The reverse pec deck is among one of the most frequently utilized methods of inducing development in the posterior head of the deltoids - a trend supported by the convenience and safety afforded by the reverse pec deck machine.
However, despite these benefits, quite a number of lifters are seeking out alternatives to this otherwise popular accessory exercise.
Fortunately, there are several alternative exercises to the reverse pec deck that can recreate much the same targeted training stimulus offered by it - or even improve upon it, depending on the needs and body of the exerciser.
There are several issues with the performance of the reverse pec deck that may make it unsuitable for use in certain situations.
The first is that home gym owners and calisthenics athletes will generally not have access to a pec deck machine - a piece of equipment that is hardly worth purchasing for a single accessory exercise that can be substituted out.
Furthermore, the reverse pec deck exercise is actually not the intended use of the pec deck machine, and is simply a repurposing of the machine in such a manner that the targeted muscle group is changed from the chest to the posterior deltoid head.
In addition to the equipment requirement of the reverse pec deck, there are certain brands of pec deck machine that are not meant to be used in such a manner, making it dangerous or impossible to do so.
Furthermore, the reverse pec deck is not as effective at training the isometric strength of the deltoids due to its machine-based nature, making it somewhat less appropriate for athletes or those with poor shoulder stability.
The reverse pec deck primarily recruits the posterior head of the deltoids, though the trapezius muscle group is also recruited to a small extent during certain portions of the exercise. The rhomboids also see some level of recruitment as well, though they are relegated to a secondary or isometric role throughout much of the repetition.
Knowing this, we can easily narrow down the list of possible alternative exercises to those that recruit the same muscle group to a similar level of intensity.
Choosing an appropriate alternative to the reverse pec deck is somewhat more complex than simply selecting an exercise that targets the same muscles, as one must also make sure that said alternative will mesh with their training program, and does not result in excessive fatigue by being of too high an intensity.
In short, this means picking an alternative that produces a similar level of fatigue, as well as one that does not cause any conflict or instances of poor recovery with your training program.
These two factors, of course, are in combination with more circumstantial matters like what sort of equipment is available for you, or your personal preference among exercises.
The dumbbell rear delt fly is perhaps one of the most common free-weight posterior deltoid exercises, and for good reason.
While it is indeed capable of recruiting every head of the deltoid muscle group, it is particularly adept at placing targeted training stimulus on the posterior head in a manner that takes advantage of its full range of motion. This is something that the reverse pec deck is not as efficient at, as the machine and its handles can often limit one’s range of motion.
Otherwise, properly targeted posterior deltoid head training creates the much-desired “3-D” deltoid effect, while also maximizing the potential strength developments that can be accrued from the exercise.
Unfortunately, the dumbbell rear delt fly is otherwise poor for maximal loading potential, as the angle it places the shoulder girdle in can easily lead to injury if excessive weight is used.
To perform dumbbell rear delt flyes, the exerciser will grip two equally-weighted dumbbells in both hands and hinge forward at the hips, holding the upper body at an angle that is just shy of parallel to the floor.
Then, the exerciser will allow their hands (and the dumbbells) to extend beneath them, the wrists at a neutral angle.
To begin the repetition, the exerciser will then draw their hands apart, extending their arms to either side until they are nearly outstretched, as if forming the letter “T” with their body.
Once the elbows have reached parallel with the shoulders, the exerciser will then slowly lower the dumbbells back to their starting position beneath their torso, thereby completing a repetition of the dumbbell rear delt fly.
Essentially the heavier cousin of the rear deltoid fly, the dumbbell rear deltoid row is an excellent free weight alternative to the reverse pec deck that allows lifters to produce a level of resistance that is otherwise impossible due to the disadvantageous positioning of the former exercise.
The dumbbell rear deltoid row is most appropriate for intermediate level bodybuilders or powerlifters that wish to maximize their posterior deltoid performance, or otherwise complete their back workout without placing excessive training stimulus on other muscles along the middle and lower back.
To begin performing the dumbbell rear deltoid row, the exerciser will bend forward at the hips and waist, angling their torso so their hands may hang in front of them while gripping a pair of dumbbells.
Then, keeping their hands in a neutral grip, the exerciser will retract their shoulder blades together, pulling the elbow backwards but ensuring that they do not make contact with the sides of the torso. They will continue to pull the elbows back until the dumbbells are within several inches of the chest.
Then, pausing at the apex of the repetition, they will then allow the dumbbells to return to their starting position in a slow and controlled manner - thereby completing the repetition.
A unique exercise that functions as an excellent free weight alternative to the reverse pec deck, the dumbbell incline Y raise involves the exerciser suspending themselves chest-down on an incline bench while gripping a pair of dumbbells, producing a similar motion to a fly or row in order to recruit the posterior deltoid head.
This unique torso angle relative to the floor, alongside the fact that a large portion of the back is taken out of the movement by having the chest supported results in unparalleled rear deltoid muscle recruitment, both isometrically and in a dynamic fashion.
