Lats are one of the sexiest looking muscles on the body when well developed.
I know, this isn’t my typical start to an article, but it’s true.
If you have defined lats (latissimus dorsi) that are aesthetically pleasing, you WANT to sport a wide variety of tank tops in the summer. And ladies with great lats always find that strapless dress that makes everyone jealous when they turn around.
Here’s why, the lats are the largest muscle group in the upper body. They run down either side of our back, connecting and interacting with the muscles of the rib cage and muscles attaching to the low back (obliques most importantly). And when they are big and strong, they make the shoulders look broad and the waistline look smaller. They help create the Adonis look.
However, despite their massive size, many people struggle to activate them properly. This causes “lat envy” for those that have great lats and yes, I just made that up and I am claiming copyright infringement on anyone that uses it!
But also, poorly functioning lats can lead to a host of issues with strength movements. Imagine the stress that is put on other muscle groups in your upper body if the biggest muscle group isn’t firing properly!
And for almost everyone that enjoys training, properly functioning lats will keep your joints happier. And happy joints mean you can train hard for years to come, maybe finally nailing those pull ups and causing your own “lat envy!”
So, how can you build and strengthen the largest muscle group in your upper half?
1) Use rowing patterns to find them consistently
Rows are recognized as the easiest upper body pulling pattern and two rows that are great to find and develop the lats are seated bilateral rows and bent single arm rows.
These rows are great to add at the beginning of a heavy pulling session, either lower body hinging or upper body pulling. They also function as great accessory lifts on those same days after completing your big lift(s) of the day.
2) Maximize Tension through a full Range of Motion with vertical pulls
Pull ups and chin ups are great to develop the lats, if the skill is already ingrained. But, most people aren’t strong enough or skilled enough to develop the lats well with those exercises.
Instead, I suggest seated lat pulldowns or Jungle Gym Assisted Pull Ups
I really like vertical pulling later in the training session. Oftentimes, we come from a seated position in front of a computer or driving to and from work. The muscles needed to get into a tense position overhead are disengaged and won’t be optimally active for vertical pulls early in a training session.
Therefore, I find these great for accessory work or a finisher at the end of training.
3) Overload your front rack position
Many novice and even intermediate level lifters avoid front squatting because their mobility in the shoulders is lacking to accomplish the movement.
In reality, it’s more often the nervous system responding negatively to the position because the lats lack the strength and therefore mobility to hold the shoulders AND the weight up while squatting.
So a great option that requires minimal skill and can develop some serious lat strength isometrically is a front rack hold.
The key is to feel the stress on the shoulders and torso (lats, obliques, abs) NOT the elbows. If you feel the elbows, go lighter and get the lats around and under the shoulders to support the weight.
Front Rack holds are hard on the nervous system, especially if you are pushing your threshold. I suggest these stay at the end of your program generally.
However, if you are using lighter loads but heavier than you are squatting or cleaning, there is an opportunity for post activation potentiation, making the weight you are squatting or cleaning feel easier.
I think the Lats are one of the most important muscle groups in your body because of the function they have on our structure alone. Building strong, developed lats can help save the upper body joints from a lot of pain. Plus they look awesome.
So work on these at the gym, develop some “lat envy” and live your best life!