September 21, 2021 8 min read

If you have a back that is big and strong, it will really contribute to your overall strength. The back muscles are the ones that help you twist your torso, pull your arms in and down, and really keep your spine stable.

When you train your back with  stretches and exercises on a regular basis, you can expect to become better at isolation exercise, as well as pulling and twisting motions in general.

Also, bigger and stronger back muscles will help you deadlift and bench press heavier weights. Here are 13 of the best compound exercises to help you build strength.

1. Pull-Up

Athlete muscular fitness male model pulling up on horizontal bar in a gym

One of the best back exercises is the pull-up. You only need a pull-up bar to do this exercise, which you can easily buy for your home gym or find at a local park. Stabilizing your own body weight will also recruit the muscles in your core. Your muscles will respond to the load of your own body, especially if you are a heavy person. 

Grip the bar over your head, just wider than your shoulders. Relax your arms and shoulders and contract your core and upper back as you begin the pull-up. Try to pull your chin above the bar level, while pushing your shoulders away from your ears.

2. Deadlift 

Deadlifts activate your back, as well as your hamstrings, glutes, and muscles in your hips. You can do deadlifts with a lot of heavy weights if you are trying to produce major strength gains.

They can be done with high loads or training volumes to help produce overall muscle and strength gains. When doing deadlifts, the back muscles do not contribute directly to your range of motion, but they do keep your spine safe.

Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart, hips back, and back flat. Bend your knees slightly to grip the bar tightly slightly wider than your shoulder blades. Keep your back flat and chest up and tighten your back muscles. Straighten your arms as you load the pull. Push your legs into the floor and pull your chest and shoulders upwards as you compound lift the bar to your hips. 

3. Bent-Over Row 

If you have kettlebells, barbells, or dumbbells, you can row with any of those for overall muscle building. You can even do the bent-over row on a cable machine. The main idea is to overload your muscles more efficiently by moving a lot of weight in the bent-over row position.

Set up as you would for a barbell deadlift but place your torso almost parallel to the floor. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip that is wider than you use for deadlifts. Lean back and place your weight on your heels, then row the barbell with your right hand by leading the pull with your elbow until it touches your stomach.

4. Single-Arm Row 

The single-arm barbell row is a unilateral row variation (similar to a seated cable row) that can increase upper back strength, hypertrophy, and correct any muscular asymmetries. It can also help you increase your arm and grip strength. By working one side of the body at a time, you can address muscular imbalances. In addition to targeting your back muscles, you’ll also seriously increase your grip strength as you squeeze a heavy dumbbell as hard as possible. 

Stand next to a bench so that it’s parallel to you. Place the same-side hand and knee on it, and firmly plant your other foot onto the floor. Reach down with your free hand and grab a dumbbell. Keep your back flat and your head in a neutral position. Row the dumbbell to your side until your elbow passes your torso. Complete all of your reps on one side and then switch. 

5. The Farmer’s Carry 

The farmer’s carry benefits your muscles across the upper body and lower body. It helps build grip strength, core strength and stability, and improves postural strength and control. The Farmer’s Carry can be done anywhere you have access to weight and some free space. It challenges grip strength, core strength and postural control. 

Find some open space and hold a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands. Take slow, controlled steps in a straight line. When walking with the weights in your hand, the challenge is to maintain a steady, upright position and not let the weight move from side to side. Maintain a walking path that is straight and narrow. 

6. TRX Suspension Row 

The TRX suspension row can build similar back, arm, and grip strength as the pull-up or inverted row. This is a good way for beginners to build up both their back strength and body control. Use your arms, back, and grip to progress to harder row variations and then pull-ups. The suspension trainer allows for a less restrictive arm path, allowing you to personalize the row.

With your feet at shoulder width, grab the handles and lean back into position. The more upright your torso, the easier the exercise will be. With your feet on the ground and your body in a plank position, pull yourself toward the handles, without allowing your elbows to extend out or your shoulders to collapse forwards. 

7. Inverted Row 

The inverted row is another good way for weight lifting beginners to build up both their back strength and their overall body control. First, place a bar in a rack so that it is supported and stable. When you are right underneath it, your hands should just reach the bar. Adjust the height as necessary. Grasp the bar firmly and set the body in a rigid plank position. Pull your chest to the bar, without letting your elbows stick out.

8. Lat Pulldown 

Muscular man workout in gym, doing exercise for back lat pulldown.

The pulldown has a bar attached to a cable pulley, which you pull to your chest. The cable’s constant tension increases your time under tension for more growth and stimulation.Lat pulldowns are perfect for those who  can’t do pull-ups yet.

A pulldown is the same movement as a pull-up, except you don’t have to lift your entire body weight.

Simply set yourself up with your legs under the pad and hands grasping the bar attachment slightly wider than shoulder-width with a pronated (palms facing away) grip. With the core tight and the torso upright, pull the bar down to your chin. Slowly resist the weight as you return to the starting position.

