What does a thick upper back, mountainous traps, and immense lats have in common?
They don’t come cheap and you won’t see them on just any lifter at the gym.
They’re a sign that you’ve put in the effort under the bar, and they contribute to the ‘power’ look that’s embodied by athletic monsters like Mariusz Pudzianowski and The Rock.
Many people don’t provide enough volume for their lats, merely lumping 1-2 exercises in with their back training session.
However, when in reality, these muscles can tolerate quite a bit of punishment through volume and intensity.
It’s important to know basic anatomy of the back in order to properly train the lats to reach their full potential.
The lats are responsible for extension and adduction of the shoulder joint along with stabilization of the lumbar spine and assistance in scapula retraction. This is why some coaches consider them to be core muscles as well.2
In English this means that the lats are primarily in charge of bringing your arms from neutral, to behind your back, and from overhead back down to neutral.
In addition, the lats can play a large role in stabilizing the shoulder joint, which is why tight lats can manifest as shoulder pain. That makes it VERY important to use a full range of motion when training the lats, because doing half reps on pullups or pullovers can hurt long term progress.
So take the weight down if you’re having a hard time getting a full range of motion, your shoulders will thank you in the long run.
Lats, Camera, Action!
Here are 4 styles of training that you can combine together to obliterate your lats in the gym and spark massive growth.
Pullups are not the only effective bodyweight mass builder. Try adding in some gymnastic inspired moves, and watch your lat width and core strength shoot through the roof.
Straight Arm Pullups– Start from a dead hang, and while keeping your arms straight, pull your sternum up toward the bar. Your back should arch while doing this.
When you can do a perfect 10-15 reps here while keeping your arms straight and pulling down with just the scapula, transition into front levers.
Front Levers– This is done by executing a straight arm pull-up, but locking your core, hips, and legs so that your entire body rotates up into a horizontal position, parallel to the ground.
If the full version is too difficult, you can start by bringing your toes up too the bar, holding in that position, and extending one leg out at a time.
Try this- Practice your front lever progressions on a daily basis during rest periods of other exercises. Then use them as a neurological priming move at the start of your back day.
This will increase your mind-muscle connection, and cause an activation of all the muscle fibers in the back and abs. It’s not uncommon to see huge gains in pull-up ability after just a few sessions of front lever work.
The pre exhaust technique is great for trainees with a few years of experience under their belt. If you can’t do 10 full pull-ups, spend time getting those down before moving on to an advance style of training like this.
By using an isolation move for higher reps, you’ll exhaust some of the type 1 muscle fibers at the start of the training session. This will enable you to stay lighter through the rest of the workout, but keep all of the focus on the prime movers.
This style of training is not for the faint of heart either as it creates a large build up of lactic acid.
If you have access to a good pullover machine, that is the best option, but dumbbell pullovers and straight arm pull-downs can also work extremely well.
Use a higher rep scheme, and do anywhere from 3-5 sets of 25-50 reps before moving on to a compound exercise like a pulldown or pull-up.
Try this- After you warm up with a few sets of front levers, start with 3 x 30 machine pullovers. Make sure that you get a full range of motion each rep. Keep your rest periods around 45-60 seconds between sets.
Finish the pre exhaust, and then pick a lat dominant compound move like a weighted chin-up for 4 sets of 8.
3. Slow it Down
Another modality which the back and legs respond well to is high time under tension (TUT).
By increasing the duration of a set, you can target the often underdeveloped type I (slow twitch) muscle fibers. These often go overlooked in programming which emphasizes explosiveness and can leave quite a bit of room for growth.
Slow down your reps, and watch your back grow almost overnight.
Rep tempo is written out in the form of four numbers with the first number referring to the eccentric or lowering phase.
The second refers to the number of seconds that the weight is held in the position following the lowering.
The third number refers to the concentric, or lifting, portion of the lift. It’s not unusual to see an ‘X’ in this spot, which just means that the weight is to be lifted as fast as possible.
The fourth number refers to the time spent holding in the position following the concentric portion of the movement.3
When trying to maximize TUT for the back muscles, a temp of 4010 is fantastic for compound movements like pull-ups, bent over rows, and pullovers.
For an isolation move like a straight arm pulldown or row, a tempo of 3030 can be used.
Try this- After you finish your pre exhaust and initial compound movement, jump into a superset of straight arm lat pulldowns with a 3030 tempo, immediately superset with a neutral grip pulldown with an X3X3 tempo, holding 3 seconds at the bottom and top position. Do 3 x 12 of each.
4. Stretch it Out
By now, the benefits of stretching the facial tissue surrounding the muscle are well known. Programs like DC training and FST-7 utilize stretch training in different ways, which can both be used with tremendous benefits.
DC training advocates an extreme stretch with the help of weight or bodyweight at the end of each session in order to enlarge the facial tissue, which will result in an increased ability of the muscle tissue to grow.
For lat training, a wide grip dead hang for 30-120 seconds is recommended. Use straps if necessary, especially since after a back dominant day, the hands can tire out quickly.
FST-7 approaches this differently, advocating a deep stretch of the fascia through an incredible pump that is obtained by doing 7 sets of an isolation exercise at the end of a workout.
Only 30 seconds of rest is taken between each of the 7 sets, during which time it’s imperative to sip water, which can contribute to your skin tearing pump.
Try this- After finishing the TUT intensive superset, immediately jump into a narrow-grip chest-supported row. A regular cable stack will work well here also.
Do 7 x 8-12, squeezing the scapula together on every rep. rest only 30 seconds between sets, and make sure to get a little bit of water between each set.
Immediately after finishing the 7th set, wrap your straps around a pull-up bar in a wide hand position, and hold yourself in a dead hang for as long as possible.
Add any of these techniques into your current workout program to spark some immediate growth, especially if your lats have been stagnant for a while. Any of these principles can be applied to any back workout.
However, if you’re feeling slightly masochistic, and are ready to give your back the love it deserves, try stringing each of these principles together in a routine that was outlined above.
Here’s what it looks like:
|1. Front Lever/Straight Arm Pullup||3||4-12||90sec|
|2. Machine Pullovers||3||30||60sec|
|3. Weighted Chin ups||4||8||90sec|
|4a. Straight Arm Pulldowns||3||10 (3030 tempo)||-|
|4b. Rope Lat Pulldown||3||10 (0303 tempo)||60sec between supersets|
|5. Chest Supported Narrow Grip Row||7||12||30sec|
|6. Wide Grip Dead Hang||1||failure||-|
1. Arnheim, D.D., Prentice, W.E., Principles of athletic training. 9th ed. McGraw Hill, pp 570-574, 1997.
2. Francis, P., Applied anatomy and kinesiology, supplemental materials. KB Books., p 19-25, 1999.
3. 3. Campos GE, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, et al. (2002). "Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones". Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. 88 (1–2): 50–60.