Chances are, you've slumped over your desk more than once in your life. When this happens, a muscle group called the rhomboids, in particular, is affected—and not in a good way. The rhomboids play a very important role in good posture and a healthy upper back, even when you're away from your desk.
Rhomboid Muscle Anatomy
The rhomboids are upper-back muscles that connect between your spine and each of your two shoulder blades (scapulae). When they contract, they pull your shoulder blades together.
The muscle fibers comprising the rhomboids run on a diagonal. The function of the rhomboid muscles is mainly to affix the scapula against the torso to allow a stable base from which the arm can move.
Clinicians look at muscles in terms of their origin, insertion, nerve, and action. The origin and insertion are the points where the muscles attach to their respective bones.
There are two rhomboid muscles. The rhomboid major originates on the thoracic spine from the second through the fifth thoracic vertebrae. It inserts on the side of the shoulder blade that faces the spine. The rhomboid minor is superior to the rhomboid major and inserts on the C7 and T1 vertebrae.
Building Your Rhomboids
The action of the rhomboid is to bring the shoulder blades toward one another in the back, as well as to lift them up—or elevate, as when you shrug your shoulders—and to rotate the shoulder blades so they face downward, away from your head.
The action of bringing the shoulder blades together (known as scapular retraction) builds the rhomboids in such a way as to support the upper back. So if you are looking to either improve or prevent a posture problem, or if you have mild, muscle-related upper-back and/or neck pain, 10 to 15 repetitions (reps) of this action performed one to three times every day may help.
However, if you have a serious medical condition that affects your posture, consult with your primary care provider and work in conjunction with a physical therapist to formulate an exercise prescription regarding how, when and how many times to do this exercise.
Each person is different, and there’s no one “recipe” for sets and reps when it comes to using exercise for managing back pain. Your physical therapist may also give you other exercises to help manage or reverse any postural issues you may have.
Overstretched Rhomboid Muscles
Being upright creatures, humans have a unique and challenging relationship with gravity. Basically, gravity is a force that creates a downward pull on the structures of the body, including the spine, head, and shoulders.
For most of us, as gravity pulls us down, the shoulders begin to roll forward, and the chest may sink in. As a result, the rhomboid muscles may become overstretched.
In contrast, the soft tissue located in front tends to tighten up and constrict. This includes your pectoral muscles.
An important key to addressing this is to strengthen your rhomboids, which in turn may help release the pec muscles. The scapular retraction exercise, described above, is one of the best ways to do that.
Forward Head Posture
Many people know that poor posture may lead to problems in your back. However, what most people don't realize is that, over time, poor posture can also cause a forward head position.
Forward head posture may lead to soft tissue strain, a kink in your neck, and fatigue in the muscles that hold your head up, which can then cause neck pain. When your head is positioned forward, how will you see what is directly in front of you as you walk down the street, drive, or work at your computer? You have to lift up your head, of course.
While this arrangement of parts may help you function in the short term, it is not a well-aligned posture for your spine and head. Maintaining strong extensor muscles in the lumbar and thoracic spine can help prevent problems in your neck as you get older.