Building Lats Is Complicated?
This past year I have concentrated on the wide arm chin behind neck and the bentover rowing motion… The only real gem of advice I can offer is work. Get in there and go. Work like hell. Honestly, there’s no secret. There’s nothing mystic or abstruse about it. It’s yours for the taking if you’ll work at it.
– Armand Tanny
Many trainees feel lat training is difficult.
Activating the lats is often a concern, described as a poor mind-muscle connection. Yet muscles like the chest, having more complex fiber orientations, bring no such issues.
This may come about from misconceptions on the best lat exercises:
- The close-grip pull-down, while training the lats to some degree, favors the lower outer chest like the pull-over.
- They may try to bring out the lower lats, failing to recognize that the upper and lower lats comprise of the same fibers, though conventional bodybuilding wisdom says otherwise.
- Despite its lumbar attachment, the latissimus dorsi has little influence at the trunk.
Fortunately, working the lats well is actually quite simple.
For great lats, focus on at least a few sets weekly of both a vertical and a horizontal pull. Use enough range of motion. Get stronger via typical bodybuilding rep counts (6-12).
You now have a complete program toward fuller lats, though the details that follow are essential…
Table of Contents
Latissimus Dorsi Anatomy
Anatomy contradicts the lat structure assumed by many bodybuilders.
As seen above, the inferior or lower portion is the same as the upper part when viewing the body anteriorly, creating lat width.
Depending on the position of the shoulder, the middle portion of the lats is visible between the upper and lower areas of the inferior region when looked at from the front.
The superior or upper region can only be seen posteriorly, so contributes purely to the upper thickness of the lats. Both the inferior and middle portions also form lat thickness.
The division between upper and lower lats therefore is false.
To be fair, research shows that muscles worked while stretched grow distally. This lends support that a distinction exists between the upper and lower lats, in that exercises stretching the inferior fibers could lead to preferential growth nearer the shoulder.
Nonetheless, this longitudinal growth isn’t significant compared to adding myofibrils in-parallel, which means development from progressive overload that improves performance at all ranges of motion.
Understanding Muscle Activation
Within a bodybuilding context, any growth stimulus for a muscle starts when the nervous system activates it.
The assumption here is that neural drive to a muscle depends on its force potential for a given movement.
The body should emphasize muscles, or neuromuscular compartments (NMCs) of muscles, that best allows the force needed, even inhibiting them if they disrupt the movement.
The moment arm represents the mechanical advantage of a muscle. It mostly determines its role, for example, as an agonist or prime mover versus an antagonist, stabilizer, or synergist. It most determines torque, more so than muscle length, that a muscle has at the active joint(s).
A muscle subregion, with an ideal moment arm for a given function and at a certain portion of the range of motion, likely receives more activation than other subregions.
This explains why research on internal moment arms is valuable. The chart above shows moment arms for subregions of the latissimus dorsi, with dark lines for shoulder abduction/adduction and light lines for shoulder flexion/extension.
It shows the superior subregion of the lats dominating shoulder extension, though it drops off at higher shoulder angles like on the pull-over exercise.
The inferior and middle subregions both contribute most toward shoulder adduction. Above 70°, the inferior subregion generates the most force while below this has the middle region take over.
This all may be further supported by the structure of the thoracodorsal nerve, shown above, branching out in 3 major directions.
Finally, try palpating your muscles while performing these motions with manual resistance. Notice which sections tense up throughout the ranges of motion. For me at least, this aligns with the information just given.
Best Lat Exercises
These insights readily translate into using two classic bodybuilding exercises for complete lat development…
Use a wide grip, beyond the shoulders, to emphasize adduction over extension. Reaching the bar behind-the-neck can help too, especially if your overhead bar is shorter.
Use enough range of motion to focus on both the inferior/lateral portion of the lats, which aligns with the teres major, plus the middle subregion. Don’t just get your chin barely above the bar… tuck the arms into your sides at the top, pausing for a brief moment.
A cable pull-down, with a wide enough grip, overloads adduction too so works fine so long as you avoid excessive cheating.
You can use resistance bands to compensate for lower strength on pull-ups. Very low reps can work too, though you’ll need more sets to achieve a stimulus equal to moderate reps.
A one-arm twisting cable pull-down, with lateral flexion, stretches the lats further. This could improve growth distally, but it’s unlikely to be much.
This exercise overloads extension, though at lower angles, to focus on the lats.
Using a barbell while standing, as preferred by old-school bodybuilders like Franco Columbu, is the classic way to perform this movement.
Standing on a flat bench will allow more range of motion since the plates avoid the ground. This also has the motion as more of a total back exercise, especially for the trapezius. Avoid this practice though if the natural rounding of the lower back bothers you.
A full range also brings hyperextension of the shoulder, which involves the rear deltoid alongside the infraspinatus & teres minor of the rotator cuff to a greater degree.
Rows performed with any tool including dumbbells, machines, and cable pulleys, if your feet are planted, work great too.
A T-bar or seated cable row emphasizes the lats due to the close grip, though with less scapular retraction. It also allows for internal rotation that overloads deep muscles like the subscapularis. It’s a viable option alongside the bent-over row.
A one-armed row allows a deeper stretch by twisting at the thoracic spine. Similar to one-arm pull-downs though, it’s unlikely to make a big difference.
Only Two Lat Exercises?
You can succeed by relying on basic free weight equipment, even at home, to fully develop the lats.
We may assume that exercises like pull-overs, dead-lifts, and even dips involve the lats more than the science seems to present. Nonetheless, these exercises forming a well-rounded program anyway could address unique motor units, by function, within the latissimi dorsi.
Many perform twisting one-arm dumbbell or cable rows for the lower lats, as I once did too, based on anecdotal evidence without a deeper understanding.
Our bodies are complicated though. Successful bodybuilders have long believed in the principle of variety. It seems promising given how little we know about the existence of NMCs, or “muscles within muscles,” to ensure we address both known and unknown opportunities.
Nonetheless, the simple approach to building the lats shared here covers most of what we should gain from our natural bodybuilding workouts.
The pull-up will flare those lats, developing a classic lat spread for the V-shape. The row completes lat thickness while diversifying the whole back.
Recall the wisdom from the great Armand Tanny… work hard! Remember the simple details described here, and then place your focus on progressive overload, to achieve more impressive lats.