The Most Effective Compound Back Exercises [15 Best Variations]

If there is one muscle group that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, it is the back.

You need a nice sturdy back for just about everything in life.

Whether you want to develop that nice ‘V’ shape in your upper body, or you would like your back to have some definition for your wedding dress, then you’ve come to the right place.

In this post, you’ll learn the best compound back exercises you can do.

Let’s get started.

the most effective compound back exercises cover image

Disclaimer:

Although we are doctors and personal trainers, we are not your doctors. The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not substitute the advice from your healthcare professional. All kinds of exercise and dietary activities are potentially dangerous, and those who do not seek counsel from the appropriate health care authority assume the liability of any damage or injury which may occur. Please read our full Disclaimer for more information. Also, this post may contain affiliate links: meaning we may receive a commission if you use them.

Okay, let’s get started.




What is the Best Compound Exercise For Back?

The #1 best compound exercise for the back is…

1) Snatch Grip Deadlift

snatch grip deadlift- brittany gripping a barbell on the floor with a very wide grip position

The snatch grip deadlift trains almost every single back muscle at once. That’s because your back has to maintain a constant isometric contraction just to maintain a neutral spine position.

In addition, the wide hand position will really activate the rhomboid, trapezius, latissimus dorsi muscles, and erector spinae.

Not to mention, it is also a deadlift, so you can use which means it also trains your core muscles, your entire posterior chain (low back, glutes, and hamstrings), and your grip strength.

This is why so many Olympic lifters have a lot of muscle mass in their backs.

Lastly, you can use some heavy weights with this movement (provided you are using proper form!).

Now let’s go over some more traditional back exercises by body part.

Other Compound Back Exercises

The best upper back exercises are the ones that require you to pull in a horizontal plane.

Below, I will show you the best back exercises with a barbell, cable, and bodyweight.

1) The Barbell Bent-Over Row

The barbell row is the second-best barbell back exercise after the deadlift. Contrary to what most people do, the starting position in this popular exercise should be with the barbell on the floor for each repetition.

barbell row- alex rowing a barbell from the floor up towards his abdomen from a bent over position

Starting each rep from the floor allows you to reset, engage the spinal erector muscles more, and ensure that you are pulling primarily from the upper back and not the trapezius muscles.

I go over how to do the Barbell Row with proper form in this post.

2) Seated Cable Machine Row

The seated cable row is by far the best back exercise to perform with a machine and cables. Although it looks simple, many trainees perform this exercise incorrectly.

Avoid using excess momentum, and start the movement by retracting your scapula, and pulling the cable in a straight line towards your upper abdomen.

seated cable row- alex using a row machine to bring the cable from his extended arms towards his abdomen

I go over how to do the Machine Seated Cable Row with proper form in this post.

3) The Horizontal Pullup (aka Inverted Row)

The Horizontal Pull-up is one of the best upper back exercises you can do without equipment. (Well I guess you need something to support yourself with but you can get creative).

It is a bodyweight version of a barbell row.

horizontal pull-up - alex pulling himself up holding onto a barbell while lying horizontally on the floor

The nice thing about this exercise is that you can scale it back to meet your skill level. Bend your knees to perform the easiest variation. Elevate your legs to make the movement more challenging.

I go over how to do the Horizontal Pull-up with proper form in this post.


All of the exercises we have covered thus far primarily focus on the upper back. Now we will go over some exercises for the lattisimus muscles.

The lats are primarily trained by vertical pulling exercises. Here are the only ones you need to know.

1) The Pull-up

Some people consider the Pullup to be the squat of the upper body. This is by far the best back exercise without equipment.

It will build strong rhomboids, lats, posterior shoulders, and biceps.

Use an overhand grip to target the back muscles more.

Don’t worry if you cannot do one pull-up. We will show you one cool technique to help you get your first pullup in our tutorial here.

the pull-up: brittany performing a pull-up

2) The Lat PullDown

The Lat pulldown is very similar to the pullup. It trains the same muscle groups and it can be easily scaled for beginners and intermediate trainees.

