The latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, are the largest muscles of the upper body, so their full development is essential for upper-body size, thickness, width and symmetry. Big lats are a must if you want to have an appealing V-taper that helps make your hips and midsection appear smaller than they really are. That’s especially important for bodybuilders who are a little thick in the midsection and naturally a little blocky. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates had such a physique, but his long, full, superwide lats and overall back development were so amazing’not to mention his mind-boggling calves, hamstrings and glutes’that the sight of him was mesmerizing: Your eyes remained focused on the positive aspects of his development, not the negative parts.
When someone is blessed with naturally wide shoulders, small hips and a small waistline, and he develops his lats to the max, you get the super-V-taper of a Sergio Oliva, Lee Haney, Tony Pearson, Brian Buchanan, Aaron Baker, Flex Wheeler or Ronnie Coleman. Physiques like theirs bring gasps of amazement from audiences at major bodybuilding shows. It’s hard to believe that people can develop their lats to such a degree. The many bodybuilders who have a real problem developing their lats find it especially hard to comprehend.
As the largest muscles of the upper body, the lats get the greatest indirect-muscle-growth effect of any muscles of the body, except for the thighs. Arthur Jones, famed creator of Nautilus machines, was the first to write about the indirect effect. Imagine throwing a stone into a pool of calm water. The stone makes a splash, and the ripple that produces runs to the far end of the pool. The larger the stone, the bigger the splash and the larger the wave. Said Jones, ‘When one muscle grows in response to exercise, the entire muscular structure of the body grows to a lesser degree’even muscles that are not being exercised at all; and the larger the muscle that is growing’or the greater the degree of growth’the greater this indirect effect will be.’
Jones used the example of a beginning bodybuilder who starts out with 13-inch arms. Say the beginner decides that for the next year all he’s going to do is squats. A year later he’s 50 pounds heavier’and his arms have grown substantially larger in size, too, despite the fact that he didn’t work them directly at all. So even though he only did squats, not all 50 pounds went to his thighs. It went everywhere, but the areas most directly worked by squats’the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and lower back’grew the most.
By the same token, if a bodybuilder, through hard work and dedication, managed to double the size of his lats, he would cause indirect growth in all the muscles of the body’even the calves and thighs. Since the back contains the two largest muscle groups of the upper body’the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius’and the second and third largest of the entire body (after the thighs), it only makes sense to devote more time and effort to working your back, as opposed to smaller muscles such as the rear deltoids, biceps, triceps and even pecs.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t train those muscles. That would be ridiculous and cause problems with proportion and symmetry. You simply need to understand that smaller muscles are just that’small. If you want to get big, work the big muscles the hardest and heaviest. Make the big muscles big, and the small muscles will follow, growing larger due to the indirect effect.
Unfortunately, unless you’re genetically gifted, the lats are not that easy to develop. Many bodybuilders complain that they cannot feel, or isolate, their lats when they do lat exercises’be it chins, pulldowns, pullovers or some type of rows. Usually, the problem is that they can’t see their lats as they train them. Many say they get a better pump in their biceps than their lats during lat exercises, and some even claim they get a better biceps pump than they get doing biceps exercises. In fact, this is so common among beginners and intermediates, it’s become a clich’.
So what do you do? The answer is complex because the back muscles themselves are complex in their many functions and layers, but if you want to learn to train a muscle group properly for maximum stimulation and growth, you have to understand how it functions. I suggest you peruse a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, to see how the latissimus dorsi works with other muscles of the upper back’the teres major and minor, the rhomboids major and minor, the trapezius and infraspinatus. Here’s a passage about the lats from that book:
The latissimus dorsi, when it acts upon the humerus, depresses it, draws it backward, adducts and at the same time rotates it inward. It is the muscle that is principally employed in giving a downward blow, as in felling a tree or in sabre practice. If the arm is fixed, the muscle may act in various ways upon the trunk; thus, it may raise the lower ribs and assist in forcible inspiration; or, if both arms are fixed, the two muscles may assist the abdominal and great pectoral muscles in suspending and drawing the trunk forward, as in climbing or walking on crutches.
