Whether you’re working in a modern office, on your feet all day, or keen to improve your physical health – giving your back the exercise time and attention it needs is absolutely essential. This can reduce your risk of injury, minimise lower back pain, and allow you to achieve superb definition.
So, here are 11 back compound exercises that will help you build a stronger and bigger back, we’ve separated them into lower back exercises, upper back exercises, and lat exercises (though some exercises fit into multiple categories).
- Kettlebell Swings
- Good Mornings
- Single Arm Rows
- Seated Cable Row
- T-Bar Row
- Dumbbell Shrugs
- Inverted Rows
- Lat Pulldowns
- Pull Ups
- Assisted Pull Ups
Lower Back Exercises
The first three exercises on this list are ones that primarily target the lower back, however, as compound exercises they will also work other muscle groups such as hamstrings, upper back, and shoulders.
Kettlebell swings are an amazing lower back and abdominal exercise and are ideal calorie burners. Kettlebell swings have also been found to improve maximal and explosive strength.
Find a decent sized kettlebell and hold it in both hands, standing upright with shoulders pulled back, chest pushed out and feet shoulder width apart. The kettlebell should be hanging between your legs.
Push your hips backwards to initiate the swinging movement. Keeping your arms straight throughout, swing the kettlebell backwards and then swing upwards while pushing your hips forwards.
Stop the swing when your arms are parallel to the ground, then bring your arms backwards so that the kettlebell swings back to the starting position.
The barbell deadlift is perhaps the most effective exercise you can perform, working a huge number of muscles, but particularly the lower back. You will burn a lot of calories, build a stronger body, and help to reduce the risk of injuries in the future.
Place a barbell onto a flat surface, adding the number of plates necessary. Walk up to the loaded barbell and place your feet underneath the bar at shoulder width apart. Turn your toes out slightly. Push your shins forwards until they are touching the bar.
Grab the bar with your hands just outside of your legs using an overhand grip. Push your chest out and pull your shoulders back to create a nice straight back. Take a deep breath and then lift the barbell off the ground by pushing your hips forwards and standing upright.
Pause when your hips are pushed up against the barbell, and then lower the bar back down by pushing your hips backwards. Pause when the barbell touches the ground.
The good morning is one of the most challenging exercises to perform correctly, but once you can manage it you will be able to make huge progress with your barbell squats and you will strengthen your lower back, hamstrings, and core muscles significantly.
Stand upright with a barbell resting on your upper back (most people will find an unloaded barbell challenging enough). Have your feet shoulder width apart and your knees very slightly bent.
With your chest pushed out and shoulders pulled back, bow at the waist, keeping your back straight throughout. Pause when your chest is close to parallel with the floor (or as low as you can go without losing your straight back) and then rise back up to the starting position.
Upper Back Exercises
These exercises will target your trapezius muscle, but also your lats. They are mostly rows, and a shrugging movement.
Single Arm Rows
Single arm rows are a fantastic upper back exercise and can be performed easily. All you need is an exercise bench (or similar flat surface) and a dumbbell.
Stand beside an exercise bench, place one knee on the bench and one hand so that the bench is now supporting most of your weight. In your spare hand grab hold of a dumbbell. Push your chest out and pull your shoulders back so that you have a nice straight back.
Keeping the rest of your body still, pull the dumbbell up towards your chest. Pause when the dumbbell reaches your chest, and then slowly lower the dumbbell back down. Repeat for the required number of reps, then climb off the bench and swap round so that you now have your opposite hand and knee resting on the bench.
Seated Cable Row
Easily accomplished by using a weights machine if you want additional control – this provides a fantastic workout without creating extensive wear and tear to your joints or cartilage.
Once you have set your weight, place yourself in a weight-bearing position taking with a neutral spine and slight bend in your knees, avoiding overextension in any way.
When ready, grab the bar, bring your shoulders down, place your chest out and try to ‘pinch’ your shoulder blades to maximise engagement in your traps and lats.
Then bring your hands into your torso and bring your weights to a 90 degree angle and repeat until the set is closed.
If this is too difficult, it’s also possible to help build strength and confidence by using a standard rowing machine and steadily increasing the resistance over time to help build form and exercise key muscle groups.
A flexible exercise that only requires a barbell, a T-Bar row involves the use of weight plates on the end of a barbell.
Once you are ready, stack the bar with a comfortable, safe amount of weight on one end and secure the other end of the bar into the corner of your exercise space. Ideally, your gym will have a T-Bar platform which provides greater stability and doesn’t wreck the walls.
With your feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees to reach up and bring the bar up to meet your chest. This can be accomplished with a close grip handle or the use of interlocked fingers.
You can then repeat the exercise in full stretch position with a focus on pulling up through the shoulders and elbows, fully exercising your lats.
This involves a short range of safe motion with an initial contraction then resetting to a neutral position and repeating for as many sets as you feel confident repeating.
This helps build muscle with minimal risk of injury and can be completed even in the busiest of gyms in-between waits on machines with little effort.
The shrug is one of the best trapezius exercises out there, it also helps to strengthen your grip, making it ideal deadlift prep!
Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand upright with chest out, shoulders back, and your arms resting by your sides. Keeping your arms straight, slowly raise your shoulders upwards (shrug) until your shoulders are nearly in line with your ears. Pause, and then lower them back down slowly. This exercise also works well with a barbell, or it can be performed in a Smith machine.
Perfect for those nursing an injury or getting back into the gym after some time away. Inverted rows use your own body weight to help safely build back muscles.
To start, set up a rack bar at your waist height, checking that it is properly secured and can fully take your weight.
When ready, take hold of the bar with a wider than hip grip and slowly lower yourself to hang beneath, with the heels of your feet resting on the floor.
When ready, bend your elbows and pull yourself up to touch the bar – maintaining full, consistent control throughout.
Again, these are compound exercises so they will work a variety of different muscles, but the emphasis is on the latissimus dorsi muscles.
Ensuring your form is correct is essential, so be sure to approach the exercise correctly.
Start by siting facing your weight stack with your feet equally spaced apart.
Once ready, reach up and grab the handle with an even grip, pulling it down to your chest with full control.
Once complete, allow it to return to the original position with retained control and repeat until your set is finished.
Pull ups are fantastic for activating upper back muscles such as lats and deltoids, conducting pull-ups is a low-risk exercise that activates the upper back muscles and your pectorals– letting you enjoy a rounded, safe workout.
Once ready, take the bar with an even wide grip and bend your elbows to raise your body with full control, stopping when your chin touches the top of the bar.
Once complete, gently lower yourself to the floor with equal speed and return to your starting position.
Assisted pull ups are obviously very similar to regular pull ups, but they are much more accessible. Unless you are very strong (while also being lean) most people will struggle to perform strict pull ups for 10 or 20 reps. Some struggle with performing 5. This means that for most people, pull ups can’t be used for hypertrophy.
This is where assisted pull ups can come in. They allow new gym goers to learn the technique and build the strength required to perform 1 or 2 bodyweight pull ups. But they also allow experienced gym goers to perform pull ups for high rep sets, or to perform drop sets.
There are two ways to perform assisted pull ups. You can either use an assisted pull up machine, or you can attach a resistance band to the pull up bar, and use it to offset some of your weight, making pull ups easier.
So, there you have it, 11 compound back exercises. Adding these into your workouts should burn a lot of calories and help you to build a strong, functional, and injury-proof back. This will have many benefits for you, and not just physique-wise. A strong back will allow you to squat more, bench more, and provide you with better posture.