I’m a big fan of a big back. There’s a reason Dorian Yates was known as “The Shadow,” and it’s not because he had tiny lats. But besides making you look strong, big lats will help you be strong. They’re a very important supporting muscle in the bench, squat, and especially the deadlift.
However, many lifters don’t know how to best use their lats in the powerlifts, and for good reason: It’s not easy! Because we don’t use our lats all that much in everyday life, they can be difficult to “feel” working in the gym. The lower lats, in particular, often lack strength and development, because many people cut the range of motion of their upper-body pulling movements short, leaving that part of the muscle out of the equation.
Using movements that target the lower lats will contribute to overall back strength and size, and help you get the hang of using your entire lats on your heavier compound movements like deadlifts. These are my favorite ones, and I encourage you to give them a try — but make sure you’re doing them properly!
1. Wide-Grip Pulldowns to the Upper Abs
These are actually my favorite all-around exercise for the lats, but it’s very important that you perform them correctly, or you won’t get much out of them, except for maybe sore biceps and forearms. Make sure to follow the general guidelines below!
The biggest concern here is range of motion. It’s very difficult to pull all the way down to your upper abs when using a wide grip, because doing so requires use of the lower lats — muscles that many powerlifters neglect. Of course, that’s exactly why we’re doing these, so make sure to use a weight light enough for you to both pull far enough and to focus on using proper form.
Proper form also involves the position of your torso. As always, you’ll want to keep your core tight, but in order to pull to the upper abs, you’ll also need to lean back very slightly (or else your head or clavicle will get in the way of the machine’s handle). When you lean back, do not arch your upper back. You need to initiate this torso movement from the hips, and maintain a neutral spine position. You’ll probably find this allows you to handle a bit more weight, too.
[Training back is awesome, but so is proper recovery — so check out our pick for the best foam roller for the back.]
2. Dumbbell Row to the Hip
Another excellent exercise that is, in my opinion, rarely performed optimally. It’s so easy to either heave the dumbbell and use lots of momentum (cheating your muscles out of some work); or to turn the row into more of a shrug, where the traps and rear delts do the majority of the work, and the lats miss out.
To perform these correctly, first, make sure that you’re keeping that same neutral spine position I mentioned above. Do not arch your upper back, and keep your torso as close to parallel to the ground as you possibly can. This will require that you really keep those abs tight, and if you struggle with that, I recommend wearing a belt to give you a proprioceptive cue to brace hard.
Then, when you initiate the movement, instead of rowing up, think about pulling back — as if you were trying to shove your elbow into the gut of someone standing behind you. With a proper brace and torso position, this will result in an arc-like range of motion, where the weight starts out below your shoulder and finishes at your hip. Again, you’ll really feel the lower lats working on this one, but you’ll probably have to use less weight than you’re used to.
3. Seated Band Rows
Micah Marino introduced me to this exercise, and it’s a great one for learning to “feel” your lats working, because the bands allow you to place them [the lats] under constant tension and to place your body in an ideal position without the same restrictions that dumbbells and barbells might have.
I try to do these in a style very similar to that recommended by legendary bodybuilding trainer Vince Gironda: leaning forward at the bottom of the movement, allowing the thoracic spine to round slightly; and arching the thoracic spine while keeping the core tight at the top. That’s a minor detail, though.
The key here is to initiate the movement while keeping your shoulders externally rotated, with a slightly scapular depression, and to focus using your lats, not your traps or arms. It’s very easy here to start with a sort of shrugging movement, but that will pull you out of position and defeat the purpose. Use a very light tension here so that you can get it right!
A Sample Back Routine for the Beginning Powerlifter
This is obviously a very basic — but also very effective — program for back training, and despite the title, it’s not just for beginners. In fact, this is almost exactly what I’m doing for my Tribute meet prep!
Day 1 & 3 (after bench press)
- Seated band rows: 3-4 sets of 20-30 reps
Day 2 (after deadlift)
- Wide grip pulldown to the upper abs: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell row to the hip: 1 set of 15-20 reps, followed by one heavier set of 8-12 reps
Now, you obviously don’t have to rely on the exercises I listed here to build a big, strong back. But if you’re struggling to get your lats in gear, give them a try — I think you’ll find them really helpful!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page, and photo taken by @kylewurzel.