Every guy slaving away in their friendly neighborhood McFitness wants massive triceps, freaky-peaked biceps, and pecs so perfect they’d make the late Serge Nubret shed a salty tear into his evening horsemeat.
The truly enlightened, however, invest equal effort into developing the backside of their body, hammering away at chin-up and rowing variations.
Such attention to balance is commendable, and in a perfect world, trainees who make back training priority number one would be rewarded by the bodybuilding gods with a set of mind-blowing lats and perhaps a buxom fitness bunny or two to massage them.
Sadly, the fitness world isn’t always fair, and even the most perfect programming won’t yield favorable results if your technique in the big pulling exercises isn’t up to par.
Take the average 9-5 desk-jockey with the slumping posture of Larry King (fallen chest and hunched shoulders) doesn’t respond well to rows or pull-ups, and a typical bodybuilding “back” program will likely miss the target like a three-year old in an airplane lavatory.
So instead of pumped lats a’la Ronnie Coleman or Dorian Yates, you get a good set of teres majors, some rotator cuff irritation, and a jacked up neck that can’t look over the shoulder to do a lane check during rush hour traffic.
One feature of lat activity is its co-contraction capacity for muscles like the lower traps, transverse abdominis, internal obliques, glute maximus, erector spinae, and multifidus.
The lats’ role in spinal stability, hip mobility, and scapular mobility means it can be culpable for poor mechanics or limited function, yet can also be a driving force behind powerful movement and athleticism in high-functioning athletes.
On top of that, they just look bad-ass when flared out and revealing striations into the thoracolumbar fascia, as exhibited by any onstage bodybuilder who’s done his homework.
The lats are supplied by nerves from the sixth, seventh, and eight cervical nerves, meaning it’s got a lot of impulses directed into it and receives considerable sensory information to relay. Whenever a muscle has a lot of nerves feeding it, you know it’s kind of a big deal.
In fact, so thick and powerful are the lats that they’re often used as replacement muscle for people needing rotator cuff rebuilds, as well as after breast cancer surgery where the pec major muscle has to be removed and rebuilt. It also exhibits a ridiculously fast regeneration of nerve tissue, which means it’s quick to start functioning again.
That’s all well and good, but how does this help you start building a back so broad your in-laws will ask to screen their vacation videos on it?
A major issue for many lifters is that they operate almost entirely in a seated position. Whether it’s at work in a cubicle farm, driving, school, or surfing the latest Crossfit fail montage, most people sit way too long, resulting in the spinal flexed posture mentioned earlier.
Considering the lats’ role involves a degree of extension, staying locked up in flexion means the lats are going to be hanging on for dear life until you can get into a unified extension through all vertebrae.
Check out the video below of me teaching a class how to activate the lats properly while in a sitting position. Fair warning, it has some slick anatomy talk in it, but just walk away looking for the key points of what position to get in to.
Now, you’re probably saying, “But I can do chin-ups for days and pulldowns with more than my body weight, and I don’t do that!” No doubt, but you’re probably kicking up more from your teres major, biceps, and posterior deltoids than isolating your lats. When it comes to specific muscle work, specific positions are required.
A study by Snyder and Leech (2009) found that trainees who performed lat pulldowns with less than ideal form experienced a 12% increase in maximal voluntary contraction after receiving expert instruction, from 71.1% of max to 83.59%.
My goal is to help everyone reading this achieve a similar 12% bump in lat activation, and in turn take some credit for stretching and ripping a few shirts at the chest and shoulders.
What Exercises Do The Best Job?
Not surprisingly, research shows that heavy compound movements yield the most bang for your lat training buck, but again, technique is paramount.
The commonly held belief that pullovers are great for building lat strength is somewhat inaccurate. It’s great for pec strength and for developing lat range of motion, but it doesn’t do much for creating strain in the lat muscles.
Based on work by Fenwick, et all (2009) out of Dr. Stuart McGill’s lab, two of the best variations for developing the lats are the inverted row and the one-arm cable row, and not the bent over row.
This may be because the bent over position required more bracing for the lumbar spine, or the other two variations used hard co-contractions from the glutes to help pull the lats along for the ride.
Lastly, it could also be due to the direction of force, as the bent over row would require more from the upper traps to pull instead of the lats.
In short, the bent over row is often butchered beyond recognition, resulting in guys building a physique with little to no separation between the shoulders and ears.
The one-arm dumbbell row is a great alternative, and uses the same ideal position to get scary lat activation while allowing you to drive the shoulder down and into your back pocket.
Kroc rows are a very advanced method of one-arm rowing, but I should caution it’s tough to get the lats to do the work. If you’re a beginner or have issues getting the lats to fire properly, save this movement for when you’re a little more experienced.
Chin-ups are one of the best overall back builders. However, as good as they are, pulldowns offer a chance to truly isolate the lats and help even the most stubborn trainee get a shirt-stretching lat pump. In terms of execution, again, there’s good and there’s best.
My preferred way to do any kind of pulldown is to skip the seat and get on your knees. Using a cable machine like a Free Motion or a single cable tower with a two-hand attachment while kneeling on a foam roller or towel allows your hips to be in more extension than with typical lat pulldown machines. This increases glute activation, which also helps to get more out of the lats than any seated position.
One thing to consider if you’re looking for maximal lat activation is whether to go with the classic overhand grip or underhand grip. Lusk, et al. (2010) showed greater lat activation when using an underhand grip, but no real difference with differing grip width. Keep your grip underhanded and shoulder- width apart and you’ll be fine.
