It is usually assumed that articulatory rehearsal improves verbal working memory. Complex span is the most used paradigm to assess working memory functioning; yet, we still lack knowledge about how participants rehearse in this task, and whether these rehearsals are beneficial. In Experiment 1, we investigated the patterns of naturally occurring overt rehearsals in a complex span task requiring processing of a non-verbal distractor task. For comparison, another group of participants completed a matched simple span task with an unfilled delay in between the memoranda. Time permitting, participants rehearsed the memory list in forward serial order, a strategy known as cumulative rehearsal. The degree of cumulative rehearsal was correlated with recall accuracy in both span tasks. Rehearsal frequency was, however, reduced in complex span compared to simple span. To assess the causal role of rehearsal in complex span, we trained a group of participants in a cumulative rehearsal strategy in Experiment 2. This instruction substantially increased the prevalence of cumulative rehearsals compared to a control group. However, the increase in cumulative rehearsal did not translate into an increase in recall accuracy. Our results provide further evidence that rehearsal does not benefit working memory performance.