The area collectively known as ‘the back’ consists of several large and small muscles with varying functions related to arm movement, posture, torso rotation, and more.
Among the many muscles that make up the back, the latissimus dorsi (lats) are the largest with the greatest strength potential. Developing the muscle contributes to back width, and the V-taper look everyone desires.
Other vital muscles in the area include the trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae, and infraspinatus. Building up these muscles contributes to the thick and muscular appearance of the back.
Doing a combination of exercises allows you to target the back from various angles and develop all the muscles.
Let’s review what that means and what exercises you can include in your training.
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
An isolation exercise, also known as a single-joint movement, aims to train a single muscle group and involves one joint.
For example, the leg extension on a machine is an isolation exercise because it trains one muscle, the quadriceps, involving one joint: the knee.
In contrast, a compound exercise is a multi-joint activity where you train two or more muscles around multiple joints.
An example of a compound movement is the barbell back squat. The exercise primarily works the quadriceps, similar to a leg extension, but also trains the calves, hamstrings, glutes, midsection, and upper body (1). In addition, it involves the ankles, knees, and hips.
When to do Compound or Isolation Exercises
Deciding when to do compound and isolation exercises isn’t that difficult when you understand their roles and priority level.
Compound exercises should be the meat and potatoes of your training plan. These movements are generally more challenging, train more muscles simultaneously, and provide an excellent opportunity to overload your body, promoting muscle growth and strength gain.
Multi-joint exercises are also more challenging to perform with proper technique, so it is best to do them while you’re still fresh and recovered. Muscle fatigue can lead to technique breakdown and increase the risk of injuries.
Because of these reasons, begin your workouts with compound exercises and prioritize them based on difficulty. For example, if you plan on doing pull-ups, bent-over barbell rows, and lat pulldowns as compound movements in your back workout, a good order would be:
- Bent-over barbell rows
- Lat pulldowns
Pull-ups are generally the hardest of the three, so it makes sense to do them first while you’re still fresh. That would allow you to train with better form and do more reps. You can then proceed to barbell rows and lat pulldowns, where you can adjust the resistance based on your strength.
Once you’re done with the more challenging compound movements, you can do the easier isolation movements to get extra sets in and increase the training stimulus.
Similar to compound movements, it would be best to prioritize these exercises based on difficulty if there is a difference. If not, organize them as you wish.
Related article: Back and Bicep Workouts for Building Strength
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The 10 Best Compound Back Exercises
1. Pull Up/Chin Up
Pull ups and chin ups are two of the most popular and effective back compound exercises (2).
The primary difference between the two is that you use an overhand grip (palms facing forward) during pull ups and an underhand grip (palms facing back) during chin ups.
As such, pull ups are slightly more beneficial for the latissimus dorsi, whereas chin ups allow your biceps to contribute more (3).
The objective is to grab a horizontal bar, suspend yourself in the air, and pull yourself up, bringing your chin over the bar.
You can make the two movements more challenging by attaching a weight to yourself or more accessible by doing them on a special pull-up machine that can take away some of the resistance.
2. Bent Over Row (Barbell)
Bent over rows are one of the classic compound barbell back exercises that overload your body and add mass to your back and biceps (4).
The objective is to grab a barbell with your preferred grip style (palms facing forward or back), lean your torso forward, and repeatedly pull the weight to your torso.
An overhand grip (palms facing back) leads to slightly better back activation, whereas an underhand grip (palms facing forward) allows your biceps to contribute more.
Keeping the barbell off the floor throughout each set forces your core muscles (midsection, glutes, erector spinae, etc.) to work harder and keep you in position (4).
You can adjust the difficulty by adding or removing weight from the bar.
3. T Bar Row
The T bar row is another popular compound exercise for the entire back complex.
T bar rows are similar to the bent over row because the objective is to lean forward and pull the weight to your torso. But, unlike bent over rows, you perform these on a T bar station or by anchoring one end of a standard barbell on a landmine attachment and using a V handle.
A narrower grip is more beneficial for the mid-back musculature, whereas gripping the T bar wider emphasizes the latissimus dorsi, contributing to back width.
4. Dumbbell Row
These rows are among the most effective and practical compound back exercises with dumbbells.
The objective is to grab a dumbbell, lean forward, place one hand on an elevated object (e.g., a flat bench) for support, and row. Doing so targets and develops your latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, biceps, and other muscles.
A notable benefit of dumbbell rows is that you train both sides of your body independently, reducing muscle imbalance risk. Plus, dumbbell rows allow for a slightly longer range of motion, leading to marginally better stretching and contracting of the lats.
Related article: 8 Dumbbell Lat Exercises for a Broad and Muscular Back
5. Deadlift (Barbell)
The barbell deadlift and its variations are some of the best compound back exercises that strengthen the entire posterior chain––the back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves (5).
Performing deadlifts is relatively straightforward: pick up a barbell from the floor to hip level. But anyone who’s done the exercise will tell you just how nuanced and challenging that simple movement can be.
The two primary ways to perform the barbell deadlift include using a:
- Sumo stance, where your legs are spread wide; the variation emphasizes the quadriceps slightly better (6)
- Conventional stance, where your feet are a few inches apart; the variation is somewhat more beneficial for the erector spinae and mid-trapezius muscles
Related Articles: 12 of the Best Lower Body Pull Exercises for Strength
6. Rack Pull
Rack pulls are a modified barbell deadlift and one of the best compound exercises for back strength.
