How To Build Your Lats

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Don’t worry this isn’t going to be your typical article from a muscle magazine about how to get your “wings” so big that you can fly. What I’m going to outline will definitely grow your lats, however, this is a focus for the strength athlete to improve your lifts, and to decrease chance of injury. If you are a powerlifter, strong(wo)man, or crossfitter, the lats play a crucial role in virtually any lift. Learning how to engage them properly will drastically increase your strength. A quick anatomy lesson: the latissumus dorsi is a huge muscle that connects the spine to the humerus. The lats are responsible for extension, and adduction. The lats are also extremely important in stabilizing the scapulae. Weak and/or tight lats are a guaranteed shoulder injury waiting to happen.

When working with clients who are new to training, activating the lats can be very difficult. The first drill I use is having them put both hands between their legs as if they were in a sumo dead lift position. I will then push against their hands to resist, and they will automatically turn the lats on. When deadlifting, this is extremely important to do. In a previous article I outlined how to do this, as well as a video with the drill here.

A second drill I use is also a great exercise to build the lats. The straight arm lat pull down can be performed generally on a cable, but also a band if you don’t have access to one. If on a cable use a wide lat pulldown bar. Grab the outside of the bar with your arms locked out, and slightly hinge at the hips with your arms stretched out. Pull the bar into the crease of your hips, and as you do, try to rip the bar apart to further activate your lats. When the bar comes into contact with you continue to pull it in for a second. Bring the bar back up fully stretching the lats before pulling it back down.

If you are a powerlifter, this exercise is a must to improve your bench press. Ask any top powerlifter and they will tell you how important the lats are to adding pounds to your bench. The straight arm lat pulldown is exactly how you should be unracking the bar. Use your lats to pull the bar out over your chest. An inexperienced lifter will press the bar out, losing all tightness in their upper back. I will save how to properly set up for the bench press for another article. If you are able to flare the lats (similar to a bodybuilding pose) as you lower the bar you will create your own internal bench shirt that will spring the bar off your chest. This tightness will protect your shoulders, and chest from injury. Think about rowing the bar to your chest, and when you reverse it, picture pushing yourself away from the bar, rather than the bar away from you. This technique will make sense when you are under the bar.

Behind the neck band pullaparts are another favorite of mine to activate the lats. They are very similar to the standard band pull apart, where the band is pulled across the chest. Behind the neck will start with the arms full straight over your head. Pull the band apart until it stretches across your traps, and continue to pull down contracting your lats throughout the movement, and especially at the bottom. I prefer high reps here so go as high as 20, and keep the band under control to have good time under tension.

Most trainees are familiar with getting the upper back tight during the squat, but forget about keeping the lats tight. Most squats I see that fail happen because not the legs giving out, but the lower back. Of course this can be a form issue when someone leans forward too much turning the squat into a good morning. However engaging the lats will keep your spine protected when coming out of the bottom. Again having good body awareness with the ability to make your lats contract before descending in the squat is crucial. A tip I picked up from Chad Smith is to try and pull your elbows together during the set up to fully engage the lats.

To fully isolate the lats they need to be in a wide grip position. Wide grip pull ups, and any pull up variation are an absolute must in anyone’s program, but the kneeling cable pulldown will completely isolate them, and mimics the lat tightness you need in setting up for the squat. Kneel down in the middle of a cable crossover holding on to two D handles with your arms completely stretched. Think about pulling your elbows into your sides, and again squeezing your lats hard for 1 second at the bottom. You won’t need a lot of weight for these so keep the reps high in the 15-20 rep range.

On any given press day I will always have plenty of rowing, and vertical pulling movements. Pressing heavy over and over without balancing the movements will result in injury. Here is an example of what an overhead training day can look like for a strong(wo)man competitor:

1 Log Press work up to a heavy double
2a Military Press 3 x 8 (reps x sets), (2a, 2b superset)
2b Band pull aparts 3 x 20
3a Straight arm pulldowns 3 x 20
3b Wide Grip Pull ups 3 x max – this is a killer combo for lat size!
4 Tricep accessory work, etc.

If you have been ignoring direct lat training then be sure to add it in, and watch your pressing increase dramatically along with having pain free shoulders. Questions, or comments feel free to drop a comment below or on the Lift Big Eat Big page.

  • Lyle Gordon

    Great article but the link in the beginning doesn’t work. Just a heads up.

  • Shamus Paradise

    i’ve been needing this, thanks