Having a strong back and building wide lats comes down to doing one thing and that is doing the right latissimus dorsi exercises. There are many exercises that target the back and sometimes it can be confusing trying to figure out which exercises works best. Here we will break down the best exercises you can include in your workout program using:
- Bodyweight Exercises
- Barbell Exercises
- Dumbbell Exercises
- Cable Exercises
If you have been ignoring your back muscles you are doing your body a huge disservice. I know it can be easy to focus on chest and arm workouts and they may seem more fun but working on your lats and your back is equally important if you want to have a strong looking upper body.
What Is The Latissimus Dorsi Muscle?
Although commonly referred to as to as the lats, the more technical name is the latissimus dorsi. This muscle group covers the middle of the back from the spine and extends to the outer ribs. If you look at a well developed set of lats are commonly described as looking like wings.
There are many benefits to having a strong set of lats. If you want to have a strong looking upper body, a v shaped body and back and want to have a proportionate looking physique, then working on the lats is necessary.
Body Weight Exercises For Lats
One of the best ways to trigger muscle growth in any part of your body is by using bodyweight exercises. There is a common misconception that you can not gain muscle by using your own bodyweight. Although I hear that often I also find this to be absurd. Remember, gaining muscle is not so much about the type of equipment that you use but more about the type of tension you put your body through.
A good example of someone who uses bodyweight exercises and manages to put on lean ripped muscle is a gymnast. Look at a male gymnast and you will see that their upper bodies, including their lats, look great. By using a simple set of exercises you can achieve similar results.
- Pull Ups: If you are not doing pull ups in your strength training program you are really missing out on an exercise that not only develops wide lats, but also gives you bigger biceps and strong forearms. Although pull ups are confused for chin ups, just remember that pull ups are done with a palms out grip. When pulling yourself up focus your strength on your back muscles and not on your biceps. As you reach the top of the bar squeeze the shoulder blades for maximum effect. If you can’t do more than a few reps simply try to do as many as possible and slowly increase your reps over time. For best results try to do a slightly wider than shoulder grip.
- Chin Ups: Chin ups are similar to pull ups and are often confused as being the same exercise. Chin ups, as opposed to pull ups, are performed using a palm in grip. This is a great lattisimus dorsi and biceps exercise.
- Inverted Rows: This exercise is rarely done in the gym and I think it has more to do with a misconception that it is a beginner exercise and an ineffective exercise. Most guys would rather do some exercise with heavy weight to boost their ego but inverted rows work well for the lats. This exercise is the bodyweight equivalent of a barbell row. To perform this exercise simply hold on to a bar with your back facing the ground. Keep your legs straight out and with the heels touching the ground. Next, pull your weight up until the chest is an inch from the bar and feel the squeeze in your shoulder blades. Lower your body slowly until your arms are stretched out.
Advanced Bodyweight Latissimus Dorsi Exercises
- Weighted Pull Ups: Perhaps you have developed enough strength to do plenty of pull ups and you want something challenging. An advanced and definitely challenging variation is the weighted pull up. Start with using a light weight, either a 5 pound or 10 pound plate, and increase the weight as you gain strength.
- Unassisted Inverted Rows: You can make an inverted row difficult by lifting your feet off the ground. By lifting your feet off the ground your arms and back will be forced to lift the entire weight of your body. This variation will trigger more growth in your lats.
- Front Lever Holds: This lat exercise is one of the most difficult to do but definitely has a huge payoff. This exercise is common in gymnastics and is usually performed on the rings. You can do this on rings, TRX bands and even on a horizontal bar. This move is a static hold and does not require pulling the body upwards. Simply start at a hanging position with the arms extended and lift your feet off the ground. Next, try to hold the position so that the body is horizontal and parallel to the floor. If this is too difficult you start in a tucked position with the knees tucked in to the chest. As it becomes easier to hold this position and you feel more comfortable extend your legs outward until you can hold the body in a horizontal position. The front lever is not only a great lat exercise but also a core exercise.
(Here is Jason Ferruggia demonstrating a a Front Lever Hold)
Barbell Exercises For Lats
Another great way to do lats exercises is by including barbells in your workouts. In fact, barbell back workouts will not only add mass on your back but will lead to muscle growth throughout the body with these compound movements.
- Barbell Rows: This is a more traditional exercise for developing the lats and can be done with either an overhand grip or underhand grip. Barbell rows are excellent for targeting the entire back muscles as well as the biceps.
- Deadlifts: Although this exercise is not usually mentioned as a lat exercise the truth is it is one of the best at developing the lats along with the entire back and hamstrings. This compound exercise is a must do exercise if you want to put on muscle.
- T Bar Rows: This is a classic style move that gets ignored often. Guys like Arnold made this the backbone of their lat workouts. Along with working on the lats this exercise helps develop thickness in the back.
Dumbbell Lat Exercises
- One Arm Dumbbell Row: This exercise works well at working the latissimus dorsi muscles. Place one knee on a bench and with the hand opposite the knee grab a dumbbell. Bring the weight up and in to your ribcage area while feeling the squeeze in your shoulder blade. Use a controlled motion to lift and lower the weight. While doing the exercise look straight ahead and keep your back straight.
- Dumbbell Pullover: Grab a dumbbell of moderate weight and place your hand under the weight. Lie down with your upper back on a bench so that the body is perpendicular to the position of the bench. Hold the weight over your body with your arms straight up. Slowly lower the weight behind you so that the weight and your hands are in alignment to the top of your head. Stop and pull the dumbbell up to the starting position. This exercise will work the lats along with your chest muscles.
Cable Latissimus Dorsi Exercises
Here are a few common lat exercises that you can do with a cable machine.
- Lat Pulldown: This is a good exercise to complement a pull up. If you are unable to complete one pull up then this exercise will help you develop lat and bicep strength. However, I still recommend a pull up over the lat pull down any day.
- Cable Row: Much like a barbell row and a dumbbell row this exercise is done in a similar manner. Cable machine rows can be a safe alternative for a beginner to moderate weight lifter. The important thing to remember is to keep the back straight. Do not round your back, including the lower back.
- Straight Arm Pull Downs: This is often done as a finishing move and although not one of my favorites it does work the lat muscles. This exercise is done using a lat pulldown machine and it is done while standing up. Using light weight hold the pull down bar with arms straightened outward. Bring the bar down below your waist without bending your arms. You could literally get the same or better results by swimming or paddling on a surfboard and get a back like a swimmer.
Creating A Workout To Build Wide Lats
Now that you have all these exercises what do you do? Well, first of all do not try to do as many of these exercises in one workout. Doing a bunch of these workouts is overkill and won’t give you a wider back. Rather than doing a bunch of exercises choose a sequence exercises in the following manner
- 1 Pull Up type movement (example: pull ups or chin ups)
- 1 rowing movement: can be either barbell, dumbbell, bodyweight, or cable variation
- 1 pull down type movement or pull over movement
- Deadlifts: throw in exercise in the mix on leg days, preferably a day you are not doing back.
Do each exercise for 3 to 4 sets and 8-10 repetitions
- Pull Ups (4 sets of 8-10 reps)
- Barbell Rows (3 sets of 8-10 reps)
- Dumbbell Pullover (3 sets of 8-10 reps)
- Deadlifts on a separate day (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
I always prefer mixing a bodyweight exercise along with weights for maximum results. Although this workout is strictly about working the back and lats, I do recommend using bodyweight exercises in any muscle group workout.
Learning how to develop a strong back is all about doing the right latissimus dorsi exercises. Just keep it simple and don’t worry about cramming as many exercises or sets as possible. The easiest way to make gains is by keeping your workouts simple.