Unfortunately, like other exercises that place the shoulder in a precarious position, the dumbbell incline Y raise cannot be performed with large amounts of weight, and is generally performed as an accessory exercise on back or pull workout days. The reverse pec deck is superior in this regard.
To begin performing the dumbbell incline Y raise, the exerciser will adjust an incline bench until it is at an angle that can support their torso while allowing the legs to remain firmly planted on the floor.
Then, selecting a pair of low weight dumbbells, the exerciser will allow their arms to extend beneath their torso, wrists held in a neutral grip.
From here, the exerciser will continue the repetition by raising their arms forward and upwards, stopping once their shoulders are near their maximum range of motion. This is where the “Y” portion of the name comes from, as the torso will form such a shape at the apex of the repetition.
Once the arms are raised as far as they can safely go, the exerciser will then allow them to fall back into the starting position in a slow and controlled manner, thereby completing the repetition.
Perhaps one of the most versatile reverse pec deck alternatives, face pulls are used in a variety of different training and rehabilitation modalities as a method of reinforcing the trapezius and posterior deltoid structures without placing excessive stress on the shoulder or elbow joints.
Face pulls are best used as a reverse pec deck alternative for individuals with poor shoulder mobility, poor upper body posture or those that wish to also incorporate the most rehabilitative aspects of posterior deltoid head training.
To prepare for a set of face pull repetitions, the exerciser will attach a double-ended rope or pair of single-hand handles to a cable pulley machine, setting the pulley to just above their eye line for the optimal angle of resistance.
Then, gripping the handles in both hands, the exerciser will raise their elbows until approximately parallel in angle to the floor, pulling them backwards and retracting the scapula until the handles or their fingers are nearly touching their ears.
If performed properly, the cable should be at the same level of elevation as the exerciser’s face, hence the term “face pull”.
Once the concentric portion of the repetition is complete, all that is needed is to slowly reverse the motion in a controlled manner, squeezing the shoulders throughout the movement and thereby completing the repetition.
The machine-based variation of the standard rear delt fly, the cable rear delt fly presents several advantages over its free-weight counterpart that may make it more suitable for certain styles of training.
First is the fact that the cable rear delt fly is capable of inducing a far greater level of training specificity, isolating the posterior deltoid head in a manner that may be difficult with free weights due to the requirement of stabilization throughout the movement.
The second advantage is the fact that the angle of resistance can be altered due to the nature of the cable machine, allowing lifters to position themselves in such a way that maximum posterior deltoid head recruitment is made possible with their unique bodily proportions.
These two benefits, alongside the similar machine-based nature to the reverse pec deck create what is arguably a superior exercise in nearly every aspect - all while presenting the same type of training stimulus as well.
To begin performing a cable rear delt fly, the exerciser will grip one or a pair of single-hand handles attached to a cable machine, with their hands placed perpendicular to their sides, palms facing at a neutral angle.
The exerciser should be facing away from the cable pulley, with their shoulder somewhat turned away from the machine so as to target the posterior deltoid head more effectively.
Then, much like with a dumbbell rear delt fly, the exerciser will raise their hands upwards and to the side, as if forming a letter “T”, only stopping once the elbows are just shy of parallel with the shoulders. Some exercisers find this position is more comfortable when bending at the waist.
Once completing the concentric portion of the movement, the exerciser will simply allow their hands to return to the starting position, completing the repetition.
Reverse swimmers are an exercise that combine facets of yoga and calisthenics to create targeted posterior deltoid recruitment in a manner that presents no risk of injury and mobility-improving effects.
This, alongside several other benefits, have made reverse swimmers a common part of rehabilitation exercises and low-impact home workouts alike.
Though these are the most frequent sorts of modalities in which reverse swimmers are encountered, bodybuilders and athletes can also benefit greatly from their usage as a substitute to the reverse pec deck - especially those that often forego proper shoulder mobility work.
To perform reverse swimmers, the exerciser will lie flat on their stomach, feet and arms extended with the palms facing downwards.
Then, contracting their core, the exerciser will rotate their hands and elbows outwards, as if performing a breast stroke, stopping once their shoulders have reached a point of nearly full rotation.
Once complete, the exerciser will then reverse the motion until their hands are back in the starting position.
This exercise can also be performed with light wrist weights or dumbbells, for exercisers of sufficient training level that simple body weight resistance is not enough.
And there you have it, a few key alternatives to the reverse pec deck that even improve upon certain aspects of the exercise.
Just remember, when substituting out one exercise for another; make sure to follow proper training programming, and to always manage total training volume.
This is especially important for posterior deltoid training, as many of these exercises can lead to chronic shoulder injuries if performed in excess.
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2. Baritello, O., Khajooei, M., Engel, T. et al. Neuromuscular shoulder activity during exercises with different combinations of stable and unstable weight mass. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 12, 21 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13102-020-00168-x