In the pursuit of a stronger and more well-defined back, using compound exercises is crucial. These movements work multiple muscles at once, making them perfect for an effective (and efficient) workout.
Not only can this save you time in the gym, but it also means that your entire back is being worked by one or two exercises for a well-rounded physique.
Whether you’re a complete beginner or a pro at bulking up your muscles, everyone can benefit from our list of the 10 best compound back exercises.
Table of Contents
- 1 The 10 Best Back Exercises
- 2 Benefits Of Compound Back Exercises
- 3 How To Train Your Back Muscles
- 4 Back Muscles Anatomy
- 5 Compound Back Exercises FAQs
The 10 Best Back Exercises
- Conventional deadlift
- T-bar row
- Barbell row
- Kroc rows
- Pendlay row
- Seated cable row
- Lat pulldown
- Meadows row
- Chest-supported T-bar row
Benefits of conventional deadlifts
Conventional deadlifts offer several benefits for your entire body. Firstly, they strengthen the hip extensors and are more efficient than exercises like squats.
Additionally, they can speed up your metabolism and are easy to do since all you need is a barbell and some weights. This is true for all of our favorite barbell pull exercises, too!
While conventional deadlifts use a barbell, you can also use dumbbells for this exercise. If you want to learn more about it and other lower-lat dumbbell exercises, be sure to check out our blog.
How to perform conventional deadlifts
- Approach the barbell and stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and bend your knees slightly until your shins touch the bar.
- Lift your chest and straighten your back before breathing in and standing up, keeping the bar close to you.
- Hold for a second at the top of the movement, then lower the barbell back down until it’s flat on the floor again.
Jeff Nippard has a great video on performing deadlifts with perfect form. You can check it out below:
How to program conventional deadlifts
If you want to use deadlifts to bulk up your back, you can program them into your workout regime quickly and easily by following these guidelines:
- Weekly sets: Between 10 and 25 sets per week, depending on your existing routine and fitness level
- Lighter weights: 20 to 30 reps per set
- Moderate weights: 10 to 20 reps per set
- Heavy weights: 5 to 10 reps per set
Benefits of T-bar rows
T-bar rows are middle trap exercises that effectively target the posterior chain muscles simultaneously. These are the muscles along the lower back half of your body, including the lats and your core. In turn, this makes it the perfect exercise to grow an underdeveloped back.
Plus, this exercise is extremely versatile and suitable for muscle mass and strength gains because of its capacity for heavy loading or lighter, high-volume workouts.
How to perform T-bar rows
- Use an empty barbell and secure one side with weight plates or a heavy dumbbell.
- Load the opposite end of the bar with weights, hook a V-grip handle under it, and stand with your feet on either side of it. This is your starting position.
- Lean forward at the hips, keeping your upper body at a 45-degree angle. Keep your arms straight and arch the back naturally.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades and pull the bar up until it touches your chest.
- Slowly lower the weights, maintaining a good amount of control.
To learn more about the T-bar rows, including a visual representation of the correct form, you can check out this video from Alex Leonidas:
How to program T-bar rows
When you’re working on your back, you can add both compound and isolation exercises to your workout. However, knowing how to add T-bar rows into your regime is important to streamline your weekly gym sessions.
To do this, you can aim to do around 10 to 25 sets a week and incorporate different weight loads. For heavy weights, do around 5 to 10 reps per set. You can add more reps for lighter weights, aiming for around 20 to 30 reps. For moderate weights, you can do an average number of 10 to 20 reps per set.
Benefits of barbell rows
A barbell row, also known as a barbell bent-over row, is great for building a stronger back by targeting the pulling strength in your upper body. With consistent training, these rows can promote significant muscle growth.
This exercise also improves your performance in other major lift activities like bench presses and deadlifts, enhancing overall hypertrophy and strength in your upper back muscles.
How to perform barbell rows
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold the barbell above the ground with an overhand grip.
- Push your hips back and bend your knees slightly, allowing the bar to move down to where your kneecaps are.
- Pull the bar towards your abdomen until your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Lower the bar and keep control throughout the movement. Don’t put the bar back on the ground. Instead, return to the starting position above the ground.
