- The lats are the largest and most prominent back muscles, and they contribute greatly to the “V-taper” look that is so aesthetically pleasing.
- The best lat exercises are pulling movements that heavily involve (but don’t necessarily isolate) the lats, and that allow you to safely move heavy loads and best improve your strength.
- The best way to build great lats is to build a great back, and the best way to build a great back is to get really strong on a handful of key exercises.
Once upon a time, my lats sucked, and I didn’t understand why.
I was training my back anywhere from one to three times per week but for some damn reason, my lats barely seemed to notice.
Well, I’ve since learned a lot, and while I’m not going to win a bodybuilding show anytime soon, I did finally figure out how to get some lats I can be proud of:
And in this article, I’m going to share with you the key lessons I’ve learned about lat building, so you can break (or stay) out of the rut I was once stuck in and build your best back ever, too.
Not only that, but I’m going to give you a back/lat workout routine that will help you put everything we’re going to discuss into practice. If you follow this routine, your lats will get bigger and stronger, I guarantee it.
Let’s get started.
- The Anatomy of the Lat Muscles
- The Simple Science of Effective Lat Training
- Lat Training Mistake #1 Focusing too much on your lats.
- Lat Training Mistake #2 Doing too much high-rep “pump” training.
- The Best Lat Exercises
- Barbell Deadlift
- Lat Pulldown (Wide- and Close-Grip)
- Pull-Up and Chin-Up
- Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Row
- T-Bar Row
- Seated Cable Row (Wide- and Close-Grip)
- Standing Lat Pushdown
- The Ultimate Lat Workout
- You shouldn’t go to absolute muscle failure every set.
- Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.
- Rest 3 minutes in between your 4-to-6-rep sets, and 2 minutes in between your 8-to-10-rep sets.
- Make sure you’re eating enough food.
- What About Supplements?
- ATLAS Mass Gainer
- RECHARGE Post-Workout Supplement
- WHEY+ Protein Powder
- PULSE Pre-Workout
- The Bottom Line on Lat Exercises
Table of Contents
“Lat” is short for latissimus dorsi, which is a large, flat muscle that starts at the base of the spine, wraps around the side of the torso, and connects to the upper arm.
Here’s what it looks like:
And here’s a side view:
You have two lat muscles, one on either side of your body, which is why they’re usually called “the lats.”
The lats are involved in all kinds of upper body movements, including extending and flexing the shoulders (raising and lowering your arms), internally rotating the shoulders (moving your arm closer to your torso), and stabilizing the spine during pulling and squatting movements. They also help stabilize your torso during most upper body exercises, like the overhead press, bench press, and incline bench press.
You can see my lats in action here:
As you can see, when the lats are well developed, they look like a pair of wings on either side of your torso and most contribute largely to the “V-taper” look that so many people aspire to (the other two big components are maximal shoulder development and minimal belly fat).
Here are a few good examples from guys who transformed their physiques with my Bigger Leaner Stronger program:
Lats aren’t just for guys, either. If you’re a woman, whose back would you rather have?
Hers . . .
. . . or hers?
If you’re like most women I know, you’d choose door number two.
And if you’re still worried that developing your lats is going to make you look “blocky,” or “manly,” check out these women who followed my Thinner Leaner Stronger program.
All did lat exercises multiple times per week, and I think you’ll agree that it only made them sexier. 🙂
There are two common mistakes people make in their training that leave their lats lagging.
I should know because I used to make them myself.
Counterintuitive, I know, but if you try to focus too much on just your lats with various isolation exercises, you’ll probably fail to get the lats you really want.
And even if your lats do respond particularly well to training, you’ll still wind up with a back that, on the whole, leaves a lot to be desired, like this:
Womp womp womp.
I used to live by this mistake. My typical back workout was a bunch of sloppy lat pulldowns with maaaaaybe some high-rep pull-ups or one-arm dumbbell rows to finish it off, and if you pay attention, you’ll probably see a lot of the same around your gym.
Now, the lats are the biggest muscles of the back, so it makes sense to give them special attention, but you don’t want to emphasize them over everything else in play, including the trapezius, rhomboids, and erector spinae.
A well-developed back has a lot more going on than just big lats.
We’ll get to specific exercises and workout programming soon, but effective back training boils down to this:
Doing a lot of heavy horizontal and vertical pulling.
You need to do a lot of both because horizontal pulling tends to emphasize the muscles that contribute to the thickness of the back, like the erector spinae, traps, and rhomboids, while vertical pulling tends to emphasize the muscles that contribute to width, like the lats.
