Building your upper back is one of the most challenging yet rewarding things you can develop when it comes to building your physique. The only issue is that people often struggle to connect with their back and train it effectively.
For such a large muscle group with so much growth potential, the amount of underdeveloped backs in the gym is amazing. The key reason for this being of course that muscle groups in the back (particularly the upper back) are not considered to be mirror muscles.
Mirror muscles are those that you can physically see yourself. This increases the motivation to train them for visual stimulation and also you can get a much better mind-muscle connection with a muscle group that you can see.
Obvious examples include the chest, arms, abs, and delts. The upper back goes unseen and can also be difficult to create a mind-muscle connection. You therefore might be at the stage now where you are looking for exercises to help develop your back?
The rhomboids are often under utilized and therefore specific rhomboid exercises are needed for growth, these exercises include bent over rows, scapula retractions, and face pulls.
If so, the rhomboids are one of the most underdeveloped muscle groups there is yet have the potential to increase upper back thickness by a noticeable amount whilst also improving stability for heavy pulls and bench presses.
In this article, I’ll therefore cover the best rhomboid exercises you need to be doing, how to include them in a routine, and any other tips and tricks you need to develop your rhomboids and improve your upper back size.
What Does the Rhomboid Muscle Do
Before covering specific exercises and workouts for a muscle group, I always like to provide brief anatomy and function of the muscle overview. Don’t worry, when I say brief I mean it because I appreciate not everyone wants to know what the muscle group does, they just want to grow it larger!
The rhomboid muscle is a collection of muscle groups and is made up of the rhomboid minor and rhomboid major. These two muscle groups connect the scapula to the vertebra of the spinal column and function to keep the scapula pressed against the thoracic wall.
It’s located in the upper back and is positioned in between the shoulder blades. You’ll find it also rests below the lower portion of the trapezius muscle and this is an important factor to keep in mind as these two muscle groups will have some crossover.
With function and placement in mind, to fully train the rhomboids you are going to need to select exercises that work the scapula through a range of motion, and scapula retraction is therefore needed to get a peak contraction for the rhomboids.
It’s also worth noting that when you do exercises that work the rhomboids, you’ll often feel this in the mid-portion of your back due to the scapula involvement so anytime you feel contractions or DOMs in your mid-back, this will be your rhomboids. I just say they are located in the “upper back” so that it’s easier to differentiate it from the lats.
As a result of the world we live in, desk jobs, laptop lifestyles, and hunching to be on your phone are all daily tasks that can literally take up ⅓ – ½ of most people’s entire day. All of these activities are bad for your posture and will ultimately lead to tight rhomboids.
If you ever feel tightness and discomfort in your upper back, chances are your rhomboids are tight and need to be stretched out.
Fortunately, the stretching process is quite straightforward but I’d also recommend doing some soft tissue work on your rhomboids. Muscle tightness can lead to movement restriction, pain, and potential injury and as mentioned earlier, the rhomboids are out of sight and out of mind so take some serious neglect.
A peanut deep tissue massage ball is well designed to get into the difficult to access area of the upper back and will give your rhomboids a good rollout. You can also tape together two lacrosse balls or tennis balls but these specially made “peanut” balls are inexpensive and hassle-free.
To stretch your rhomboids, simply follow this video below as it will only take a few minutes and help to loosen up your scapula and stretch the rhomboids.
It can be a tricky process trying to find articles that target specific muscles of your back. The back is made up of some large muscle groups and therefore it can be difficult to isolate a muscle group but one thing you are not short of when training the back is exercise choices!
I’ve previously put together a list of bent over barbell row alternatives and the range of exercises for the upper back alone is quite extensive. Therefore, before getting into some of the best rhomboid exercises I want to first cover some basic questions in relation to rhomboid specific training.
Do Rows Work Rhomboids
Rows are one of the best exercises (if not the best) for training the rhomboids. The reason for this is that the movement of the row is purely focusing on scapular retraction and this is why you will see exercise cues for the row like…
“Squeeze your shoulder blades together and contract harder”
The horizontal row, bent over barbell row, or seated row are therefore some of the best exercises for training the rhomboids and I’ll cover this exercise in more detail shortly.
Do Pull Ups Work Rhomboids
Pullups may be a lat dominant exercise but you’ll be surprised to know that pull-ups also work the rhomboids. The muscles of the back will tend to work through different planes of motion and you’ll find that adjusting your hand position or grip will usually change the emphasis on the muscle group trained.
