We all want to have strong, well-defined muscles, but if you really think critically about the workouts you do and the muscles you focus on, it’s likely you’ll find that not every muscle is treated equally. As a general trend, even when we try our best to engage in total-body strengthening workouts, we end up spending more time on the muscles on the front of the body—the “mirror” muscles that we see when we nonchalantly flex or check in our reflection when passing in front of a mirror. Indeed, quads, biceps, shoulders, chest, and abs often get a little more love and attention than anything on the backside. However, having a strong back is critical for injury prevention, athletic performance, and functional strength for activities in everyday life.
The lats, short for latissimus dorsi muscles, are a pair that comprise one of the primary muscles in the back. They are recruited for many key movements involving the trunk, core, and upper body, so it’s important to incorporate exercises that strengthen the lats into your workout program. Though there are fewer exercises that target the lats than some other major muscle groups, there are still numerous lat exercises to choose from, including bodyweight exercises, dumbbell and barbell options, and weight machines. Keep reading for some inspiration and guidance for 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.
What Are the Lats?
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.
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:
- 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
Best Lat 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 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
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 press), as these exercises require the lats to control the opposing motion by performing eccentric (lengthening) contractions.
The best lat workouts, if you’re looking to build your lats in terms of size (muscle hypertrophy), are limited to several sets of a few reps of a handful of lat exercises completed with a near-maximal load.
Sample Lat Workout
- 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.
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