The rear delts and upper back (teres, traps, and rhomboids) can be a tricky area of the body to train for both size and health, but we’ve got everything you need to know to optimize your next training session and beyond!
By Austin Current, Sue Bush, and Alex Bush
If you’ve been training for a while now, you know there’s a whole lot more involved with training your back than just the lats. We’re talking about those smaller, sometimes overlooked, yet crucial muscles of the upper back and the rear delts that work in tandem for the greater function of your upper body.
And trust us – once you get the proper technique, set up, and accessory choice down, it’s really one of the most fun areas of the body to train! Not to mention it has so much to do with overall healthy movement, posture, and the stabilization of your spine and shoulder joints (which obviously play a huge role in other movements in the gym as well).
In Part 1 of our Muscle Group Series, we covered the lats. In this post, we cover the function of each of the muscles in the upper back and the rear delts, common training mistakes/misconceptions, our go-to exercises + why we program them for our clients, and key execution techniques and application.
We’re not going to exhaust the anatomical aspects; the point is to give you tools to better understand the general anatomy and how it applies to your training and any given training session. This also lends itself to understanding how to improve the exercises for those muscle groups or have a different approach toward training them.
Table of Contents
Muscles of Attention & Their Functions
The specific muscles we’re focusing on today are the rear delts, of course, and the muscles that make up the upper back, including the traps, rhomboids, and teres.
The main function of the rear delts is to extend and laterally rotate the arm or shoulder around the back of the body toward the midline.
When it comes to the traps, there are three main divisions and each has a different fundamental function:
- The upper traps help elevate (i.e. performing shrugs)
- The mid traps help retract or pull shoulder blades together or toward the midline (i.e. pull-aparts, rows, or pulldowns that focus on retraction)
- The lower traps help depress or drive down (i.e. Y-raise). It does a lot for the stability and strength of the shoulder as well.
Your rhomboids have major and minor divisions, which help with retraction and rowing motions.
And last but not least, the teres is also split into two parts: teres major and teres minor. Teres minor helps with rotating the shoulder around the back of the body across the midline, and teres major aids in adduction of the shoulder and shoulder extension. The teres are utilized heavily in movements where we intentionally try to bias the lats, rear delts, and upper backs.
It’s also important to note how all of these muscles in the upper back work together – it’s not just traps and rear delts you’re working with back there. Many people don’t realize the rhomboids or teres are there because they’re smaller muscles that you can’t really work by isolation, and they’re not prime movers. They are actually stabilizers working within the humerus both together and separately.
But again, they do work in tandem with each other and, at the end of the day, make a difference in your physique.
Common Training Mistakes
The most common training mistakes we see with upper back and rear delt training are within exercise setup, specifically the arm angles that trainees employ when performing rows or pulldowns:
- Focusing too much on the scapular movement rather than the limb muscles creating that force on the scapula. Like we said, this usually means there’s an issue with the arm angle and how you are initiating the movement.
- Trying to perform retraction and depression simultaneously blindly. For more on this, check out the video on Alex’s Instagram here. We want to move away from being more “robotic” and move with fluidity and a natural motion when performing movements like rows or pulldowns.
- Rotating your torso or opening up as you’re doing a dumbbell row. We want to think of your spine as a flagpole that stays stable and focus on keeping your core in position throughout your movements so that the proper muscles can do the work.
So, what should arm angles look like for training upper back versus rear delts?
- UPPER BACK: Hold your arm out in front of you, then bend your elbow straight back. Your arm is then parallel to the ground and the humerus is sticking straight out from your body, forming a right angle between it and your midline.
- REAR DELT: Adduct your arm slightly closer to your body, so you’re creating more of a 45-degree angle away from your midline. It’s important to remember that your rear delt is still working to a certain degree when target your upper back muscles; however, to hit all of the fibers of the rear delt, you want to change the arm angle. [Muscle groups sometimes help each other create more and better leverage for the bigger muscles when they take over, and the rear delt is a great example of this with the lats].
Diversifying your angles and exercises is the name of the game here simply because of our anatomy. If you look at a graphic of our human anatomy, you can see that our muscle fibers run in different directions and at varying angles. This impacts which muscle has more bias or which one has more tension placed on it based on the angle we’re pulling from in a specific movement.
Our Favorite Exercises to Train the Upper Back & Rear Delts
You might notice or hear us talk about how we prefer to do and program more rowing movements than flying movements in the gym. The reason for this is you can generally place more tension and add more load on the tissue with rowing movements, and our goal is to always make the most efficient use of time in the gym and get the most bang for our buck with exercises. With this in mind, rows tend to be a better choice for growth.
This doesn’t mean that flies should have zero place in your training; they are absolutely beneficial for higher volume or simply how much output you are looking to achieve for yourself or a client. With a fly, or anything where your arm extends, there’s simply less load than you’ll be able to use when your arm is bent.
Now without further delay, our favorite exercises for…
NOTE: It’s easy to over-fatigue the upper back muscles and the rear delts, so just be cautious of that as you’re scripting out your training phases.
Grip, Technique and Execution Tips
In Part 1, we talked a lot about the benefits of a neutral grip with lat movements. With upper back movements, we can use the pronated grip (overhand) more. For training rear delts, it’s preferred to have a semi-pronated grip – it’s tough to keep a fully pronated grip and row in that 45-degree arm angle position.
We also have videos showing how to “hack” some of your gym equipment to achieve the proper grip for certain exercises; however, the more stability you can have with the attachments you use with cable movements, the better. This is why we love the Prime 4N1 Bar, not to mention how versatile it is for different exercises.
Extra quick tips:
- Create stability and tension in your torso and work to maintain that throughout your set. This can help the output of the exercise(s) and make them worth doing.
- When training with cables, using a solid base or foundation goes a long way. Stagger your stance, brace the abs, and create stability that you can sustain throughout the set.
Want more details on training the upper back and rear delts? Head to our YouTube Channel and binge on the playlist of training videos for more visual guidance, and be sure to tune into Episode 20 of the Physique Development Podcast for a full breakdown on the upper back and rear delts with Coach Austin, Coach Sue, and Coach Alex!