The Muscles That Different Back Exercises Work

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Man performing the back lat spread pose.

Figuring out which muscles are primarily worked with different back exercises is a task. Especially when structuring a workout routine that incorporates the right exercises in tandem to build a well-balanced back.

There are two categories for different back exercises: multi-joint and single-joint. Single-joint movements work a specific back region in isolation, while multi-joint movements work multiple muscle groups simultaneously.

Below I’ll discuss popular exercises that fall under each category and which muscles they primarily target.

Different Types of Back Exercises To Work Each Muscle

Multi-joint and single-joint back exercises differ in the sense that one uses multiple joint areas, while the other uses one.

A multi-joint, or compound exercise is a movement involving two or more joints simultaneously. The motions of the joints rely on the back muscles for stability.

For example, bent-over rows use the elbows and shoulders to raise and lower the load, recruiting the traps, lats, and other small muscles. The lower back also contracts to protect the spine while maintaining the leaned forward position at the hip joint.

A single-joint, or isolation exercise relies on one joint to execute the motion. Take lat pullovers for instance. The only joint that is actively moving is the shoulder joint (this includes both shoulder joints).

The motion primarily works the latissimus dorsi through shoulder extension, with some support from surrounding muscles.

Here’s a table showing the category that common back exercises fall under:

Multi-Joint Back ExercisesSingle-Joint Back Exercises
Lat PulldownStraight Arm Pulldown
Bent-Over RowShrug
Conventional DeadliftProne Y-Raise
Pull-UpLat Pullover
Seated RowHyperextension

The Muscles Worked With Multi-Joint Back Exercises

Multi-joint exercises like rows work nearly the entire back, making them great for progressing in both strength and rep increments. The reason is that so many muscles and joints are actively working together.

This of course makes lifting heavier weights easier without sacrificing form or safety. Many lifters rely on these types of exercises for tracking long-term progressive overload.

This table shows the primary back regions worked by each exercise from the previous table.

Multi-Joint ExerciseBack Areas Worked
Lat PulldownMiddle, Upper Back
Bent-Over RowLower, Middle, Upper Back
Conventional DeadliftLower, Middle, Upper Back
Pull-UpMiddle, Upper Back
Seated RowMiddle, Upper Back
Upper Back: Upper Trapezius, Rhomboid Minor
Middle Back: Latissimus Dorsi, Mid/Lower Trapezius, Rhomboid Major
Lower Back: Spinal Erectors

These types of movements tend to be complex (hard to learn) and exhaustive. So, it’s not necessary or recommended to constantly switch from one mult-joint exercise to another from session to session.

Rather, you should focus on doing one or two consistently for 4-12 weeks before even considering switching to a different one. Using lower rep ranges of 4 to 12 maximum is best.

The Muscles Worked With Single-Joint Back Exercises

Single-joint exercises are used to accentuate or isolate a specific back muscle. This is because only one joint is actively moving, which doesn’t require as much musculature to stabilize.

This type of exercise is great for including after doing a multi-joint exercise because it allows you to focus on developing your weakest links.

For instance, let’s say your lats and lower traps are your weak points. So, you start your workout with rows to target your whole back. Then you could do one isolator for the lats like pullovers and one for the lower traps such as prone y-raises using 12-20 reps.

Single-Joint ExerciseIsolated Back Muscle
Straight Arm PulldownLatissimus Dorsi
ShrugUpper Trapezius
Prone Y-RaiseMiddle and Lower Trapezius
Lat PulloverLatissimus Dorsi
HyperextensionSpinal Erectors

Factors To Consider When Choosing Different Back Exercises

  • Injury history
    • Example: If you injured your lower back do seated cable rows instead of bent-over rows.
    • Stick to mainly single-joint exercises as they tend to be safer.
  • Muscular weak points
    • If you have an underdeveloped back muscle you should focus on 1 or 2 single-joint exercises per back workout to bring those areas up to par.
  • Training age
    • If you’ve been training for less than a year pick two multi-joint exercises like bent-over rows and lat pulldowns and one single-joint exercise of your choosing.
    • You’ll develop proper technique and build the most “noobie muscle” this way.
  • Time Efficiency
    • If you’re short on time do two multi-joint exercises such as deadlifts and pull-ups or rows and pulldowns in the same workout.
    • They recruit more total musculature than single-joint variations.

Sample Workout Using 3 Different Back Exercises

This back workout uses two mult-joint and one single-joint exercise with adequate volume for a novice or intermediate to perform once per week.

  1. Bent-Over Barbell Row: 4 sets x 8 reps
  2. Lat Pulldown: 4 x 12
  3. Prone Y-Raise: 3 x 15

What Exercise Works All of the Back Muscles?

Exercises that work the entire back at once fall under the multi-joint or compound category and are super convenient for time-restricted workouts.

Bent-over barbell rows work all of the back muscles. They have been shown to activate the most musculature when compared to other common back exercises. However, they aren’t the most effective builder for every individual muscle.

Unfortunately, activation doesn’t always correlate to muscle growth as you have to be able to accumulate enough weekly volume with that exercise.

For instance, if your lower back is underdeveloped it will exhaust much quicker than the mid-upper back during rows.

This will make pushing the lats and traps close to failure much harder, limiting your back growth potential with this exercise.

A good workaround is to include single-joint exercises for whichever areas you find to be the weakest (eg. hyperextension for the lower back). Over time you should notice improvements that carry over to the bent-over row as these muscles get stronger.

Including single-joint exercises will also boost your total weekly working set volume, so you don’t have to solely do rows.

What Is the Number 1 Back Exercise?

It’s hard to rank a specific back exercise as “the best” since everyone has different biomechanics and what works well for you may not work for someone else.

Bent-over barbell rows are often considered the number one back exercise. This is because numerous EMG tests have shown considerable upper, middle, and lower back activation when rows are performed by trainees of varying fitness levels.

However, in my personal experience, I’ve noticed significantly greater back gains from doing pull-ups and pulldowns than rows.

The downside with pull-ups is that many trainees struggle to perform enough reps/sets in a single session to put the muscles under sufficient tension to grow.

Practice the exercises that you feel work your back the best and master those before selecting new ones. This will help you develop a solid mind-muscle connection and make learning new movements easier in the future.

I’d recommend selecting one heavy compound, one moderate-weight compound, and one lighter weight higher rep isolation exercise. Then do those for at least 8 weeks.

If you’re having trouble growing a specific back muscle choose at least one isolation exercise for that area.

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at!