The reason pull-ups work the rhomboids is that at the top of the movement, the goal is again to squeeze the shoulder blades together and the same is true for lat pulldowns. Any time you are retracting the scapula during an exercise, you are bringing the rhomboids into activation.
Similar to a rowing variation.
Do Shrugs Work Rhomboids
Shrugs will work your rhomboids to a certain extent, but their primary focus will be on the traps and the stimulation on the rhomboids will be minimal. If you vary the angle though, then there is a way to work the traps to a higher degree with shrugs.
Behind the back (or rear) shrugs will place your scapula in a more retracted position which means the rhomboids will be more engaged during the movement. While shrugs won’t directly work the rhomboids, you can get some benefit from this exercise.
Do Deadlifts Work Rhomboids
Finally, I’ll cover whether or not deadlifts work the rhomboids and the quick answer is yes. The deadlift is a multi-joint compound exercise that works the majority of the back musculature which includes the rhomboids.
As a result of the total weight that you can lift with a deadlift, this is the exercise that will offer you the most benefit in my opinion. The deadlift is my personal favorite exercise because of the potential to develop your entire posterior chain and very few exercises can offer the growth potential that deadlifts do.
5 Best Rhomboid Exercises
Below is a list of what I feel to be the best exercises for building the rhomboids. I’ve not included any activation exercises like wall slides or Y raises because the focus of this article is on hypertrophy and growing your rhomboids.
1. Scapular Retractions
Scapular retractions can be done in two ways, either vertically or horizontally to target different areas of the rhomboids and mid-back. This is arguably the most important rhomboid specific exercise you can do as you are actively engaging and working the rhomboids specifically.
To get an idea of how a scapula retraction works, look at the below video and observe the first portion of the movement before the elbows start to move and finish the row.
Below is another video that demonstrated scapula retractions in different ranges of motion.
These exercises may look simple and straightforward but they are key to activating and engaging your rhomboids, especially before you go on to do any heavy back exercises.
2. Bent Over Barbell Row
The bent over barbell row is an excellent exercise for working the rhomboids but only when done correctly. This may seem like an obvious statement but people will tend to overload the bar with more weight than they can lift on this exercise and never properly stimulate the rhomboids.
To work the rhomboids, you’ll need to fully retract the scapula and squeeze hard at the top portion of the movement which means your elbows need to pass your body. When using a load that is too heavy, the elbows never come back far enough and therefore a full contraction is never done.
To get the most from this exercise, lighten the load and work towards a full contraction on every rep. The best way to guarantee this is to hold the contraction when the bar is touching your chest for 1 second every rep.
The same principles will also apply to any row variation unless you are targeting the lower lats and rowing to your hips instead of your chest.
3. Front Squats
You might wonder why a leg exercise is featured on this list but front squats will work your rhomboids more than you might think. When holding the weight in front of your body and keeping, keeping your elbows high and most importantly, keeping balance, the upper back is actually the stabilizing muscle group.
Your rhomboids will be engaged during this movement to stabilize the weight and it will therefore give you an isometric contraction and different training stimulus. If you want to focus on building your back for a training block, ditch the back squats and make use of front squats for a while.
4. Rear Delt Fly
The rear delt fly or reverse pec-deck are primarily rear delt exercises but with some modification, they can also significantly stimulate the rhomboids and also help to improve posture. The action of a rear delt fly will bring your scapula into a retracted position and work the rhomboids.
The key with this when working the rhomboids is to keep your arms straight, a bent arm will limit how much you bring the scapula together and a fully extended arm will ensure that you get a more shortened and contracted muscle (which will stimulate muscle hypertrophy).
5. Face Pulls
Face pulls are similar to the rear delt fly in that it’s an exercise aimed at targeting the rear delts primarily. With that said, it’s one of the best exercises for scapular retraction and overall posterior chain health (especially in the upper back region).
Face pulls work a lot of muscle groups that often do not receive direct training stimulus like the rotator cuff, lower traps, and rhomboids so including these in your workout can be a rear shoulder girdle and upper back savior.
Pulling from a low to high position will engage the rhomboids more as a result of the stretched position so try to perform these similar to the video below.
The rhomboid is a heavily neglected muscle group that should be contributing to upper back health, flexibility, posture, and overall size/strength. If you want to start to bring your back up to par, make sure you are spending some time focusing on the rhomboids.
If you only take one tip from this article, it would be to get your elbows back as far as possible when rowing and squeeze hard when you’re in the contracted position.
Whenever you squeeze your scapula and shoulder blades together, you’ll finally start to engage the rhomboids and might then finally see some growth!