A lot of inexperienced exercisers spend way too much time training the muscles they can see in the mirror. They spend all their time and energy on their pecs, biceps, shoulders, abs, and quads, forgetting all the equally important muscles they cannot see. Just because you can’t see your back doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train it!
Of all your back muscles, the lats are arguably the most important. When developed properly, your lats give your back width and thickness. In fact, big lats are even visible from the front and look a little like wings.
Correctly called the latissimus dorsi, which means side back muscles, the lats have several important functions:
- Shoulder extension – pulling your upper arms backward, e.g., rows
- Shoulder adduction – pulling your arms down toward the midline of your body, e.g., wide grip pulldowns
- Medial rotation – turning your upper arms in toward the midline of your body
Because they have several different functions, you should always include a range of exercises in your lat workouts so that you train your lats from all available angles. A few sets of pulldowns or pull-ups just won’t do it.
Research also shows that exercise variety is just as crucial for muscle growth as the weight you lift or the number of sets and reps in your workouts (1). This is another good reason to use a variety of lat exercises.
Here are eight of the best exercises for building bigger, stronger lats.
1. Pull-ups and Chin-ups
Gymnasts and climbers have incredibly big, strong backs. The secret to their impressive lat development? Lots and lots of pull-ups and chin-ups. This simple bodyweight exercise is one of the best lat builders around, and it’s also good for your biceps and forearms too.
Pull-ups are done with an overhand, wider than shoulder-width grip, while chin-ups are done with a narrower, underhand grip. You can also use a neutral grip where your palms are facing inward. Change your grip from workout to workout to keep your training fresh.
How to do pull up and chin ups:
- Grab an overhead bar with the appropriate grip, i.e., overhand, underhand, or neutral
- Hang from the bar with your arms straight and feet clear of the floor
- Without swinging, jerking, or kicking, pull your chin up and over the bar. Lift your chest to maximize lat recruitment
- Lower yourself down smoothly and under control and then repeat
If you can do ten or more reps, make this exercise more demanding by wearing a chin/dip belt, weighted vest, or a backpack. Load it with about 5-10% of your current body weight.
2. Lat Pulldowns
If you aren’t strong enough or are too heavy to do pull-ups, lat pulldowns are the next best option. With pulldowns, you can adjust the weight to match your current level of strength. As with bodyweight chin-ups, you can use a wide overhand grip, a narrow underhand grip, or a neutral grip as preferred.
How to do Lat pull-downs:
- Sit on the lat pulldown machine so that your feet are flat on the floor. Adjust the leg pad so that it holds you securely in position
- Stand up and grab the handle with your chosen grip. Sit back down and place your legs under the pads. Lean back slightly and lift your chest up toward the bar
- Bend your arms and pull the bar down to the top of your chest. Think about leading with your elbows. Keep your wrists straight. Pause at the bottom of each rep for 1-2 seconds
- Slowly extend your arms and repeat
Avoid shoulder injuries by only doing lat pulldowns to the front. Behind the neck, pulldowns put a lot of extra stress on your shoulder joints and do not increase lat activation. You’ll get a better, safer workout by pulling the bar down to your front.
3. Single-Arm Lat Pulldowns
Doing lat pulldowns using one arm at a time means you to really focus on the muscle you are training, reinforcing the mind/muscle connection. It’s also an excellent way to identify and fix left to right strength imbalances that may go unnoticed in bilateral or two-handed exercises.
How to do Single-Arm Lat Pulldowns:
- Attach a single D-shaped handle to your lat pulldown machine. Grab the handle and sit down so that your torso is perfectly upright. Brace your abs
- Bend your arm and pull the handle down to your shoulder. Allow your wrist to rotate naturally as you exercise. Keep your legs and trunk perfectly still throughout
- Extend your arm slowly and then repeat. Do the same number of reps on each arm
4. Bent over rows
Where pulldowns and pull-ups develop lat width, rows are best for building back thickness. Variations of rows are also useful for developing your middle trapezius and rhomboids, which are the muscles across and between your scapula or shoulder blades. Bent over rows are an old-school barbell back exercise that also works your lower back.
How to do Bent over rows:
- Hold a barbell with a wider than shoulder-width overhand grip, or a narrower underhand grip as preferred. Bend your knees slightly and then bend forward from your hips until your torso is angled to between 45-90 degrees
- Without using your legs or lower back to lift the weight, bend your arms and pull the bar up to touch your torso. Pull the bar to your chest if you are using an overhand grip, or your abdomen if you are using an underhand grip.
- Slowly extend your arms and repeat.
