When it comes to back muscles, the focus is usually all about the lats and traps and even the rear delts. However, if you want a well-rounded, strong, and good looking back, you can’t forget about the often overlooked rhomboids. Strengthening your rhomboids is absolutely necessary for achieving the best possible physique and fitness level. The rhomboid muscles play a very important role in your overall strength, posture, and durability, as they are the primary movers during scapular retraction and rotation. Below you will learn everything you need to know about the rhomboids, including the best rhomboid exercises that you can do at home and in the gym.
In this rhomboid strength and hypertrophy guide, we provide 24 of the best rhomboid exercises that you can do using various equipment: barbells, dumbbells, cables, resistance bands, and kettlebells, as well as bodyweight rhomboid exercises.
The rhomboids are made up of two muscles, the rhomboid minor and the larger rhomboid major. Together, they create a rhomboid shape, hence their name.
You have a pair of rhomboids, one on each side of your upper-middle back. The rhomboid major is located directly below your rhomboid minor, and it is thin and flat and twice as wide. The rhomboid minor is, however, slightly thicker than the rhomboid major.
Both sets of rhomboids connect your spine (cervical and thoracic vertebrae) to the medial borders of your shoulder blades (scapulas) at a diagonal angle.
Although they sit pretty high up on the back, they are usually considered a “mid back” exercise because that is where you will feel them when doing exercises that target the rhomboids.
Rhomboids are a superficial muscle, meaning they are close to the surface of the skin. However, they lie deep to the trapezius muscle of the upper back and they are dwarfed by the almighty latissimus dorsi (lats) on the sides. So, it’s almost impossible to see the rhomboids unless you are looking at a well-defined individual with low body fat.
While the rhomboids aren't really a "mirror muscle", they are extremely vital to your back as a whole.
When it comes to bodybuilding, much of the training emphasizes superficial muscles that have the potential to get beefy. It’s all about looking bigger and leaner.
Since the rhomboids aren’t impressive in size and they don’t have much growth potential, they aren’t exactly the hottest topic in the gym.
Nevertheless, the rhomboids play a very important performance role. Without well-functioning, strong rhomboids, your other larger, "mirror muscles" have less potential to grow. This is because the rhomboids function and work hard during scapular retraction (pulling your shoulder blades together), so you use them on any pulling movement like rows and pull downs. What’s more, they work when you raise your shoulders into a shrug and pull them down (i.e. pull ups).
All in all, the primary purpose of the rhomboid major and minor is to hold the shoulder blades to the spine. Their main function is scapular retraction and adduction. So, without strong rhomboids, you won’t have good scapular control, which is not only disadvantageous for your bodybuilding efforts, but also for sports, daily life, and your health and fitness as whole.
1. Lift More Weight to Help Other Muscles Grow
Because your rhomboids work during scapular retraction and stabilization, having strong rhomboids means you can lift even more weight during pulling exercises. This will allow you to build bigger and stronger lats and traps.
2. Prevent Injuries
Strong rhomboids allow for excellent scapular control. This means your shoulder blades can perform at their best during upper body exercises.
If you don’t have adequate scapular control because you have weak and undertrained rhomboids, other muscles will need to step up to help. As a result, they will get worn out. This loss of scapular control often causes the shoulder joints to have excessive motion, which is not only a concern for your shoulder, but your elbows as well. Think of it like a bad kinetic chain reaction, from your scapular to your elbows, and not to mention your upper back and neck. So, keeping a strong base is vital.
3. Avoid Compensation Issues
Any exercise that involves scapular retraction, whether that be pulling motions or even pressing motions that require you to maintain scapular retraction throughout the exercise (i.e. bench presses), your rhomboids are working.
But here’s the thing, your rhomboids don’t ever work in isolation. They work with a large group of muscles when controlling upper body movements. Even for scapular stabilization.
So, if they are lacking strength, other muscles must pick up the slack. These muscles are not prepared to always do the rhomboids job, so they will become overused. As we mentioned, this can cause injuries and it makes for poor performance. But not only that, it will lead to imbalances in your muscle development.
This is surprisingly more common than you may think. If you want a well-balance body, both in terms of performance and looks, strong rhomboids are a must.
4. Maintain Healthy Posture
The rhomboids play a key role in maintaining healthy posture. A strong, well-balanced back includes strong rhomboids, and as such good posture.
Poor posture is an epidemic these days due to people having such sedentary lifestyles. Bad posture comes with an array of issues. From back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain to even breathing problems.
