With pull-up bars, barbells, lat pulldown machines and TRX, there's enough equipment at the gym that you could spend all day working just your back muscles. But if you want to maximize your time, compound back exercises are the way to go.
Compound moves activate more than one muscle group at once — sometimes several — giving you a lot more bang for your buck in a lot less time. And the below five exercises in particular will help you streamline your back workouts.
Why You Should Care About Strong Back Muscles
Unlike your abs, say, which are front and center when you gaze in the mirror, your back is, well, behind you. And people tend to neglect the muscles they can't see in the mirror, says Morit Summers, CPT, certified personal trainer and creator of Brooklyn-based training studio Form Fitness. But that's a big mistake.
"We must not forget about the back muscles," Summers says. "They are so important for general posture." A weak back can cause bad posture and slouching, which may lead to a tight anterior chain (the muscles in the front of your body). This muscular imbalance can result in a host of problems like breathing issues, lack of mobility and back pain.
That's critical, since approximately 80 percent of adults will struggle with low back pain during their lifetimes, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Fortunately, strength training — which builds muscle and bone mass — can help reduce your risk of back problems and other injuries.
Compound Versus Isolation Exercises
Compared to isolation exercises, which only target one muscle (think: biceps curls), compound movements work multiple muscles. Not only do they save you a lot of time in the gym, compound exercises also burn more calories since they involve more muscles, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
And that's not all. Multi-joint movements also improve your coordination, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility, per ACE. Plus, as opposed to isolation exercises, compound exercises are functional. That means they prepare your body for the physical demands of daily life. For example, a squat press can train your muscles for bending and lifting a child.
When it comes to the back, which is comprised of many muscles, it's almost impossible to work one muscle in isolation, Summers says. "Most back exercises are compound movements, which is great because it means we are getting more muscle engagement." So, you can do movements that target the lats, upper and lower back, but your hips, legs, shoulders and arms are going to get worked, too.
The 5 Best Exercises for a Stronger Back
With so many back exercises to choose from, which are the best? These five compound moves will engage the most muscles at once and help you build a stronger, sexier back.
1. Barbell Bent-Over Row
- Grip a barbell with palms facing down so that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in a straight line.
- Lift the bar from the rack or floor, bend forward at the hips and keep your back straight with a slight bend in your knees.
- Lower the bar toward the floor until your elbows are completely straight, then pull it toward your sternum while keeping a flat back.
- Slowly lower the bar to the starting position.
If you only have time for one back exercise, the bent-over row is your best option. This compound move ranks number one when it comes to activating multiple back muscles, according to a 2018 study commissioned by ACE.
Plus, it engages your legs and core, which need to work together to protect your spine, Summers says.
2. I-Y-T Raise
- Grab a light set of dumbbells. Lie on your stomach on a bench and extend your arms straight down toward the ground, with palms facing inward.
- Lift your arms straight overhead to form the letter I, then slowly lower them back toward the ground.
- Lift your thumbs toward the ceiling, with your arms at a 45-degree angle to form the letter Y.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then slowly lower the arms down to the starting position.
- Turning your palms toward the floor, lift your arms out to the side at a 90-degree angle to form the letter “T” and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Lower your arms and return to the starting position.
Turns out, you don’t need to lift heavy to see results. Even with a lighter dumbbell (or no weight at all), this move is particularly challenging for your back. Though this exercise is great for shoulder rehabilitation, it'll also fire up your back, Summers says.
Indeed, according to the ACE study, it scored the greatest for activation in three of the five muscles, plus it snagged second best for recruiting the erector spinae muscles, which run the length of your spine.
- 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.
Pull-ups focus on the muscles in your upper back, specifically your lats, but it’s very much a whole-body exercise, Summers says. The move engages your biceps, deltoids, pectoralis minor and your core, which all work in concert to lift your body weight.
To make the exercise easier, try a resistance band pull-up. Place a long-loop resistance band over the bar and put one foot in like a stirrup. Decrease the band resistance as you get stronger.
4. Inverted Row
- Grip a bar positioned on a rack at about waist height. Place your hands wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Hang underneath the bar with your body straight, heels on the floor and arms fully extended.
- Flex your elbows, pulling the chest toward the bar with your shoulder blades retracted.
- Pause at the top of the motion, then slowly extended the elbows, returning to the starting position.
“The inverted row is the next best thing to a pull up,” Summers says. “You can use this exercise to learn how to lift your own body weight.” In the ACE study, inverted rows achieved high marks for recruiting the middle trapezius and infraspinatus muscles (both in your upper back) as well as the lats and erector spinae.
The bonus? You can easily adjust and modify inverted rows to suit your fitness level and needs, Summers says.
5. Barbell Deadlift
- Load your barbell with an appropriate weight (or leave it unweighted).
- 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, your core engaged and look forward.
- 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.
- Don't 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.
Though deadlifts weren’t evaluated in the ACE study, they still made it on our list as one of the top compound exercises for building a strong back. That’s because, in order to deadlift heavy weights safely and efficiently, you need to engage your back muscles, Summers says.
Deadlifts also sculpt other posterior muscles — like your hamstrings and glutes — while challenging your core strength and stability too.
New to this exercise? Start with a dumbbell deadlift before you start using the barbell.
More Tips for Training Your Back
1. Tailor Your Sets and Reps
To get the results you want, you need to tailor your sets and reps strategically. You should do each move for 6 to 12 reps, 3 to 6 sets to build strength, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
And for optimal results, choose weights that feel moderately heavy, recommends the NASM. You should be able to do all your reps with good form but feel comfortably challenged toward the end of each set.
2. Add Isolation Exercises
Compound exercises move multiple muscle groups at once, which makes them more challenging and so good for building strength. And while these should be your main priority, isolation exercises are a useful tool, too.
Exercises like standing cable rows are less taxing on your body as a whole, helping you zero in on your back muscles alone. So, during your next workout, try pairing a few compound exercises with isolation moves.
3. Activate Before You Train
To get the most out of your workout, your muscles need to fire properly. In order to do so, pre-workout activation is a must. Before you train, run through a few resistance band back exercises (like resistance band rows and pull-aparts) or dynamic back stretches (like the world's greatest stretch).
4. Stay Consistent
Building muscle isn't easy and consistency is key. To build a stronger back, you want to train this muscle group about two to three times per week, according to the ACE.
You also need to up your total training volume to keep building strength (aka hypertrophy). In other words, you need to gradually increase the weight you lift over time to encourage muscle growth.
- American Council on Exercise: “5 Benefits of Compound Exercises.”
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet.”
- American Council on Exercise: “ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH: What Is the Best Back Exercise?”
- NASM: "Muscular Hypertrophy: Back to the Basics"
- ACE: "Strength Training 101"