The latissimus dorsi, or the lats, as their more commonly referred to are the muscles that sit near the sides of the back that look similar to wings wrapping around the body when the arms reach forward. Besides providing an awesome aesthetic v-taper look to the body, the lats have a massively important role in a majority of upper body movements and they are indirectly used in many lower body movements. The lats play a large role in adduction, internal rotation, and extension of the shoulder joint.
In respects to lifting and when the lats are active, they help absorb force when bench pressing, they support the shoulder joint when overhead pressing, and they promote a tight barpath and set back when deadlifting, and those are only a few of their major uses in the gym.
As the largest muscle group on the upper body, the lats deserve direct attention in both compound and isolation movements.
No matter the fitness goal, specific attention to the lat’s strength, hypertrophy, and aesthetics can be important for your performance on the field, gym, platform, and on stage. Below, we’ve included our five lats favorite exercises.
When it comes to building strong and big lats, few movements compare to the pull-up. The pull-up is an amazing bodyweight movement for the upper body that can be made slightly harder with additional weight. In reality, the pull-up should be a staple in every type of strength, power, and fitness athlete’s program. Additionally, it’s an awesome staple for the beginner, as there are multiple variations one can perform to best suit their needs and strength level.
In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, authors compared the EMG ratings in multiple muscles during the pull-up and the chin-up (1). After assessing the results, researchers suggested that the lats were the highest activated muscle and their EMG rating ranged between 117%-130%.
Improve in the pull-up and excel everywhere in the gym. Check out our pull-up guide for beginners!
The second exercise making our favorite lat exercises list is the chin-up, or the pull-ups younger brother. The chin-up is eerily similar to the pull-up, but has one defining trait that makes it different. That difference is in the hand positioning, which causes a difference in how the upper body functions and pulls itself when performing this movement. As opposed to having the hands pronated or neutral like in the pull-up, the chin-up will have the palms supinated (palms facing the chin).
For this reason, the chin-up tends to be slightly easier to perform than the pull-up, as the chin-up uses much more of the biceps to help pull the body upwards. While it may be easier, the chin-up still does an exceptional job at targeting the lats, as the 117%-130% EMG rating from our first study also accounts for the chin-up (1)!
Want bigger arms and lats? Check out our definitive chin-up guide!
3. Lat Pulldown
Ah, the lat pulldown, or the bodybuilder’s best friend. The lat pulldown is an awesome exercise at training the lats for both strength and hypertrophy, and that should come as no surprise, after all, the name “lat pulldown” has lat in its name! When many think of the lat pulldown, they think of the traditional bar that’s long with slight bends at the end for handles, but in reality, when training the lats, all lat pulldowns are good.
In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, authors sought out to compare EMG ratings between three different types of lat pulldowns: Front-of-the-neck, behind-the-neck, and v-bar (2). While we exercise caution when doing behind-the-neck lat pulldowns, study authors suggested that lat EMG ratings were similar for the three variations, so the lat pulldown as a whole can be effective for targeting the lats.
Build a big back with these three exercises, hint: One is a lat pulldown!
4. Bent Over Row
The bent over row is a fantastic compound movement for targeting the lats, upper back, and much more. One of the major reasons we love bent over rows is because this exercise can be loaded exceptionally heavy and will have carry over to competition lifts. Since this movement can be performed heavier than the others on this list, the bent over row can be a good way to provide the lats with an overload stimulus.
Perform bent over rows correctly and receive benefits in your competition lifts! Check out our bent over row guide.
5. Dumbbell Row
The final movement on our best lat exercises list is the dumbbell row. The dumbbell row is a great lat exercise that has a slightly lower bar of entry compared to the barbell bent over row. This movement is great for all fitness levels and can be an excellent tool to teach someone how to properly set the back and contract the lats. Another benefit that comes along with the dumbbell row is that it can be performed for power, strength, and hypertrophy, which makes it dynamic in nature.
Check out our built out dumbbell row guide!
Other Highest-Rated Lats Exercises
- Youdas JW, e. (2019). Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 10 January 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21068680
- Sperandei S, e. (2019). Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 10 January 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19855327