To make matters worse, a lot of people with poor posture who workout focus on pressing movements more than pulling movements, which makes matters even worse.
One way to correct poor posture or avoid it in the first place is to do postural exercises, which involve the rhomboids, and put more focus on developing your back muscles (pulling exercises).
Note: If you have pain in your rhomboids or you feel they are tight, this could very well be from poor posture. When your shoulders are rounded forward all the time (or for long periods of time like when sitting), you end up overstretching your rhomboids. Exercises that contract your rhomboids will help this cause (pulling movements and shoulder retraction).
The main gist of it all is, strong rhomboids means strong scapular control, which is super important for both pushing and pulling movements. Scapular strength is key to a strong, well-balanced, injury resilient upper body.
Whether you know it or not, if you do any kind of pulling exercise (i.e. rows and pull ups on back day), then you are targeting your rhomboids. But here’s the thing, a lot of people don’t target their rhomboids effectively. This is because they either use too heavy weight or they don’t fully contract their rhomboids…or both.
The rhomboids work when you pull your shoulder blades back and together (scapular retraction). What you want to do is really squeeze the rhomboids when in the retracted position. So, at the end of a row, you squeeze the rhomboids (focus on the muscles in-between your shoulder blades and spine, aka the rhomboids).
If you are using weight that is too heavy, you won’t have the full range of motion to target your rhomboids effectively. During the row, your shoulders and elbows won’t get back far enough to fully engage the rhomboids.
So, the best place to start your rhomboid strengthening journey is by lightening the load on rows, as you are probably doing these every week. With less weight, you can perform the row with good form and full range of motion, which will allow you to hone in on rhomboid contraction.
Tip: Try one arm rows as you can get an increased range of motion by adding a slight rotation at the top. Basically you do a slight t-spine rotation at the peak of the movement to get an extra bit of retraction and thus contraction in your rhomboids. The rotation occurs simply by twisting your working shoulder slightly away from the ground. Obviously, this can’t be done with two arm rows.
Note: A good mix of two arm and single arm rows is ideal.
Another way to engage your rhomboids is by contracting in downward rotation. Your rhomboids are being worked during downward rotation. Downward rotation occurs during lat pull downs, pull ups and rows. To create tension in downward rotation (as well as retraction, think of your shoulders blades being tucked into your back pockets when you do back exercises. Don’t let them rise up toward your ears.
So, essentially, you want to pull your shoulder blades together (retraction) and slightly downward (rotation). This will allow you to target your rhomboids fully and most effectively.
Tip: Don’t arch your lower back or let your upper back slouch. Always keep a neutral spine during rows and pulldowns. You don’t want excessive lumbar extension. Your back should be completely straight and perpendicular with the floor on seated rows. For bent over rows, maintaining a hip hinge at all times will help you keep your back straight. If you go to heavy on bent over rows, it will be hard to keep your back straight, so use an appropriate weight.
To sum it up, go light, use full range of motion and good form, and really squeeze your rhomboids in scapular retraction and downward rotation (pull them back and down) during peak contraction. By going light, you can build a stronger mind-muscle connection with your rhomboids.
As discussed above, rows and pulldowns (or pull ups) will target the rhomboids effectively so long as you squeeze your shoulder blades together at the end of the concentric phase of the motion. However, this is not the only way to target your rhomboids. There are many exercise that will isolate the rhomboids so you can ensure they are being worked sufficiently. This is particularly important if your rhomboids are lagging behind other back muscles. Creating a well-balanced back is essential to good posture and performance.
The rhomboids don’t have a high ceiling for growth, but they can be strengthened significantly. The rhomboids respond best to high volume, so you want to focus on high reps and time under tension. Therefore, if you like doing heavy rows, be sure to do some lightweight rows as well, and really focus in on the rhomboids.
In addition, do some rhomboid “isolation” exercise on back/pulling days too.
**Aim for at least 30 seconds of time under tension during rhomboid exercises**
Now, let’s get into the best exercises for rhomboid strength and hypertrophy using various types of fitness equipment, as well as some bodyweight exercises that you can do at home. We will break them into two section, gym and home. Gym will use the obvious tools like barbells, dumbbells and cables, while home will incorporate bodyweight rhomboid exercises and more functional training tools like resistance bands and kettlebells. All of the exercises below are highly effective at training the rhomboids for improved posture, injury resilience and strength and muscle gains.
