Your rhomboids are essential to building and maintaining a strong and well-defined back. Positioned in your upper back, just beneath your traps, your rhomboids control your shoulder blades, helping to support your shoulders and assisting the movement of your arms. Strong rhomboids are key to good posture, and can reduce your risk of back pain and injury in other workouts.
Despite their essential role, the rhomboids are often overlooked because of their small size and less visible location. Workout routines tend to focus on the larger latissimus dorsi (lats) and trapezius (traps) muscles since these contribute more muscle mass to your back, so bigger lats and traps alone can create an impressive back. But neglecting your rhomboids can lead to muscular imbalance over time and give rise to poor posture in your upper body.
Weak rhomboids can also impact your performance in other workouts, too. For example, exercises like bench press or rows need stability in your upper back and shoulders. If you have weak rhomboids, this can compromise your stability and proper form during the workout, which can increase your risk of injury.
This guide lists 11 effective rhomboid exercises that can strengthen your back. The variations use dumbbells, cables or resistance bands, making it easy to program them into any workout routine.
What are the rhomboids?
The rhomboids are muscles in your upper back that sit under your trapezius muscles. Your rhomboids are crucial for upper back stability and posture, and allow you to pull your shoulder blades together.
Rhomboids are much smaller than other muscles in your back. Your lats, for example, are the biggest muscles in your back and are much more powerful than your rhomboids. The lats help with pulling moves and everyday activities and exercises like swimming and pull ups. But while your rhomboids might be smaller, they play a critical role in stabilizing your shoulder blades.
The rhomboids are made up of two muscles – the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. Together, these muscles form the ‘rhomboid’ shape. The rhomboid major is the larger muscle, and sits below the rhomboid minor.
Both muscles run diagonally across your back. One runs from your lower cervical spine and the other from your upper thoracic vertebrae, over to your shoulder blades.
Although the rhomboid major is larger in size, the rhomboid minor is a thicker muscle. Both muscles contribute equally to pulling your shoulder blades towards your spine, and both stabilize the shoulder and can improve posture.
The rhomboids main purpose is scapular retraction. This is the drawing of your shoulder blades together and pulling of them back. This movement is best demonstrated in the lat pulldown. As you pull you pull the bar down, your rhomboids work to pull your shoulder blades towards each other.
Your rhomboids are also involved in shrugging movements, which involves moving your shoulders upwards.
Finally, your rhomboids facilitate the movement of your shoulders downwards. This means they are engaged in exercises like pull-ups and pull-downs.
Benefits of training your rhomboids
Your rhomboids contribute to a strong and well-defined back, helping you achieve the desirable “V” shape upper back. Because of their location between the shoulder blades, they are key muscles if your goal is to build an aesthetically-pleasing back.
Maintaining good posture is important for your overall strength and wellbeing. Good posture helps you maintain proper form in other workouts, which can increase the effectiveness of your training regime, as well as reduce the risk of injury and strain.
Because strong rhomboids pull your shoulders back and by pulling along your spine, they can improve your upper back posture. So training your rhomboids to strengthen them can be a preventative measure to avoid back problems caused by working out.
Posture is even more important if you have an overdeveloped chest causing your shoulders to pronate forwards. This can put more stress on your back, neck and shoulders, as well as causing stiffness in your upper traps, potentially causing pain and discomfort long term. Strong rhomboids can counterbalance this effect by pulling back your muscles to a more normal position.
Back pain is commonly caused by either a sedentary lifestyle or having poor posture. A sedentary lifestyle can cause your core and back muscles, including your rhomboids, to weaken over time, which can lead to poor posture in your trunk and back. In turn, this can place additional stress on your spine, ultimately leading to discomfort or chronic lower back pain.
Strengthening your upper back muscles in some cases can improve back pain conditions, when combined with lower back exercises. When strengthened, your rhomboids help pull your shoulders back, which it is thought aligns your spine and reduces the strain on your back.
If you suffer from back pain, you should always consult a medical professional before making any changes to your exercise program.
Adding rhomboid exercises to your workout routine
Exercises that involve scapular retraction (the pulling of your shoulder blades together and back) will engage your rhomboids. These exercises are typically performed with your arms elevated. Good rhomboid exercises can be rows, pull-ups or specific weightlifting exercises like deadlifts and lat pulldowns.
Adding regular rhomboid exercises to your workout routine can help you build a stronger back, as well as improve your posture over time. When designing your workout routine, it’s important to balance the volume you hit each muscle group with.
The upper back muscles, including the rhomboids, respond well to increased volume and higher rep ranges. This means you can do more sets with a 8-12 rep range (or even more). This increased volume stimulates muscle endurance and hypertrophy, helping you achieve your goals faster.
