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Rows are considered a back exercise, but they’re great for the rear delts too. Solely relying on them to grow this small shoulder muscle is often debated. In the past, this has led me to overthink my exercise selection.
As a general rule, you don’t need to train rear delts directly if you do rows through a full range of motion for 8-15 sets per week. This pertains to variations such as the bent-over and seated cable row.
Not sure if your rear delts would benefit from doing more targeted exercises? There are times when this is optimal, but don’t stress! I’ll explain those specific circumstances below.
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When To Train Rear Delts Directly, on Top of Normal Rows
Don’t stress about training the rear delts directly if:
- You’re properly performing rows with a full range of motion 1-2x per week for 8-15 total working sets in the 4-8 and 8-12 rep ranges.
- It might take 1-2 months of consistency before you notice growth, so be patient.
- You’re happy with the progress of your rear delts thus far from only doing rows.
Consider adding rear delt isolation exercises if:
- You’ve been performing rows with a full range of motion consistently for 1-2 months without any noticeable rear delt growth.
- Your rear delts are underdeveloped and limiting you from progressing in weight and reps with rows.
- Signs of this are shoulder joint pain and trouble with the start or mid-range of motion while rowing.
- You prioritize pushing exercises like bench presses with little focus on rows.
- Your front delts and chest may be overdeveloped compared to your upper back and rear delts.
To clarify, in this article, I’m talking about rows where the resistance is being pulled towards the torso. A few common variations are dumbbell and barbell bent-over rows and seated cable rows.
If you’re mainly performing upright rows, hold up! I wrote an article explaining why they don’t really train the rear delts you may want to read.
Bent-over rows work the rear delts as this muscle is responsible for moving the upper arms past the torso. You can emphasize them during the movement by pulling the resistance toward your nipple line rather than your stomach.
Elbow positioning also affects how well the rear delts are stimulated. For instance, rowing with the elbows close to the torso primarily puts tension on the lats. Conversely, performing rows with the elbows angled away from the body shifts focus onto the rear delts, traps, and rhomboids.
This means rowing with the elbows tucked too close or even overly flared (above 90 degrees) does not optimally engage the rear delts. They work the most with the upper arms held at roughly 45 degrees from the waist. From this position, they are responsible for moving the upper arm back.
Individual morphology and muscle insertions are also factors. For some people, the regular rows are more in line with their rear delt muscle fibers and elicit good contractions.
That’s why some people seem to naturally have massive rear delts even though they neglect isolation training. They can simply do seated cable and bent-over barbell rows with an overhand grip to grow their rear delts.
What’s more, performance and strength potential in rows can be limited by your rear delts. If they’re underdeveloped, other muscles compensate and form breaks down as weights get heavier.
The rear delts are small and going too heavy will shift tension onto larger muscles such as the lats, traps, and rhomboids.
Also, rear delts are made of slow and fast-twitch muscle fibers. Heavy rows hit the fast, while high rep work of 10 upwards of 20 is better for the slow twitch fibers. Higher rep work is usually safer to do with isolation exercises, rather than complex compound movements like rows.
How To Target Your Rear Delts With Rows
Notice how I put “normal rows” in the previous heading? That’s because there are row variations to directly target the rear delts. The form is different from the normal seated or bent-over rows where the arms are tucked close to the waist.
You can target your rear delts with rows by performing the barbell high row. The hands should be spread wider than shoulder width with the elbows flared to 45 degrees from the sides of your waist. Aim the barbell at your nipple line as you pull.
These form tweaks direct the line of pull to be more in line with the rear delt muscle fibers.
1. Grab With Your Hands 1.5x Shoulder Width
Grabbing the bar with your hands wider than shoulder width helps maintain that 45-degree arm angle. As I mentioned before, this is the optimal rowing angle for recruiting the rear delts.
2. Relax Your Shoulder Blades Toward the Floor
Your shoulder blades should stretch or protract toward the floor in the starting phase. This helps lift the arms out and behind the body via horizontal extension, minimizing excessive shoulder blade squeeze and upper back involvement.
3. Aim the Bar at Your Nipple Line
Pulling the bar toward your nipples rather than your stomach minimizes the amount of lat involvement. The arms will remain more flared this way, which uses horizontal shoulder extension more than vertical.
Do Reverse Flys With Rows To Isolate Your Rear Delts
There are times when doing rear delt-specific exercises, on top of standard rows is optimal. For instance, if you’re not performing at least 8-15 sets of rows per week you should isolate the rear delts.
The reverse fly is a good option because it’s a low-fatigue exercise, which makes it perfect for high-rep sets to hit those slow twitch fibers. You can even add it toward the end of your back workout.
Here’s a back workout with low-rep bent-over rows and high-rep reverse flys. The intention is to stimulate the rear delt’s fast and slow twitch fibers in a single training session.
- Barbell bent-over rows: 4 sets x 8 reps
- Lat pullovers: 3 x 12
- Dumbbell shrugs: 3 x 15
- Reverse flys: 4 x 15
In the workout, there are 8 working sets for the rear delts between the rows and reverse fly. This hits their low end of recommended weekly working sets. You may have to add additional sets per week if they aren’t growing.
At the end of the day, rows are enough to grow the rear delts without focused training. This is assuming you’re performing enough weekly sets and using a full range of motion. However, if you notice them as a lagging muscle group, consider training them directly with modified rows or reverse flys.
If you’re looking for time-efficient exercises, hold up! I wrote an article on why bent-over rows are worth doing to save time and build muscle.