December 17, 2019 10 min read

When working on your physique, it’s important to remember the muscles that you can’t see, and not just concentrate on the largest and easiest to build. Although training your larger muscles such as pecs and quads is most rewarding when it comes to seeing the changes, you need to balance out your other muscles as well.

When it comes to the muscles in your back, the lats (latissimus dorsi) tend to get most of the attention. These big sheets of muscles run down the sides of your back, and they do a lot of work, but they can’t function correctly if your rhomboids aren't working out as well. 

If you neglect your rhomboids and fail to strengthen them alongside the other muscles in your back, it can lead to poor posture, decreased performance, and even injury down the line. However, if you use rhomboid exercises to strengthen and balance the muscles in your back, your overall performance will improve and you’ll be able to lift even more weight.

Just like having a properly well-rounded inner chest workout, it’s important to exercise every muscle in your back- not just the big ones. Next time you’re hitting the gym on back day, try out some of these rhomboid strengthening exercises- for a more chiseled back and a stronger body overall. 

A man getting a back massage.

What are the rhomboids?

The rhomboids are a pair of muscles in your upper back; the rhomboid minor, and the larger rhomboid major directly below it. These muscles diagonally connect your spine (cervical and thoracic vertebrae) to your shoulder blades (scapulas), and rhombus-shaped, explaining the name.

When looking at your back, you can barely see the rhomboids because they’re covered by the much larger traps (trapezius muscles). This is one reason rhomboid muscles are so often under-worked; we can’t even see them, so why try to build them? 

Why do rhomboid exercises?

The rhomboids are small and thin, with a low potential for growth, so it’s easy to see how they can often be undertrained. These muscles’ main purpose is to hold the shoulder blades to the spine. Their primary function is scapular retraction when the shoulder blades are pulled back and together.

In a properly executed rowing exercise or lat pulldown, your rhomboids should be working hard. They also raise your shoulders into a shrug and pull them down such as when doing a pullup. 

It’s likely that many of the exercises you do already work out your rhomboids, but you still need to pay attention to these small but important muscles. Weak and undertrained rhomboids can lead to a loss of scapular control, meaning your shoulder blades won’t move as they should. This can lead to painful injuries, so it’s something best avoided.

Read about the importance of proper scapular control and its role in the body in this article from the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy

Your rhomboids don’t work in isolation- instead, they are part of a larger group of muscles controlling this part of your body. If your rhomboids are underdeveloped, other muscles have to pick up the slack and can get worn out from overuse. This loss of scapular control can lead to excessive motion in the shoulder joint, and even elbow issues later on if the problem persists. 

Poor posture is also a result of under-trained rhomboids, which can lead to chronic pain in your back, neck, and shoulders. Problems relating to bad posture are exacerbated by modern lifestyles; we spend so much time hunched over phones and laptops and neglecting to work out your rhomboids only makes the problem worse.

However, it’s easy to implement a few rhomboid exercises into your workout routine. You’ll be rewarded with better posture, less shoulder pain, and it makes for a better-rounded back workout. 

How to work out your rhomboids 

Most people love doing upper-body pressing exercises in the gym; workouts such as the bench press, military press, or dumbbell push press are satisfying and it’s easy to see the results.

However, focusing too much on pressing rather than pulling only makes the problem of under-trained rhomboids worse. You can increase the volume of pulling exercises you do to try and build your rhomboids, like pull-ups and rowing exercises, but unfortunately, this still may not be effective. 

Your body will automatically use the largest muscles it can for the sake of efficiency, so even if you’re working out with the intention of exercising your rhomboids, you might just be further building your lats instead. If you intend to strengthen your rhomboids, you need to really hit them with exercises that isolate the area. It’s also very important to work on the perfect form so that you’re using your muscles properly and not compensating in an improper and damaging way. 

Targeting rhomboid muscles

Pulling your shoulder blades back, and together (scapular retraction), and then squeezing them together is the most effective way to exercise the rhomboid muscles. This action should occur at the end of a rowing exercise, but the majority of people don’t achieve this full range of motion in rowing movements and don’t squeeze the rhomboids. If you’re hitting the rowing machine trying to balance your back muscles and work out your rhomboids, it’s pointless without squeezing your shoulder blades at the end to get the most out of your workout. 

