Muscle Study: The Rhomboids

In each muscle study, we’ll take a look at a muscle group, and examine what its purpose is in the body. Then using that information, we’ll take a look at a few ways to exercise the muscle and close with a sample workout that should effectively work the muscle. There may be some biological / technical jargon in this, but I’ll do my best to explain in plain English the terminology we’re throwing around as we go along!

The Rhomboids are muscles on the upper part of the back in between each shoulder blade that connects the scapula (shoulder blade) to the spine. They sit beneath the Trapezius muscles and consist of four total muscles (two on either side of the spine), the Rhomboid Minor and the Rhomboid Major.

Rhomboids illustration

The Rhomboid Minor

The Rhomboid minor sits above the rhomboid major and is closer to your head. The origin point of the muscle is the C7 Spinous process and the insertion point is the medial border of the scapula.

The Rhomboid Major

The Rhomboid major is the larger of the two muscles and sits below the Rhomboid minor. The origin point of the rhomboid major is the T2-T5 Spinous processes and the insertion point is also the medial border of the scapula, below the insertion point of the rhomboid minor.

So What Do These Muscles Do?

The Rhomboids don’t perform as wide a range of movement as some of the other muscles we’ve studied, primarily, they help to hold the shoulder blades and upper arm onto the ribcage. Additionally, they can retract (pull back) the shoulder blades, effectively pulling them together.

Strong rhomboids are an important part of a healthy upper back, as they assist with proper posture of the upper back. This in turn can affect the health (and comfort!) of your neck due to proper head and shoulder posture.

So How Do We Best Work This Muscle?

If we look at the muscle’s primary working function – to draw the shoulder blades back and together, we can logically determine that to get maximum flexion of the muscle, anything that focuses on this movement will place resistant stress on the muscle.

So let’s look at three different exercises we can do to target the muscle fully, examine why they work, and how to properly perform them to best effect.

Scapular Retraction

This simple movement is a great beginners exercise to start strengthening your rhomboids. It’s also the beginning part of a pull-up, and one that a lot of people overlook as a valid way of working these muscles. It’s a small movement of only 2 or 3 inches, but when performed correctly, you’ll notice a stronger back.

One of the beauties of this exercise is that it doesn’t require any weights or special equipment other than a bar. If you’re more advanced, you could certainly add a weight to your body using a strap to increase the effectiveness of the exercise, but that’s up to you.

1The starting point of the exercise will be in a hanging position underneath a bar. Your feet should be off the ground – bend your knees if you’re tall like I am. The arms should be fully extended with the biceps next to your ears. The hand position can be either palms facing the bar, or palms facing you. Because the work will be performed by your back, the hands should be in whichever way feels comfortable to you. You should feel a pretty good stretch through your arms and back at the starting point. Breathing can be whatever feels most comfortable as well.

2When ready, slowly bring the shoulder blades down and together, effectively lowering the shoulders. The arms should remain straight during this movement, and your body should only raise a couple of inches. When the shoulders are together, squeeze your rhomboids as hard as you can.

3In a controlled fashion, gently release the pressure that your rhomboids are exerting and allow your shoulder blades to return to the relaxed hanging position you started in. Repeat this movement 5-10 times per set.

If it’s too difficult for you to perform this movement, you may do the same thing under a short bar, from the floor. In this case, you should start seated under the bar, knees bent at 90 degrees and then with your feet on the floor pull yourself upward under the bar using the same scapular retraction method outlined above. The addition of your feet on the floor will allow you to offset the amount of weight your rhomboids have to lift.

Rear Delt Flies

Primarily an exercise for the rear delts (the back of your shoulder), when performed properly, a squeeze of the rhomboids at the end of the movement can do wonders to work this muscle!

For this exercise, you’ll need a pair of LIGHTWEIGHT dumbbells and a chair. The nature of this movement places leverage against the shoulder joint, so be careful not to pick a heavy weight and injure yourself. It’s best to start out light, and see what your body is capable of than to let your ego decide on something heavy, and then injure yourself – be SMART – this is BRAIN body food after all.

1Take a seat on the edge of the chair (or a weight bench if you have one). Plant your feet firmly on the floor, and lean forward about a 45 degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let it rest comfortably at your sides. Hold a slight bend in your elbows to help protect your joints. Exhale.

2Inhale and slowly raise the weights out to your sides over a 2 to 3 count. The elbows should remain slightly bent and the hands should stop moving out/upward when they’re parallel to your shoulders. at the top of the movement, squeeze the shoulder blades together using the rhomboids and hold for a 2 count.

3Exhale and slowly lower the weights back to the starting position over a mental 2 or 3 count. Focus on trying to keep the elbows slightly bent. Rest for a mental one second count and repeat the exercise until failure.

Tip: if you can’t raise the weight without moving your elbows or ANY joint pain is felt in the shoulder, then it’s too heavy for your current strength level. Reduce the weight and focus on proper form – the strength will come.

Face Pulls

I love this exercise, as it lets you really use some weight and a larger movement to target the rhomboids and the rear delts (their second appearance today as a bonus muscle!). You can perform this movement at home with a resistance band, but it is more effective if you have access to a machine with a weight stack in order to do this movement.

If using a machine, you’ll want to adjust the location of the pulley to a high position – either inline with or above your head. if using a resistance band at home, you’ll want to anchor it to a high position like the top of a door, or around a pull up bar. If using a machine, I find a rope grip attachment works best for this movement.

1Grasp the rope/resistance band handle in front of your face with arms straight ahead of you and extended fully. Exaggerate this and allow your shoulders to roll forward, but keep your lower back and core tight to keep your upper back from rolling forward with the shoulders. Stagger your feet with one foot ahead of the other, about shoulder width apart – You’ll want good footing to resist the weight and ensure that your back is doing all the work. Inhale.

2Exhale and initiate the pull by rolling your shoulder blades back and down, pinch them together and hold them together for the rest of the movement. At this point, you should be standing upright in good posture with your shoulders and upper back inline. Next, use your arms and shoulders to help pull the rope/band back until just in front of your face (2-3 inches away) over a mental 2-3 count. Your shoulders should be pointing outward at the walls – not at the floor. Hold for a 1 second mental count at the end of the movement.

3Inhale, and return to the starting point over a 2-3 second mental count. Control the movement using your shoulders, arms and rhomboids and pause for 1 second when back to the starting point. Repeat the movement to failure.

Stretch That Thing!

Strengthening the muscle isn’t good enough. You want a functional, strong, lean muscle that not only looks good, but that you can rely on. If you don’t stretch your muscles, you’ll begin developing range of motion issues that you don’t want. My rule of thumb – any time you work a muscle, you should also stretch the muscle. A few stretches you could perform after a back/rhomboid workout might be:

Cat / Camel Stretch
Thread The Needle Stretch

Wrap Up

There are many reasons to exercise this muscle group, ranging from functionality to simply aesthetic reasons. Hopefully this article sheds some light on the complexity of this muscle group, and increases your knowledge of how it’s used by your body. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ideas how you might be able to train it to work even harder.

Know someone who might like this article? Please share it with them, or via your social media network, it helps the blog out, and you never know who you might be responsible for motivating to live a healthier lifestyle!

Resources

Rhomboids – Physiopedia.com

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