To ensure you nail your barbell row form, check out this video:
How to program barbell rows
When you’re performing barbell rows, you can use a combination of light, moderate, and heavy loads. Still, you should adjust the rep ranges of your sets (10 to 25 sets per week) to suit the load. For example, lighter loads should include 20 to 30 reps per set, moderate loads include 10 to 20 reps, and heavy loads only include 5 to 10.
Benefits of kroc rows
Kroc rows target your upper back and lats, boosting muscle growth and thickness which help maintain a neutral spine during exercises like squats. When you perform this exercise unilaterally (one side at a time), it can help to correct muscle imbalances.
How to perform kroc rows
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand and lean forward. You can place the other arm on a stable surface at around hip height to keep stable.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with one foot in front of the other.
- Engage your core and keep your shoulders down, chest up, and a neutral spine.
- Pull the dumbbell up from your hip and bring your elbows up and back while retracting your shoulder blade for a full upper-back contraction.
- Lower the weight slowly, letting your shoulder roll forward until your arm is straight.
- Repeat with the opposite arm.
To get a better idea of the correct technique, you can check out Alexander Bromley’s video on kroc rows here:
How to program kroc rows
When you’re working your upper body – especially your back – you need to work on your consistency. To do that, you need to incorporate them into your weekly gymming routine (at least 10 to 25 sets per week). It’s also important to know that every set should contain:
- 20 to 30 reps for lighter weights
- 10 to 20 reps for moderate weights
- 5 to 10 reps for heavy weights
Benefits of Pendlay rows
If you’re looking for one of the best bent-over row alternatives, then the Pendlay row is it. This compound exercise helps to build a stronger back by emphasizing a full range of motion and allowing for heavy loading. In turn, they also promote better muscle definition.
How to perform Pendlay rows
- Start with the barbell on the floor and grab the bar slightly wider than a shoulder-width grip.
- Brace your core muscles and engage your lats.
- Bend your knees slightly (to about a quarter of a squat position) and keep a straight, flat back throughout the movement.
- Explosively pull the bar up to the base of your chest. Be careful not to move your hips or raise your shoulders.
- Lower the bar back to the floor.
To better understand the essentials that go into performing Pendlay rows correctly, you can watch this video by Nsima Inyang:
How to program Pendlay rows
You can program Pendlay rows in the same way as you would for deadlifts, following these guidelines:
- Weekly sets: Between 10 and 25 sets per week
- Lighter weights: 20 to 30 reps
- Moderate weights: 10 to 20 reps
- Heavy weights: 5 to 10 reps
Seated cable row
Benefits of seated cable rows
A cable machine is one of the best gym machines for back muscles, and rows combine the controlled movement of the equipment with the oomph that you need to bulk up your back. The seated cable row builds back muscles like rhomboids and lats. In turn, this can increase your strength for exercises like pull-ups and deadlifts while promoting better posture and more spine protection.
How to perform seated cable rows
- Set your ideal weight on the machine and connect a close-grip or V-bar attachment.
- Sit on the bench with your knees bent and a straight back and grab the bar with straight arms.
- Pull the bar toward your lower abdomen and avoid moving your torso around too much.
- To target your middle to upper back, you need to squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your chest out.
- Return the bar to the starting position. Avoid arching your back at the bottom of the movement.
The seated cable row is easy to perfect, but if you want to see this movement in action, you can check it out here:
How to program seated cable rows
A seated cable row is easy to program into your existing workout routine, especially since you don’t need to use different machines to work multiple muscle groups. Ideally, you’ll want to aim for around 10 to 25 sets every week, depending on how often you’re gymming. For each set, you’ll need to do 5 to 10 reps for heavy weights, 10 to 20 reps for moderate weights, and 20 to 30 reps for lighter weights.
Benefits of lat pulldowns
If you want a comprehensive upper arm, chest, and back workout, then lat pulldowns are a great choice. They may also be a great substitute for pull-ups or chin-ups since they have a more guided movement, making them perfect for lower strength levels. Plus, they can help to work your core and improve your overall posture.
