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Thoughtful Thursday…3 exercises for small muscles...gain strength and improve posture...


Welcome to Thoughtful Thursday. This GreenNote Fitness newsletter mindfully gathers and distills useful information that is supportive to our journey. It is my mission to educate, inspire, and propel you into action that moves you towards your goals and life of purpose. Take control of your journey today.

There is a group of smaller muscles that don’t get much attention. And that’s too bad as these smaller muscles are important for posture, performance on lifts such as rows and bench press, and can help keep shoulder and elbow injuries at bay.

These smaller but important muscles in the back are the rhomboids.

Rhomboids - small but important muscles

Looking closely at the rhomboids, they are a pair of upper-back muscles, rhomboid minor and rhomboid major, that run diagonally from the cervical and thoracic vertebrae of the spine down to the shoulder blades (scapulas) on each side of the body. Because you tend to feel the middle of your back when you do exercises that work them, they are often referred to as a “middle-back” muscle even though they are relatively high up on the back of the body.

The rhomboids are small and thin. As fitness writer Joe Wuebben explains, "They are hidden by the trapezius and don’t get the attention like the large latissimus dorsi (lats). The primary purpose of the rhomboids is to hold the shoulder blades to the vertebrae in the spine. They pull the shoulder blades back and together, such as at the end of a rowing exercise or lat pulldown. The rhomboids also help to raise the shoulder blades up, as in a shrugging motion, as well as draw the shoulder blades downward, such as in a pull-up or pull-down motion.”

Reasons to care for and strengthen the rhomboids:

  • Weak rhomboids lead to loss of scapular control - when this happens, the shoulder blades don’t move properly, and that results in injury

  • John Rusin, PT, explains that one of the consequences of undertrained rhomboids setting off a chain reaction in your body is tightness in the neck and upper back that can lead to postural imbalances and incomplete breathing

  • Helps to counteract the effects of constant hunched-forward shoulder position from using our smartphones, computers, and tablets

  • Keep in mind, increasing the amount of pulling exercises you do can help develop rhomboids but this can result in a greater buildup of the lats. This is due to the body recruiting big, strong muscles to do any work they can for the efficiency sake. The lats don’t attach to the shoulders, so postural imbalance may or may not be improved. It’s important to note that the only way to make sure the rhomboids get worked sufficiently is to hit them with exercises that really isolate the area

Now we know the importance of the rhomboids, where they reside and what they do. Let’s not neglect them, let’s get them strong!

3 exercises to target the rhomboids for improved posture, injury prevention, and to strengthen (as recommend by John Rusin and Ryan Chow, DPT, and described by Joe Wuebben) :

1.) Face Pull

  • Pulling a resistance band or cable rope to your face without leaning back; engaging your back muscles

  • Start by standing up-right (with good posture of course…) facing a high pulley with a rope or a resistance band secured from a high point

  • Pull the rope or band directly towards your face, separating your hands as you do so. Keep your upper arms parallel to the ground

  • Make sure that your head position stays neutral, don’t let your head jut forward

  • Focus on keeping your shoulders down and back, squeezing your shoulder blades together

  • Hold for a second and slowly return the band or cable back to starting position and repeat

Face pull

Do face pulls at the beginning of your back workout to activate the rhomboids, so that they’ll be primed to kick in harder on bigger exercises like rows, pulldowns, and pull-ups. Perform 2–3 sets of 15–20 reps, using a light-weight.

2.) High-Angle Single-Arm Cable Row

  • Secure a D-handle attachment to a cable pulley and position it on the column at around eye level (to create a downward line of pull).

  • Grasp the handle with one hand and step back from the column to put tension on the cable. With your body facing the machine, start with your working arm fully extended, your feet in a split stance (the one opposite of the working arm in front) and your knees slightly bent. Your torso should be at a slight forward angle, with your back straight.

  • Maintaining a neutral wrist position (palm facing in), contract your back muscles to pull the handle in close to your side, just above your waist. Keep your core tight to maintain a rigid torso.

  • As you approach the end of the rep, rotate your torso to open up your working shoulder to the side. Hold the end position for a second or two, squeezing the contraction in the rhomboids (upper-middle back), then slowly reverse the motion to return to the start position. Repeat for reps, then switch sides.

Single Arm Row

Do this exercise near the end of your back workout, after heavier rowing movements, lat pulldowns, and/or pullups. Perform 2–3 sets of 15 reps, using a light-to-moderate weight.

3.) Suspension-Trainer Reverse “Y” Fly

Rusin prefers “Y"s for hitting the rhomboids. “The higher angle triggers more upward rotation of the scapulas [at the start of the movement] for a better stretch and gives you full range of motion of the rhomboids.”

  • Grasp the handles of a suspension trainer hanging from a high anchor point (above your head).

  • Keeping your body in a straight line, lean back so your torso is around 45 degrees to the floor with your arms fully extended. (The more upright your torso is, the less difficult the movement will be; move your feet forward and back to find the appropriate resistance.)

  • Keeping your elbows extended, contract your back muscles to pull your arms overhead and back in a Y shape, so you lift your body just shy of vertical.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together for a second or two, and keep them pulled down. Then slowly lower your arms to the start position. Repeat for reps.

The Y raise can be done either early in your back workout (as a pre-exhaust) or near the end—after rows, pulldowns, and/or pullups. Perform 2–3 sets of 10–15 reps, using a body position that allows for controlled movements and proper form.

Important to note when training the rhomboids:

  • When training the rhomboids, begin every set by squeezing your shoulder blades together as closely as possible.

  • Often people aren’t able squeeze shoulder blades and surrounding muscles due to going to heavy. Start with a lighter weight on your rows when targeting the rhomboids

  • Do not let the shoulders come up to the ears when doing rows (or lat pull-downs)

  • When doing rows and pull-downs, keep your spine in a neutral position. Do not round your shoulders. You want to maintain a straight line of your spine to reduce risk of injury to spinal disks

Remember to target those small but oh so important rhomboids. You will look and feel better!

Enjoy your journey,

Lisa Schaffer

GreenNote Fitness

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