Compound Exercises for the Back (with Pictures!): Upper and Lower

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 26, 2022

The back refers to the region between the neck and the pelvis. The spine, spinal nerves, and a variety of muscles - divided into three layers - are all located in the back. It carries multiple functions such as protecting vital organs, housing the spinal cord, facilitating trunk and limb mobility, and holding the trunk upright.

Exercises for the back are designed to develop the muscles so they can support the spine more effectively and endure tension, which helps relieve back and neck discomfort. Compound back exercises improve back strength which can aid in having good posture, relief from pain, and better stability and flexibility.

Since the back is involved in practically every action made, it should come as no surprise that 60 to 80% of individuals in Western nations have lower back discomfort. One strategy to treat or possibly prevent non-specific back pain and increase the range of motion is to train the back muscles.

Benefits of Training the Back Muscles

Training the back muscles assists in developing the strength, endurance, stability, and flexibility an individual requires for the execution of daily activities. From standing up to sitting down, the back muscles are used in a multitude of ways and are also responsible for supporting the spine.

back musculature

Improved Posture

Back exercises help strengthen the muscles that help maintain an upright posture. When doing back exercises the core muscles are also strengthened, which helps to support the spine and all of the other muscles in the body.

Back Pain Relief

More than half of the population are familiar with back pain, especially individuals who are accustomed to a lifestyle of office work, hours of sitting due to travel time and such, or even those who lift heavy objects for a living.  

The proper employment of back exercise will be able to build up muscles that will support the back to prevent cramps, spasms, and pain.

Improved Stability

According to research, having a strong back can help keep the spine's joints flexible. When the back muscles can provide support and relieve part of the tension, spinal stability is improved. Even the most complicated motions may be turned and twisted with amazing efficiency due to the back's strength, flexibility, and stability. 

Improved Flexibility

Doing back exercises is also capable of increasing the flexibility of the back. This enables the muscles of the back to lengthen while executing the exercise. Increasing the range of motion of the back allows for natural movement without restriction. Lack of flexibility is a major cause of injuries and so working on this through various exercises decreases its occurrence. 

Compound Exercises for the Lower Back

1. Russian Kettlebell Swings

The Russian kettlebell swing is a complex compound exercise that activates multiple muscle groups in one movement. This is an excellent exercise that works the muscles of the upper back, but it is also great for other muscles such as the glutes, and hamstrings. The movement itself can improve an individual’s flexibility and mobility over time.

russian kettlebell swing

To perform kettlebell swings, start by standing with the feet shoulder-width apart and the knees slightly bent. Hold the kettlebell by the handle with both hands so that it rests between both legs. Bend forward at the hips while keeping the back in neutral extension until a stretch is felt at the back of the legs around the hamstrings.

Swing the kettlebell backward to gain momentum before lifting it to shoulder level. The individual stands back straight as the kettlebells are swung forward by thrusting the hips forward while extending the knees. To complete a single set, repeat this motion for the desired number of reps.

2. Barbell Good Mornings

The good morning is a compound exercise that works multiple muscles in the posterior chain, like the lower back muscles, hamstrings, and glutes. It also works several other muscles such as the hip flexors, abductors,  and quads. This is a hip hinge exercise that will help improve the strength, and mobility of the muscles, and improve the range of motion of the hip flexion.

barbell good morning

The lifter must stand with their feet shoulder-width apart and their knees slightly bent to get into position. A weighted barbell is placed near the shoulders and rests on the trapezius muscle. The back and core muscles are braced in the standing position as the hips hinge to send the hips backward and the torso forward while keeping the knees extended. 

The end of the movement is usually signaled by a stretch in the hamstrings or the beginning of the rounding of the back. The torso is nearly parallel to the ground in this position. To stand upright and return to the starting position, drive through the legs while thrusting the hips forward. After finishing the motion, the glutes are squeezed.

3. Rack Pulls

The rack pulls are an excellent compound exercise that works the whole body. This exercise specifically targets multiple muscle groups in one movement such as the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, quadriceps, forearm, and hand muscles. With proper form, this exercise can build muscle mass and muscle hypertrophy throughout the lower body. 

barbell rack pull

To perform this, stand with the feet hip-width apart behind a bar that is placed on a rack just about below the knee cap height. Push the hips back and slightly bend the knees, while keeping the back straight and the chest out to reach down to the barbell. Grab the barbell with both hands positioned just outside the legs.

Then lift the weight by pushing the hips forward and extending the knees while still keeping the arms extended. Briefly hold this position and then slowly lower the weights back to the rack and repeat this motion until a set is completed. 

4. Supermans

The Superman exercise is an effective and excellent exercise for individuals that look to target the lower back muscles. This exercise can be done at home and without any equipment needed.

supermans

It specifically works the back muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and abs. This exercise is done through an isometric contraction of the muscles meaning to say that muscle lengthening does not occur during tension.

To perform this, lie flat on the stomach down on the floor, or on a mat with the arms extended straight out overhead. Then raise both the arms and the legs off of the ground and hold that position for 1-2 seconds before coming back down again.

Compound Exercises for the Upper Back

1. Pull-ups

Of all calisthenic exercises, pull-ups are one of the most common. It is an excellent way to measure an individual’s baseline strength to bodyweight ratio.

