Some muscle groups stand out more so than others, commonly referred to as “show” muscle — abs, arms, chest, etc. Then there are muscles that can truly show how strong someone is, namely the muscles of the back. One of the many goals of those who work out is the opportunity to be strong and have well-defined muscles. More times than not, however, we tend to neglect certain unfavorable muscle groups. This usually results in us focusing on the muscle groups on the front half of our bodies — the “mirror” or show muscles that we see when we nonchalantly flex or check our reflection when passing in front of a mirror. Indeed these often get a little more love and attention than anything on the backside. So, let’s flip that script and talk about having a strong and functional back.
The largest and most dominant muscle group on your upper body on the posterior chain, the muscles on the backside of your body, are the latissimus dorsi muscles, more commonly referred to as the lats. They are recruited for many key movements involving the trunk, core, and upper body, so it’s important to incorporate exercises, rowing or pulling movements, that strengthen the lats into your workout routine.
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 what exactly the lats are and what their primary function is. From there you can follow our guidance on how to structure your lat workouts to help ensure that even if you can’t see them, your lats are just as strong and defined as your pecs and abs.
The lats refer to the latissimus dorsi muscles, which are a pair of large, triangular, or V-shaped muscles on either side of your spine. They span from the very 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.
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:
- Strengthening the back
- Reducing the risk of injury
- Stabilizing the spine
- Improving shoulder addiction and pulling
- Enhancing breathing
- Increasing running speed, throwing, swimming, and rowing
- Improving overall core support and function
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 lat 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
- Freestyle swimming
- Rowing machine
- Stand-up paddleboarding
- Elliptical trainer with resisted arms
- Cross-country skiing
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 press), 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.
- Do four sets of five reps of the lat pull-down machine.
- Do four sets of five reps of weighted pull-ups.
- Do four sets of five reps of heavy barbell rows.
- Do four sets of five reps of hex bar deadlifts with the heaviest load you can manage.
Remember to keep using 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 8-12 reps before reaching exhaustion. Complete two to three sets of eight to ten exercises targeting the lats and other major back muscles.
Having a strong back is critical for injury prevention and athletic performance, and having a back that maximizes functional strength is crucial for activities in everyday life. Utilizing these exercises and protocols will have you building a stronger, more well-toned back, and people won’t mistake you as a lifter that’s, all show no go.
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