How to perform lat pulldowns
- Adjust the pulldown seat and thigh pad, then take a seat with your feet flat on the floor. Make sure you can reach the bar.
- Grab the bar with a neutral grip with your palms facing downward.
- Pull the bar down in a straight line toward your chin, breathing out as you do so. You can use your body weight to help bring the bar down. Remember to keep your upper body still, engage your core, and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Stop the movement when you can’t move your elbows further down without leaning backward.
- Slowly control the bar as you release it back to the starting position.
Seriously Strong Training has a seriously helpful video on how to perfect a lat pulldown. You can check it out here:
How to program lat pulldowns
When you’re thinking about adding lat pulldowns to your workouts, you’ll get the most effective results by mixing up the weight loads of your sets (up to 25 sets per week).
This is because heavier weights (5 to 10 reps per set) contribute to your strength, moderate weights (10 to 20 reps) have an effect on hypertrophy in your back, and light weights (5 to 10 reps) can help you to work on your endurance. All of this is part of a comprehensive workout regime.
Benefits of pull-ups
Pull-ups primarily target your back, working on various muscle groups like the traps, lats, and spinal erector muscles that help to rotate and keep your spine straight. This promotes a stronger and more stable back.
Not only does this exercise enhance your muscle tone, but it also boosts your overall fitness, making it the perfect compound exercise for the entire upper half of your body.
How to perform pull-ups
- Jump up slightly to grip the pull-up bar with an overhand grip and your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Hang off the floor with straight arms and lift your feet by bending your knees slightly and placing one ankle over the other
- Drive your elbows down toward the floor to pull yourself until your chin goes above the bar.
- Pause briefly before you lower yourself down again. Breathe in as you do this until your arms are fully extended again (starting position).
Doing a pull-up isn’t as easy as it might sound – at least not if you’re doing it in perfect form. You can watch it being done the right way in this video:
How to program pull-ups
Pull-ups should be performed around 2 to 3 times a week and make up 10 to 25 sets that are split between your gymming sessions. For example, if you’re planning for 15 sets a week and you’re going to the gym 3 times, you should do 5 sets per session. Each set should contain 5 to 10 reps for heavy weights, 10 to 20 reps for moderate weights, and 20 to 30 reps for lighter weights.
Benefits of a Meadows row
Meadows rows are perfect for addressing strength imbalances between your body’s left and right sides. Compared to some rear delt dumbbell exercises like bent-over single-arm rows, Meadows rows are much safer and reduce the risk of muscle strains and injuries.
How to perform a Meadows row
- Use an empty barbell and secure one side with weight plates or a heavy dumbbell.
- Load the other side with weights and stand with your right foot close to the barbell and your left foot a step behind.
- Bend your knees slightly and lean forward so your back is almost flat.
- Put your right arm on your right thigh and grab the barbell with your left hand.
- Pull the barbell toward your left side until your hand touches your body.
- Slowly return the barbell to the starting position, being careful not to let it drop too quickly.
- Repeat with the opposite arm.
This video walks you through performing Meadows rows from set-up to execution:
How to program a Meadows row
Meadows rows are simple to incorporate into your gym sessions when you follow these guidelines for programming compound back exercises:
- Weekly sets: 10 to 25
- Lighter load: 20 to 30 reps per set
- Moderate load: 10 to 20 reps per set
- Heavy load: 5 to 10 reps per set
Chest-supported T-bar row
Benefits of chest-supported T-bar rows
A chest-supported row can help to improve your posture and spine alignment by correcting shoulder protraction. The support used for this exercise can also lower the risk of injuring your shoulder and help in fixing muscular imbalances between your chest and back muscles.
How to perform chest-supported T-bar rows
- Sit at the machine with the T-bar row machine pad against your sternum with your feet shoulder-width away and flat on the floor.
- Grab the handles and pull the bar towards your torso at a 45-degree angle until your shoulder blades touch.
- Slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position and extend your elbows fully.
- Allow the weight to settle before the next repetition.
