The so-called ”lats” (latissimus dorsi) represent a muscle group that rarely gets as much media time as the biceps, triceps and abs, which is ironic because those bad boys are the biggest muscle in the upper body and look awesome.
Part of the reason is that the lats are usually hidden under clothing unless you are naked, which thankfully is not the norm for most people in public.
In this marketing based world the things that are not always on display get less popularity and love from the crowd. One could say that the lats have to find a better PR company if they want to achieve celebrity status during the era of the lazy consumer.
All of the above, coupled with the usual brainwashing coming from fitness gurus and mainstream bodybuilding magazines, is the reason why many people have poor understanding how the lat muscle should be trained.
In this post I present you information on lat training I have collected over the years.
Why are the lats so mysterious?
There are four main reasons why the lats don’t get much love from the mainstream humanoids:
People don’t know the muscle exists;
People don’t know how the muscle works;
People have been convinced by gurus that the lats are a mysterious muscle group that requires 10 years of meditation in solitude to activate.
Men’s lats are not on display during sexual activities done between two heterosexual individuals. Why work them if she can’t see them?
What’s the function of the lats?
I am not going to use fancy words here because I think keeping it simple and understanding the matter is more important than enriching your anatomy vocabulary.
One of the main functions of the lat muscle is to pull your upper arm closer to your body. The lat connects to the humerus (upper arm) and the spine.
When your arm is in front of you or overhead the muscle has to contract in order to pull the limb close to your body.
One of the ways to feel your lats working is to extend your arms over your head as much as you can, and then try to bring your shoulders down without bending your elbows or letting your arms drop too much. Chances are, you will feel a muscle under the armpit and on the side of your rib cage work. You can increase the “activation” by following this movement with a pull-over.
In other words, after bringing your shoulders down from the overhead position let your arms fall in front of you while controlling the descent. Keep your ”chest out” by trying to push your sternum (the canal between your pecs) forward. Try that a couple of times, and you will most likely feel the whole muscle contract. Some people with longer lats may even experience a contraction closer to the lower back.
Note: Since the lats attach to the spine, they also participate in back extension, although they are not a primary mover.
In the image below you see a gymnast performing the so-called iron cross. This movement is notorious for its lat involvement. The whole time your arms want to go up (away from your body), but the lats contract very intensely in order to prevent that from happening.
Brief summary: The main function of the lat muscle is to bring back your arm when it goes away from your body. The lats are the arm pullers.
Why aren’t the lats a popular muscle group?
“Flex your lats for me,” said no woman ever.
Try this: go ask your family members and/or friends what “lats” are. You can even use the whole name of the muscle as written in an anatomy book. Nobody will know.
On the other hand, thanks to Arnold’s reign, the majority of the population can locate a biceps muscle rather easily.
The logical question here is: why are the lats so unknown?
It’s simple. As I’ve already written, the lats are really hard to see unless your are naked on the beach, which reduces their commercial time to almost zero. This effect is enhanced by the fact that most people have fat guts and a descend around their waists. This hides the lats even more by creating the illusion of a narrower back. The opposite is also true. When you lose fat around the midsection, your back will appear wider even though it isn’t.
Another reason for the poor popularity of the lats is that they require a little more knowledge to train effectively. Almost anybody can do a biceps curl after seeing one performed on the TV a.k.a the idiot box. Meanwhile lat workouts demand slightly more brain cells, but not that much more to be honest. Unfortunately, this increases the level of difficulty way too much for the general population that thinks real life and movies are the same thing.
Finally, we arrive at the undeniable fact that back training is much harder than arm jerking…uh…I mean training. Lat routines take more out of you and heavier weights have to be lifted. This is enough to make the “give me a hot body in 60 days” guys look the other way.
For those and many other reasons, the lats will forever remain an underground muscle. You can call them Batmen if you want, but they will still remain anonymous.
Pull-ups and Rows
Is it true that you need shaman forces to activate your lats during pull-ups?
Myth spreading is a common trend for the average fitness guru. Those guys have convinced a lot of people that you need to do vodoo in order to activate your muscles. I was one of those brainwashed guys once. I used to believe that it takes special shaman forces to feel your lats work, because I had read in one fitness book that some people need years to develop the so-called mind muscle connection with their own lats. While it’s true that a little more effort, skill and experience is required to develop this link, it’s not rocket science and it can be done relatively fast.
