Beyond the Lat Pulldown: How to Fix Your Upper Back Deficiency

Do you pull with your lats, or are your biceps working overtime?

After a high-volume pull-up training session—be it kipping or strict pull-ups—where does the soreness hit you the next day?

If your answer is The bottom of my biceps, then there’s a good chance your lats aren’t helping you very much when you pull. And although you can still become decent at pulling movements by relying on your biceps, if your lats aren’t also participating, you are leaving a ton of strength on the table. 

I admit, I have a lat deficiency, and for many years my solution was simply to do more, more, more pull-ups. It worked to a certain degree—I did get better at strict pull-ups—but then I hit a plateau, because I was just logging volume, as opposed to fixing my lat deficiency.

So more recently, I have been retraining myself to actually use my lats and it’s making a world of difference. 

Here are five particularly helpful movements to give those lats no chance not to fire:

During all of these movements, here’s what you want to think about: 

When we grab onto a bar for a pull-up, or a DB for a bentover row, for example, our natural instinct is to think about pulling the DB to our body, or our body to the bar in the case of a pull-up. This automatically activates our biceps. 

Instead, think of your hands and forearms as being hooks that connect your elbows to the bar or the DB, or whatever you’re holding onto. Their only role is to grip. From there, focus on your elbows by imagining there’s something or someone behind you. Your job is to hit them with your elbows, as if you’re a tow truck pulling a car. 

1. Seated rope pulls

Scaled Rope Climbs

Start seated with your feet on a bench or box and gran onto a rope. Then start to pull yourself up by driving your elbows back, one hand at a time (keeping your hips as high as your can), until you’re in an upright position on the bench. Then, once again, slowly lower yourself, hand-over-hand, until you’re back on the ground. These are great as they isolate one lat at a time.

2. Single arm ring row

Single Arm Ring Row

Similar to the rope climb pulls, single arm ring rows are ideal for isolating one lat at a time. You will likely have to place your body in a more upright position than you would if you were using two hands. 

Top of a Single Arm Ring Row

3. Landmine single arm row

Bent Over Barbell Landmine Row

This is sort of like a bentover DB row, but with a barbell anchored into a landmine contraption. Again, focus on driving your elbow straight back.

Bent Over Barbell Landmine Row Top

4. Hollow hold lat pulldowns

Banded Lat Activation

Attach a band to a bar overhead and then place a dowel through the band. Lay on your back, keep your arms straight and pull the band to your waist as you pull yourself into a hollow body position. Then return to the starting position slowly, focusing on slowing the movement down by resisting with your lats.

Banded Lat Activation with Core Engagement

5. Wide grip pull-up

Pullup Bar Hang

One of the easiest ways to get your biceps to takeover during a pull-up is to place your hands super close together. When they’re wider, it will force you to activate the pull with the lats. Yes, you might feel a whole lot worse at pull-ups in the short term, but widening your grip is a great training tool to get those lats working harder than they normally do. 

Top of a pull-up

Emily Beers

Emily Beers

Emily Beers is a freelance health, fitness and nutrition writer. She has also been coaching fitness at MadLab School of Fitness in Vancouver, B.C. since 2009. A former college basketball player and rower, Emily became heavily involved in CrossFit after finishing her Masters degree in journalism at the University of Western Ontario. She competed at the 2014 CrossFit Games and also worked with CrossFit Inc.’s media team for 8 years. You can also find her work at Precision Nutrition, the Whole Life Challenge, OPEX, and a host of other fitness and nutrition companies and media outlets.

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