I have a few loves in my life, such as steak, deadlifts, and the movie Roadhouse. There are many paths to true happiness, though you’d be hard-pressed to come up with one more satisfying than spending an afternoon deadlifting followed by a juicy T-bone and watching Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliot put their boots to the crotch of a bar full of gap-toothed rowdies.
The lats are a major player in the deadlift, keeping the spine from rounding over like a question mark while facilitating glute drive through the movement. When someone deadlifts heavy and often, 99 times out of 100 they’ll have thicker lower lats than their machine rowing brethren.
Most lifters will use an over-under grip to maximize the amount of weight they can lift, but the grip should be alternated to prevent muscle imbalances from cropping up. Beggs (2011) found that there was a significant difference in lat activation when the hands were in the overhand position compared to the underhand position, whereas the underhand position resulted in greater biceps activation.
So if you have small arms, go underhand to get some additional biceps activity. If you have small lats, go overhand. If you’re small all over, eat more animals and watch more Roadhouse. Believe me, it works.
A recent surge in popularity has brought different strongman training methods into mainstream facilities. While this is largely a good thing, it also requires an understanding of what the hell these exercises actually do – which ones can help lifters build muscle, burn fat, and move better, and which ones just look more badass than spending your lunch hour on an elliptical machine watching Dr. Oz.
McGill (2009) showed that the lats are very important for a lot of the carrying events such as the farmers walk, suitcase carry, log lift, and tire flip due to their role in stabilizing and compressing the spine for additional support as well as providing a co-activation potentiating effect for the prime movers. A fist is way stronger than any of the individual fingers, so getting the muscles to all work together helps produce stronger contractions.
The Most Awesome Lat Training Program Ever
Now let’s take all this science-y mumbo jumbo and turn it into something you can use at the gym tomorrow.
I’m going to assume you’re cool with following a typical body-part split where you demolish your lats one day each week and work the other body parts on different training days. While this is certainly not the only road to mastery, a meathead-approved “lat day” works nicely in this scenario.
The tempo for each movement (besides deadlifts) will be a 1-second contraction, followed by a 2-second hold at the top for a maximum contraction, and a 1 or 2 second lowering phase. For the numerologists among you this would be 1:2:1.
This tempo will help you focus on getting a good hard contraction instead of simply banging out reps without a care for whether you’re getting the movement right or not.
With each rep, try to get the lats to do everything, and reposition until you can feel them working. Typically it will take more thoracic extension, more shoulder depression, and occasionally a little voodoo thrown in if you’re really jacked up. When in doubt, drop some weight off the bar to make sure you can feel it beneath your shoulders and around your lower back.
|A||Deadlifts (overhand grip)||4||8,6,4,12|
|B||Kneeling pulldowns (underhand grip)||4||12|
The combination of heavy overhand deadlifts and higher-rep underhand kneeling pulldowns will work the lats in both a maximal contraction stabilizing role and as a prime mover while moving in competing directions. This will get them nice and juicy for the remaining workout.
|A||One-arm dumbbell row||4||8,12,15,6|
|D||Farmer’s walk *||4||20 yards|
* using 50% body weight per hand, use dumbbells, barbells, even kettlebells if you want.
Again, we combine a prime mover that uses the lats with a stabilization exercise. For the farmer’s walk it’s crucial that you get tall, keep your chin back, and keep your core tight so that your lats can do what they do best.
By performing a reverse pyramid structure with the rows you increase the metabolic demand on the muscle, and then finish with a heavier set while nearly fully taxed. Since the deadlifts were done with heavy weights, having a high number of heavy sets in subsequent exercises isn’t necessary.
|A||Bent-over row (underhand grip)||3||8,8,6|
|B||Cable one-arm standing row (neutral grip)||3||8|
With the bent over row, bend from the hips, keep your spine in a slight extension position, and row into your belly button while bringing your shoulder blades together and down into your back pockets. If you feel your upper traps working around your neck, you’re doing it wrong.
|A||Chin-ups (neutral grip or underhand grip)||3||max reps|
Add weight if you can get over 10 clean reps, making sure you aren’t rolling your shoulders forward or jutting your head forward to the bar to complete the movement. We’re not kipping here, sizzle-chest.
Think of these as “sternum-ups” instead of chin-ups, and focus on getting the shoulders down and back. Don’t be frustrated if your chin-up performance is seriously hampered; you should be fried by this point.
Lats Get Busy!
You don’t need a doctorate in exercise phys or spend Saturdays scouring Pub-Med to design an effective lat training program –
just choose the biggest bang for the buck movements and strive for maximum lat activation with every rep. Do that and your lats will be well ahead of the rest of the herd.
Focus on technical execution first and weights second, and prepare to find a good tailor.
- Gatton, et al. (2010). A Three-dimensional mathematical model of thoracolumbar fascia and an estimate of biomechanical effect. J. Biomech. 2010 Oct 19;43(14): 2792-2797
- Ling et al. (2009). Biomechanics of latissimus dorsi transfer for irreparable posterosuperior rotator cuff tears. Clin Biomech. 2009 Mar;24(3): 261-266
- Snyder & Leech (2009). Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. JSCR. 23(8). 2204-2209
- Marchetti & Uchida (2011). Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG. J. Applied Biomechanics. 27. 380-384
- Lusk et al (2010). Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pulldown. JSCR. 24(7) 1895-1900
- Beggs, Luke Allen, “Comparison Of Muscle Activation And Kinematics During The Deadlift Using A Double-Pronated And Overhand/Underhand Grip” (2011). Master’s Theses. Paper 87. http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_theses/87
- McGill et all (2009). Comparison of Different Strongman Events: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load and Stiffness. JSCR. 23(4) 1148-1161