You see, I used to do a lot of “fancy” training techniques like drop sets, supersets, giant sets, and so forth, and very little heavy strength training, which worked fine for a bit…until it didn’t.
After a couple years of that, I failed to make any progress to speak for the next couple of years. I wasn’t gaining much in the way of reps or weight on key exercises, and I wasn’t seeing any significant improvements or changes in my physique.
Well, now I know why.
So long as you make that your primary focus in your training, you’ll have no trouble gaining the size you want.
The reason for this is while you can gain a fair amount of size in the beginning without gaining much strength, once you graduate to an intermediate lifter, strength and size become closely correlated.
In other words, once your “honeymoon phase” is over and your body is no longer hyper-responsive to resistance training, you’re going to have to get a lot stronger if you want to continue getting bigger.
Regardless of all the variables that go into programming workouts, here’s a fundamental that you can take that to the bank: If you stop getting stronger, you’ll stop getting bigger.
How do you best do that?
Well, while exercise science is complex and there are many more questions than answers, the evidence is clear on this one: Heavy resistance training is the most effective way to get stronger.
And that’s why us natural weightlifters need to do a lot of heavy weightlifting if we want to gain significant amounts of muscle and strength.
Therefore, if you want to get a deep, wide, and thick back as quickly as possible, then you want to get a strong back as quickly as possible, and that means doing a lot of heavy pulling.
And by “heavy,” I mean working primarily with weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your one-rep max (1RM), or in the range of 8 to 10 (75%) to 4 to 6 (85%) reps.
As you can imagine, certain exercises lend themselves better to this approach and produce better results than others. Standing lat pushdowns, for example, are no deadlift, and behind-the-neck pulldowns are inferior to traditional front pulldowns.
Therefore, the best lat exercises for building mass are ones that allow you to most increase your strength (I’ll share a list of them in a minute).
“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “[SHREDDED FITNESS MODEL] does a billion reps in his back workouts and has wings like a pterodactyl . . . What gives?”
Unfortunately, steroid use is rampant in this space, and especially among competitors, models, and social media influencers, and these drugs change everything.
With the right anabolic cocktail, you can sit in the gym for a few hours every day doing set after set, exercise after exercise, and your muscles will just get bigger and bigger. (A bit of reductive, I know, but more accurate than inaccurate.)
It’s not so simple for us mortals, but don’t be discouraged.
Another element of your back training that you have to get right is weekly volume (the total amount of reps you do each week).
If your weekly volume is too low, you’ll gain less muscle than you should or could, and if it’s too high, you’ll fall behind in recovery and struggle with issues related to overtraining, which, in time, means you’ll gain less muscle than you should or could.
Finding the “sweet spot” can be tricky because when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the heavier the reps, the fewer you can do each week.
The reason for this is obvious–heavier weights necessitate more recovery–and it’s particularly true with the deadlift, which is the single toughest and most demanding exercise that you can do.
When you’re primarily training with heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of your 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
If you want to learn more about how frequency, intensity, and volume affect muscle growth, check out this article.
Out of all the lat exercises you could do, a small handful stand head and shoulders above the rest.
If you simply focus on progressing on the exercises below, you’ll have no trouble building not only great lats, but a great back.
It’s not only one of the best lat exercises you can do, it’s one of the single best exercises you can do, period.
My lats were weak and underdeveloped until I started really working on my deadlift. Now, several years later, I believe my back is one of the stronger aspects of my physique, and I attribute a lot of that to this exercise.
Many people shy away from the deadlift, though, mostly because it’s hard, but also because they’ve heard it’s inherently bad for your lower back or even dangerous.
This fear makes sense at first glance. Lifting hundreds of pounds off the ground—putting all that pressure on your back, particularly your low-back and erector spinae muscles—should be a recipe for thoracic and lumbar disaster, right?
What about deadlift style? Should you pull conventional, sumo, or hex/trap-bar style?
Here’s a video on what proper conventional deadlift form looks like:
Here’s the sumo version:
And here’s the hex-bar version, also called the trap-bar deadlift:
The style you choose should depend mostly on your preferences. Whichever feels most comfortable and allows you to pull the most weight is probably the best choice.
That said, if you’ve injured your back in the past or have a back-related disease or dysfunction, you may not want to deadlift at all. In this case, you should consult with a sports doctor to see if it will or won’t work for you.
It’s also worth taking a moment to learn about the different grip options for deadlifting, as this is something that gets more and more important as you get stronger.
The lat pulldown is a machine variant of the pull-up that allows you to easily increase the load beyond your body weight, making it more practical for heavy lifting. It’s also good for building up to being able to do pull-ups and chin-ups.