Want to perfect this exercise for a well-defined back? Then be sure to check this video out:
How to program chest-supported T-bar rows
Once you’re more familiar with the chest-supported row, you can add it to your weekly workout routine. Try to aim for 10 to 25 sets per week, doing 5 to 10 reps per set for heavy loads. You can also do 10 to 20 reps per set for moderate loads and 20 to 30 reps per set for light loads.
Benefits Of Compound Back Exercises
There are several benefits to using compound movements to train your back. While we can’t list them all here, we’ve put together a list of some of the most common benefits for every type of gym-goer:
- Time-efficient: These exercises target multiple muscle groups in a single movement, allowing you to work more muscles in less time compared to isolation exercises.
- Increased calorie burn: Since compound back exercises involve larger muscle groups, they typically help you burn more calories. This means they are incredibly advantageous for weight loss and fat burning.
- Better coordination: These movements require coordination and stability as multiple joints and muscle groups work together. As a result, you’ll benefit from better balance and refinement in your overall motor skills.
- Hormonal response: Typically, compound activities stimulate the release of growth hormone and testosterone. In turn, this promotes muscle growth and strength gains.
- Functional strength: Since these exercises mimic the patterns of natural, everyday movements, they can help to improve your functional strength. This translates to better performance in daily activities and sports.
How To Train Your Back Muscles
Training your back takes time and dedication, but with this list of handy tips, tricks, and expert advice, you’ll have a stronger and more muscular back in no time!
- Use compound back exercises: Of course, the most important way to train your back is to use compound movements like deadlifts, pull-ups, and bent-over rows in your workout routine. Since they engage multiple groups of muscles, they are perfect for muscle development and strength training.
- Don’t forget about isolation exercises: Although compound movements are helpful for bulking up, using them in conjunction with isolation exercises helps to create a more comprehensive workout. These exercises specifically target certain muscles in your back to address any imbalances or weaknesses you might have.
- Work on your form: One crucial element of any good workout is to ensure that you’re using the correct form. Not only does this maximize how effective each exercise will be, but it also reduces your risk of injury.
- Rest and recovery: Always allow your body enough time to rest so your muscles can recover. Overworking your muscles can lead to pain, strain, and other problems. To optimize recovery, aim for at least 24 to 48 hours of rest before hitting the gym or working those specific muscles again.
- Progressive overload: You should continuously challenge your back muscles if you want to see an improvement. To do that, you can start with lighter weights or lower reps and slowly increase them over time. Just remember to listen to your body!
Back Muscles Anatomy
The trapezius muscles (traps) are large, triangular muscles that cover most of the upper back and extend down the spine to the middle back. They consist of three parts: the lower, middle, and upper traps, and are responsible for shoulder elevation, neck extension, and retraction of the shoulder blades.
The lattissimus dorsi (lats) are broad, flat muscles that cover most of the back. They start in the lower spine and the top of the hip and insert themselves into the bone in the upper arm – the humerus – and are responsible for several shoulder movements.
The rhomboids are the muscles between the shoulder blades and are split into the rhomboid minor and the rhomboid major. These are actually the muscles that help you squeeze your shoulder blades together when you’re performing compound back exercises.
The erector spinae or spine erector muscles run along the length of your spine and play an essential role in extending your back, bending, and turning. They’re also important for your posture since they keep your spine upright.
Compound Back Exercises FAQs
How often should you train your back muscles?
Ideally, you should train your back around 2 to 3 times a week, aiming to do around 10 to 25 sets. This will help you to build the perfect back in no time, but it’s important to stay consistent if you want to see a difference!
At what intensity should back muscles be trained?
Like most other muscles in your torso, effective training of your back should include a combination of light, moderate, and heavy loads for some variation. Most gym-goers agree that 70% to 85% of their one rep max (1RM) is perfect for strength training, while 60% to 75% of 1RM is adequate for muscle building.
What rep range should be used for training back muscles?
The best rep ranges for training your back are as follows:
- Light weights: 20 to 30 reps
- Moderate weights: 10 to 20 reps
- Heavy weights: 5 to 10 reps
What types of exercises train back muscles?
The best types of exercises include both isolation and compound back exercises. Of course, we have an entire list of amazing compound back exercises, but you can also use isolation exercises like reverse flyes and face pulls for specific muscle targeting.