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How to Get Big Lats - Best Latissimus Dorsi Exercises

Updated on May 25, 2014

Function of the Lats

The lats are a large muscles in the upper back that lend themselves the desirable v-cut often associated with masculinity. Functionally, the lats are used for rotating the upper arm inward when it is facing down, extending the shoulders, and for pulling the arms close to the body when they are extended and facing out, up, or anywhere in-between. Because of their large size, the lats are some of the strongest and most noticeable muscles in the body. It's important to focus on them for any strength training or bodybuilding routine, as they are great for power and aesthetics.  Additionally, as a large muscle, the lats respond exceptionally well to heavy lifts, so it's important to use a large amount of resistance.

Pull-ups and Chin-ups

Lat Pulldowns

Pull-ups and Chin-ups

Pull-ups and chin-ups are the quintessential upper back exercises. They place a significant amount of stress on the deltoids, traps, and lats. Depending on which exercise you're doing, you can also stress your biceps.

Pull-ups: To do a pull-up, take a pronated grip on a bar (hands facing out), and pull your body up while focusing on using the muscles in your back. Sometimes it helps to focus on pinching your shoulder blades together, which more effectively isolates the lats. This is one of the best all-around back exercises and a great way to get a workout with minimal equipment--you can do pull-ups virtually anywhere.

Chin-ups: These are done with a supinated grip, which means your palms are facing your body when you grip the bar. Some feel that the chin-up is easier than the pull-up, but that's not entirely true. The chin-up will generally give a longer range of motion, and while the biceps are helping, it still places a huge amount of stress on the lats. This is one of the best exercises for sculpting your upper-body, and is a better all-around exercise than the pull-up.

Assisted Pull-ups or Chin-up: These are for people that are unable to do enough standard pull-ups or chin-ups to really feel the benefit. Assisted pull-ups will allow you to strengthen your lats and work your way up toward the ability to do multiple dead hang pull-ups. You can do these with a machine that helps support some of your weight or you can have a friend hold your knees so that it's just enough to get up. I recommend the latter as you'll get the best possible lat workout. If you are unable to do even assisted pull-ups, then you can strengthen your lats by doing partial reps or dead hangs.

Lat Pulldown: This is a similar motion to the chin-up and pull-up, so I decided to include it in this section. The pulldown will allow you to complete the motion while seated. This isolates your lats more, but doesn't give the same upperbody workout as the other two. The major benefit of the pulldown is that it allows you to adjust the weight accordingly, so you can go under or above your bodyweight.

General Form Tips: When doing pull-ups, it's important to start from a dead hang position and to not use any momentum to help get yourself up over the bar. This includes swinging your body and kicking your legs. While some cheating is acceptable, especially on the last few reps, it's important not to count them as full reps.

Dipping Belt: Use a dipping belt to add additional weight to your pull-ups, chin-ups, or dips. This is a great piece of equipment that will help you advance past the limitations of normal bodyweight exercises.

Barbell Bent Rows

Dumbbell One-Arm Row

T-bar Row

Cable Rows


Rows work your lats with a motion that is similar to the pull-up, except that the arms are extended in front of the body instead of overhead. Because of this, rows will add more depth to the lats, but will not make them as wide as pull-ups will. Be sure to utilize both rows and pull-ups in your lat exercise routine.

Barbell Bentover Rows:  The barbell bentover row is the most basic row exercise and undoubtedly one of the best.  This should be done with a relatively high weight and with lower reps, as it is a very difficult compound exercise.  This will stress your lats, traps, biceps, and delts.  Since you are supporting your body with your own strength, you will also place stress on your spinal erectors.   This should be part of every upper back exercise routine.

Dumbbell Bentover Rows: These can be done two ways.  If you are using two dumbbells, then the motion and function is identical to the barbell rows.  If you use one dumbbell, though, you can balance yourself on a bench and more effectively isolate your traps.  This will give you more control over the muscle and your body, allowing you to do higher weight per arm.

T-bar Rows: T-bar rows are effective in working every single part of your back, and are considered one of the best compound exercises in weight training.  This is a different exercise from its cousins and should be executed with caution.  Make sure you keep your back straight and watch your feet--I've known of people that have crushed their feet under the plates of the t-bar.

Cable/Machine Rows: These, like the one-armed dumbbell row, will effectively isolate your lats.  The benefit of cable rows is that they work the muscle throughout the entire range of motion, and do not let up at peak contraction.  This is a general benefit of cable exercises over freeweights.  The disadvantage is that you don't work your stabilizer muscles as effectively.

General Form Tips:  Make sure you keep your back straight when doing any bent over rows, or you risk damaging your lower back.  Furthermore, make sure to focus on pinching your shoulder blades together and keeping your arms level while doing the exercises.  Too many people will begin pulling the weight toward their legs, especially when doing cable or machine rows.  This is not how the exercise is made to be done.

Lifting belt: Be sure to use a lifting belt when doing bent over rows to help protect your back from injury.  This is a great item that will help you prevent injury in most heavy lifts, including deadlifts, squats, barbell rows, and goodmornings. 

Additional Tips

There's not much to say here, other than to make sure you warm up properly before each lift and to make sure you understand the form fully as shown in the videos above.  Back exercises should always be done with caution and low weight, especially when starting out.  Due to the fragile nature of the lower back, it's very easy to injure it if you do not use correct form.  This is why warming up and a proper understanding of technique are so important.  If you do not know how to do an exercise properly, asked an experienced lifter to help you.  Most people in gyms are willing to help newcomers out--they don't want to see you injured anymore than you do.


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    • profile image

      Ur mom 5 years ago

      They really work

    • jzepess profile image

      jzepess 7 years ago from Bend, OR

      Another important thing to remember when working the lats is to focus on contracting the lats while minimizing the work of the biceps. This takes some focus but will make the lats work harder for the same weight.

      I try to think of the arms simply as 'hooks' that hold the weight and I force most of the work onto my lats instead of my biceps.

    • bojanglesk8 profile image

      bojanglesk8 7 years ago

      Lats are well worth working!

    • hublim profile image

      hublim 7 years ago from Scotland

      Very well done hub!

      I prefer to kneel in front of the Lat Pull Down machine when working the Lats.

      This allows me to keep my body straighter, more like the pull up motion and prevent me from leaning back or hunching when performing the movement, acting to prevent injuries to the lower back.