This workout activates multiple muscles such as the deltoid, rhomboid, trapezius,  and core muscles but focuses more on the development of the lats and biceps. 

pull up

To do pull-ups, start by standing beneath a pull-up bar, then grab the bar at about shoulder-width distance with a neutral grip, palms facing in front of the body. Squeeze the shoulders together and keep the head up.

Pull the body upwards by bending the elbows and pulling on the bard. A single rep requires the chin to pass above the bar of the pull-up bar. Then, with the elbows extended, slowly lower the body down in a controlled manner.

2. T-bar Rows

The T-bar rows are an excellent compound exercise, especially when targeting all the major back muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and erector spinae. Due to the nature of its movement, it also works the shoulders and arm muscles like the biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis. 

t-bar row muscles

To perform this, position one end of the barbell on a landmine or a corner to prevent it from moving around. Position over the bar so that it is positioned between the legs, then grab a double D-row handle and place it around the bar next to the collar. 

Push the hips forward and extend the knees to rise to a standing position. In this position, assume a wide stance at around shoulder-width apart. Keep the arms extended, bend the torso forward at around 45 degrees, push the hips back, and the knees slightly bent. This will be the starting position.

Pull the weight towards the chest by squeezing the shoulder blades and bending the elbows and hold this position briefly, then in a controlled manner lower the bar again returning to the starting position. Repeat this motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set. 

3. Lat Pulldowns

The lat pulldown is done through the use of a lat pulldown machine, this exercise aids in strength training of several muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, biceps, rear delts, rhomboids, and traps. This exercise is known to develop the overall strength of the back muscles.

wide grip lat pulldown

When performing the lat pulldown, keep in mind that the lower back should not swing when pulling the machine's handle. The proper position for this activity is to lean back slightly and maintain that form throughout the workout.

To do this, sit on the machine and place both legs beneath the machine's pads. Grab the handle with a neutral grip, palms facing forward and wider than shoulder width, then lean back and engage the core. Pull the bar as low as possible or until it almost touches the chest.

Slowly retract the bar in a controlled manner and repeat the motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set.

4. Bent-over Reverse Flys

The bent-over reverse flys are done with dumbbells and work the upper back muscles and shoulder muscles such as the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, infraspinatus, teres minor, etc. gaining strength in the upper back region helping to balance the shoulder strength and protect it from injury.

dumbbell reverse fly

To perform this, grab a pair of dumbbells on each hand and stand with the feet hip-width apart. Do not grab a dumbbell that is too heavy to avoid the body from compensating and engaging other muscles that are not meant to be engaged. Bend the torso forward until the upper body is about parallel to the floor. 

Assume the starting position by extending the arms with a slight bend on the elbows and hanging below the body where the dumbbells are touching each other. Lift the dumbbells by bringing the arms up to the side of the body while maintaining a slight bend on the elbows. As the individual lifts the arms to the side, twist the forearms so that the thumb is pointing to the floor at the peak of the lift. 

Finally, return to the starting position by lowering the weights in a controlled manner. Repeat this motion for the desired number of reps to complete a single set. 

5. Seated Cable Rows

The seated cable row exercise is a compound exercise that uses a seated pulley row machine to work multiple muscles in one movement. The latissimus dorsi and rhomboid muscles are the primary muscles activated in this workout but are also assisted by the biceps and trapezius. 

cable seated row

Attach a close grip bar to the machine so the hands are close together when gripping it. Then, sit on the machine and place the feet on the footplates on either side. Grab the handles with the palms facing each other and the arms straight.

Maintain a neutral spine and push out with the feet by extending the knees just until there is still a slight bend in the knees. Make sure the shoulders are down and the chest is out. Pull the handles towards the torso and hold this position for a few seconds. Return the arms to an extended position slowly and deliberately.

Final Thoughts

Any working person knows how important having a strong back is. Even in our most inactive state, an unhealthy back may cause problems. Back development should be prioritized in the training routine even for those who are not training for hypertrophy because it is vital in our everyday life.

However, it is important to note that back discomfort can result from performing too many new exercises too fast and without the right instruction. In addition, some people start new exercise programs unaware that they already have back problems. Someone with an undetected back condition may suffer a major injury from a workout that may be safe for someone without a specific back problem.

Strength, fitness, and stability may all be increased with the right back exercises. While having a strong back might reduce your chance of experiencing back discomfort, if you already have back issues, you should proceed with caution and see your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.

References

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2. McGill SM. Low back exercises: evidence for improving exercise regimens. Physical therapy. 1998 Jul 1;78(7):754-65.

3. Arokoski JP, Valta T, Airaksinen O, Kankaanpää M. Back and abdominal muscle function during stabilization exercises. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation. 2001 Aug 1;82(8):1089-98.

4. Jeno SH, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Back, Latissimus Dorsi. [Updated 2022 Apr 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448120/

5. Manniche C, Lundberg E, Christensen I, Bentzen L, Hesselsøe G. Intensive dynamic back exercises for chronic low back pain: a clinical trial. Pain. 1991 Oct 1;47(1):53-63.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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