Building a strong back is a goal that benefits everyone, regardless of athletic level or fitness goals. This large muscle group plays an integral role in both pain prevention and daily activities.
Whether the goal is to get shredded or increase your deadlift, compound back exercises can help you go the distance. Here are seven of the best compound back exercises and everything you need to know to build a strong back.
What Are Compound Exercises?
Compound exercises are movements that engage numerous muscles or muscle groups. This form of exercise is the opposite of an isolation exercise, which targets a specific muscle or area. There are benefits to each, but compound exercises are the epitome of working smarter, not harder.
Some studies indicate that compound exercises are more beneficial for building strength. Compound exercises not only help build strength faster, but they also encourage balanced muscular growth and an improved range of motion. Isolation exercises are not to be confused with unilateral exercises, which are single-sided movements repeated on both sides.
Understanding the Back Muscles
As the back is so interconnected, it’s challenging to find a legitimate isolation exercise for this muscle group. There are consequently many different types of back workouts to consider—including compound back exercises—with the back being composed of three distinct muscle classifications within the larger group.
The superficial back muscles are primarily responsible for shoulder stabilization and movement. The superficial back muscles include the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae, and rhomboids— the main focal points for bodybuilding-related back exercises.
The intermediate group is comprised of the two serratus posterior muscles— superior and inferior. These muscles work together to facilitate the thoracic movement.
There’s also a level of deep back muscles that assist with spinal movement, namely erector spinae in your core. Your focus will be on the superficial back muscles to build muscle mass.
The 7 Best Compound Back Exercises
When using compound back exercises, you’ll engage several back muscles and a few other muscles, such as the triceps and shoulders— depending on the movement.
Here are the seven best compound back exercises to build a strong, healthy back.
1. Cable Machine Face Pulls
Face pulls are commonly used to target the rear deltoids in the shoulder muscle group. However, this compound exercise also engages the core while working the traps and rhomboids. This exercise is a fantastic addition to any upper body workout.
- Set up a cable machine to a high-pulley position with a rope attachment. The pulley should be slightly above head level.
- Grab the ropes with an external overhand grip. Your knuckles should be facing each other.
- Step back until your arms are extended. Stand with feet hip-width apart, facing the cable machine. This is your starting position.
- Brace your core and set your shoulders back before pulling the handles back toward your face, pinching your shoulder blades together. Your elbows should be flared out and parallel with the floor.
- Pause when your hands reach the sides of your face. Squeeze and reverse the movement, maintaining control, until you return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Maintaining proper form is the key to successfully completing this exercise. If you don’t have a cable machine, you can complete this compound back exercise with a resistance band adhered to a fixed location.
2. Seal Rows
There are numerous variations of rows to try when incorporating compound back exercises into your training. In fact, the barbell row is considered one of the most effective compound back exercises. The seal row is a variation that takes the lower body out of the equation, making it less of a full-body compound exercise but also harder to use momentum to cheat the movement.
- Set up a bench on two stable plyo boxes to allow for full arm extension and a deficit hang when performing your supported row. Place a barbell evenly underneath, perpendicular to the bench.
- Lay prone on the bench with your forehead resting on the bench. Keeping your chin tucked protects your spine during this exercise. Your feet should be off the floor.
- Grip the barbell in an overhand grip.
- Row the barbell toward your chest, pulling your shoulder blades together.
- At the top of the movement, pause, then return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Avoid compensations like bending your arms to curl the weight upward or shrugging your shoulders for extra inertia. Start light and practice proper form.
Pull-ups are one of the most effective bodyweight compound exercises to include in an upper-body workout. Shifting your hand positioning can change the focus to different muscles, and adding weight can take this exercise to the next level.
- Grab the pull-up bar with an overhand grip, slightly outside of shoulder-width.
- Lift your feet off the floor, tucking them behind you, and let your body hang at full extension.
- Pull yourself up, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Continue until your chin passes the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back to full extension. That’s one rep.
A wider grip will help target more of your back muscles, shifting the focus from your chest. Add a dip belt with weight to up the intensity on this fundamental movement.
4. EZ Bar Pullover
The EZ Bar pullover is an intense compound exercise that engages the back, chest, shoulders, triceps, and core. If you don’t have an EZ bar, you can do barbell, medicine ball, or dumbbell pullovers.
- Sit on a bench holding an EZ bar with an overhand grip. Slowly lay back on the bench and extend your arms, holding the bar perpendicular to your body. Keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout the movement.
- Keep your arms straighten, and slowly lower the bar overhead until your arms are in alignment with your body.
- Pause, squeezing your shoulders together, and bracing your core, then slowly reverse the movement until the bar is once again perpendicular to your body. That’s one rep.
Keep your core braced and avoid arching off the bench by staying within your natural range of motion. Controlled movement is essential for this compound exercise.
5. V-Bar Pull-Down
The lat pull-down is a popular back workout for adding width. The V-bar pull-down is an effective variation that shifts the focus from the lats to include the shoulders, traps, and rhomboids.
- Attach a v-bar attachment to a lat pull-down cable machine.
- Sit on the seat and grab the V-bar with a neutral grip— your knuckles should be facing each other.
- Brace your core, lift your chest, and pull down, pinching your shoulder blades together. Keep your elbows tucked and shoulders back.
- Pause at chest level, then slowly reverse the movement until your arms are extended.
Start light and focus on using your shoulders and back to drive the movement. Beware of compensations in your bicep and straining your neck.
6. Rack Pulls
Rack pulls are deadlifts’ little brother. The shorter range of motion allows many lifters to pull heavier weight and perfect their lockout for the deadlift. While rack pulls still engage the lower half of the body, the focus is more on the upper body than with deadlifts.
- Set up a barbell on a rack to just below knee level.
- Stand with the bar over your midfoot and feet spaced at hip-width-width apart. Grab the barbell in an overhand or mixed grip at just outside of shoulder-width— or your preferred deadlift set up.
- Push your hips back, brace your core, set your shoulders back, and lift your chest while looking ahead.
- Drive your hips forward and pull— maintaining a neutral spine— until you’re standing fully erect.
- Pause, and slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.
This exercise can be rough on your barbells, so use an older bar. You can alter the position of the rack to above the knees or mid-thigh to work on different sticking points. The lower the bar, the more you’ll use your glutes and hamstrings, and the less you’ll use your back.
Deadlifts are the king of compound lifts. This compound back exercise works your hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, traps, and rhomboids. This full-body movement is a worthwhile addition to any strength training workout routine.
- Stand with a barbell over your midfoot and feet spaced at hip-width-width apart.
- Hinge your hips back to grab the barbell in an overhand or mixed grip at just outside of shoulder-width.
- Brace your core, set your shoulders back, and lift your chest while looking ahead.
- Drive your hips forward and pull— maintaining a neutral spine— until you’re fully standing with your hips locked.
- Pause, and slowly lower the bar back to the starting position.
Deadlifts will work multiple muscles and build full-body strength while helping you build muscle mass. It’s also one of the most challenging lifts, so consider leaving it until the end of your workout.
These are some of the best compound exercises for building back muscle mass and strength. Incorporate these movements into your upper body workout routine for a shredded back that looks and feels great.