Since rhomboid exercises work other muscles at the same time, a useful tactic to target your rhomboids can be pre-exhaustion. For example, you can perform a lats isolation exercise first to exhaust your lats, then follow up with a rhomboids-focused row. Because your lats are fatigued, this state will force your rhomboids to work even harder.
An example of this tactic in your workout routine would be a set of straight-arm lat pull downs to exhaustion, followed by a set of face pulls or seated rows. Pre-exhaustion ensures your rhomboids are adequately challenged, making your workout more targeted and effective.
Pre-exhaustion is a controversial method and two studies (2003 and 2022) present no evidence that pre-exhaustion is more effective than traditional resistance training. “Conversely, pre-exhaustion exercise may have disadvantageous effects on performance, such as decreased muscle activity and reduction in strength, during multijoint exercise.” (study by Augustsson et al).
It is crucial that you select exercises that concentrate more on your rhomboid muscles. Some exercises, such as pull-ups and bent-over rows, primarily target your lats instead of your rhomboids. Instead, you might want to opt for seated cable rows or dumbbell rows. These exercises have a larger range of motion and directly activate your rhomboids.
Additionally, consider adding single arm exercises to your routine to isolate each side of your rhomboids and ensure balanced development.
Why: In inverted rows, when you pull your body up to the bar, your rhomboids contract to bring your shoulder blades together. Unlike other rhomboid exercises using dumbbells or cables, the inverted row uses your own bodyweight as resistance. You can adjust the difficulty by changing your body angle or using a weighted vest.
How to do: Set the bar at waist height. Lie below the bar facing upwards. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, with your hands about shoulder-width apart on the bar. Pull your chest up to the bar, squeezing your shoulder blades. Then lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Inverted Rows
Seated cable row
Why: The seated cable row is a great choice as it provides more emphasis onto your rhomboids compared with other compound exercises. The cable machine provides a stable resistance through the entire range of motion, which can make the exercise more efficient as you can use a higher resistance than would be possible with free weights.
How to do: Configure the cable machine with a V-bar handle attachment. Place your feet on the platform and hold the V-bar with an overhand grip. Sit back with your arms fully extended, maintaining a straight spine. Pull the handle towards you, squeezing your shoulder blades together, then slowly return to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Seated Cable Rows
Single-arm high cable row
Why: Compared with the seated cable row, this exercise is performed standing and you pull the cable down from a high fix point. This places greater emphasis on your upper back and shoulders, but still provides a good workout for your rhomboids. The single-arm nature of this exercise makes it a great option for addressing muscular imbalances.
How to do: Configure the cable machine with a handle attachment. Stand sideways to the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart. Holding the handle in your hand farthest away from the machine, pull it towards you. Squeeze at the end of the movement, then slowly return to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Single-Arm High Cable Rows
Barbell bent-over rows
Why: As you pull the barbell up in a bent-over row, your rhomboids contract to control the movement. Unlike isolation exercises like the scapular retraction, the bent-over row is a comprehensive compound exercise that engages muscles in your upper and middle back, biceps and shoulders.
How to do: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell at hip level with an overhand grip. Bending at your knees, hinge at your wait to push your hips back until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Pull the barbell towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked close to your body. Squeeze at the top of the movement, then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Bent-over Barbell Rows
Band pull aparts
Why: The band pull apart is performed with a resistance band, which makes it accessible and can easily be performed at home or at the gym. When you pull the band, your shoulder blades retract, engaging your rhomboids.
How to do: Stand tall with your feet hip width apart. Hold a resistance band in front of your chest, with your arms fully extended. Slowly pull the band apart by moving your hands outwards, squeezing your shoulder blades together through the motion. Hold for a moment, squeeze the contraction, then return back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Banded Pull Aparts
Why: IYT raises see you lift your arms at different angles, forming an outline of the letters “I”, “T” and “Y”. This raise hits your back muscles, including your rhomboids, at three different angles, providing a comprehensive upper back workout.
How to do: Stand upright or sit on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Raise your arms straight in front of you to form an “I”, then lower back down. Now lift your arms out at a 45 degree to form a “Y”, and lower back. Finally, extend your arms out to the sides at a larger angle to form a “T”. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Watch: How to Do I-Y-T Raises
Rope face pull
Why: In the motion of pulling the cable towards your face, you are contracting and engaging your rhomboid muscles. The use of the cable machine provides a constant tension, which makes this an efficient workout.
How to do: Attach a rope handle to a cable machine. Standing back from the machine, hold the rope with both hands with your palms facing each other. Pull the rope towards your face, keeping your elbows raised and flared our during the movement. Squeeze at the end of the motion, then slowly return to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Cable Face Pulls
Prone lateral raise
Why: The prone lateral raise sees you lying on a flat bench lifting dumbbells. As you lift your arms to the side, your rhomboids contract to align and move your shoulder blades. The prone position allows you to hit your rhomboids in a different way compared with standing or sitting exercises.
