Often neglected, it's easy to overlook these little guys due to their relatively small size. However, neglecting the rhomboids can lead to muscular imbalances, poor posture, and decreased performance on big lifts.
If you want better aesthetics and improved structural health from your upper posterior chain, you’ll need to start incorporating rhomboid exercises into your back training.
So, don’t be that person who neglects the rhomboids. Because without them, you won't be able to reach your maximum potential.
THE BEST RHOMBOID EXERCISES TO STRENGTHEN YOUR BACK
Want to learn how to get a chiseled back? You've come to the right place. We've pulled some of our favorite rhomboid exercises to help you with your training.
Step 1. Lay face down on an incline bench, with a dumbbell in each hand, and your arms extended down.
Step 2. Keeping both arms extended while you raise your arms in an upward forward motion to form an "I".
Step 3. Squeeze the upper back muscles and hold for a second.
Step 4. Lower your arms back to the starting position.
Step 5. Then lift both arms upward and diagonal to form a “Y”
and hold for a second.
Step 6. Lower your arms back to the starting position.
Step 7. Lastly lift both arms upward and to the side to form a “T” and hold for a second before returning to the start position.
In one ACE-sponsored study which sought out to find the best back exercises for muscle activation via electromyographic testing, the I-Y-T raise outperformed others by targeting the middle and lower trapezius muscles.
When performing the I-Y-T exercise, make sure to start off light and focus on your form before adding weight.
BARBELL BENT-OVER ROW
Step 1. Loaded your barbell and let it rest on the ground.
Step 2. Stand behind the barbell with a hip to shoulder width stance.
Step 3. Hinge at the hips and bend your torso forward - parallel to the bar.
Step 4. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart and pull the bar upward toward your mid-stomach.
In the same, previously mentioned, ACE study, it was concluded that the bent-over barbell row was the best overall back exercise due to the fact that it’s superior for symmetrical activation of the upper and lower back muscles.
Step 1. Attach a double-grip rope to the highest point of the cable machine.
Step 2. Grip each rope with your thumbs pointed toward you and your elbows pointing toward the floor.
Step 3. While still holding the rope, step back until your arms are fully extended.
Step 4. Pull the rope toward you, keep your arms parallel to the ground, and keep pulling until the ropes are on the sides of your face.
Step 5. Keep the tension, and slowly return the rope to the starting position before completing the step.
When performing the face pull, slow and steady is the way to go. Make sure to keep your form and don't over do it.
If you’re not already doing the face pull, you should get started today. It’s the perfect movement for strengthening your scapular retractors (rhomboids, traps, and latissimus dorsi muscles) which will improve posture and muscle imbalances.
STANDING ONE-ARM HIGH CABLE ROW
Step 1. Attach a single grip handle to the highest notch on the cable machine.
Step 2. Grip the handle using a pronated grip.
Step 3. Position your feet in a staggered stance, with the leg of the working arm in the back.
Step 4. Keep your shoulders and hips square to the cable machine.
Step 5. Pull the cable back towards your body and keep your elbow in line or slightly lower than your shoulder.
This one-arm row variation is one of the best exercises you can do for targeting the muscles of the upper back and more specifically, the rhomboids.
But the beauty of this exercise is that you can add some rotation rather than just performing a standard row variation. And what this does is maximally contract the target muscle which is an essential component of muscle development.
Step 1. Grab two moderate weighted dumbbells or plates.
Step 2. Stand with feet shoulder width apart.
Step 3. Slightly bend your knees and hinge at the hips - keeping your back at a roughly 30 degree angle.
Step 4. Retract your shoulder blades, squeeze, and hold as long as you can.
*If you're new to isometric holds, shoot for 30 seconds.
Continue to implement progressive overload by either performing more reps for each exercise and/or adding weight in small increments.
WHAT ARE RHOMBOIDS?
The rhomboids are composed of two upper-back muscles - rhomboid major and rhomboid minor- that are often referred to as the "middle back". These rhombus shaped muscles are small and thin, resulting in their lack of attention.
The rhomboid major sits right below the rhomboid minor and their main purpose is scapular retraction.
In layman's terms, this means that the rhomboids are responsible for pulling the shoulder blades together towards your spine.
Confused? Visualize this...the movement of your muscles during a lat pull down exercise.
The rhomboids are not only important for these movements, but also to limit muscles imbalances and worse yet, injury.
WHY TRAIN THE RHOMBOIDS?
The rhomboids play a large role in the ability to maintain a healthy posture.
Most people are aware of how poor posture affects the back, spine, shoulders, and even worse… it can result in thoracic outlet syndrome which is caused by compression of the nerves and blood vessels in the space between the collarbone and first rib.
This is especially true if you maintain a posture with your head forward and not directly above the neck (forward head posture). And to make matters worse, this bad posture can affect your breathing.
Thoracic outlet syndrome can cause numbness in the hands, as well as pain in the shoulders and neck as well.
To avoid running into these problems, implement postural exercises to prevent or correct the issue.
Physiotherapist Nick Sinfield explained regarding improving posture...
