Pull Up

Do Pull-Ups Work Rear Delts? (And 3 Rear Delt Exercises)

The pull-up (Or lat pulldown) is a very popular exercise. It is a compound movement that effectively works many different muscles.

 A few of those muscles are:

  • The Lattismus Dorsi (The lats) – This muscle take the brunt of the work in the pull-up and lat pulldown. The lats act to extend your arms and pull down towards your hips. Or pull you up to the bar in the case of a pull-up. 
  • The Teres Major – The Teres Major acts as a shoulder stabilizer and works in conjunction with the lats in both bringing your arms closer to your body (adduction) and extension.
  • The Rhomboids – The Rhomboids act to rotate your shoulders down and stabilize the shoulder. 
  • The Traps – The trapezius muscle is divided into the 3 sections, the upper, middle, and lower. In the case of the pull-up, the middle and lower traps bring the shoulder blades together towards the spine, while the lower traps aid in spine stability and lowering your shoulder girdle. 
  • The Rear Delts – During a pull-up, the rear delts act more as stabilizers throughout the pulling motion, helping to keep keep your shoulders from hunching forward. 

But the question is, do pull-ups work the rear delts, and should we them as a primary movement for the specific purpose of targeting those muscles?

The rear delts do contribute to the work being done in a pull-up, but not to a significant degree. And not nearly as much as other muscles, like the Lats and Rhomboids.

The rear delts act as more of a stabilizer and not a prime mover. 

So no, pull-ups should not be considered for the specific goal of developing your rear delts when there are other choices out there that target those muscles much more effectively. 

The Function of the Rear Delts

The rear delts originate at the scapular spine and attach to the upper arm. 

The primary function of the rear delts is to assist the scapula retractors, rhomboids, and traps to pull your shoulders back. 

With this little bit of knowledge, we can see how the pull-up (or lat pulldown) doesn’t put us in the greatest position or angles to achieve this, since with the pull-up, we are pulling in a much more vertical path which doesn’t target the rear delts as effectively.

Rear delts will get worked in just about every pulling movement, but there are a few points to keep in mind when trying to make them the main target of an exercise. 

Key Form Details When Targeting Rear Delts

Try to keep your arms at a 45-degree angle. This position lines up best with the muscle fibers of the rear delts, allowing for full contraction and full shoulder extension. Much wider than this and you will be shifting the focus more so onto your upper back/mid traps. 

A good way to find this position is to mimic your rowing position. In that position, drive your elbows back while playing with the width of your arms until you find a sweet spot that allows you to drive your elbows back the furthest. 

Pull your elbows back behind the body with each rep. This ensures that you are not short-changing your range of motion and getting a full contraction. 

When you are able to combine these two points, you can turn nearly any pulling exercise into a rear delt-focused movement. 

3 Exercises For Rear Delts

These exercises are great to implement on your shoulder day, upper body day, or pull day if you’re doing a PPL split.

Rear Delt Incline Row DB Variation

  • Set up your bench on a moderate incline.
  • Mount the bench, chest supported, with your head above the top of the backrest. 
  • Grab a DB in each hand and let your arms hand down in front of you. This is your starting position. 
  • Begin each rep by driving your elbows back behind you. Remember to keep that 45-degree arm width we spoke about earlier while driving your elbows behind your body. At this point, you have completed one rep. 
  • Allow your shoulder blades (scapula) to move freely with each rep. 

Here is Paul Carter demonstrating this movement. He is a wealth of knowledge, especially all things hypertrophy related. I highly recommend you give him a follow.

Paul Carter of Lift-Run-Bang.com

Rear Delt Swings

The setup for this one is the same as the rear delt flys we just went over. 

  • Set up your bench on a moderate incline. 
  • Mount the bench, chest supported, with your head above the top of the backrest. 
  • Grab a DB in each hand and let your arms hand down in front of you. This is your starting position. 
  • Keep your arms fairly straight with a slight bend in your elbows. Execute each rep by pulling your arms back behind your body, aiming to maintain that 45-degree arm width throughout, while bringing your elbows back behind you as much as you can. At this point, you have completed one rep. 

Allow your shoulder blades to move freely with each rep. 

Once again we have Paul Carter demonstrating this movement. In this clip, he is starting off with rear delt swings, and finishing with the first exercise we spoke about, rear delt rows.

Rear Delt Seated Cable Rows

I wanted to include a cable option here both for variety and for anyone who prefers cables over free weights altogether. 

  • Choose an attachment with some width to it, something like a lat pulldown bar would work well. Just try to avoid anything narrow, such as the narrow grip handles seen at most commercial gyms. 
  • Position yourself on the seat, legs extended and feet pressed firmly into the platform. Keep a enough bend in your knee where the hamstrings aren’t overly stretched, but you are still seated far enough away to allow a good range of motion. 
  • Grip your attachment at a width that allows you to keep your arms at that 45 degree angle from your body, and lean back a bit to allow yourself to sit upright. This is your starting position. 
  • Initiate each rep by pulling the bar (or whichever attachment you are using) towards you to the area right below your chest. Be sure to get your elbows behind your body. At this point, you have completed one rep. 

As with the other two exercise above, allow your shoulder blades to move freely with each rep. 

Jeremy Ethier

In this video, Jeremy Ethier does an excellent job of explaining the principles we spoke about earlier and demonstrating the rear delt cable row.

Check out his YouTube channel for a lot of other great fitness content.


Pull-ups are a great exercise for what they are intended for and definitely deserve consideration as part of any overall program. 

However, when it’s the rear delts that we are focusing on building up specifically, there are better tools available to get that job done. 

And now you have a couple of principles on rear delt training as well a few great exercises to work into the entirety of your program to accomplish that.

Before you go, check out TigerFitness for all of your protein and supplement needs. I highly recommend MTS Whey (Chocolate Chip Cookie is a must), and pretty much any flavor of The Outright Bar.

Disclaimer: None of the information in this article is intended to be medical or health advice. Always consult with a qualified physician before taking part in any exercise or fitness regimen. This article contains an affiliate link, and I will earn a small profit at no extra cost to you if you decide to use it.

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