A lat pull-down, while leaning back during the rep so the bar aligns directly with the belly of the lats, may isolate just as well without the risks described here.
This applies direct resistance to the lats, shortens them at both the shoulder and the spine, and also limits the involvement of other large muscles.
Keep in mind by isolation we mean that the lats fail first without other muscles interfering, such as occurs with the chest on the bench press, despite including many others.
This odd exercise, performed by the legendary natural bodybuilder Steve Reeves, is the best way to isolate the lats.
You will feel a tremendous pump as they flex and flare, engorging with blood to form humongous balloons. After performing two or three working sets, you will experience the deep fatigue that accompanies great tension, a rarity for trainees trying to focus on these dramatic upper back muscles.
The protracted close-grip row’s superiority also has some support within research, with a non-retracted scapula on the seated row improving its activation as monitored by EMG .
Attempting to isolate the latissimus dorsi presents us with a unique problem: other large muscles eagerly join the fray. It competes with the large trapezius on any pulling movement. The teres major, rhomboids, rear deltoids, brachialis, and even the sternal or lower portion of the chest show up uninvited to the party.
Even the pull-over, with its focus on a single joint, brings in the chest and the long head of the triceps significantly: an unwelcome ménage à trois.
This situation is not as complicated for other muscles. For example, the lower chest reigns as the largest muscle on the bench press, so takes over the movement for relative isolation. Other large muscles can at least be isolated at a single joint successfully, such as the quads on the leg extension instead of a squat.
Even a vertical pull leaves something to be desired for the lats, despite the great range of motion it allows. It just involves too many other muscles. Though our feelings can deceive us, and these movements certainly work the lats, the pull-down or pull-up often leads to soreness in the teres major.
The protracted close-grip row solves this issue. These reasons explain why it works so effectively, along with describing the proper form.
Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.
– Mark Twain
- It can be performed with common gym equipment.
The easiest way to perform the protracted close-grip row is to use a seated cable row with a close parallel grip attachment.
You could also use a t-bar setup, a dumbbell, or anything else really, with interlocked fingers if necessary. This may feel awkward though. For instance, the weight plates may limit your range of motion on the t-bar row or distract you by wearing out the lower back muscles.
Regardless, ensure that you…
- Protract your shoulder blades so that you are hunched, adopting a poor posture. Imagine that you are reaching for something just a bit too far away with both arms, rounding your shoulders. To maintain this slumped position, you should also extend your spine.
- Use a close grip, with the neutral grip preferred to focus on the lats. This also allows you to internally rotate the shoulder comfortably. This may limit elbow flexor involvement beyond the brachialis too.
- It limits scapular retraction.
This also results from gripping closely while having your torso impede too much movement. It also emphasizes shoulder extension from a flexed position, which is the main function of the lats, the largest muscle for this purpose. Shoulder hyperextension is also prevented, which allows other upper back muscles to take over when occurring.
If performed haphazardly though, without concentrating, this close grip can have the brachialis play more of a role due to greater movement at the elbow.
Think of your arms as hooks. You want to consciously extend at the shoulder only. Perhaps you make an exception for the final tough reps.
You do not need much weight, certainly not as much as a conventional row.
- It involves internal rotation.
This is another function of the lats.
Internal rotation also encourages scapular protraction, so the serratus anterior, impressive though small fingerlike muscles near the ribcage, gets hit as well.
It addresses the subscapularis, a rotator cuff muscle, providing some work without performing internal rotation as a separate exercise. As long as you perform this movement carefully, you will build a more stable shoulder. This may also ever-so slightly enlarge your torso, improving your chest measurement.
Be careful though. This exercise can be harsh on the shoulder. Shoulder extension usually pairs with scapular retraction for a normal movement pattern, so counteract this by pulling smoothly.
- It allows direct resistance.
Pull too high, and the teres major or rear deltoids will begin to overshadow the lats.
Pull too low, and the lower chest will start to dominate.
Pull somewhere at the ribcage, aligning with the belly of the lats. You will feel the lats spreading to contract intensely when you have mastered it.
- It is strict.
The hunched position prevents the trapezius and erector spinae from contributing much, if really at all.
Furthermore, you can experiment with a peak contraction. You briefly hold it when the attachment or resistance meets your torso. Unlike many exercises, the conclusion of the movement could be an ideal length for the lats, if your elbows and shoulders are aligned vertically.
This pause further brings attention to the lats while keeping your shoulders safe due to the smooth transition.
You can further promote this pause, if wanted, by squeezing the muscle here, a technique that many professional bodybuilders suggest on all exercises.
- It is fun.
Though subjective, this exercise can be uniquely exciting, perhaps because isolating the lats is so difficult otherwise.
Protracted Close-Grip Row: The Ultimate Lat Exercise
Is this exercise alone sufficient for the lats?
Perhaps so, though it is hard not to notice the different fiber orientations when examining the anatomy of this muscle. When a very lean elite bodybuilder like Frank Zane strikes a vacuum pose, it almost appears as if the lats divide into three sections.
Fortunately, a balanced routine would include other exercises to address the remainder of the upper back.
The bent-over row addresses the middle-upper portion of the trapezius yet may also hit the inferior fibers of the lats.
Though the pull-down hits the lower trapezius, rhomboids, and teres major, it may also work the superior fibers of the lats.
Finally, the protracted close-grip row would blast the middle fibers, though it likely trains the whole muscle sufficiently.
The protracted row will create the appearance of poor form, and the uninformed may suspect your naivety. I suggest ignoring them. Many great bodybuilding practices can damage the ego, going so far as to ignore directly training large muscle groups.
Do whatever it takes to achieve the goals important to you, to obtain extraordinary bodybuilding progress. Trust yourself and your results, doing what you know to be right despite what others think.
This exercise will improve both lat width and thickness but not because there is a distinction here. Any difference seems suspicious but not impossible, with one study showing medial versus lateral activation of the lats. I think this may just be cross-talk, or interference from other muscle groups, since our current understanding of anatomy would not support regions contracting unevenly along a muscle fiber’s length.
Could anything work even better for the lats? A twist at the waist while pulling, in theory, would shorten the lats at each attachment site, which as a concurrent movement could activate them more intensely. This may shorten the lats too greatly though and prevent protraction to limit other muscle groups.
Try this unusual exercise, the protracted close-grip row, to activate the lats. It will do so like no other exercise can and likely ever will.
1. Lehman GJ, Buchan DD, Lundy A, Myers N, Nalborczyk A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dynamic medicine : DM. 2004;3:4. doi:10.1186/1476-5918-3-4.