One of the best methods I have used are the so called “scapular pull-ups” also known as 1/5 pull-ups. The execution is extremely simple: you grab a pull-up bar and relax completely. The whole time you have to imagine that your arms are just chains connecting you to the bar. Then, you try to bring your shoulders down below your ears without bending your arms. It’s exactly like the motion I described at the beginning of the post except that your are hanging from a pull-up bar.
If you do it correctly, you will feel your shoulders sink below your ears and your lats will “activate”.
This is how you should begin each of your pull-ups if you want to do them with full range of motion and feel your lats more. Everything else are stupid “biceps hangs” and partials.
You start from a complete dead hang, then you follow it with a scapular pull-up and while keeping your shoulders “packed” /down you finish the movement. It’s also helpful if you imagine that your are pulling your humerus (upper arm) down instead of focusing on bending your elbows. That’s it.
By the way, another benefit of doing your pull-ups from a complete dead hang is that there is less chance of shoulder impingement compared to unnaturally keeping your shoulders down and back during the whole movement as advised by some. Dead hangs feel more natural, at least to me.
You can also try the same technique on the pull down machine, except that in this case you will simply have to let the machine pull you up and then perform a scapular pull-down.
This is what worked for me when everything else failed. I used to stretch my lats, hit them, spit on them before exercises, but at the end this simple technique made the difference.
Is it true that wide grip pull-ups and rows are best for wide lats?
No, it’s a stupid myth. Wide grip pull-ups/chin-ups come with a shorter range of motion (ROM). It’s like comparing a close grip push-up to a wide grip one. The latter will always have a shorter ROM.
That’s why if you want to make your lats work more, you have to use narrow or close grip. This will increase your range of motion while also activating more lat fibers. The same applies to rows as well.
If you want to focus on your lats during rows, it’s better to use a close grip and pull the bar/dumbbell close to your hip.
If, for example, you are performing a classic barbell row and pull the bar really high and touch your top chest area, you are using more upper back than lats. If you want to maximize the activation of your lats, it’s better to touch the bar lower on the body.
Of course, this does not mean that your lats are not engaged during wide grip stuff and high touching rows. They are but to a lesser degree. Don’t let stupid movies, in which overpaid actors do partial wide grip pull-ups behind the neck, cloud your judgment. Those are ineffective and just for the show. You should know by now that most films base their scenes on appeal rather than true values.
What are the best exercises to isolate the lats and build a stronger mind muscle connection?
A pullover variation usually does the trick. If your gym has one of those pulley pull-over machines, you should try it. It will fry your lats since the resistance is kept throughout the whole exercise. However, any other pullover variation will do just fine as well.
The pullover is one of the few exercises that isolate the latissimus dorsi muscle over a large range of motion. Pro bodybuilders such as Dorian Yates recommend starting your back workouts with a pullover prior to everything else. It’s called pre-exhaustion training, and the goal is to isolate a muscle group before performing compound exercises in order to feel it more during the rest of the workout. While I don’t advise people to follow the steps of pro builders who play darts with each other’s glutes, this technique is fine.
Still, don’t overcomplicate things. You don’t need a miracle to activate your lats. In fact, that whole muscle activation thing is blown out of proportions.
For example, right know I am writing a text using a computer keyboard. I am using many forearm and finger muscles. Do I activate them? I guess I do, but I don’t think about it. I just perform the motion and sometimes that’s all you need with training too. Some exercises make it close to impossible to not use a certain muscle group.
With that said, sometimes another primary mover may be doing most of the work during a certain movement, but that still does not mean that you need to travel the world and see magicians to wake up a muscle. Maybe you just have to focus a little more on your intended target muscle and that’s it.
I personally don’t want to be touched by strangers and try to activate my muscles on my own whenever possible.
How many reps and sets should I do?
I can’t tell you exact numbers. What I do know, however, is that the lats love heavier weights. Those muscles are not exactly endurance oriented, and you need to hit them with a weight that allows you do less repetitions – between 4 and 8 seems like a good number.