"Correcting your posture may feel awkward at first because your body has become so used to sitting and standing in a particular way. But with a bit of practice, good posture will become second nature and be 1 step to helping your back in the long term."
Back pain sucks but because of our sedentary habits, poor posture, bad form when training, and even sleeping position; it’s an inevitable reality for many of us.
The good news is that strengthening the rhomboids can make a significant difference when it comes to back pain since we can train to attain better posture and stronger function of the back muscles which would alleviate and improve the strain.
Weak rhomboids can exacerbate less than optimal shoulder stability because it results in an imbalance of the shoulder’s function as a ball and socket joint which allows for several different movements.
We often do many exercises which require us to push (e.g. bench press, shoulder press, etc), but there needs to be an equal amount of pulling as well to offset the potential for imbalance of the shoulder joint.
Stability should be the first thing we focus on before we engage in activities which require different movements of the shoulder joint.
HOW TO TRAIN RHOMBOIDS...
Training the rhomboids requires exercises which involve scapular retraction with the arms elevated to maximally target this upper back area.
According to John Rusin, PT, DPT, CSCS, “When designing a program for any region of the body, match your volume and scheme according to the actions and functions of the muscles themselves. The upper back responds well to increased volume, high reps and time under tension”.
This makes sense as the rhomboids are pretty functional and often involved in many actions of the body.
Now that you're well versed in rhomboids, let's combine a few exercises and get a workout in.
Make sure to focus on isolating the rhomboids to get the best results.
Here’s a great finisher to your back day. Make sure to rest between sets - roughly 45 seconds to a minute.
Standing One Arm Cable High Row
Hold as long you can.
HOW TO TREAT A STRAINED RHOMBOID AND ALLEVIATE PAIN
If you have severe pain due to an injury then we recommend you seek treatment from a medical professional as to not aggravate an already present issue.
Refraining from activities which involve heavy activation of your rhomboids, in addition to icing and compressing the area can also help you to recover quickly, if the issue is not as serious.
If you have tight rhomboids due to the stresses placed on this area from everyday activities, there are some stretches you can do to alleviate tension and tightness.
Since the rhomboids retract and depress the shoulder blades, you'll want to stretch the muscle in the opposite direction which involves protraction of the arms.
HOW TO STRETCH YOUR RHOMBOIDS
When performing the door stretch, make sure to use moderate force and don't excessively pull.
1. Stand in a doorway, face the door frame, and stand as close to the door frame as possible.
2. Cross your arms and grab onto the sides of the door frame so that your hands are chest height.
3. Lean back by pushing your upper back away from the door frame.
4. Tuck your head and hold for 10 seconds.
Repeat this process three times. Remember to move slowly, inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth, and make sure to pull lightly.
SCAPULAR PROTRACTION STRETCH
1. Reach your arms straight out in front of you while standing upright.
2. Palms will be facing inwards, thumbs up.
3. Keep your spine neutral and core engaged.
4. Protract your shoulders (move forward - away from the spine) and hold for 5 seconds.
Step 5. Retract your shoulders (move back - towards the spine) and hold for 5 seconds
Repeat this stretching process for 10 reps.
Q: HOW DO I STRENGTHEN MY RHOMBOIDS?
A: The most effective way to strengthen the rhomboids is to perform exercises which will allow for controlled scapular retraction and an isometric hold in a fully contracted position.
So, just going through the motions without practicing scapular control will likely do very little to improve strength in this area.
And although the rhomboids are worked during compound back exercises, isolation movements are entirely necessary to get a deep contraction and activation of the muscle.
But you definitely want to still implement progressive overload which is a key component in strengthening any muscle. However, you still want to keep the reps higher without compromising good form.
So, it may take a while before you can add weight but continue to increase your reps.
Q: WHAT DO RHOMBOIDS DO?
A: The rhomboids retract the shoulder blades back, down, and together to the vertebral column of the thoracic wall.
Q: DO ROWS WORK RHOMBOIDS?
A: Rows absolutely work the rhomboid muscles but you can ensure better activation then the weight is pulled to the mid-stomach area.
For instance, when doing a barbell bent-over row, you’ll want to pull the bar just below the sternum rather than pulling into the hip crease for ideal stimulation of the rhomboids due to the location of the muscle.
Q: WHAT CAUSES RHOMBOID PAIN?
A: We’re living in a time where physical activity has taken a backseat to a more sedentary lifestyle due to the technological advances we have access too. And as a result, posture is becoming increasingly worse overall.
Combine that with awkward sleeping positions, bad form during training (e.g. lifting too much weight and/or rounding out the back), carrying heavy objects, and excessive stress on the body (e.g. daily activities)… and you’ll be sure to develop pain in the upper back region.
But over-stretching can also cause you to suffer from pain.
So, that’s why it’s crucial that we implement effective exercises and lifestyle changes in order to reverse this common issue.
Don’t Neglect The Rhomboids
Optimal development of the upper back muscles is crucial if you plan on being active, whether in an athletic setting or life in general.
The rhomboids are small but that doesn’t mean you won’t notice when this group of muscles is underdeveloped. So, if you desire to have good posture, improved aesthetics, and upper posterior chain function, then don’t neglect your rhomboids!