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The ultimate lat guide for building your strongest back ever

Strengthen your back with this lats workout guide

A man with strong lats.
James Barr/Unsplash

Many people are motivated to work out due to building strong, well-defined muscles. However, we often focus on the muscle groups we can readily see in the mirror, such as the quads, biceps, shoulders, pecs, and abs, and forget to give as much workout time and attention to the equally-important muscles on the backside of the body. This can create muscle imbalances that ultimately decrease your functional strength and can leave you susceptible to injury.

With that in mind, one of the key muscles in the back your workouts should target is the latissimus dorsi muscles, more commonly referred to as the lats.

The lats are the largest muscles in the back and are recruited for many important movements involving the trunk, core, and upper body, such as pulling and rowing. In this article, we will provide a full rundown of the best exercises to strengthen your lats, ensuring that even if you can’t easily check out these muscles, they are getting just as strong and shredded as your pecs and abs.

There are numerous exercises that target the lats, including bodyweight exercises, dumbbell and barbell options, and weight machines. Before we dive into those exercises, it’s helpful to define exactly what are the lats. Keep reading for inspiration and guidance on the best lats exercises to help ensure that even if you can’t see them, your lats are just as strong and defined as your pecs and abs.

man flexing his back.
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What are the lats?

The “lats” or latissimus dorsi muscles are a pair of large, triangular, or V-shaped muscles on either side of your spine. They span from the inside of your upper arm by your shoulder down to the back of the pelvis at the waist, creating a dramatic taper spanning your entire back.

The primary function of the lats is to work together to stabilize the spine while supporting and providing strength to the arms and shoulders. They allow for side bending and keeping the spine straight while also helping extend, rotate, and move the shoulder. For example, the lats are involved in any pulling motion, whether pulling down something overhead or pulling back on something in front of you.

They also help adduct the arms, which is the motion that occurs when your arms are up and out to the side like the letter “T” and then pulled back down to your sides. The lats are heavily involved in exercises like pull-ups and rowing but are even involved in running, walking, and breathing.

A man doing pull-ups on a gym machine.
Anastase Maragos / Unsplash

Benefits of lat exercises and lat workouts

Lat exercises are important for increasing the functional strength of your lats. One of the risks of focusing too much on muscles in the front of the body, like the pecs, abs, and deltoids, is that muscle imbalance is then created between these stronger players and their weaker counterparts. This can not only reduce the efficiency of your movements and limit your overall strength, but it can increase the risk of injury. Regularly performing lat exercises provides the following benefits:

  • Strengthens the back
  • Reduces the risk of injury
  • Stabilizes the spine
  • Improves shoulder addiction and pulling
  • Enhances breathing
  • Increases running speed, throwing, swimming, and rowing
  • Improves overall core support and function
man doing lat pull-downs.
Gordon Cowie/Unsplash

Best lats exercises

The most common lat exercise is probably pull-ups, but if you have yet to master the pull-up or simply want to construct a more well-rounded lat workout with several lat exercises, there are other exercises that either target the lats specifically or strengthen the entire back, including the lats.

Deadlifts, for instance, are typically thought of as an exercise for the hamstrings and glutes, but they also are a great way to work your lats because you have to engage these broad muscles to pull the weight up while stabilizing your spine. Some of the best lats exercises are listed below.

  • Lat pull-down machine
  • Resistance band lat pull-downs
  • Straight-arm pull-downs
  • Hex bar deadlifts
  • Barbell deadlifts
  • Dumbbell rows
  • Landmine rows
  • TRX suspended rows
  • Barbell rows
  • Pendlay rows
  • Bent-over rows
  • Cable rows
  • Single-arm kettlebell rows
  • Dumbbell pullovers
  • Wide grip pull-ups
  • Narrow grip pull-ups
  • Negative pull-ups
  • Pull-up hangs
  • Weighted arm swings
  • Lateral raises
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Medicine ball chops
  • Chin-ups
  • Freestyle swimming
  • Backstroke
  • Butterfly
  • Rowing machine
  • Kayaking
  • Stand-up paddle boarding
  • Elliptical trainer with resisted arms
  • Cross-country skiing
Showing off back muscles
Mike Jones/Pexels

Why lat pull-downs are a top lat exercise

Lat pull-downs serve as a valuable equipment-based alternative to pull-ups, particularly for individuals who don’t have the capacity to execute numerous pull-ups with ease.

Even individuals with extensive weightlifting backgrounds can encounter difficulties when performing pull-ups due to reasons, such as past injuries, higher body weight, or the need for additional strength development in their shoulder and arm muscles. Here are five reasons lat pull-downs are one of the best lats exercises:

  1. Excellent lat exercise for beginners.
  2. Works almost your entire upper body.
  3. Versatile lat exercise (you can choose from a number of different grips).
  4. Minimal risk of injury.
  5. Increased core activation.
man doing bar hang.
Gordon Cowie/Unsplash

Best lats workouts

The best lat workouts incorporate several exercises that target the lats and back completed sequentially to tax the lats. You can also alternate back and lat exercises that utilize pulling motions with pushing exercises that utilize the chest (like push-ups and bench presses), as these exercises require the lats to control the opposing motion by performing eccentric (lengthening) contractions.

If you’re looking to build your lats in terms of size (muscle hypertrophy), the best lat workouts are limited to several sets of a few reps of different lat exercises completed with a near-maximal load.

Man doing lat pulldowns.
Creative Family/Shutterstock

Sample lat workout

  1. Do four sets of five reps of the lat pull-down machine.
  2. Do four sets of five reps of weighted pull-ups.
  3. Do four sets of five reps of heavy barbell rows.
  4. Do four sets of five reps of hex bar deadlifts with the heaviest load you can manage.

Remember to use the proper form. If you’re an intermediate or advanced athlete looking to increase overall lat strength, use a weight that is heavy enough that you can only complete eight to 12 reps before reaching exhaustion. Complete two to three sets of eight to ten exercises targeting the lats and other major back muscles.

Man using foam roller on back.
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

How often should you exercise your back?

A great goal would be to target your lats one to two times per week. While you could train them three times per week, this isn’t necessary for seeing results. Always be sure to have at least one day in between back sessions to allow your muscles the proper amount of time to repair.

Also, consider regularly stretching your back before and after workout sessions to maximize recovery. Consuming at least 25 grams of protein within a couple of hours after your workouts and getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night can help with back gains as well.

Man with strong back muscles.
Mario Valenzuela/Pexels

Performance-backed results

Having a strong back is critical for injury prevention, athletic performance, and functional strength for activities in everyday life. Performing these exercises and protocols will have you building a stronger, more well-toned back, and people will be able to tell that you focus on your posterior chain.

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Christine VanDoren
Christine is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with an undergraduate degree from Missouri State University. Her…
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