Of course, you can always add a back off high rep set at the end, if you are one of those pump guys. It helps, but it will not make your lats stronger. What will make them stronger, is progression based on training cycles. You build up to a certain weight, then you deload and reach a new number that’s a little higher that the previous end of your cycle.
How many sets and reps you do can never be set in stone. What matters is that you become strong by adding weight. All else is just a filler and overthinking. You can read more about training cycles here.
Do I need to do many exercises for my lats to hit them from all angles? I have high lats and want to make them low.
Variety is one of your biggest enemies when it comes to training. Don’t listen to the gurus who come up with a new way to add one inch to your arms in 60 days. If those programs were working, most people would have 204 inch arms by now. Pick a few exercises and stick with them.
My favorites are ring pull-ups, dumbbell rows and rack pulls with a light weight. Are those the best? No. You can get stronger lats using other variations and machines too. What matters the most is that you are consistent with your plan. Whenever you decide to try a new program make sure that it comes with a cycling based progression. All else is literally useless garbage meant to sell articles and plastic products for the brain dead zombies reading moronic glossy magazines illustrated with images of Photoshopped and oiled thong warriors called bodybuilders.
As far as high and low lats are concerned, it’s better to forget about this. You either have one or the other. You can’t switch with exercise. The people who try to sell you low lat exercises usually have really low insertions themselves. It’s better to literally forget about this topic, because without a crazy surgery, you will never change your insertions, and only an idiot would undergo a dangerous medical procedure for something so superficial. Treat your insertions like your hair – it is what it is and the rest is history.
Is it true that the deadlift builds the lats?
Yes. Barbell pulls work the lats too. What keeps the barbell close to your body? Your arms. And what keeps them close to the torso? Your lats and many other muscle groups.
If you “downshrug” and keep the bar in contact with your body during deadlifts, you will burn those suckers straight in the middle. Many lats have been torn during heavy deadlifts. It’s not an accident – you need those muscles extra strong if you want to be pulling heavy weights. You can read more on this topic here.
Is it true that if I stretch my lats, they will grow faster?
Let me answer your question with a question. Is it true that if I stretch my dick it will grow longer? The answer is no.
I believe the same applies to stretching your lats, although unlike genitals they are a muscle. Still, I don’t think stretching will give you extra-terrestrial lat growth. The main benefit of lat stretching, besides developing passive and/or active flexibility, is potentially better mind muscle connection and less cramps. While that’s something, I don’t think stretching will cause any extra growth directly ever.
Is it true that I need huge lats in order to develop a V-taper?
Yes and no. You need some lat development, but the element will truly enhance your “V-Taper” the most would be getting rid of that 40-inch permabulker’s squat waist. There are a lot of people who have decent V-tapers not thanks to massive lat size, but because they are not fat and have a slim waist.
Ideally, you want both – bigger lats and small waist. Since natural bodybuilders can’t really develop enormous amount of muscle mass, they cannot compensate a little by keeping their mid-section less pregnant.
Unfortunately or not, many natural lifters fall for the antics of the permabulking crew and develop some sort of reverse V-taper or should I say A-taper. This happens when people try to create muscular growth by eating a lot of food without realizing that all they are doing is fat cell accumulation and V-taper destruction.
Is it true that you use your lats a lot during bench pressing?
It’s actually true. The lats help you unrack the bar and pull it under control. They are also important for maintaining a bench press arch. However, the bench press is still a pushing exercise first. There are better movements for your lats.
Is it true that you can never overtrain your lats?
No, it’s not true. Everything in this world can be overtrained with enough volume and time. The lats are tough and can take a lot of abuse, but still they are not made out of steel. They can break too. Usually, the most vulnerable area is the attachment under the armpit. It’s also not uncommon to tear the muscle in the middle. This could be painful and can make breathing unpleasant too.
However, if you have semi-decent programming, your lats will not complain a whole lot. They are less likely to cause trouble compared to smaller areas such as the shoulders and elbows.
Is it true that by training my lats I will speed up my metabolism and get shredded faster?
No. Even if lat training increases your metabolism, what counts the most is your diet. A couple sets of pull-ups will not make you lean when you are working hard to get a swine club membership. Regardless of what the shaved personal trainers on steroids say, the truth is that the amount of calories burned during exercising is not really that much and cannot reverse the effect of five extra waffles in your system.