The lats represent a muscle group that rarely gets as much media time as the chest, biceps, triceps and abs. This is pretty ironic because those bad boys are the biggest muscle in the upper body and look awesome.
Most of the time, the lats are hidden unless you are naked, which thankfully is not the norm for most people in public. This gives them an almost perpetual undercover status.
In this marketing based world, the things that aren’t on display receive less love from the crowd. One could say that the lats have to find a better PR company if they want to achieve a celebrity status during the era of the lazy consumer.
All of the above coupled with the brainwashing produced by fitness gurus and mainstream bodybuilding magazines explains why many people have a poor understanding how the lat muscles should be trained.
What’s the function of the lats?
The lats connect to the humerus (upper arm) and the spine. Their main role is to pull the upper arm close to the 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. You will feel a muscle under the armpit and on the side of your rib cage work. You can increase the “activation” by following the movement with a pullover.
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 pushing your sternum (the canal between your pecs) forward. If you try that a couple of times, you will most likely feel the whole muscle contract. 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 the primary mover.
In the image below you see a gymnast performing an 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 to prevent that from happening.
Why aren’t the lats a popular muscle group?
“Flex your lats for me,” said no woman ever.
Ask your family members and/or friends where the “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 an arm bicep rather easily.
Meanwhile, the lats are really hard to see unless you are on the beach. This reduces their commercial time to almost zero. This effect is enhanced by the fact that most people have fat guts. The lard around your waist 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 appears wider even though it isn’t.
Another reason for the low popularity of the lats is that they require a little more knowledge to hit them effectively. Anybody can do a biceps curl, but lat workouts demand a little more brain cells. Unfortunately, this increases the level of difficulty way too much for the general population.
Back work is simply harder than arm jerking…uh…I mean training. Lat routines take more out of you because 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.
Pull-ups and Rows
Is it true that you need shaman forces to activate your lats during pull-ups?
Myth spreading is a favorite activity of the average fitness guru. The experts have convinced many naive souls that crazy voodoo is required to activate a muscle. They got me too. I used to believe that I need special shaman forces to feel my lats working. While it’s true that it takes a little more effort, skill and experience, it’s not rocket science. The goal can become a reality relatively quickly.
One of the best methods to activate your lats would be “scapular pull-ups” also known as 1/5 pull-ups. The execution is fairly simple. Grab a pull-up bar and relax completely. Imagine that your arms are just chains connecting you to the bar. Then try to bring your shoulders down below your ears without bending your arms. The movement is similar to the motion I described at the beginning of the post except that you 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 pull-up if you want to do the exercise over its full range of motion. A proper pull-up starts from a complete dead hang, then you follow it with a scapular pull-up and finish the movement while keeping your shoulders “packed”. It’s also helpful to imagine that you are pulling your humerus (upper arm) down instead of focusing on bending your elbows.
Another benefit of pull-ups from a complete dead hang is that there is less chance of shoulder impingement compared to unnaturally holding the joint down and back during the whole movement as advised by some. Dead hangs feel more natural, at least to me.
You could try the same technique on the pulldown machine, except that in this case, you will have to let the stack pull you up and then perform a scapular pull-down.
This worked for me when everything else failed. I used to stretch my lats, hit them and spit on them before an exercise, but in the end, this simple technique made all the difference.
Is it true that wide grip pull-ups and rows are the best for wide lats?
No, it’s a myth. Wide grip pull-ups/chin-ups come with a shorter range of motion (ROM). If you want to make your lats work more, you have to use a narrow grip. This will increase the range of motion while activating more lat fibers.
The same applies to rows. If you want to focus on your lats, it’s better to use a close grip and pull the bar/dumbbells closer to your hips.
If you pull the bar really high and touch your chest area, you are removing stress from the lats and placing it on the upper back. If you want to maximize the activation of your lats, it’s better to keep the bar lower.
Of course, this does not mean that your lats are not engaged during wide grip back work. They are but to a smaller 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?
Pullover variations work fairly well. If your gym has a pullover machine, you should try it. It will fry your lats. However, other pull-over versions will work too.
The pullover is one of the few exercises that isolate the latissimus dorsi over a large range of motion.
Dorian Yates recommends starting your back workouts with a pullover prior to everything else. This is the so-called pre-exhaustion method. It isolates a muscle group before compound exercises and makes the same muscle the weak link in the following multijoint movements. This gives you an opportunity to improve your mind-muscle connection. 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, the whole idea behind muscle activation is blown out of proportions.
For example, right now I am writing a text on 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. Sometimes that’s all you need to do.
How many reps and sets?
The lats love heavier weights. Therefore, reps between 4 and 8 seem like a good choice.
Of course, you can always add a lighter back-off set if you like doing higher reps.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to progress.
Do I have 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 an inch to your arms all the time. If those programs were working, most people would have 24-inch arms by now. Pick a few exercises and stick with them.
My favorites are ring pull-ups, dumbbell rows, deadlifts, and rack pulls with a light weight. Are those the best? No. You can develop stronger lats by performing other movements. What matters the most is that you stay 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 to the brain dead zombies.
As far as high and low lats are concerned, just forget about this issue. You either have one or the other. You can’t switch your lats. The people who promote low lat exercises usually have really low insertions themselves.
Ultimately, it’s better to just move on with your life because without a crazy surgery, you will never change your insertions. I am sorry, but only an idiot would undergo a highly dangerous medical procedure for something so superficial. Treat your insertions like your hair – it is what it is.
Is it true that the deadlift builds the lats?
Yes. Barbell pulls work the lats too. What do you think keeps the barbell close to your body? Your arms. And what keeps them close to the torso? Your lats.
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 by heavy deadlifts. It’s not a coincidence – you need those muscles extra strong if you want to pull bending barbells. 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 that the same applies to your lats. Stretching won’t give you extraterrestrial lat growth. The main benefit of lat stretching besides developing passive and/or active flexibility is its potential to better your mind-muscle connection.
Is it true that I need huge lats to develop a V-taper?
You definitely need some lat development, but the biggest enemy of your “V-Taper” is the fat gut.
Ideally, you want both – bigger lats and a smaller waist. Since natural bodybuilders can’t build an enormous amount of muscle mass, they can compensate a little by keeping their midsection slim.
Unfortunately, or not, many natural lifters fall for the antics of the permabulking crew and acquire a reverse V-taper or should I say an 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 the bench works the lats?
Yes. The lats help you unrack the bar and lower it under control. They are also important for maintaining the 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. Every muscle in this world can be overtrained with enough volume and time. The lats are tough and can take a lot of abuse, but they aren’t made of steel. They can break too. The most vulnerable area is the attachment under the armpit.
However, if you have a semi-decent programming, your lats will not complain a whole lot. They are less likely to cause trouble compared to smaller areas like the shoulders and elbows.
Is it true that lat training can speed up my metabolism and get me shredded faster?
No. Your diet is the most important factor. A few sets of pull-ups will not make you lean.
Regardless of what the shaved personal trainers on steroids say, the calories burned during resistance training are not high enough to reverse the effect of five extra waffles in your system.