If you want better aesthetics and improved structural health from your upper posterior chain (backside of the body) then you’ll need to focus on incorporating more rhomboid exercises.
It’s not uncommon to be unaware that this muscle even exists due to its relatively small size; which often results in a lackluster back training regime and poor development of the rhomboids.
But the muscles which make up the back (rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, erector spinae, etc) must be given plenty of individual attention or else you could be looking at muscular imbalance, poor performance during lifts, and even the exacerbation of poor posture.
So, don’t be “that guy” (or gal) which neglects the rhomboid muscles because you won’t reach your maximum potential without training them sufficiently, plain and simple.
Now let’s talk about more about the rhomboids and how you can maximize yours...
WHAT ARE RHOMBOIDS?
The rhomboids are composed of two muscles (rhomboid major and rhomboid minor) that sit deep to the trapezius, in between the shoulder blades. Together, these muscles help to form the shoulder girdle along with other surrounding muscles.
The rhomboid major sits inferior to the rhomboid minor and has a quadrangular, rhomboid shape, while the rhomboid minor is located inferior to the levator scapulae and is a more cylindrical-shaped muscle.
Both rhomboid muscles work together to stabilize the shoulder girdle and scapula along with the trunk, for retraction and depression of the shoulder blades against the vertebral column.
The rhomboids also function alongside the levator scapulae to elevate and retract the scapula. Each rhomboid muscle is very important for healthy upper posterior chain function.
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.
BEST EXERCISES TO TRAIN RHOMBOIDS
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.
You want to use a light weight for these muscles as to not compromise your form during the exercise.
Here’s a video example...
While holding a light dumbbell or weight plate in each hand, lie face down on an incline bench and allow your arms to hang down relaxed.
Keeping both arms extended, raise your arms upward in front of you to form an “I” and squeeze the upper back muscles for 2 seconds or so.
Lower your arms, then lift both arms upward and form a “Y”. Lastly, lower your arms back down and then raise them to form a “T”.
BARBELL BENT-OVER ROW
The same previously-mentioned study 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.
Watch the barbell bent-over row in action...
With the loaded barbell on the ground, take a hip-width stance and bend your torso forward to just above parallel.
Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart and pull the bar upward toward your mid-stomach.
If you’re not already doing the face pull, you should get started today! It’s the perfect movement for strengthening your scapular retractors which is going to directly translate to better posture and the correction of any muscle imbalances.
With a double-grip rope attached to the highest point of a cable machine, grab the rope so that your thumbs are pointed directly at you and your elbows are pointing toward the floor.
Take a step back and pull the rope past your head while keeping your upper arms parallel to the ground.
STANDING ONE-ARM HIGH CABLE ROW
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.
Attach a single grip handle to the highest notch on a cable pulley system and grip it with one hand.
Pull the cable back at about chest level so that your elbow goes behind your body, and twist slightly in the same direction as the working arm to get a deep contraction.
To train the rhomboids sufficiently, you’ll need to combine a few exercises to accomplish this. Now, there’s no need to be excessive as the rhomboids are smaller and we normally work them with typical back training.
But, focusing on the isolation and isometric component are going to be very beneficial.
Here’s a great finisher you can do or you can opt to get this workout out of the way before your other back training if you thinking your rhomboids are lacking in development.
STANDING ONE-ARM CABLE HIGH ROW
- 3 sets x 12-15 reps (Use a moderate to heavier weight)
Rest 45 seconds between sets
Make sure to get the ideal rotation during each repetition to maximally stimulate the upper back muscle fibers.
- 3 sets x 15 reps (Use a light-to moderate weight)
Rest 45 seconds between sets
Do the face pull at least three times per week ideally after a workout. Focus on the contraction by slowly controlling the weight and hold for 2 seconds.
Another exercise you can do for 2 sets following the two above exercises is to hold a weight (dumbbell or barbell) in a bent-over position (back should remain above parallel to the ground) holding this position for 30 seconds while focusing on keeping your shoulder blades together with your chest up.
Continue to implement progressive overload by either performing more reps for each exercise and/or adding weight in small increments.
Here’s a video example using dumbbells…
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, then there’s an amazing stretch you can do to alleviate the tension and tightness.
Now, because the rhomboids retract and depress the shoulder blades, you want to stretch the muscle in the opposite direction which involves protraction of the arms.
Here’s an excellent exercise (and really all you need) for stretching out the rhomboids.
- While standing in front of a standard doorway, cross your arms and grab onto the sides so that your hands are about chest height. Lean back and tuck your butt under and then elevate your shoulders to get a deep stretch in the rhomboids and lower traps.
HOW TO STRETCH YOUR RHOMBOIDS
If you have tight rhomboids due to stress placed on the area from everyday activities, then there are a few stretches you can do to alleviate the tension and tightness.
Since the rhomboids retract and depress the shoulder blades, you want to stretch the muscle in the opposite direction which involves protraction of the arms.
Here’s a great exercise using a door for stretching out the rhomboids...
- While standing in front of a standard doorway, cross your arms.
- Grab onto the sides of the door jamb so that your hands are chest height.
- Lean back
- Tuck your butt under and elevate your shoulders to get a deep stretch in the rhomboids and lower traps.
- Hold for 15-20 seconds.
There’s no need to pull excessively hard. Use moderate force until you feel a good stretch in the muscle.
Here’s an even simpler stretch you can do to loosen up your rhomboids.
SCAPULAR PROTRACTION STRETCH
- Reach your arms straight out in front of you while standing straight.
- Turn your palms outward, cross your arms and then interlock your fingers with your palms together.
- Protract (move forward) your shoulder blades and hold the stretch for at least 10-20 seconds.
Lean side to side for an even better stretch. Do this exercise a few times to really stretch out.
Here’s one more really good way to stretch the rhomboids.
- Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you, then cross one leg over the other and place that foot flat on the floor.
- Place the same-side arm on the inside of the bent leg as if you were going to crack your back.
- Push your elbow into your inner leg to stretch the rhomboids and hold for 15-30 seconds. Then switch sides and repeat.
Don’t push too hard or you’ll crack your crack but just do it enough to feel a good stretch.
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!