Most of the time, when people think about training the back muscles, they think only about the latissimus dorsi (or lat) muscles. There are lots of other important muscles that make up the back, though, including the rhomboids.
Read on for more information on this key muscle group. You’ll also learn about some of the best rhomboid exercises to include in your workouts for a stronger, better-looking back.
- What Are the Rhomboids?
- Why Should You Do Rhomboid Strengthening Exercises?
- Top 5 Rhomboid Strengthening Exercises
- Tips to Keep in Mind When Exercising the Rhomboids
- How to Stretch the Rhomboids
- Try These Rhomboid Exercises Today
What Are the Rhomboids?
The rhomboid muscles are found in the upper back. They are composed of the rhomboid minor, and the rhomboid major, which sits directly below the rhomboid minor. These muscles are shaped like rhombi (hence, their name), and they run diagonally starting from the cervical and thoracic vertebrae and ending below the shoulder blades (also known as the scapulae).
The rhomboid muscles are relatively small and thin. The latissimus dorsi and trapezius (or traps) muscles lie on top of them. Because they’re dwarfed by these larger muscles, it’s easy to forget about the rhomboids or have trouble feeling them working. They play some significant roles in the strength and stability of your back and shoulders, though.
The rhomboid’s primary function is to retract the scapulae. They help you pull your shoulders back and together (think about the way they move when you’re performing a row). They also help you elevate the shoulder blades (while shrugging, for example) and depress them (imagine a pull-up or pull-down exercise).
Why Should You Do Rhomboid Strengthening Exercises?
As you can see, the rhomboids do a lot. If you don’t take the time to do rhomboid muscle exercises regularly, you’re going to end up with poor scapular control. In other words, your shoulder blades won’t move properly. This, in turn, can increase your chances of dealing with shoulder injuries, as well as neck pain or upper back pain.
If you have weak rhomboids and have trouble controlling your scapulae, other muscles are going to have to step in and pick up the slack. This means they have to do the rhomboid’s job — which they’re not equipped to do (at least not long-term) — in addition to their own jobs and may become worn out faster. Poor scapular control can lead to injuries in other areas of the body, too, such as the elbow.
Top 5 Rhomboid Strengthening Exercises
There are lots of rhomboid strengthening exercises that target the back and upper body. Here are five of the best ones to try out on your next back- or upper body-training day:
1. Face Pulls
There aren’t any true rhomboid isolation exercises since they work in conjunction with so many other muscles of the back and shoulders. One of the closest moves to an isolation exercise for the rhomboids, though, is the face pull.
Face pulls help you improve your ability to retract and depress your scapulae. Both of these movements, as you now know, are crucial when it comes to maintaining good shoulder health and stability while also strengthening the rhomboids.
You can perform face pulls with a cable machine and a rope attachment or with a resistance band. Start by holding the rope attachment or band with a pronated (your palms facing down) grip.
Step backward while extending the arms out in front of you to create tension and bend your knees slightly to stabilize yourself. Your body should be squarely facing the machine (or whatever the object is to which you’ve attached your band).
From here, engage your back muscles and bend your elbows to pull the rope attachment or band toward your face. As it gets closer to your face, separate your hands, so they pass either side of your head at ear level.
When you’ve pulled the rope or band back as far as you can, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold this position for a couple of seconds. Then, reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
2. Rear Delt Flyes
If you don’t have access to a resistance band or cable machine, there are still plenty of ways to target your rhomboids. For example, you can do lots of rhomboid exercises with dumbbells, including rear delt flyes.
Rear delt flyes are similar to face pulls in that they help you target your mid-back and are about as close to a rhomboid isolation exercise as you’re going to get. The primary focus is on the rhomboids, although they do also recruit the rear deltoid muscle (hence the name).
To do rear delt flyes, grab a pair of light dumbbells (most people have to go much lighter with these than they do with other shoulder/back exercises). Hold the dumbbells together in front of your body and hinge at your hips (like you’re going to do a bent-over row). Keep your back straight and gaze down at the floor at a spot a few feet in front of you (this helps you to neutralize your neck).
From here, engage your back muscles and raise the arms out to your sides. Focus on only using your arms (don’t bounce, swing the weights, or use other muscles to help you lift your arms). Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the exercise, then lower the dumbbells back down with control.
3. Incline Pull-ups
In addition to dumbbell and cable exercises, you can also strengthen your rhomboids with bodyweight exercises. One of the best ones to include in your routine in the incline pull-up.
This is often thought of as a beginner exercise. However, it’s an excellent option for anyone who wants to improve their rhomboid strength, even if they can already do a strict pull-up.
For this exercise, you will need a bar or something else to hold onto. Many people like to adjust the bar on the Smith machine to a lower height. You can also use a low bar at a playground or even hold onto the edge of your dining room table.