The wide-grip version tends to punish your lats more and your biceps less, and the close-grip version does the reverse. Personally, I like to rotate between both grips, as the differences are slight and alternating helps prevent minor repetitive strain aggravations.
Here’s how to do the wide-grip version:
And here’s how to do the close-grip version:
(You can also use the narrow grip attachment for these).
The pull-up is a simple but effective exercise for developing your back, and especially the lats. The chin-up is a worthwhile variation that places more emphasis on the biceps.
Here’s how to do the pull-up:
And here’s how to do the chin-up:
As far as the grip goes, the narrower your grip, the more your biceps have to work, and the wider it is, the more your lats and traps are challenged. That’s why I like to do a bit of both (narrow and wide) in my vertical pulling.
I also like to add weight to make the exercises more difficult. You can squeeze a dumbbell between your thighs, but at some point you’ll need a dip belt.
The barbell row is a staple in my back workouts because it trains everything in the back, from stem to stern, and it allows you to move more weight than many other row variations.
Here’s how to do the conventional barbell row:
And I personally prefer a variant called a Pendlay row because it entails a larger range of motion and less leg engagement than the more upright row. Here’s how it looks:
The dumbbell row is one of my favorite back exercises because, like the barbell row, it allows you to safely overload your upper back with a large range of motion.
Here’s how to do it:
The t-bar row is similar to the barbell row, but it places less strain on your spinal erectors and allows you to focus more on your upper back and arms.
This makes it particularly good for later in your back workouts, after your lower back is bushed from big movements like the deadlift and barbell row.
You can do it with a barbell and v-bar attachment, like this:
Or simply use a hammer strength t-bar machine, which looks like this:
The seated row is yet another style of row that’s great for building your lats and upper back.
Here’s how you do the close-grip version:
And here’s how to do the wide-grip version:
The last exercise I want to share with you is the standing pushdown.
This is one of my favorite exercises for isolating the lats and makes for a great “finisher” to your back workouts.
Here’s how to do it:
A well-designed back workout uses mostly compound exercises to train all the major muscles of the upper and lower back, including, of course, the lats.
It also involves both vertical and horizontal pulling, and utilizes wide and narrow grips, and if the lats need particular attention, it will include at least a couple sets that isolate them as much as possible.
And that’s exactly what you’ll find below: a well-rounded back workout that places special emphasis on the lats.
Do this workout once every 5 to 7 days for the next 8 weeks and see how your body responds. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I’ve also given you several exercise options to choose from. Choose the ones you feel most comfortable with and stick with those for your first 8 weeks so you can focus on progression (and not learning or reacquainting yourself with different movements every couple weeks).
Deadlift (Conventional, Sumo, or Hex-bar)
Warm up and 3 sets of . . .
4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Barbell or T-Bar Row
3 sets of . . .
4 to 6 reps
3 sets of . . .
4 to 6 reps
Dumbbell or Seated Cable Row
3 sets of . . .
8 to 10 reps (~75% of 1RM)
Standing Lat Pushdown
2 sets of . . .
8 to 10 reps
And a few odds and ends on how to do these workouts:
Muscle failure is the point where you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set.
The subject of how often you should train to failure is controversial, and I break it all down in this article, but here’s the gist:
We should take most of our sets to a point close to failure (one or two reps shy), and we should rarely take sets to the point of absolute failure.
If you’re new to weightlifting it can be hard to find this “sweet spot,” but you’ll get a better feel for it as you gain experience on the exercises you’re doing regularly.
Instead, I reserve my failure sets for isolation exercises like pull-ups, side lateral raises, and biceps curls, and it’s usually a natural consequence of pushing for progressive overload as opposed to deliberate programming.
This is how you ensure that you’re progressively overloading your muscles.
For instance, if you get 6 reps with 135 pounds on your deadlift, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.
If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 145 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can pull it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps, though, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (140 pounds) and see how the next set goes. If you still get 3 reps or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase the weight on the bar.
Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.
This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
You probably know that you’re supposed to eat a fair amount of protein to build muscle, but total calorie intake plays a major role as well.
Read this article to learn more.
I saved this part for last because it’s the least important.
Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to make you muscular and lean.
That said, if you know how to drive muscle growth with proper dieting and exercise, certain supplements can accelerate the process. (And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
Here are the ones I use and recommend:
In an ideal world, we’d get all of our daily calories from carefully prepared, nutritionally balanced meals, and we’d have the time to sit down, slow down, and savor each and every bite.
In the real world, though, we’re usually rushing from one obligation to another and often forget to eat anything, let alone the optimal foods for building muscle, losing fat, and staying healthy.
