by Jim Cordova

Well-developed lats are sought out by both bodybuilders and figure competitors alike. Much to their dismay, I find that some have a difficult time activating them, even when performing pulling and rowing movements tailor made for this muscle group. In the strictest sense, anytime you pull the upper arms toward the core, they are working, but you will not recruit the amount of fiber needed to maximize hypertrophy if you are doing so with slow contractile-type repetitions. Simply put, it is counter-productive to move the weight slowly and focus on that isometric contraction at the end of each rep. I view the lats as analogous to super-chargers. They are designed to enhance the horsepower behind your pulling efforts, but only when directly called upon!

When performing any type of pulling movement, you will want to imagine that your hands are hooks, with the objective being to elbow toward the pelvis region with as much power as you can muster. This style of execution correlates soundly with the design of the lats upon seeking to activate and break down the most fiber. While continuing to abide by this general pattern of execution, you can slow your tempo a bit, focus more on isolation, and squeeze just a tad at the end of a repetition when seeking to enhance separation. Yet when it comes to raw hypertrophy, the design of this muscle necessitates that you pull with power – super power!

Before we delve into region specific training, you should know that there is no such thing as “upper lats” or “lower lats,” in a literal sense. Even so, the fiber makeup of this muscle group is very complex, fanning out from the humerus to various locations along the vertebrae. This implies that there is a tremendous opportunity to attack the lats from many angles, with this leading to a much fuller appearance.

Imagine the full range-of-motion (ROM) of a pull-over machine and you will note that the lats pull the upper arms from the overhead position down to the core. Their capacity to generate power will vary throughout this range. You can be more efficient with your exercise selection by being mindful of where the brunt of the stress lies throughout the ROM. A sound model is to focus on where the peak tension lies relative to the position of the upper arms, which comes about when the arms are roughly parallel to the ground on overhead pulling movements and perpendicular to the ground on cable rows. The idea behind this will become much clearer upon linking the various forms of lat-pull and rowing movements with a particular region of lat fiber from top to bottom.

Lat-pull and rowing motions are advantageous in that you can shift the tension to varying locations throughout the ROM and focus on different regions of fiber. It will help to view each movement as one end of a pulling spectrum. The starting point entails sitting upright on a lat pulldown and pulling the bar behind the neck. The other end point is a rowing movement where the body is bent at roughly a 90-degree angle at the hips, such as a cable low row. Generally speaking, to work the uppermost section of lat fiber down toward the middle will require the usage of overhead pulling movements, such as a pull-up or cable lat pulldown. Working the lats from the middle to lower region will call rowing movements into play. Below is a basic pulling pattern to thoroughly stimulate the lat region when seeking width:

Contrary to popular belief, the lat pulldown machine can be used to work the lats much more thoroughly than simply performing in the upright position. Many variations can be used to effectively transfer fiber emphasis from the uppermost portion of the lats downward. While certainly not the most effective variation in terms of maximum fiber activation, pulling the weight behind the neck on a lat pulldown will work the uppermost portion of fiber (in addition to the teres major/minor). A downward transfer in fiber emphasis will occur upon leaning back ever-so-slightly and pulling the weight just below the chin, with this being the most common version. As you further lean the upper body back and bring the bar down past the chest region, you will feel the emphasis shift down the lats.

You can only lower your upper body so far to vary fiber emphasis with a lat pulldown before the movement becomes unnatural and essential muscle building principles are broken. Visualizing the arms pulling to the body, you can imagine the movement becoming similar to a cable row if you lean the upper body down too far, as you will begin to enter the other end of the pulling spectrum where the lats are worked with arms moving toward the pelvis region. Simply put, there will come a point where rowing movements will become better suited to target lat fiber from the middle region downward.

Arm rotation at the shoulder joint must be factored into the equation and this can be controlled with your grip style. The commonly used overhand grip works very well with the upright lat-pulldown variations. However, I find that a neutral grip more naturally brings the upper arms in front of the body and takes emphasis off of the traps. As you further lean the body back, a supinated grip allows for more intense stimulation and more closely mimics a pullover.

When targeting the mid-lat region with (mid-lat) lat pulldown variations, you should bring the upper body up during the eccentric and back down during the concentric to minimize biceps recruitment and keep the stress on the lats. This may contradict what you hear in mainstream back training literature, which tells you to keep the upper body fixed. However, the lats pull the upper arms in an arching motion down the body and the tension on a pulldown moves in a straight line, making a bit of swaying much more sensible to keep the line of tension on the lats. After all, this is precisely the type of motion performed during a cable low row and what difference lies between the two machines other than the path of tension from vertical to horizontal?

It will help you to track what area of the lats you are working, in addition to determining when it is expedient to move from a lat pull to a row, by focusing on the endpoint of a pulling movement. To clarify, if you position yourself correctly to achieve optimal stimulation from the top region of the lats to the bottom, the end point of the handle will travel down the body accordingly. It will begin near the top of the neck and move toward the chin when pulling to the front of the body on a lat pulldown. As you lean further back from the upright position, it will move further down the chest region. From that point on, you will find it necessary to continue targeting the lats with rowing movements, and depending on what form that you use, the bar will travel down the waist, and finally toward the pelvis. As an added tip guaranteed to boost stimulation, never touch the bar to any point of the body at the endpoint of any pulldown. Instead, keep it a bit in front of you as if you were moving the arms toward the pelvis region. This tactic will lead to an extraordinary contraction!

Are you incorporating pullover movements into your routine? If not, you should know that consistent utilization of pull-over type movements will expand your lats with a vengeance! Simply grab a heavy (leather!) medicine ball, slam it to the ground, and this should reveal to you the outstanding degree of fiber recruitment generated from the lats. Since they are rarely seen in most gyms today, you can use free-weights and cables to create a super-powerful pullover type movement.

The free-weight version of the pull-over can be used to enhance the lats, pec major/minor, and even the long head of the triceps. Though each of these muscles will be worked with almost every version, you can shift the focus onto the upper fiber region of the lats by external rotation at the shoulder joints (bend the arms around 90-degrees and move the hands away from each other). The ideal degree can be determined by imagining the arms as they would be positioned on a pullover machine, which reveals nearly a foot of space between the hands. This means the single dumbbell version will not work as well as an EZ-Bar or even two dumbbells since the elbows will flare out too wide and place emphasis onto the chest muscles. Though it will take time to perfect and ensure safety, use power, in throwing fashion, to blast the lats into new growth!

The tension from a free-weight pullover lies at the top half of the ROM. You can use cable pull-overs for the bottom half. One of my favorite variations involves placing handles on each side of the cable cross-over, stepping back a bit to optimize the line of tension, keeping the arms bent ever-so-slightly (around 170-degrees), and bringing them past the sides of the thighs. Very few exercises will deliver such an amazing contraction!

The intricacy of the major back muscles presents quite a challenge when it comes to the attainment of complete development. It is therefore not uncommon for even the most genetically gifted bodybuilders to have under-developed regions. If you desire to enhance various regions of the back, you simply need to prioritize them, doing so by properly linking them to the appropriate exercises and positioning variables. By patiently and consistently utilizing an intelligent approach toward maximizing your full potential, you will place yourself on track to build a super-freaky back!