How to do: Lie face down on a flat bench, with a dumbbell in each hand. Let your arms hand straight down and keep your palms facing each other. Slowly raise your arms out to your sides, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Contract and squeeze your shoulder blades, then slowly return to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Prone Lateral Raises
Standing Scapular Retractions
Why: Scapular retractions are a great way to target the rhomboid muscles in your back. This exercise requires no weights, resistance or other gym equipment, so you can perform it anywhere.
How to do: Stand upright with your arms by your side. Slowly draw your shoulder blades back and down. Hold for a few seconds, then release. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Read more: How to Do Scapular Retractions
Rear delt flyes
Why: Rear delt flyes target your rear deltoids, but also engage your rhomboids. This happens when you retract your shoulder blades during the fly. Squeezing at the top can put some emphasis onto your rhomboids.
How to do: Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should be facing each other. Bend slightly at your knees and hinge at your hips until your torso is almost parallel with the floor. Maintaining a straight back, raise the weights out to your sides until your arms are parallel with the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top of the movement, then lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Rear Delt Flyes
Scapular wall slides
Why: The scapula wall slide is a simple exercise that uses the wall as a prop. Lifting your arms up and along the wall can engage your rhomboids during the retraction phase.
How to do: Stand with your back against a wall. Extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder height, then bend your elbows so your hands are pointing directly up. There should be a 90 degree angle between your upper arms and forearms. Keeping your body firmly against the wall, slowly slide your arms up until they are fully extended. Hold for a few seconds, then lower back to the starting position.
Read more: How to Do Scapular Wall Slides
If you experience severe pain or have chronic pain in your back muscles, you should consult a medical professional. You should always consult a medical professional before making any changes to your exercise program.
Rhomboid strains are often caused by strenuous activities like sports or heavy lifting. High impact activities or activities that have repetitive shoulder movements can put stress on your rhomboid muscles, leading to strain or injury.
Signs of a rhomboid strain can be pain between your shoulder blades or discomfort when moving your arms and shoulders.
If you have a rhomboid strain, it is important to avoid activities that place stress on your back muscles. Activities like heavy lifting, overhead movements or intense upper body exercises can make the condition worse or slow down your recovery.
See also: Treatment for Rhomboid Pain (Healthline)
Isometric training is a method of strengthening your muscles without moving through a full range of motion. Instead, you contract the muscle and hold it in one position. This can make it a safer and more beneficial type of exercise if you are recovering from a muscle strain or injury.
An effective isometric exercise for rhomboid strains is the scapular retraction hold. To perform this exercise, start by standing or sitting upright. Pull your shoulder blades together as if trying to hold a pencil between them, and then hold that position. Maintain this position for about 5 seconds, ensuring your shoulders remain down and relaxed throughout.
The ‘squeeze and hold’ technique of isometric training increases blood flow to the area which can accelerate the healing process.
If you feel any irritation or discomfort, stop immediately and consult a medical professional for advice.
Ertekin, E., & Günaydın, Ö. E. (2021). Neck pain in rounded shoulder posture: Clinico-radiologic correlation by shear wave elastography. International journal of clinical practice, 75(8), e14240.
Citko, A., Górski, S., Marcinowicz, L., & Górska, A. (2018). Sedentary lifestyle and nonspecific low back pain in medical personnel in North-East Poland. BioMed research international, 2018.
Atalay, E., Akova, B., Gür, H., & Sekir, U. (2017). Effect of upper-extremity strengthening exercises on the lumbar strength, disability and pain of patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled study. Journal of sports science & medicine, 16(4), 595.
Ottinger, C. (2020, January 30). Training Muscle Fiber Types. The Muscle PhD. https://themusclephd.com/training-muscle-fiber-types/
Augustsson, J., Thomeé, R., Hörnstedt, P., Lindblom, J., Karlsson, J., & Grimby, G. (2003). Effect of pre-exhaustion exercise on lower-extremity muscle activation during a leg press exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 17(2), 411-416.
Trindade, T. B., Alves, R. C., DE CASTRO, B. M., DE MEDEIROS, M. A., DE MEDEIROS, J. A., Dantas, P. M. S., & Prestes, J. (2022). Pre-exhaustion Training, a Narrative Review of the Acute Responses and Chronic Adaptations. International Journal of Exercise Science, 15(3), 507.
Sjøgaard, G., Savard, G., & Juel, C. (1988). Muscle blood flow during isometric activity and its relation to muscle fatigue. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 57(3), 327-335.