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Smith machine rear delt row: Balance out your shoulders with this little-known delt exercise

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th July 2020

Most lifters do too much pushing and not enough pulling. Or, to put it in meathead-friendly lexicon (vocabulary)—too much benching and not enough rowing. Plus, the rowing that most people perform is for the traps—not the rear delts. So is it any wonder why so many gym-goers have life-long shoulder problems?

Getting strong at bench press or overhead press without giving your rear delts equal attention is akin to constructing a castle on shaky foundations. Yes, you can still build a nice looking castle, but sooner or later it's going to collapse.

And the result won't be a pretty sight to behold.

The Smith machine rear delt row won't fix all of your muscular ills and ailments, but it will go a long way to restoring much-needed balance to your shoulders.

Smith machine rear delt row exercise details

  • Main muscles: Rear delts
  • Supporting muscles: Traps, lateral delts, biceps, forearms
  • Exercise type: Isolation
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine
  • Recommended gear: Lifting straps, resistance bands
  • Exercise purpose: Isolate the rear delts as much as possible to make them grow

How to do a Smith machine rear delt row

  1. Set the bar to the bottom of the Smith machine.
  2. Bend over by driving your hips backwards until your back is completely straight and parallel with the floor. Maintain a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Grasp the bar with a wide overhand grip and flare your elbows out to the sides.
  4. Protract your scapula (see tip #1 below).
  5. Pull the bar towards your upper chest, stopping just short your actual chest to keep the tension on your rear delts and off your traps.
  6. Lower the bar under control and repeat for 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps.

Smith machine rear delt row form tips

Protract your scapula

bodybuilder lifting heavy dumbbells

If there's one tip that can make or break the effectiveness of your rear delt row, it's this—protract your scapula. If you don't protract your scapula, then your traps will take over, and your rear delts will be left understimulated.

Ok, so here's how to do it: raise your arm out in front of you and then push your hands forwards as far as they'll go. There, you've just protracted your scapula, and you're now well on your way to building better rear delts than 99% of the population.

In case you haven't realised already, scapula protraction is the exact opposite of scapula retraction (which is to say squeezing your shoulder blades together).

By actively pushing your shoulder blades forwards during the rear delt row, you naturally keep the tension on your rear delts because the traps are in a position of mechanical disadvantage, i.e. they're not capable of producing much force.

This is because you've just lengthened your traps, and a muscle is always weakest whenever it's highly stretched or contracted. Hence why the top of a leg extension, for example, is always the hardest part of the rep—your quads are extremely contracted.

"If I shorten my tricep [...] and lengthen my rhomboids and traps, now this delt is in a position of mechanical advantage, so it's going to be most likely to do the movement."
Ben Pakulski
Bodybuilder and CEO of Muscle Intelligence

Flare your elbows

bodybuilder training his rear delts with dumbbells

Conventional wisdom says that flaring your elbows out is a one-way ticket to shoulder sabotage. And while this belief is definitely true for the bench press and its close relatives, it's not the case for rear delt rows.

In fact, you need to flare your elbows out if you want to build your rear delts. Otherwise, your lats will be only too happy to take over the reins, meaning that—like most lifters—you'll be left with uneven shoulder development.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine rear delt rows

1. Resistance bands

a red bestope resistance band

You can buy loads of fancy "mobility tools" these days. But in my opinion, most of them are just overpriced hopes and dreams. Everyone's so concerned about their shoulder health nowadays (and rightly so) that they're will to drop hundreds of pounds on special equipment.

Personally, I've found a simple resistance band to be just as effective for strengthening my rotator cuffs and warming up my shoulders. The band that I use (linked above) is perfect for improving your shoulder health because it offers just enough resistance to increase muscle strength, but not so much that you actually strain your rotator cuffs.

Plus, it's made from environmentally-friendly latex unlike some of the others.

2. Lifting straps

Since I don't go that heavy (compared to other exercises) on rear delts rows I didn't think that I'd need lifting straps. However, I found that it's much easier to develop a strong mind-muscle with my rear delts when I take my grip out of the equation.

versa gripp pro

I personally use Versa Gripps for all my pulling exercises because they provide a firmer hold on the bar—and are far more comfortable—than regular lifting straps.

However, for rear delt rows, it doesn't matter which straps you use because the weight is so light. You could try these Beast Gear Wrist Wraps if you're on a budget.

While they're not as comfy as Versa Gripps, I've used them in the past, and I have no quibbles about the quality.

Smith machine rear delt row muscles worked

Rear delts

close-up of a man flexing his arm muscles

Ok, let me ask you a question: if you were trying to build the biggest front delts possible, would you only do front raises? Or would you perform some kind of press as well?