When doing rows, focus on really squeezing your rhomboids at the end of the row, even pause and hold the scapular retraction position with each rep. Focus on the rhomboids.
Tip: Don’t just retract your scapular, also tuck your shoulder blades downward (scapular downward rotation).
The same point about squeezing your rhomboids in scapular retraction above applies to landmine rows. Make sure you use a weight that allows you to have a full range of motion. Without a full range, you won’t be able to target your rhomboids effectively.
Related: Best Landmine Exercises
When doing one arm rows, add a little thoracic rotation at the end of the row to get that extra bit of contraction in the rhomboids. Do this by slightly lifting your shoulders away from the floor. If done correctly, you will very noticeably feel it in your rhomboids.
The following exercises are about as close you can get to a rhomboid isolation exercise as possible. Use light dumbbells so you can really focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together.
This exercise is really good at targeting the rhomboids. Like many of the following exercises, it is as close to a rhomboid isolation exercise as you are going to get. It will hit your mid-upper back and rear delts very effectively.
Really try to focus on your rhomboid muscles as your raise the dumbbell up. Squeeze them and keep your shoulder blades pulled together.
Go light with this exercise, as that will reduce the focus on the shoulders and help you place it on your rhomboids.
While this is a rear delt row, your rhomboids play a major role in this movement.
For this, you can use a smith machine, low pull up bar, suspension trainer (aka TRX ropes) or even a table.
You can increase the difficulty of this exercise by raising your feet in the starting position, so that your body is completely parallel with the floor.
If you can’t do pull ups, you have two options. Use an assisted pull up machine or resistance bands for assistance. This is particularly great for targeting the rhomboids, as they are difficult to focus in on during pull ups.
Related: Pull Up Progression Plan
Related: Pull Ups vs Chin Ups Muscles Worked
Do around 10 reps for this each set, with one set being all three raises. So essentially that’s 30 total reps.
The same rhomboid cable exercises can apply to resistance bands. The movements are exactly the same, you just anchor the resistance band to pole or some sturdy structure. Always use 41” loop resistance bands.
The scapulas play a vital role in posture, so strengthening the rhomboids is key to improving your posture. All of the strengthening exercises we showed you above will be effective for improving your posture because they are strengthening your rhomboids and eliminating imbalances in your back muscles.
That said, if you want to put extra emphasis on postural exercises, then focus on the lightweight and bodyweight rhomboid exercises, as you can really target your rhomboids and squeeze them. This will help you develop good habits of keeping your shoulders back in good posture, rather than rolled/hunched forward.
You can do these rhomboid posture exercises each morning when you wake up to promote good posture for the rest of the day!
Prone Y Raises
Scapular Wall Slides
Scapular Retraction Holds
Occasional tightness in the rhomboids is normal as it is an area where we tend to get really tight and hold our stress.
They may also be sore from overworking them on a tough back day or after lugging around a backpack for hours on end.
Thankfully, it is easy to address tight and sore rhomboids. All you have to do are some simple rhomboid stretches.
With the understanding that the rhomboids retract and depress the shoulder blades, to stretch them, you’ll want to move them in the opposite direction, which means scapular and arm protraction. You’ll see what we mean below. Here are some of our favorite stretches to release tension in the rhomboids.
Knee Scapular PUs
Quadruped Internal Shoulder Rotation to Scapular Rotation
Shoulder and Scapular Rotations
Thoracic Rotation to Thread the Needle
Standing Thoracic Rotations
World's Greatest Stretch to Cat Cow
As you can see, we place a lot of attention on thoracic mobility. Poor thoracic rotation mobility often leads to discomfort in the rhomboids. That coupled with poor scapular mobility and stability can really wreak havoc on the body. So, the stretches about will really help with that.
Related: Best Thoracic Mobility Exercises
When to do these rhomboid stretches?
These dynamic stretches for the rhomboids are great before and after a workout. They can also be done any time during the day if you need to release some tension and stress in your back.
The rhomboids can become injured from various activities, such as sports, regularly carrying heavy object with improper posture (i.e. slouching with a backpack), or any other kind of overuse or overstretching of the rhomboids.
Strains of the rhomboid muscle are often caused by overuse, bad form, bad posture, or even bad sleeping positions. You should be able to tell you have a strain in your rhomboid muscle when you take a deep breath, as it will cause pain in the upper-middle back area. Signs may also include tightness and tenderness in the area even when you haven’t had a tough back workout recently.