Many gym-goers don’t achieve this full range of motion because they’re working at too high of weight; if you aren’t ready to lift the load, you won’t be able to complete the motion and engage your rhomboids because you’ll be unable to pull your arms far enough back. Sure, you’ll feel your back muscles working out, but without engaging every muscle you’re just further unbalancing your upper back. 

Working out your back and shoulders with a lighter weight is much better to exercise your rhomboids. You’ll have a fuller range of motion, and then you can concentrate on having perfect form. It’s also a great idea to work out one arm (and one side of your back) as a time, this way you’ll get a fuller range of motion and be able to move your working side further. 

A person working out in a gym.

The best rhomboid exercises

Now we’ve explained why it’s so important to exercise your rhomboids, let’s take a look at how to do it. These are the best rhomboid exercises to strengthen your back, improve your posture, and balance out the muscles in your upper body for better performance and less likelihood of injury. 

Shoulder blade squeeze

This is a basic strengthening exercise you can use to get your rhomboids engaged. It doesn’t require any equipment and is a great warm-up exercise before moving on to weights. 

 

1. Start by sitting or standing with your back straight. Your chin should be slightly tucked in, and your shoulders slightly back.

2. Slowly tighten your rhomboids by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Push as hard and as far as you can, without any pain of course.

3. Hold the squeeze for five seconds, and then relax. Repeat this rhomboid exercise ten times. 

Darts

This second rhomboid exercise also doesn’t require any equipment, but it’s a little more strenuous than the simple shoulder blade squeeze.  

1. Lie down on your stomach with your arms by your sides. You can complete this exercise with your palms facing up or down.

2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to tighten your rhomboids, and slowly lift your arms and chest from the ground. Make sure you keep your neck straight for the best form.

3. Hold for two seconds at the top of the movement, and then gently and in a controlled manner, return to the starting position. You can do three sets of 10 reps for this exercise. 

Face pulls 

Face pulls are a great exercise to activate the rhomboids, they train scapular retraction and strengthen the muscles in your upper back. Face pulls are a great exercise to improve your posture and make sure your shoulders are in good health. You’ll need a cable pulley with a rope attachment to complete this rhomboid exercise, or alternatively, a resistance band will work if looped around a study object.

This exercise is a great one for after your warm-up, your back muscles will be engaged and ready for bigger challenges like rows. If you’re using weights, keep it light; work on perfect form rather than lifting as much as possible.

1. Set the pulley to forehead height, or alternatively, attach your resistance band at the same height, and grip it firmly with both hands. 

2. Use a palms-down grip and grasp the rope (or band), and step back to create tension. Your body should be square to the machine, knees slightly bent, and your arms should be straight out in front of you.

3. Contract the muscles in your back, and bend your elbows, pulling directly towards your face. Your hands should go to the sides of your head around ear level, with your elbows pointing out.

4. Upon completion of this motion, hold the position for a few seconds while squeezing together your shoulder blades, activating your rhomboids. After holding, reverse the motion in a slow and controlled manner until you return to your starting position. Do 15 to 20 reps, and repeat the set a second or third time. 

Prone lateral raise

Prone (or dumbbell) lateral raises are a great all-around shoulder building workout. They primarily work the deltoids, but also help build the muscles which support and stabilize your shoulder joints, increasing scapular control. This means they’re a good choice when you’re working to strengthen your rhomboids. You’ll need a mat or bench to lie on, and two light dumbbells. 

1. Start lying flat on your stomach, with a light dumbbell gripped in each hand. You can rest your forehead on the mat or bench, to help keep your spine straight. Your arms should be fully extended and relaxed, with your palms facing towards your body.

2. Lift your arms until they’re parallel to the floor, sticking out from your body, then exhale. Make sure your arms remain extended and perpendicular to your torso throughout.

3. Once you’ve reached this position, squeeze your shoulder blades together as we described before, and hold for a moment. Only your arms should be lifting, to isolate your upper back and ensure you’re working the right muscles.

