Reawaken Your Rhomboids

Fix these overlooked muscles and you’ll look better and be able to pull more weight. Here’s how.

You look like a walking apostrophe. Your chest is sunken. You’ve got the “grandpa hunch” going.

It’s okay. You’re not alone. The massive amount of horizontal pressing movements that most people do (think bench press), and the avoidance of horizontal rowing, has turned us into athletes with shoulders rolled forward, necks always craned ahead, and shallow chests.

Not only does it make you look old, it also really impacts your athletic success.

Now, you may be thinking, “Hey, I do rows!” Sadly, most people row in a way that’s so dynamic that the Olympic lifts seem slow in comparison. The biceps and lower back get dangerously close to injured and the key pulling muscles continue to nap.

Let’s Fix It!

Luckily, I can’t think of anything easier to fix. The password here is rhomboids, those funny little muscles in your back. The rhomboid is like your back’s designated driver: you really should appreciate it, but, well, you forget.

Rhomboid Muscles

The rhomboid is there to simply retract your shoulder blades. The problem is, it seems glad to let momentum do the work for you. The rhomboid was classified by Janda as a fast-twitch muscle or what he called a “phasic muscle.” It weakens with age or disuse.

A typical workout ignores the rhomboids. Developing this muscle in the middle of your upper back will balance your workout and help you stand taller. Moreover, most guys struggling to gain lean body mass also seem to have posture issues that lead to soft issue issues that lead to long-term issues.

Ignoring the rhomboid will age you, no doubt. If you want to look instantly younger in ten days, then fall in love with the rhomboid. A few simple moves can build you up, check for side-to-side issues, add years to your training, and take years off your posture.

I always begin with the pattern. In the basic pull, you may have already ingrained the use of speed and momentum. But don’t ignore the weaker, smaller areas. Try what I call the bat wing.

Bat Wings

  1. Grab a heavy pair of kettlebells or dumbbells and lie facedown on a bench, resting the weights on the floor.
  2. Pull the weights up toward your rib cage, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top for a second. From a bird’s-eye view, your torso should resemble bat wings. When in doubt, stick your thumbs in your armpits on this drill.
  3. The higher you pull, the harder you should squeeze your shoulder blades together. This movement is slight, the weights should move up and down only about 6 inches. The repetitions are akin to an isometric squeeze.
  4. Perform 4 sets of 5 repetitions.

Do this for up to six weeks or so. Certainly, increase the time of the holds and the weights, but err on the side of quality. Anybody can do more bad reps, but quality reps are like sunny days in Seattle: rare, but welcome.

Once your posture improves and you’ve mastered the bat wing, try it with slower rows. People may start to ask if you lost weight. That’s often what it looks like when your posture, and muscles, are moved to the proper place.

Row the Right Way

Honestly, I could just stop now and know that I’ve changed lives, but let’s move up to the next step:

You need to refocus your attention on horizontal rows!

There are plenty of options now, but when I was young we had the Reg Park barbell row and a few one-arm variations. Today, there are dozens of options and machines, ranging from simple to Tron-like.

Regardless of the variation you choose, slow down and squeeze at the top of the move. That’s where the magic is. I like a slight pause in the position where you have the bar at your chest. If you can’t do this, either go lighter or end the set.

Human Plank Rows

The issue with many people’s rows is symmetry. I have a fun way of testing this. Try human plank rows:

  1. Grab the hand of a good friend or even a sturdy post with one hand.
  2. Now, with a perfect plank – absolutely no rolling or sway – lean away from your partner until you have a perfectly straight, but packed arm.
  3. Now, row yourself back to vertical.

If one side can’t hold the plank or rolls out at any point, sorry, you’ve got symmetry issues.

Here’s a Simple Fix

Do more reps on the weaker side. Don’t do a set of twenty reps. To fix symmetry issues, you do twenty sets of one.

Rather than banging through a long set, stop and refocus each and every rep. It works. If you have asymmetries, crashing and bashing through your sets of barbell rows is going kill your lower back. I’m not a doctor, but I’m going to suggest you not do that.

Rhomboid Recovery

Once you reawaken your rhomboids and achieve symmetry, you might find that a lot of your nagging nonsurgical injuries will ease up. You’ll feel fewer “hot spots” when you foam roll, and you might even cut down on those chiropractor visits.

This simple approach can work wonders in just a few weeks.