9. Neutral Grip Pulldown 

This pulldown variation includes a neutral grip (palms facing each other) attachment to your chest. This is another cable-based upper body workout, which lets you take advantage of constant resistance. The neutral grip allows you to better bias muscles like the lats, as well as the biceps. 

The constant tension from the cables creates a more even resistance for the back muscles. This move is similar to a chin-up, and it can be a good way to build up to your first chin-up rep. The neutral grip allows you to target muscles of the lats and biceps. 

Set yourself up in the cable pulldown, with your legs under the pad and the hands gripping the bar in a neutral way. With the core tight and the torso upright, pull down to your chin. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position. 

10. Cable Trap Shrug 

Shrugs can be performed effectively with a cable pulley. This variation lines up the resistance with the muscle fibers being trained and allows you to match the cables with their individual structure, which limits joint stress and increases the effectiveness of these shoulder exercises. 

Set yourself up in the middle of two cables, with your feet flat on the ground and the hands grasping the handles. With the core tight and the torso upright, shrug the weight up by driving your shoulders up and in toward your ears. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position. 

11. Cable Rope Pullover 

This standing variation uses a rope or strap attachment, attached to a cable pulley, from above your head down toward your hips. This activation places tension on the lats, and it can be a good alternative for the dumbbell pullover. A longer rope or strap attachment will allow for an individualized arm path and create less strain on the shoulders. 

The constant tension from the cables creates even resistance for the lats as they contract through the full range of motion. This variation can be done anywhere you have access to a cable and rope attachment. It provides a better resistance for muscle growth compared to the dumbbell pullover. 

Set yourself up in front of a cable pulley, with your feet flat on the ground and the hands grasping the rope or strap attachment. Lean forward with your core tight and your torso rigid and push your upper arm down as you pull down and back toward your hips. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position. 

12. Landmine Row 

This free-weight variation is performed by grabbing a handle attached to, or around, a barbell. This exercise is great for placing tension on the entire back, and is a great alternative for the chest supported row. It challenges core stability, lower back strength, and can be performed in different rep ranges depending on your goals. 

This variation can be done anywhere you have access to a barbell, such as at a bodybuilding gym. It increases core stability and strength, and it is a good full body exercise that places tension on the back muscles. 

Set your barbell up and stand over it with one foot on each side. Fix the attachment to the barbell and grasp the handles. Lean forward, with your core tight and your torso rigid, then pull the weight up toward your chest. Slowly resist the weight as you return back to the starting position. 

13. Towel Chin-Up 

The variation involves wrapping either a longer bath towel or two smaller hand towels around a power rack or chin-up bar. Adding a towel to the conventional chin-up can increase the overall grip demands of the exercise and provide a unique challenge if you don’t want to do standard pull-ups. You only need a towel and a chin-up bar to build muscle. Using your own body weight will strengthen the muscles in your core. The towel will increase the demand on your grip and improve your grip strength. 

Start by wrapping either a longer bath towel or two smaller hand towels around a power rack or chin-up bar. Use a neutral grip to grasp the towels evenly on both sides. With the core and upper back engaged, pull your chin to or above the bar level using the forearms, biceps, and lats. 

Other Tips for Training Your Back 

The back muscles cover a large portion of your upper body, so you will either want to train your back on its own, paired with an antagonistic muscle like your chest, or do it on the day that you decide to deadlift. Here are three benchmarks that you can integrate into your training routine to build a strong back.

  • Sets and reps: between 12 to 18 sets a week is a good starting point if you are trying to grow your back. Choose three to four exercises and divide your training sets equally. Set it up with an equal number of vertical pulls to horizontal pulls.
  • Exercise selection: the position of your grip will play a significant role in the muscles being biased during any exercise. Muscles of the back work together to achieve a wide range of movement patterns. When designing a back workout, choose exercises that don’t put much stress on the surrounding joints but which do provide enough load to the muscle. 
  • Exercise order: placing compound exercises first in your workout is the best strategy, especially for beginners. This is because when you get more tired, the worse your technique becomes, which can increase the risk of injury. Placing exercises like deadlifts near the start of your workout will improve your training. 

Warming Up Before Training Your Back 

Back exercises can induce hypertrophy and directly build your major muscle. If you plan to do these exercises regularly, you will need to warm up correctly each time. This helps reduce the risk of injury and other back pain. Always include proper warm-ups, rest, and a good nutrition program. Your results will always be based on these few variables, and also on how well you can recover from your workouts. 

To allow your body enough time to recover, you should rest for 24 to 48 hours before training the same muscle groups.

A good way to add extra bulk and power is to try our Mass Stack in combination with your strength training and possibly even a personal trainer. If you are more interested in losing body fat, you might want to try the Ultimate Shred Stack.


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