4. After the shoulder blade squeeze, inhale again and slowly and carefully lower the dumbbells and your arms back to the starting position. We recommend doing 8 reps, and 2-3 sets. 

A girl working out in a gym.

High angle one-armed cable row

This exercise puts constant tension on your rhomboids, as the cables create a slightly diagonal pull from high to low. This optimizes scapular downward rotation, the perfect movement to work those rhomboids out. As a plus, you’ll get additional torso rotation with each rep, which helps you get a full retraction of your rhomboids. You’ll once again need a cable pulley for this exercise, with a D-shaped handle attachment. As always when exercising your rhomboids, use lower weight and concentrate on the perfect form so the muscles you’re working so hard to target are fully engaged. 

1. Position the cable pulley at head level or just above, so that you’re pulling downwards during the exercise.

2. Holding the handle, step back from the cable pulley to create tension on the cable. Your arm should start fully extended, with the opposite leg forward in a split stance and your knees slightly bent. You should be leaning forward slightly, but ensure your back is still straight.

3. With your palm facing in, use your back muscles to pull your hand close to your side, just above waist level. Make sure your core is tight, and back muscles activated.

4. When you reach the end of the movement, rotate your torso slightly, opening up your working shoulder to the side. Hold this position, squeezing your rhomboids (you should feel this in your upper and middle back).

5. After a few seconds, slowly return to your starting position. Repeat 15 times, and switch sides. You can do this exercise for two or three sets at the end of your workout. 

Scapular retraction using bodyweight

For this rhomboid exercise, you only work using your bodyweight. You’ll need a smith machine or assisted pullup machine to complete this movement, which is a great choice if you want to balance out your shoulder muscles without lifting more weights. 

1. Lie on the floor with your chest directly beneath the bar. Your feet should be planted on the floor shoulder-width apart, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.

2. With your core engaged, grip the bar. Your palms should be facing away from you. Pull your body upwards towards the bar, and try to keep your shoulders, torso, hips, and knees in one straight line. This is your starting position; your body supported by gripping the bar and your feet on the ground. Your arms should be straight, you aren’t using any arm muscles in this rhomboid exercise.

3. Keeping your chest open, squeeze together with your shoulder blades by pushing them down and back. This should visibly raise your body towards the bar by two or three inches. You shouldn’t undertake a rowing motion, or pull yourself up; just hold this scapular retraction for a few seconds, allowing your rhomboids to hold some of your body weight.

4. Maintaining your breathing, release your shoulder blades and lower yourself back into the starting position. Do 15 reps for three sets.

Remember these tips when working out your rhomboids:

  • Always keep your back straight when doing a rhomboid workout; part of the entire aim is to improve your posture, so don’t work counterintuitively. Be careful not to arch your back, which can be easy on rowing-style exercises. This will only lead to excessive lumbar extension, which risks injury to your spine. 
  • Try to make a tucking in movement with your scapulas; instead of just moving shoulder blades down and back, try to use a rotation movement. Pull your shoulder blades down, don’t let them rise up to your ears. Imagine you’re tucking your shoulder blades into your back pocket. 
  • Use a proper pre-workout supplement to maximize your success; like every other workout, doing rhomboid exercise requires the best pre-workout for the best results. Without, you risk tiring and not getting the most out of your trip to the gym. 
  • Don’t play through the pain; if you’re experiencing shoulder pain when exercising your rhomboids, stop. Rhomboid pain can be an indicator of a serious problem, don’t worry about skipping a single workout, as it could save you a much worse injury down the line. 
A woman with a strong back.

Rhomboids may be small, but they're essential

Although the rhomboids may be small muscles, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. For the very best physique, and the highest possible fitness level, you need to work out every muscle in your body no matter the size. Exercising your rhomboids will lead to better posture, more scapular control, and a more toned back.

Neglecting to work out this muscle can lead to poor joint control and even elbow and shoulder injuries. These exercises we’ve outlined can be done by anyone, and are easy to incorporate into your back day routine. Spare a few minutes to work out your rhomboids, and your posture will thank you for the rest of the week.