Just like the seated cable row, many trainees perform this exercise wrong. It is important to initiate the movement by retracting your scapula, and not letting your shoulders go into internal rotation.

the lat pulldown: alex and brittany using a lat pull down machine

Check our tutorial on How to do Lat Pulldowns Correctly to learn more.


Compound Back Exercises With Dumbbells

If for whatever reason you only have access to a pair of dumbbells, here are the best dumbbell back exercises you can perform to target all of your back musculature.

1) Chest Supported Rows

The chest-supported row is a great exercise because it allows you to focus on your back muscles and less on keeping the rest of your body in an optimal position.

All you have to do is lie chest down on a bench that is set to an incline of about 45 degrees. From here row two dumbbells up towards the bench without lifting your chest off the bench.

Use a neutral grip (palms facing each other) for best results.

chest supported rows- lying chest down on an incline bench while pulling dumbbells up toward the bench

2) Single Arm Dumbbell Rows

The single-arm dumbbell row is a staple exercise that anyone can do to hit many back muscles at once.

It can be performed by kneeling on a bench with one arm, or with both arms simultaneously in a “bent over” position.

dumbbell row exercise from a bent over position on a bench

Check out our tutorial on the Dumbbell Row here.

3) Y,T,I Complex

This exercise is similar to the rear delt fly, but instead of only raising your arms in one direction, you make a Y shape, a T shape (shown below), and an I shape with your arms.

Do not be shocked if you have to use the smallest dumbbells in your gym to do this exercise. Do not use heavy dumbbells!

YTI exercise- lying chest down on a bench and lifting the dumbbells up laterally to a T position

Similar to the chest supported row, this exercise is best performed chest down on an incline bench set to about 45 degrees.



Compound Back Exercises At Home

It is actually very difficult to train your back muscles without equipment.

However, if you make a one-time small investment, you could perform a few great back exercises, at home.

That investment is a resistance band. It must be a closed-loop resistance band. Not those weird ones that have handles on them.

You can get some high-quality bands on Amazon.

Here are the at-home exercises you can perform.

Bent Over Banded Rows

Stand on top of one loop of the band and grab the other loop with your palms facing each other. From a bent-over position, pull the band up towards your waistline and pinch your shoulder blades together.

Start with your feet shoulder-width. The wider you stand, and the lower down you grab the loop, the more resistance the band will provide.

band-exercise-for-back banded bent over row: brittany bent over and pulling a band toward her belly that is anchored under her feet

Banded Lat Pulldowns

To do the lat pulldown, you will need to anchor the band around a tall vertical or bar and grab the other end of the loop with both hands with your palms facing together. From here, pull the band down towards your chest by retracting your shoulder blades.

You can kneel down to increase the resistance on the band as well.

band-lat-pulldown: brittany kneeling and pulling a band straight down that is anchored to a bar above her head

Band Pull-Aparts

Lastly, you can do band pull-apart, which will train your posterior deltoids and rotator cuff.

Hold up the band at chest level with your arms straight. From here, pull the band apart by squeezing your shoulder blades together until it touches your chest.

Do not bend your elbows. You can make the movement more challenging by gripping the band with a narrow grip.

resistance-band-pull-aparts-exercise

If you do not want to use a resistance band, I go over several other back exercises you can do at home with just your own body weight and minimal equipment.

Check it out here: 21 Amazing Calisthenics Back Exercises You Can Do At Home.

Isolation Back Exercises

Last but not least, let’s go over some isolation exercises you can do for your back, specifically, to target the posterior deltoids and rotator cuff.

The posterior deltoids are an important muscle group to train because they maintain a healthy shoulder joint.

If you don’t train these isolation movements, it’s only a matter of time until you will have pain (especially if you do a lot of bench press).

1) The Face Pull

The best exercise to train the back of your shoulders is the face pull.

You will need a cable pulley machine and a rope attachment.

the face pull: using a cable rope machine to pull the resistance towards the face with the arms externally rotated

This important movement pattern builds strength in the rotator cuff and can help reverse muscular imbalances that exist in the shoulders of many people.