You'd definitely do shoulder presses, too. Of course. So why not apply this same logic to your rear delts? [1]

I know, I know. Reverse flys provide an extremely potent pump. But they don't give your rear delts much in the way of a stretch [2]. And, for a muscle to grow past the novice stage, you need to overload it with heavy resistance.

In practice, this means performing exercises that work a muscle in its mid-range. This is the position in which it can produce the most amount of force—a muscle is weakest at very short and very lengthened positions, remember?

For the posterior delts, in particular, no exercise gives them as much force output potential (and thereby growth potential) as rear delt rows.

Side delts

side-view of a bodybuilder flexing his arms and shoulder

I realise that this is easier said than done. But, if you look at your body position during a rear delt row, you'll notice that your arms are abducted to 90 degrees—just like they would be in a lateral raise.

Obviously, this positioning means that you're getting a fair amount of side delt activation from rear delt rows. However, it's mainly isometric stimulation because your shoulders are moving backwards, rather than out to the side.

Traps

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

Since the traps serve to stabilise your scapula (or in our case, to keep it protracted), they're a critical component of a successful Smith machine rear delt row.

However, you don't want to lift the weight with your traps. Instead, you want to use them purely to maintain the proper setup position that I described earlier.

Smith machine rear delt row benefits

3D Shoulders

very muscular man with his hands on his hips

Remember when I said that most lifters do way too much pressing and not enough pulling? Well, not only does this ego-driven habit lead to poor shoulder health, but it also leads to poor shoulder aesthetics.

If you truly want to develop three-dimensional delts (who doesn't), then you must perform equal amounts of pushing and pulling volume. A quick-fix that I implemented years ago is to simply pair every press that I perform with some kind of pull.

But if you've been neglecting your rear delts for a long time, then you should definitely throw in some direct work on top of your regular rows and pulldowns [3].

Thanks to its high progressive overload potential, the rear delt row is the best candidate for bringing up lagging rear delts. After all, the RDR is essentially a shoulder press for the rear delts (mass builder alert!). And as such, it should be a part of any aesthetics-driven workout routine.

Scapula stability

young woman with bad posture

Besides laziness (I don't have time, bro) and plain old ignorance (barbell rows are enough, bro), scapula instability is the main reason why 99% of lifters lack rear delts.

If you can't maintain a protracted scapula, then you'll never build your rear delts because your traps will take over the role as prime mover. The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes to ever build symmetrical shoulders because the disparity between your trapezius strength and your rear delt strength just keeps getting larger and larger.

So... Lighten the weight. Learn the correct form. And come back to this article if you forget anything. Enjoy your newly revived and revitalised rear delts.

Better injury resistance

muscular man suffering from shoulder pain against black background

I think we can all agree that if you don't build a relationship on a strong foundation of trust, then that relationship is doomed to fail. Well, shoulder injuries work the same way. If you don't develop your physique on strong foundations, then your shoulder health will fall apart down the road—if it hasn't already.

Aside from strengthening your rotator cuffs, adding mass to your rear delts is the most effective method for reducing your shoulder injury risk. Why? Because your rear delts and rotator cuffs act as stabiliser muscles during your pressing exercises.

So, by strengthening these muscles, you naturally make them more resistant to injury because they're accustomed to handling direct resistance [4].

Smith machine rear delt row alternatives

Smith machine shoulder press

back-view of a bodybuilder training his shoulders

If the rear delt row is the best mass builder for your posterior delts, then the Smith machine military press is the best mass builder for you anterior (front) delts. Since you don't have to stabilise the bar, you can dedicate 100% of your attention to blasting your shoulders and making them grow. It's a must-do exercise if you want to improve your v-taper.

Smith machine BTNP

young woman working out at a modern gym

If you get a kick out of taking risks, then you'll feel right at home with the Smith machine BTNP. Are you going to make new shoulder gains? Or are you going to end up on the waiting list for shoulder surgery? Who Knows! It's all part of the fun!

Smith machine lateral raise

Gym hasn't got a side delt machine? Then look no further than Smith machine side lateral raises. This quirky Jim-Stoppani-invention might get you a few weird looks, but this exercise is no joke. It removes the strain from your wrists and elbows and pumps up your side delts as if you just double-dosed a citrulline-based pre workout.

Smith machine upright row

Do your side delts lack mass? If so, then you might want to give the wide grip Smith machine upright row a try. This lateral delt mass builder has a bit of a reputation as a shoulder wrecker. But by using the proper form, you can virtually bypass all the potential problems and skip straight to Gainsville—diet and consistency permitting.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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