Your time is important, and you certainly don't need to spend more of it in the gym than necessary. Enter compound exercises. This type of exercise works more than one muscle group at a time -- sometimes several -- giving you a lot more bang for your buck in a lot less time. Almost all back exercises are compound, so you have plenty of options to choose from.
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
An example of an isolation exercise is a biceps curl, which specifically targets the biceps. Other muscles, such as the wrist flexors, act as stabilizers, but the majority of the force is on the biceps. A good example of a compound exercise is a deadlift. A deadlift works the erector spinae muscles that run along the spine, as well as the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, inner thighs and calves.
Compound exercises save you a lot of time, but that's not the only benefit. Because more muscles have to activate to lift the load, you burn more calories during a compound lift than during an isolation exercise. Compound exercises also cause your body to burn more calories after your workout due to something called post-exercises oxygen consumption, or EPOC.
When it comes to the back as a muscle group, it's so large that it's pretty hard to isolate any one muscle in it. You can do exercises that target the lats, upper and lower back, but your hips, legs, shoulders and arms are going to get worked, too. The trapezius muscles of the upper back are the only exception; shrugs work specifically the traps and nothing else -- except maybe grip strength.
Compound Back Exercises
Dumbbell Bent-Over, Single-Arm Row
Rows work the entire back -- traps, lats, teres major and minor and rhomboids. They also work the biceps and pec major muscle of the chest.
How to do it:
- Choose one dumbbell of an appropriate weight and hold it in your right hand.
- Bend your left knee and rest your shin and your left palm on a weight bench with your left arm straight and your left wrist aligned under the shoulder.
- Contract your abdominal muscles and make sure your back is flat.
- Bend your right elbow and pull the dumbbell straight up until it touches your side just below your chest.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top and do not rotate your torso. You should be able to balance a saucer with a cup of hot tea on your back throughout the exercise.
- Slowly return your arm to the starting position. Repeat, then switch sides.
Pull-ups focus on the muscles of the upper back, specifically the lats, as well as the biceps, deltoids in the shoulders and pectoralis minor. You can do them assisted, unassisted and even weighted, depending on your strength level. The basic technique is the same.
How to do it:
- Grasp the bar with an overhand, wide grip.
- Bend your elbows and pull your body up until your chin passes the bar.
- Lower yourself back down to the starting point with control. Repeat.
To make the exercise easier, loop a resistance band over the bar and put one foot in like a stirrup. Decrease the band resistance as you get stronger.
One of the bigger compound exercises, deadlifts target the erector spinae, and the traps, rhomboids, levetor scapulae of the back also play roles. The legs and abdominal muscles have to work hard to stabilize you during the move.
How to do it:
- Load your barbell with an appropriate weight.
- Step up to the bar so your shins are almost touching and your feet are about hip-distance apart.
- Bend at the knees and hips to squat down and grab the bar just outside your shins.
- Keep your back flat and your core engaged, and look ahead not down.
- Press through your feet and extend through your knees and hips as you bring the bar up to your pelvis. Fully extend at the top and pull your shoulders back. Do not let the bar get too far away from your legs at any time during the exercise.
- Reverse your movements, bending at the hips and knees, to return the bar to the floor with control. Repeat.
You can do this exercise with a few different pieces of equipment, but the most common is a cable pulley attached to a long bar that curves down at either end. The exercise targets the lats and simultaneously works the rhomboids, levator scapulae, traps and teres mjor and minor. The biceps, deltoids and pec minor also play roles.
How to do it:
- Sit on the seat facing the weight stack with your thighs under the supports.
- Reach up and grasp the bar with a wide grip.
- Keep your back straight and pull the bar down to your upper chest with control. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Return to the starting position with control, with your arms and shoulders fully extended. Repeat.