Check out our tutorial on how to do the Face Pull correctly here.

2) Bent Over Rear Delt Flys

The rear delt fly is another simple exercise that also hits the posterior deltoid and rotator cuff.

The main problem with this exercise is that many people use excessive momentum when doing it.

Be conservative and don’t let your elbows bend too much.

Focus on feeling the appropriate muscle activation in your rear deltoids.

rear delt fly- lifting dumbbells up laterally from a bent over position with straight arms

Other Related Questions

What are the major muscle groups in the back that you should train?

The back is composed of several different muscles, each with complex functions. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus our attention on just three major back muscles.

They are the:

  • Rhomboids and Other Upper Back Muscles
  • Lattisimus Dorsi (or Lats for short)
  • Posterior Deltoids

Rhomboids

The rhomboids are small muscles that are located between your scapula. Together with other muscles of the upper back, they help to retract your scapula and pull things towards you in a horizontal plane.

The Lats

The lats are large muscles that are located on your sides and attach from your arm to the side of your back. These are the muscles that look like wings and give a ‘V’ shape. They help in pulling things towards you in a vertical plane.

The Posterior Deltoids

These small muscles are attached to the back of your shoulder and help in pulling things towards your face and externally rotating the shoulders. They are necessary to provide definition, balance, and stability to your shoulder joint.

picture-of-back-muscles

What about lower back exercises?

There are many different movements you can do to target the lower back muscles, aka the spinal erector muscles. These include:

What are the best exercises for lower back pain?

Experiencing back pain does not always necessarily correlate with having a weak back. Many people assume that they have to strengthen their lower or upper back when they are experiencing pain.

First and foremost, it is absolutely important to avoid any exercise or activity that aggravates your back pain.

In the meantime, you need to focus on strengthening your core stability by performing exercises such as:

The next thing that you have to do is find the reason for the low back pain. This will often require an evaluation from some type of fitness/medical professional and possibly an imaging study. 

In my experience, a lot of low back pain is caused by postural changes at the pelvis, tight hips, weak abs, weak hamstrings, and/or weak glutes.

Check out my posture article to learn more.

Once you find out what the likely culprit is, then you can add additional rehabilitation exercises to target those specific areas.

How can I incorporate these movements into a workout routine?

Here are two sample back workouts that you can perform.

Move fast and keep your rest periods short. You should be able to perform this workout in 30-35 minutes

Day 1

  • A) Snatch Grip Deadlifts: 3×10
  • B1) Chest Supported Rows: 2×10
  • superset with
  • B2) Face Pulls: 2×12

Day 2

  • Barbell Row: 3×10
  • B1) Pullups (w or w/o weight): 4×6
  • superset with
  • B2) Rear Delt Fly: 4×10

Continue to increase the volume using progressive overload and then rotate the exercises after 8 weeks.

The Bottom Line On Compound Movements For The Back

You now have the best exercises to build strong back muscles as efficiently as possible.

Don’t neglect the muscles that have kept you standing even in your lowest moments!

Now we turn it over to you.

Which of these 15 exercises is your favorite?

Comment below and let us know!

Check out other installments of the WCT compound movements series.



alex-brittany-robles-white-coat-trainer

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader’s Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.


15 thoughts on “The Most Effective Compound Back Exercises [15 Best Variations]”

  1. This information will help me a lot. Since I’m beginning a weight loss program for myself. It makes since that you would start with your back. Because your back supports everything else. Thanks.

  2. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of great trainers but I always train my back! It’s one of my favorite muscle groups to work out. Still, I didn’t realize how much calorie-burning potential it had, so thanks for the motivation to keep doing what I’m doing.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      You’re welcome. I’m glad to hear you are already training this important muscle group. Keep up the good work!

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      Definitely. As a runner, it is important to train your back and your core. We also have an article on the best way to train your arms.

    1. The White Coat Trainer

      That is a great approach. Always start slow and learn the movements. The benefits these exercises provide are tremendous.

Comments are closed.

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