The latissimus dorsi (“lat”) is the biggest muscle in the upper body. Surprisingly, it’s also the forgotten one. The modern recreational bodybuilder only trains his biceps and triceps. Working the back usually consists in a few sets of machine exercises. Consequently, many end up having overdeveloped arms and non-existent lats. People are willing to do everything to get bigger arms. Some are even mindlessly injecting synthol in their biceps and triceps, while completely forgetting about the possible consequences.
Enough of that narcissism! It’s time to train the lats – the muscle of power and pride.
In order to build an effective lat workout, we must first be familiar with the role of the latttissimus dorsi. The primary function of the lats is to pull the humerus (upper arm) down and close to the body. The lats also take part of spine extension.
The workout below is designed for natural bodybuilders and recreational lifters. It may seem strange to some but it consists of only one exercise – pull-ups. No machines, no dumbbells, no barbells, no stones and not even a gym.
The best lat exercise is the neutral grip pull-up. Regular grip pull-ups place too much stress on the elbows due to over-flexion of the biceps. On the other hand performing chin-ups (palms facing you) places a lot of stress on the wrist joint. By using neutral grip (palms facing each other) your elbows and wrists are aligned in a better position. There are less chances of hurting yourself.
The width of the grip for the pull-ups should be about shoulder width. Regardless of what people think, wide grip pull-ups are not the best for wide lats. The wide grip shortens the range of motion, while the narrower grip increases the range of motion and the stretch of the lat in the bottom.
A proper pull-up consists of a few simple steps:
1.Start from a dead hang
The proper way to start a pull-up is from a complete dead hand. You don’t want to start the exercise from the middle. Grab the bar and hang. There should be no effort to pull yourself up. Let gravity do its dance.
Look forward and slightly up. Don’t look down but don’t look at the ceiling either. Since the neck is part of the spine, the position of your head is crucial. If you look down, your back will hunch. If you look at the ceiling, your neck may hurt. The sweet spot is forward and a little bit upwards. If you can do that, you are ready for the next step.
2.Starting the pull-up
The beginning phase of the pull-up is crucial. If you don’t do it correctly, your lats will not be activated and the arms will do most of the work. From a dead hang imagine that your arms are “dead” from the elbow up. Think of your wrists as they are your elbows. Now, pull your shoulders down without flexing your elbows. The movement should be just a few inches. It’s called a scapular pull-up and is meant to activate your lats. If you do it correctly, your shoulders will go down and back, and your chest will elevate a little bit. When you can do that, it’s time to move up.
Interesting fact: The first Mr.Olympia, Larry Scott, is famous for “pumping” his lats by doing a ton of scapular pull-ups.
Once you’ve done the scapular pull-up continue to pull yourself upwards. The whole time you should pull from your elbows as much you can. While you are going up keep on arching your back as much as you can. If you are doing it correctly, your lats will be set on fire.
As soon as the bar is below your chin, begin to lower yourself. Do it in a controlled fashion. Don’t relax. Be gentle – like you are putting a puppy to sleep. This part of the exercise is called a “negative” and is very important. Many researches show that controlled negatives promote further muscle stimulation and in return higher hypertrophy. This is the proper way to do pull-ups.
The whole routine looks as like this:
Beginner version (The lifter can only do 1 pull-up)
Day 1: Perform joint rotations for about 7-10 minutes as a warm-up (all workouts should start with a warm-up session).
After your warm-up perform a total of 10-15 pull-ups. Do as many sets as you need. Keep your form strict. Never go to failure. The workout should not take you more than 45 minutes. It’s meant to be fairly easy.
Day 2: Rest;
Day 3: Repeat your workout from Day 1.
Day 4: Rest;
Day 5: Repeat the workout from Day 1 but this time try perform add 1 rep to your lowest set. Add one rep every other day. Once you are doing sets of 3 switch to the intermediate.
A theoretical version of the beginner program:
1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1
2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1
2, 2, 2, 2, 2
3, 2, 2, 2
3, 3, 2
3, 3, 3
Intermediate version ( lifter can do 5 pull-ups)
You are still going to do pull-ups three times a week. Every other workout you will add a rep or two to your first low set. The requirement is to total 20-25 pull-ups per workout.
Hypothetical training cycle:
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
5, 4, 3, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1
5, 4, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1
5, 4, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2
5, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2
5, 4, 3, 3, 3
5, 4, 4, 3
5, 4, 4, 4
5, 5, 4, 4
5, 5, 5, 4
5, 5, 5, 5
Note: The above is no written in stone. It’s just a guideline. The end goal is to be able to do a few sets of 5 with little rest in between – just 2-6 minutes.
Advanced version ( the lifter can do multiple sets of 5 with good form)
The advanced version follows the same principle, but you start with higher with higher numbers.
A theoretical training cycle might look like that:
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 2
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 3, 3
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 4, 3
8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 4, 4
8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 4, 4
8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 5
8, 7, 6, 6, 5, 5
8, 7, 6, 6, 6, 5
8, 7, 6, 6, 6, 6
8, 7, 7, 6, 6
8, 7, 7, 7, 6
8, 7, 7, 7, 7
8, 8, 7, 7, 7
8, 8, 8, 7,
8, 8, 8, 8
One more time – the above is just a guideline. Don’t be afraid to cut some of the sets if you are feeling tired. The goal is to be able to do 8 reps for 4-5 sets with little rest in between. Once you can do that your lats will be much stronger. The average person can barely do 8 pull-ups in one set! You can continue with the same scheme until you reach something like 10-15 pull-ups per set. If you can do that with good form, your lats will be well above average.
Q: Why only one exercise?
A: If you do too many exercises it becomes really hard to track progress.
Q: Why pull-ups?
A: Pull-ups are very effective and do not require a lot of equipment.
Q: Can I substitute neutral grip pull-ups for chin-ups or regular pull-ups?
A: You can, but neutral grip pull-ups were selected because they are less stressful on the joints. Since the workout above is high volume, there is risk to experience pain from over-training. That’s why a kinder version of the exercise was choosen.
Q: Where can I perform neutral grip pull-ups?
A: Everywhere. Just build a set of homemade Olympic rings and connect them to a bar, tree branch, door…etc. The rings allow you to perform neutral grip pull-ups with ease. Your wrists and elbows will thank you.
Q: How much will my lats grow?
A: As a natural bodybuilder you should not expect miracles. Without a doubt, however, your lats will report growth.
Q: How much should I eat?
A: Don’t overeat it. The point is not to get fat. Make sure you consume a bare minimum of 80 grams of protein per day. Preferably 100. If you are really tall, you may need more.
Q: When will I see results?
A: In a few months.
Q: Can I do other exercises for back besides the pull-ups?
A: Yes. You can do exercises for your spinal erectors (deadlifts, back extensions..etc) but don’t do any rows, lat pull-downs…etc. Otherwise you will overtrain.
Q: What about my arms?
A: The pull-ups will take care of your biceps and the long head of the triceps. You can train your chest and pushing muscle separately. Don’t do too much.
Q: I can’t do even one pull-up?
A: Instead of pull-ups perform bodyweight rows a.k.a Australian pull-ups. Follow the same scheme. You will be able to perform regular pull-ups in no time.
A: Hell no.
A: You could, but supplements are not needed. For alternatives to protein powder read THIS post.
Q: Off topic! What’s your stand on how to achieve six pack abs?
A: It’s all about diet. You don’t need magic routines or other tricks to achieve the badly wanted six pack abs.