vertical pull movement from the ground up, which is unique in a shoulder training concept. A great movement for lots of training outcomes. 

Equipment needed for single arm dumbbell snatch high pull:

How to do single arm dumbbell snatch high pull:

  • Place the dumbbell between your feet, slightly in front of you
  • Take hold of the dumbbell with an overhand (palms facing towards you) grip
  • Keep your back straight and pull directly upwards
  • Pulling the elbow up high and wide, but squeeze the shoulder blade of the lifting arm in towards the middle
  • Emphasize the elbow traveling upwards and keeping the dumbbell close to the body
  • Lower the dumbbell under control
  • Repeat as many times as required

7. Gorilla row

The gorilla row is a real favorite of mine and features heavily in my training and that of the programs I write. I like it for a number of reasons…

It’s a single limb exercise, it’s a variation on a row, you can lift big weights, it’s functional and useful in both low and high rep workouts and it trains anti-rotation, which is a big bonus.

Overall, they’re a fantastic back exercise, but there’s a lot of heavy weight benefit for the rear delts too.

Equipment needed for gorilla rows:

How to do gorilla rows:

  • Hold the weights with a neutral (palms facing) grip
  • Set your body position – straight, stiff back. Chest pointing towards the floor, perhaps with a slight incline, slight knee bend
  • Pull one of the weights up towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blade in at the top
  • At the top of the movement pause then slowly lower the dumbbell, but don’t let it touch the floor
  • Repeat the same movement on the opposite side, alternating for as many reps as required

8. Renegade Rows

The renegade row comes in different variations (some with push ups etc), but this one has the most rear delt focus. Just like the side plank thread the needle, it requires stability on one shoulder, and movement on the other.

This is a great workout for the core too, so it’s a very efficient exercise to include in your rear delt dumbbell exercises list.

Equipment needed for renegade rows:

How to do renegade rows:

  • Hold the weights with a neutral (palms facing) grip
  • Assume a plank position – arms fully extended, supporting your body weight
  • Keep your core rigid and your back straight (no sagging)
  • Lift one dumbbell off the floor and towards your chest, whilst your body weight is supported on the opposite side
  • When you reach your chest, lower it down towards the floor and repeat on the opposite side

9. Shrugs

Equipment needed for shrugs: 

How to do shrugs:

  • Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand – the arms should be straight either side of your body
  • Keeping the dumbbells by your sides, shrug your shoulder up – visualize trying to touch your ears with your shoulders!
  • When the shoulders are as high as possible, squeeze them together and lower back down
  • Repeat as required

These 9 exercises are very effective rear delt dumbbell exercises. They’re designed to train your rear delts in several different planes of movement and movement styles, so you can avoid overuse and boredom issues.

Use these exercises regularly to build bulletproof shoulders – you can’t afford to not do them, then suffer the consequences. 

Rear Delt Training – FAQs

A few answers to common questions about training the rear delts…

1. Why back exercises too?

There’s a physiological process known as ‘irradiation’ (more on that process here), whereby surrounding muscles contract when a target muscle is stimulated. In the case of the rear delts, these muscles are activated when the upper back is trained as well.

Back exercises also allow you to lift heavier weights than the isolation rear delt dumbbell exercises do. This exposes them to heavier loads, training more of the fast twitch muscle fibers.

2. Why dumbbells for rear delt exercises?

In my opinion, dumbbells are the best way to target the rear delts. Of course, you can hit them in other ways, but cables and barbells don’t give you the same level of control when it comes to movement. When you lift with dumbbells, the movements are really under your control.

There’s also the unilateral element of lifting with dumbbells. Both sides are working effectively because you can’t rely on a stronger side dominating the movement.

3. Do you need a specialist day for rear delts?

Absolutely not. In fact, I’d argue against it strongly, unless you’re targeting them for rehab purposes. You simply don’t need to hit such a small area that hard.

A small muscle group such as the rear delts isn’t going to be capable of dealing with large loads or high training volumes. Take a less is more approach and train them frequently. Frequent training that stimulates the muscles without annihilating them is the way to go here.
You can slot them in on any training day – it won’t take long to do 3-4 of the exercises listed in this workout.

4. You say rear delts can’t cope with much training, but suggest 4 sets – why?

This is an easy one to answer – it’s because the loads are so low. If you’re trying to perform lots of heavy weight sets on such a small muscle group, you’d be in trouble. Light weights allow the bigger, more frequent sets to happen.

The reality is because the rear delts are so small, even if they were particularly strong you wouldn’t be able to lift heavy weights with them. 

5. Do I need to warm up my rear delts? If so, how?

Treat them the same as any other muscle. So yes, you do need to warm them up. The shoulders have a huge range of motion, so they need a lot of warming up. Get plenty of blood flow in there, get them loose and get them moving well.

My preferred ways of warming up the shoulders are with the rower, ski erg, air bike, jumping rope or perhaps even some shadow boxing. A 5-minute burst is plenty – you don’t even need to work hard during the warm-up.

6. Can I train rear delts on subsequent days?

Listen to your body. If you feel as though you can, go for it – you’re unlikely to injure yourself with the weights and exercises involved. If you’re feeling stiff and sore, then I’d give it a day or two of extra recovery until you feel right.

The good news is that hitting your rear delts won’t impact the rest of your training, so it won’t compromise your recovery time. If you train the small muscles with 3-4 exercises, the metabolic demands aren’t high and the recovery time will be short as a result.

Rear Delt Dumbbell Exercises: The bottom line

The rear delts are a small area of the body, but they’re so important to train. If you avoid regularly training them and allow them to become weak, you run the risk of developing a serious injury.

A little regular movement will keep the rear delts strong and it’ll only take a few minutes per week. 

The downside of not doing them? 

The injuries kick in and almost all upper body lifting stops. Turns out those few minutes of rear delt training per week were really worth it after all!

Take a look at the exercises again, and slot them into your workouts. You’ll be glad you did.

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

Photo of author
Steve Hoyles is a certified personal trainer and gym owner. Since graduating with his Sports Science degree in 2004 he's worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. His writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries as he inspires to help as many people as possible live a healthy lifestyle.

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