I'm a personal trainer — here are 3 best compound exercises for cutting V-shaped back muscles

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Sculpted back muscles have become a coveted goal for many gym-goers, but although lifting some weights will help you build muscle and strength in your back, it's just not that easy.

The tapered muscular look is widely sought after, and it’s not just an aesthetic. Your back muscles are responsible for maintaining good posture, protecting you and encouraging proper exercise form. Take the rhomboids, for example — these humble muscles help pull the shoulder blades together to avoid rounded shoulders.

And Gym bunnies — You’ll also need a strong set of back muscles to lift heavier, especially if you’re working on your deadlifts. 

a photo of a man with strong back muscles

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So there are plenty of reasons to pay them attention, whoever you are. With that in mind, these three compound exercises are my favorite for building strength and muscle. Oh, and cutting that V-shaped back.

You’ll just need a barbell, your body weight or a set of the best adjustable dumbbells to do these moves properly. You could also adapt and use a heavy rucksack or filled water bottles if you're exercising on vacation or a work trip.

What are 3 best compound back exercises for building strength and muscle? 

Dumbbell shrugs

an illo of a man doing a dumbbell shoulder shrug

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The key to the V? Let’s start at the top with thick trapezius and deltoids. The delts (shoulders) and traps (upper back muscles that span from shoulder to shoulder) are both targets of the shrug exercise. The move also hits the aforementioned rhomboids and tests forearm and grip strength. If you plan to hold a barbell or set of dumbbells for a period, this move could help, and strong traps translate to other exercises like deadlifts, rows and pull-ups. 

Below, we use dumbbells as an example.

How:

  • Start holding a dumbbell in each hand and place your feet hip-width apart
  • Pull your shoulders back and down and engage your core
  • Drive your shoulders toward the ceiling without rounding your shoulders forward
  • Squeeze your traps together for a couple of seconds at the top
  • Slowly lower your weights back to your starting position.

Keep a neutral neck position, allowing your traps to drive the move while keeping your chest open and shoulders pulled back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Here’s what happened when our writer did dumbbell shrugs every day for a week

Pull-ups

Image of man performing a pull-up in two stages against a white backdrop

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Working our way down the back, next we have the lats — or lattisimus dorsi muscles. These large wing-like muscles create definition from your shoulders down to your waist and add width, helping to develop the well-known V-taper. 

Your lats activate during pulling and adducting movements, like rowing or lowering your arms to your sides. Pull-ups emphasize your lower traps — a crucial muscle for supporting your scapula.

How:

  • Stand under a bar and grip it with both hands
  • Wrap your thumbs around the bar
  • Contract your whole body. Draw your shoulders back and down
  • Hang from the bar, then engage your lats, slightly shrug your shoulders and pull your chin over the bar without swinging your body
  • Slowly lower back down with control.

Can't decide between pull-ups vs chin-ups? It's all in the emphasis. The exercises utilize the same movement pattern with different hand positions, which means you can develop different muscle groups. 

Hyperextensions

Image of female performing back extensions on a bench against a white background

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The erector spinae muscles hug the spine and support heavy lifting and posture, so strengthening them is crucial. These muscles are technically core muscles, as they help stabilize your torso. The back extension targets the lower, mid and upper back, the posterior chain muscles like your glutes and hamstrings, and the hip flexors. 

How:

  • Start with your feet rested on the footplates of your bench and thighs rested with your hip joints just in front of the bench
  • Engage your core, gently squeeze your glutes and back
  • Keep your spine and neck straight, and pull your shoulders back and down
  • Hinge forward at the hips and lower your chest toward the floor and your thighs
  • Pause, then drive back to your starting position, creating a straight line from head to toe. Hold a weight in your hand for extra resistance.

As a personal trainer, this is one of my favorite exercises to strengthen muscles using minimal equipment.

Bottom line

When I work with clients, I like to use a mix of bodyweight exercises and weights. One of the best ways to build foundational strength includes calisthenics — workouts relying on your body weight. That’s why pull-ups feature here and help develop upper-body strength fast.

These back exercises aren’t one-offs, so add them to your current strength program for best results. Strengthening and growing your back muscles is a process, after all. You’ll need to overload the muscles using a method called progressive overload — providing enough stimulus to encourage growth while training consistently. 

And although there are many back muscles, big and small, you can train your entire back with just three compound exercises. Try 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps and progressively add weight, reps or sets as you get stronger.

More from Tom's Guide

Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.

  • Jaximus_Decimus
    I really, really hate to be that guy, but this article is non-sensical. I just do not believe that the person that wrote this is a certified personal trainer. Neither shrugs, nor back extensions will "cut" a V-shaped back. That also doesn't really track, you don't "cut" muscles. Nobody talks like that.

    As if it wasn't already bad enough that 2 of the 3 exercises listed have nothing to do with obtaining a V-shaped back, 2 of the 3 exercises aren't even compound movements! In an article with "3 best compound exercises" right in the title, one would not expect to find mostly (2 out of 3) isolation exercises. Does the author not understand the difference between compound and isolation movements? I guess so, because the author also believes that shrugs target the delts as well as the traps.

    I mean, Jesus Christ, the state of the fitness industry is just... you can literally write anything you want, no qualifications necessary. You can get the absolute most basic things wrong and still end up published on a website with tons of traffic, promoted by google, popping up on some guy's phone while he's taking a dump and forcing him to create an account on a forum just to comment on the absurdity of it all.
    Reply