If your rhomboids are injured, the best rehabilitation begins with icing the area multiple times per day for around 20 minutes each time. Aside from that, you need to let your rhomboid muscles rest, which means avoiding loaded pulling exercises. Always maintain good posture during recovery.
While most rhomboid strains heal fast, if your rhomboid injury takes a significant amount of time to heal or it feels weak, you will need to do rehabilitation exercises and physical therapy to re-strengthen your rhomboid muscles.
Pain in your rhomboids?
If you have pain in your rhomboids but it doesn’t seem to be too serious, foam rolling and stretching is a great way to alleviate the pain. That said, if the pain is serious, we recommend checking with a doctor or physical therapist.
The best rhomboid rehabilitation exercises involve bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, and light weight dumbbells.
The following exercises can be found above in the 24 rhomboid strengthening exercises. Go light for rehab purposes.
Perform bodyweight rhomboid exercises like:
- Scapular Push Ups
- Prone IYT Raises
Perform resistance band rhomboid exercises like:
- Banded A
- Banded Y
- Banded W
- Banded Diagonals
- Banded Pull Aparts
Perform light dumbbell rhomboid exercises like:
- Rear Flys
- Side Lying Lateral Raises
- Light Dumbbell Rows
Don’t overlook isometric training for strengthening the rhomboid muscles (or any muscles for that matter), especially for rehabilitation purposes.
Isometric exercises involve squeeze/contracting your muscles in a static position. This means there is no motion during the exercise (shortening or lengthening of the muscle), just contraction in one single position. An example of this for the rhomboids would be holding scapular retraction for 10-30 seconds.
Note: To give you a better idea of what isometric exercises are, a plank is an isometric exercise. You are simply holding a position. This concept can be applied to all muscle groups using various exercises.
Isometric training is a highly effective manner of strengthening an injured muscle as it increases blood flow to the muscle, which helps kickstart the healing process. And because you are training in a static position, it should not irritate or cause more pain to the rhomboid muscle. If it does, of course, stop.
Almost any exercise can be done isometrically, and you can hold the position at any point in the normal range of motion for any given exercise. For example, you could do an isometric hold at the top, middle, or bottom of a row…or you could do an isometric hold during a lat pull down at the top, middle, or bottom of the pull down. This applies to all exercises really. So long as the weight is not too heavy. If it is too heavy, you won’t be able to maintain the position for an adequate amount of time, which is around 10-30 seconds for isometric exercises.
For the rhomboids, we like to do the following isometric exercises:
Do 3-5 sets of 10-30 seconds.
You can get creative and try various other isometric holds with the 24 strengthening exercises above. Just be sure to use an appropriate weight.
Bodyweight holds are very effective, as long as you really focus on squeezing the muscle.
The steel mace is a great tool for building joint stability, especially at the scapular level. The offset load does a really great job of honing in on stabilizer muscles.
Scapular Hold with Mace (Under/Over Grip)
This is a great isometric scapular stabilization exercise using the steel mace. It’s going to work all of your stabilizer muscles as you need to hold the mace in position. The heavier the mace, the harder it will be. It is great for improving posture.
3 sets x 20 seconds each side (up to 1 minute if you can)
Be sure to alternate the side the mace head is on.
Scapular Hold with Mace (Over/Over Grip)
This is a similar scapular stabilization exercise but it’s going to work your scapular stabilization from a depression and posterior tilt position.
3 sets x 20 seconds each side (up to 1 minute if you can)
Be sure to alternate the side the mace head is on.
Foam rolling is effective for treating pain and tightness in the rhomboids. Foam rolling is a painful process, but after you finish, it will have relaxed your muscles.
For strained, painful, or tight rhomboid muscles, a 3-Way Thoracic Spine Foam Rolling series is the best bet. Roll with your arms at your side, crossed over your body and straight back over your head.
The rhomboids may be a small muscle, but they are extremely important for achieving the best possible physique and fitness level. Strengthening and maintaining healthy rhomboids will lead to better posture, more scapular control, improved strength during weightlifting, and a beautifully toned back. Neglecting your rhomboids causes the opposite effect, which includes making you more injury prone.
So, don’t neglect your rhomboid muscles. Treat them like you would your lats, traps, chest, glutes, etc. Make time in your workout program to target your rhomboids. You will notice the positive effects in no time. Fitness is all about longevity, and the rhomboids are key to a healthy back.
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