You can also start each rep with the bar resting on the floor or on blocks. This is called a dead stop row and is also known as a Pendlay row, named after the famous Olympic USA weightlifting and powerlifting coach Glen Pendlay. Everything is the same, except each rep starts and ends with the barbell touching the floor.
5. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows
Because you have one arm free to use for support, single-arm dumbbell rows are much easier on your lower back than barbell bent-over rows. They also allow you to work one side at a time, which is a good way to identify and fix strength imbalances. Finally, single-arm rows will enable you to really stretch your lats at the bottom of each rep, which can help increase hypertrophy or muscle building.
How to do Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows:
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand. Lean forward and place your free hand on a knee-high bench. Your upper body should be perpendicular to the floor, and your back should be straight and not rounded. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent for stability
- Bend your arm and pull the dumbbell up and into the side of your chest. Lower the weight and extend your arm, getting a good stretch in your lats as you do so
- Do the same number of reps on each side
Some people like to do this exercise with one knee resting on the bench. This can work, but you may feel more stable with both feet on the floor. This is a more balanced stance that should allow you to lift more weight.
6. Inverted Bodyweight Rows
This rowing variation puts very little stress on your spine. It’s perfect for anyone with lower back pain, or those who prefer to include more bodyweight exercises in their workouts. You can also make this exercise easier or harder just by moving your feet or changing the angle of your body.
How to do Inverted Bodyweight Rows:
- Using a Smith machine or squat rack, set the bar to about waist height. You can also use a suspension trainer, such as a TRX. Sit under the bar and hold it with a wider than shoulder-width overhand grip, or a narrower underhand grip
- Lean back, so your arms are straight. Lift your hips off the floor so that your weight is supported by your arms and legs only
- Bend your arms and pull your body up to the bar. Extend your arms and repeat
Make this exercise harder by straightening your legs, placing your feet on an exercise bench, or resting a weight across your hips. Make it easier by moving your feet toward you or raising the bar a little higher.
Dumbbell and machine pullovers are a great way to isolate your lats. They also involve your pecs too. Pullovers are a single joint exercise, so all the movement happens at the shoulder. Unlike all pull-ups, pulldowns, and row variations, pullovers do not use your biceps. They are great for finishing off your lats at the end of your back workout.
How to do Pullovers:
- Set an adjustable bench to a 10 to 15-degree decline. Grab a single dumbbell and hold it in both hands. Place the palms of your hands against the inside of the weight plates
- Lie on the bench with your head lower than your hips. Press the dumbbell up to arms’ length and hold it over your chest. Bend your elbows slightly and then keep them rigid
- Lower the weight back over your head, so your biceps brush your ears. Extend your arms as far as you can without arching your lower back excessively
- Pull the dumbbell back over your chest and repeat
You can also do this exercise with a barbell or with a dumbbell in each hand. If your gym has a pullover machine, use it according to the manufacturer’s instructions as each one is different.
If you only have time for one back exercise, make it deadlifts. Deadlifts don’t just work your lats; they affect every other muscle in your back as well. Not only that, they work your glutes, hamstrings, and quads too. This is a total bodybuilding exercise!
How to do Deadlifts:
- Place a loaded barbell on the floor. The bar should be about mid-shin height. Stand with your toes under the bar, feet hip-width apart
- Lean forward and hold the bar with an overhand grip or mixed grip, where one hand faces forward and the other faces backward
- Straighten your arms, lift your chest, and drop your hips. Your lower back should be slightly arched, and your abs tightly braced
- Drive your feet into the floor and stand up straight. Do not round your back or bend your arms. Use your lats to keep the bar close to your legs at all times
- Push your hips back, bend your legs, and lower the weight to the floor. Get set for another rep and repeat
Build a bigger, stronger back by including both pulldown/pull-ups and rows in your workouts. For every vertical pulling exercise (e.g., lat pulldowns), make sure you also do a horizontal pulling exercise (e.g., bent over rows). This will ensure your back is not just broad but thick too. Train your back like you train your pecs and biceps – as a priority and not an afterthought!
1. Fonseca, Rodrigo M.; Roschel, Hamilton; Tricoli, Valmor; de Souza, Eduardo O.; Wilson, Jacob M.; Laurentino, Gilberto C.; Aihara, André Y.; de Souza Leão, Alberto R.; Ugrinowitsch, Carlos (2014-11). “Changes in Exercises Are More Effective Than in Loading Schemes to Improve Muscle Strength”. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 28 (11): 3085. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000539. ISSN 1064-8011.
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