Your lats, or latissimus dorsi, is the largest muscle in your upper body. It is one of your most powerful pulling muscles, and creates the coveted V-shape when it is well-developed.
In this article, you will learn how to train your lats effectively. From lat muscle anatomy, to the best exercises for increasing your lat muscle mass and strength. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective lats workout.
Lat Muscle Anatomy
Your lats have a wide origin, spanning from your thoracic and lumbar spine, your lower ribs, the thick fascia of your lower back, and out to your iliac crest (the top of your hip bone).
The muscle runs along your rib cage and inserts on the inside, almost to the front, of your humerus, your upper arm bone.
The lat muscle’s primary function is to pull your arm closer to your body, such as in a pull-up or a row. It also internally rotates your arm.
As a synergist, the lats can aid in both extending your spine, flexing it to the side, and rotating it.
Because of the lats’ wide origin, it has a wide range of pull. This means that you may emphasize different parts of the lats by combining vertical (like the pull-up) and horizontal (like the row) pulling exercises.
Lat Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Lats
In this section, we’ll take a look at four lat exercises with slightly different benefits and training effects, that complement each other in terms of what part of your lats they target.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great lats workout.
Reigning on the throne of all lat exercises is the pull-up. It is not only a great exercise in its own right, but the pull-up is also a display of upper body strength. Proficiency in this exercise can give you a sensation of control and mastery of your own body.
Of course, the pull-up can be a very difficult exercise depending on your weight and your starting point. For many people (myself included), a strict pull-up is the result of hard and consistent practice over a long time. If they are too heavy for you, you can substitute them with lat pulldowns and reap similar training effects.
The pull-up trains your lats in a long range of motion and is one of the best exercises for this muscle. It also works other back muscles, such as your teres major, rhomboids, the lower portions of your trapezius, and also your biceps.1 2
Your grip (palms facing towards you or away) and your grip width don’t seem to make too much of a difference in terms of muscle activation.3 4 5 Therefore, I would stick with whatever grip is most comfortable for you, and lets you feel your lat muscles working the best.
2. Seated Cable Row
In the pull-up, you were pulling in a vertical direction, but in the seated cable row, you’re pulling horizontally. This will target your lat muscle fibers slightly differently, and also add to the development of your trapezius and rhomboids.
Whether you should use a close or wide grip mostly comes down to personal preference: try them both and stick with whichever lets you feel the squeeze in your lats the most.
3. Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row adds to the horizontal rowing work, but this time with a few differences.
Because the dumbbell row is performed with one side at a time, it gives you more opportunity to focus your attention on the working muscle. Because you pull the weight to your side, it is also possible to extend the rowing range of motion slightly. Finally, training one-sided exercises give you an opportunity to identify and address any side-to-side strength imbalances.
4. Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
Lastly, as a finishing touch, you could pump out the last of your lats with some straight arm lat pulldowns. Really go for muscle connection in this exercise, and strive to feel the squeeze in your lats.
Some higher reps might lend themselves well in this exercise, as the increasing pump throughout the set might make it even easier for you to find the right muscle contact.
Lats Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does a good lats workout look like?
Well, first of all: if you already train your back using one or several of the exercises mentioned earlier, such as pull-ups and rows, then you are already training your lats pretty well. Our guide on How to train your back muscles contains a workout that includes these exercises. Do that workout, add in some additional cable rows for good measure, and you’re set.
However, if you’re still interested in what a specific lats workout could look like, here’s an example.
StrengthLog’s Lats Workout
- Pull-Up (or Lat Pulldown): 4 sets x 6 reps
- Seated Cable Row: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Dumbbell Row: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Straight Arm Lat Pulldown: 3 sets x 20 reps
Together, these exercises will hit all fibers of your lat muscles thoroughly.
The back workout mentioned earlier is available for free in our workout log app StrengthLog. You can use that and just add in an extra lat exercise or two if you want to emphasize the lats further.
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And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your lat muscle anatomy, what some effective lat exercises are, and how you can combine them into one lats workout.
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- Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy.
- Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4. Effect of Adding Single-Joint Exercises to a Multi-Joint Exercise Resistance-Training Program on Strength and Hypertrophy in Untrained Subjects.
- J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2017 Feb;32:30-36. Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):3404-14. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1895-900. Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down.