Once you’ve found a bar to use, hold onto it with a pronated grip, and walk your body underneath it. Bend your knees at 90-degrees to make the exercise easier, or keep your legs straight for more of a challenge.
From here, retract your shoulder blades and pull yourself up, so your chest touches the bar. Squeeze the shoulder blades together and hold this position for a couple of seconds before lowering yourself back down.
4. Wall Slides
Wall slides are a fantastic exercise for the rhomboids. They’re also a lot more challenging than they look.
Start by standing with your back to a wall (make sure there aren’t any pictures or objects hanging on it that you could accidentally knock over). Walk your feet out about six inches from the wall and then lean back against it.
Pull your chin back (think of making a double chin), so the back of our head touches the wall, and engage your abs to press your lower back into the wall as well. While keeping your back and head flush with the wall, raise your arms out to the sides so they form approximately 90-degree angles — the backs of your forearms and backs of your hands should touch the wall.
From here, slowly slide the arms along the wall to raise them up over your head. Don’t let the separate from the wall. Once you reach the top and bring your hands together to touch, slide them back down.
5. Prone “Y” Raises
It wouldn’t be a list of the best exercises for rhomboids with mention of prone “Y” raises. Like the wall slides, this seemingly simple exercise packs quite a punch and does a great job of strengthening the rhomboids and promoting good shoulder health.
For this exercise, you’ll begin by lying on the floor in a prone (face-down) position. Lie with your arms extended above your head so that your body forms the letter “Y.”
Once you’re here, engage your upper back and use those muscles to lift your arms up a few inches off the ground with your thumbs facing up toward the ceiling. Hold this position for a couple of seconds, then lower your arms back down.
Keep your legs on the floor throughout the entire exercise (don’t engage the glutes and lift the legs like you’re doing a “Superman” exercise). The goal here is to focus on the upper back only.
Tips to Keep in Mind When Exercising the Rhomboids
There are some fundamental tips to keep in mind whenever you’re doing a rhomboid strengthening exercise. The following tips will help you get the most out of the exercise and reduce your chances of injuring yourself:
- Start with light weights so you can focus on retracting your scapulae — if the weights are too heavy, it’ll be hard for you to pull your shoulders and elbows all the way back, which prevents you from truly engaging your rhomboids
- Press the shoulders down and focus on depressing your scapulae (a popular cue is to imagine tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets) — this helps you avoid letting your trapezius and levator scapulae muscles take over
- Maintain a neutral spine — don’t let your back arch or become rounded; allowing your spine to move in either direction could set you up for some serious back pain
How to Stretch the Rhomboids
In addition to doing exercises to strengthen the rhomboids, it’s also important to include exercises in your routine to stretch them.
If you don’t stretch your rhomboids on a regular basis, you might end up with a lot of tension in your neck and upper back. This could lead to tension headaches, as well as an increased risk of injury as you might have difficulty performing exercises (especially back and upper body exercises) with good form.
The following are three effective rhomboid stretches to do after your rhomboid workout or as part of your warm-up:
1. Cat Stretch
This stretch is one part of the popular “cat-cow” yoga pose. The “cat” portion of the pose is great for loosening up tight rhomboid muscles.
To do this stretch, start by kneeling on all fours. Make sure your wrists and shoulders line up, as well as your knees and hips.
Once you’re here, take a deep breath in through your nose. Then, as you exhale, tuck your tailbone and chin while pushing your upper back up toward the ceiling. Hold this position for a couple of seconds, then inhale and return to the starting pose.
2. Cross-Body Stretch
You’ll probably remember this stretch from your junior high and high school gym classes. Many people think of it as an arm stretch, but it’s actually great for your rhomboids when done correctly.
To stretch your rhomboids, focus on pressing the shoulder blades down and back while you bring your arm across your torso. Don’t let your shoulders rise toward your ears.
3. Resistance Band Rows
Resistance band rows help you warm up your shoulders and back and practice retracting and depressing your shoulder blades. Use a light band so you can focus on the mechanics of the movement, and don’t let your bigger back muscles take over.
Loop the band around a stable surface like a table leg (you can even wrap it around your feet if you don’t have anything else to which you can attach it) and hold one end in each hand. Slowly pull the elbows straight back while keeping the shoulder blades pressed down. Squeeze the shoulder blades together and the end of the exercise and hold them for a couple of seconds before releasing.
Try These Rhomboid Exercises Today
If you haven’t been making rhomboid exercises a priority, now is the time to start. Targeting your rhomboids will make it easier for you to sit up straight and reduce your chances of dealing with issues like back pain.
Incorporate these stretching and strengthening exercises to pull the shoulders back into your routine today. Do them on a regular basis so you can improve your posture and begin working toward a better-looking back.