Ultimate Guide to the Lats: The Muscle Group Series, Part 1

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In this article, we explain the “why” and “how” behind training the lats. We discuss all about the dos and don’ts of growing the lats for your widest & strongest back yet!

By Austin Current + Sue & Alex Bush

Feeling like you train your lats frequently, but aren’t seeing the improvements in the mirror? Giving more volume to your rear delts instead of the lats themselves? 

We want to help you understand the science behind training the lats and how to execute lat-focused movements properly to maximize your efforts in the gym.

This is the first installment of a series we’ll do that focuses on individual muscle groups, and this is Part 1 homing in on the lats. We will be covering the function of this muscle, common training mistakes/misconceptions, our go-to exercises, key execution techniques, and our thoughts around lat training for physique competitors.

What are the Lats and What is Their Function?

The lats are a fan-shaped muscle that originates in the upper humerus (or upper arm), span across the spine, and come down through the fascia on the lower back at multiple attachment points.

The main function of the lats is to pull on the arm or the upper humerus, and they allow us to either pull down in vertical movements or pull back in horizontal movements. Through this, we can train the lats from various angles. 

Now, you don’t need to be a complete expert in anatomy here, but having a general knowledge of how any muscle functions and how they interrelate in the body will help you train better AND see more improvements. 

If you’re looking for somewhere to start with that self-education, check out Austin’s book, Science of Strength Training: Understand the Anatomy and Physiology to Transform Your Body

Common Lat Training Mistakes

The number one mistake we see people making when training lats is not actually pulling with their lats. Instead, they pull with their biceps, rear delts, or teres major. It’s important to be able to make that distinction between your upper back versus your lats. 

Since it’s not a muscle you can see just looking in the mirror, it’s harder to have that mind-muscle connection with the lats. I’ve (Sue) seen people who have trained for years and still don’t know how to properly contract their lats – and by someone, I mean myself! It took me a long time to realize I was doing it wrong. 

With that, it takes time to learn how to contract your lats in a way that’s advantageous to their growth, but let’s start here:

Since the lat attaches to the humerus, you need to be able to depress, or “drive down or back” (depending on if you are doing a vertical or horizontal pull) your humerus first, before the elbow flexion or shoulder extension.

This should be a continuous motion of depression and then pulling, not two separate, robotic movements. It might look a little more rigid at first as you practice depressing and pulling, but in time, it should become more fluid.

Another common mistake we see is losing tension throughout the movement. The shoulder girdle should be the first to move concentrically (down) and the last to move eccentrically (up). 

And the third most common mistake we notice is with grip. This is going to be specific to the individual, but the majority need to have an alignment that is around shoulder-width apart, potentially a little bit wider. 

People also typically opt for a pronated (palm facing down or inward) or supinated (palm facing up or outward) grip when doing a lat pulldown in particular, but when you use a neutral grip, you can bring your elbows down into the right position and keep better tension on the lats. 

Because the lats wrap around the rib cage, the arm path and range of motion can be individualized, which will also help dictate your grip width. Scapular position and stability play a role here as well. 

Our Favorite Exercises to Train the Lats

When we perform any movement, there will always be a muscle that we’re trying to bias, rather than isolating the muscle, because no muscle truly works in complete isolation!

So, when we choose exercises for the lats, we want to choose the ones that place more tension on the lats rather than the upper back muscles (traps, rhomboids, teres, rear delts, etc.). It’s not that these muscles won’t be involved at all, it’s just that we don’t want them to be the ones favoring the tension. 

These are our favorite lat-focused exercises:

Other exercise options aren’t bad, but we find that chest-supported exercises for the lats tend to be the most advantageous because you have greater stability throughout the exercise and you can place more load on the muscle.

Technique and Execution Tips

One thing you will see us drive home over and over with this Muscle Group Series is the intention and how you utilize it with the exercises that you perform, no matter what muscle you’re working. 

Of course, we want you to be able to increase load over time, but first we want to see that you’re actually hitting the muscle in focus.

With that said, here’s our quick-hitter list of execution tips for training lats (and training in general):

  1. Body position & setup will make or break everything with an exercise. You will be in a constant battle trying to find the right tension. Take time to not only learn but watch videos on how to set yourself up – it really should be pretty intuitive from there.
  2. Choose the best accessory for the job. Again, a lot of these lat movements are neutral grip in nature. Again, your body structure does matter – if you’re Shaq, you’ll need a different attachment for the cable exercise than Sue Bush would. 
  3. Keep your core engaged and do not arch your back while performing the lat movement.
  4. In a vertical plane, think about driving the elbows down. If you’re doing a horizontal row, think about driving the elbows back as you drive them down. All that to integrate with elbow flexion and shoulder extension to create a fluid movement, not a robotic one.
  5. Line up the tissue with the resistance. This is why it’s important to have a bit of an understanding of anatomy!

Again, we cannot emphasize intention and set up enough. Make sure you check out our videos on the Physique Development YouTube Channel for more lat movements & training tips!

Training Tips for Physique Competitors

All competitors in general, but particularly bikini competitors, need to emphasize a smaller waist for presentation purposes on stage. This means we need to build wider shoulders and a wide back – hello, lats!

In bikini, judges do put a lot of emphasis on glutes, hamstrings, and delts, but you need to train ALL parts of your body for a whole package in competition, AND to avoid having some messed up issues as you age. 

Building up your chest and back will support your shoulder tissues, AND it’s going to give you a better look when you have density in all muscle groups – not just the ones you want/love to train most. Your programming needs to be all-encompassing and tailored to you.

For me (Sue), training chest changed my physique in a positive manner for bikini, which you don’t hear a lot about. But it’s true! I needed that density in my chest to have a less bird-like physique – I didn’t want to look like I had a concave chest with no structure to it, and growing my back has also been huge for presenting a small waist as well. 

And one last thing to note: Bikini judges have talked a lot now about not flaring your lats on stage too, but this isn’t an excuse to NOT train them! This new “rule” or “advice” is competitor-dependent anyway, IMO. 

More mature competitors have the training age advantage, meaning their lats are obvious without having to flare them for the judges. If you are an amateur or novice competitor, you might have to change your posing or your lat training to make up for the muscle density you have yet to build.

At the end of the day, we need aesthetics for competition and function for the longevity of life and training life. So, take these training tips and go build some big, functional lats for both!

Want more in-depth details on training your lats? Listen to the full episode on the Physique Development Podcast – and check out the rest of Muscle Group Series episodes while you’re at it!

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