That’s why meal replacement and “weight gainer” supplements and protein bars and snacks are more popular than ever.
Unfortunately, most contain low-quality protein powders and large amounts of simple sugars and unnecessary junk.
That’s why I created ATLAS.
It’s a delicious “weight gainer” (meal replacement) supplement that provides you with 38 grams of high-quality protein per serving, along with 51 grams of nutritious, food-based carbohydrates, and just 6 grams of natural fats, as well as 26 micronutrients, enzymes, and probiotics that help you feel and perform your best.
ATLAS is also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored as well, and contains no chemical dyes, cheap fillers, or other unnecessary junk.
So, if you want to build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible and improve the nutritional quality of your diet, then you want to try ATLAS today.
RECHARGE is a 100% natural post-workout supplement that helps you gain muscle and strength faster, and recover better from your workouts.
Once it’s had time to accumulate in your muscles (about a week of use), the first thing you’re going to notice is increased strength and anaerobic endurance, less muscle soreness, and faster post workout muscle recovery.
And the harder you can train in your workouts and the faster you can recover from them, the more muscle and strength you’re going to build over time.
Furthermore, RECHARGE doesn’t need to be cycled, which means it’s safe for long-term use, and its effects don’t diminish over time.
It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.
So, if you want to be able to push harder in the gym, train more frequently, and get more out of your workouts, then you want to try RECHARGE today.
Whey protein powder is a staple in most athletes’ diets for good reason.
It’s digested quickly, it’s absorbed well, it has a fantastic amino acid profile, and it’s easy on the taste buds.
Not all whey proteins are created equal, though.
Whey concentrate protein powder, for example, can be as low as 30% protein by weight, and can also contain a considerable amount of fat and carbs.
And the more fat and carbs you’re drinking, the less you can actually enjoy in your food.
Whey isolate protein powder, on the other hand, is the purest whey protein you can buy. It’s 90%+ protein by weight and has almost no fat or carbs.
Another benefit of whey isolate is it contains no lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.
Well, WHEY+ is a 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate protein powder made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.
It contains no GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk, and it tastes delicious and mixes great.
So, if you want a clean, all-natural, and great tasting whey protein supplement that’s low in calories, carbs, and fat, then you want to try WHEY+ today.
Is your pre-workout simply not working anymore?
Are you sick and tired of pre-workout drinks that make you sick and tired?
Have you had enough of upset stomachs, jitters, nausea, and the dreaded post-workout crash?
Do you wish your pre-workout supplement gave you sustained energy and more focus and motivation to train? Do you wish it gave you noticeably better workouts and helped you hit PRs?
If you’re nodding your head, then you’re going to love PULSE.
It increases energy, improves mood, sharpens mental focus, increases strength and endurance, and reduces fatigue…without unwanted side effects or the dreaded post-workout crash.
It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.
Lastly, it contains no proprietary blends and each serving delivers nearly 20 grams of active ingredients scientifically proven to improve performance.
So, if you want to feel focused, tireless, and powerful in your workouts…and if you want to say goodbye to the pre-workout jitters, upset stomachs, and crashes for good…then you want to try PULSE today.
Again, if you feel confused about what supplements you should take to reach your goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz to learn exactly what supplements are right for you. It’s the best way to ensure you get the most out of your supplement regimen.
You’re dealing with a large muscle group that takes a tremendous amount of hard work to fully develop, and that responds best to compound exercises that involve but don’t isolate it.
Here’s what it really comes down to:
The best way to build great lats is to build a great back, and the best way to build a great back is to get really strong on a handful of key exercises.
There are no shortcuts or “secrets,” and you’re not going to get there in a few weeks or months. That said, if you keep showing up and putting in the work, and if you make sure that you’re doing everything right outside of the gym as well (nutrition, rest and recovery, supplementation if you’re so inclined), then you will get there.
Good luck and happy training!
What’s your take on the best lat exercises? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Pope, Z. K., Benik, F. M., Hester, G. M., Sellers, J., Nooner, J. L., Schnaiter, J. A., Bond-Williams, K. E., Carter, A. S., Ross, C. L., Just, B. L., Henselmans, M., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(7), 1805–1812. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272
- Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J., & Thomeé, R. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. In Sports Medicine (Vol. 37, Issue 3, pp. 225–264). Sports Med. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200737030-00004
- Sperandei, S., Barros, M. A. P., Silveira-JÚnior, P. C. S., & Oliveira, C. G. (2009). Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(7), 2033–2038. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b8d30a
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low- vs. High-load resistance training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. In Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Vol. 31, Issue 12, pp. 3508–3523). NSCA National Strength and Conditioning Association. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200