The objective is to elevate the weight to roughly knee level. Doing so eliminates the first half of the pull, taking the stress away from your leg muscles and allowing your back and glutes to do most of the work.
The two primary ways to elevate the barbell are on safety racks inside a squat rack or solid blocks.
A notable benefit of rack pulls is that you can use a lot of weight, overload your muscles, and provide the necessary mechanical tension for hypertrophy and strength gain (7).
7. Lat Pulldown (Cable)
In contrast to the previous exercises on our list, the cable lat pulldown is a less challenging compound exercise that develops the back and biceps (8).
Lat pulldowns mimic the motion of pull-ups, and the primary difference is that you’re pulling the bar down instead of raising yourself to it. As a result, you can adjust the resistance level by using more or less weight.
Similar to pull ups and chin ups, you can use various grips and bar types to vary the training stimulus. For example, a wide overhand grip (palms facing forward) emphasizes the lats, whereas a narrower underhand grip allows you to lift more weight and involve your biceps better.
The flexibility makes lat pulldown variations some of the best back compound exercises.
8. Seated Cable Row
Seated cable rows are another effective compound exercise you can do on a gym machine.
Like lat pulldowns, you can adjust the resistance as you see fit and use various handle attachments to vary the training stimulus. A popular option is the V handle, but you can also use a straight bar, a lat pulldown bar, or even a rope.
You can also attach a handle to train one side at a time, which helps improve muscle activation and reduces the risk of side-to-side muscle imbalances.
9. Back Extension (Hyperextension)
Back extensions, also known as hyperextensions, are a compound movement that emphasizes the core area: glutes, lower back, abs, obliques, etc.
The objective is to set yourself on a back extension bench and use your posterior chain musculature to repeatedly lower and raise your torso.
You can make the exercise more challenging by holding a weight plate in front of your chest while training.
10. Chest Supported Incline Row (Dumbbell)
Chest-supported incline rows are a less common compound movement for the back.
The objective is to position yourself face down on an incline gym bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Once in position, row the dumbbells, bringing your elbows to your sides.
A considerable benefit of the exercise is that both sides of your body must work independently, resulting in more balanced back development.
Another benefit is that having your chest and stomach against a bench reduces the risk of using momentum to do reps. Instead, you’re forced to do more controlled reps, leading to a superior muscle stimulus.
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List of 4 Isolation Back Exercises
Before we dive into these exercises, we must make a small disclaimer:
Isolating your back is nearly impossible because training the area heavily depends on your arms (such as when rowing) or posterior chain (such as when doing a deadlift).
Below are some movements that get close to isolating your back but still involve other muscles to some degree.
1. Straight Arm Lat Pulldown (Cable)
Rope straight arm pulldowns come closest to a lat isolation exercise and promote back width.
The objective is to attach a straight bar to a high cable pulley and bring it from an overhead position to your hips while keeping your arms straight. Doing so leads to negligible shoulder and tricep involvement while keeping most of the tension on your back.
For slightly better lat activation, you can lean your torso forward. Doing so will stretch your back muscles better when you bring the bar to the starting position.
Given the nature of the exercise, it is best to use a lighter load and do more slow and controlled reps. Using a heavier load can result in excessive swinging.
2. Rope Straight Arm Pulldown
Straight arm lat pulldowns with a rope are identical to the straight bar version, apart from one difference:
You’re using a rope attachment instead of a straight bar.
The difference forces you to use slightly less weight, making rope pulldowns an excellent isolation exercise for back muscles: lats, infraspinatus, etc.
You should experiment with both versions to see what feels more natural. Some people prefer using a straight bar; others find the rope more beneficial for training the back.
3. Pullover (Dumbbell)
Dumbbell pullovers are traditionally known as a chest exercise. You must lie on a flat gym bench, lift the weight over your chest, and straighten your arms. Once in position, bring the dumbbell behind your head, stretching your chest and lats.
Luckily, two technique tweaks can emphasize the lats and keep the pectorals largely inactive.
First, don’t lie on the flat bench but only position your upper back against it, having your lower back and buttocks in the air.
Second, allow your buttocks to drop toward the floor as you bring the dumbbell behind your head. Doing so will stretch your lats better, improving activation. Then, as you move the weight over your chest, extend your hips and squeeze your lats.
4. Back Extension (Machine)
Back extensions on a machine are one of the best lower back isolation exercises and the last of the isolation back exercises we’ll be looking at today.
The objective is to position yourself on a special gym machine and have your mid back, tailbone area, and lower shins against pads.
Once set up, repeatedly extend your torso back against the resistance by contracting your posterior musculature.
The back is a complex area consisting of small and large muscle groups with varying functions related to spinal alignment, posture, arm motions, and much more.
Because of the complexity, we must target the area with various activities. Doing so is necessary for stimulating a more significant percentage of muscle fibers, leading to more balanced development and strength gains.
Other articles from the series:
- The Top 7 Isolation And 7 Compound Ab Exercises
- 8 Isolation and 7 Compound Bicep Exercises For Big Arms
- 8 Compound and 6 Isolation Chest Exercises for Strong Pecs
- 5 Isolation and 9 Glute Compound Exercises for a Head-Turning Behind
- 7 Isolation and 8 Compound Leg Exercises for a Strong Lower Body
- 7 Isolation and 7 Compound Tricep Exercises For Big Arms