How do you increase muscle isolation so that most of the overload, or mechanical advantage, is placed squarely on the target muscle group, which in this case happens to be the lats? First of all there’s a right way and a wrong way to do every exercise. You determine whether you’re doing an exercise correctly by whether you feel it. So you must try to focus on your lats as you train. Using sensory feedback, teach yourself how to best do wide-grip chins, close-grip chins, wide-grip lat pulldowns, reverse-grip pulldowns, bent-over barbell rows, T-bar rows, seated cable rows, one-arm dumbbell rows or whatever lat exercises you prefer. Just use your ability to feel the sensations that go along with the proper working of a muscle, such as muscle contractions, muscular burn and ache, muscle exhaustion and pump. If you feel those sensations in your lats as you do lat exercises’bingo!’you’ve hit the nail right on the head. No matter what anyone else says, you’re doing the exercise correctly for your body. When your lats are pumped like balloons and burning like the fires of Hades, you’ll have no doubt as to whether you’re working them properly.
If, however, you feel those sensations in other muscle groups, such as the biceps, rear delts, traps or lower back, when you’re working lats, it’s a sure bet your form is off in some way. That likely means you’re lifting too much weight to maintain proper form, which forces you to bring other muscle groups into play just to keep the weight moving. It has nothing to do with how hard you’re training or how much intensity you use. Every vein in your neck can be popping out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working your lats hard and correctly. You are working hard and exerting yourself maximally; you’re just not working your lats hard and maximally.
That no-feel phenomenon is usually caused by poor lat innervation. The lats feel somewhere between numb and deadened at worst and mushy and weak at best in response to exercise. It’s the number-one reason for poor lat development on the majority of novice and intermediate bodybuilders’although even some pro bodybuilders never quite grasp the knack of working and isolating their lats properly and have quite ordinary lat development in comparison to other muscle groups.
The problem of poor innervation of the lats is worse with beginners; their hands, biceps and shoulders are stronger, so those are the muscles they use the most when performing chins and pulldowns. Consequently, those are the muscles that receive the most stimulation. Beginners have no idea how to hold the bar and position their bodies correctly so they actually work their lats, and they end up working other muscle groups. That’s the real cause of their lack of lat growth. It takes a long time to develop the ability to feel the overload in your lats, but there’s no guarantee you’ll ever learn to achieve maximum innervation.
Most bodybuilders think the solution to their lat-building problem lies in secret routines, types and number of exercises used, a magical combination of sets and reps, special techniques or some wonder supplement or drug. More often than not, they use increasingly more weight, with no regard to exercise form. Until you understand muscle innervation and how it affects muscle growth, it’s pointless to discuss things like lat exercises, routines, sets and reps. It’s putting the cart before the horse.
While muscle innervation is not an all-or-nothing proposition, it’s sometimes hard to pin down. It’s a bit like a woman who’s not sure she’s had an orgasm during sex. (To a man that seems absurd. Have you ever heard of a man who wasn’t sure if he’d had an orgasm during sex?) So if repetitions are to muscular stimulation as strokes are to sexual stimulation, then optimal lat stimulation’the burn, the ache, the blood-engorged pump’is analogous to sexual orgasm. Think of it this way: At the end of a set your lats are saying, ‘Was it good for you too, or did you just fake it?’
There’s a big difference between just lifting weights and training a muscle group properly. You can’t fake innervation. Either you feel the sensations of muscular exertion in your lats as you train, or you don’t.
Many bodybuilders don’t understand that quite often all it takes to feel a muscle, isolate it and stimulate it fully is a small change in the way you hold the bar, in the plane of motion and in the body position you maintain throughout the set.
For example, on overhand chins and pulldowns hold the bar more in your palms and less in your fingers. That deactivates the biceps, which, as Larry Scott puts it, want to bully the other muscle groups and take over the set. That’s exactly what happens to beginners who complain that all they can feel during a lat exercise is their biceps.
Holding the bar in your palms also helps to ‘pull’ the lats outward. In fact, I suggest you place your hands right on top of the bar before beginning a set of pulldowns. The bar should run across the meat of your palms, while your fingers and thumbs drape over it, as opposed wrapping around it. That lets your hands become more like hooks, and it hooks your lats and pulls them out in the top position. As you begin pulling the bar down, you should feel the pressure across your hands, not your fingers. Continue pulling the bar down and toward a point on your upper chest. Arch your chest, and pull your shoulders down and back, but don’t lean back. At the bottom of the repetition tense and squeeze your lats hard, and then feel them stretch as you return to the top position.
Don’t straighten your arms completely at the top. In fact, if you’re using the right grip and grip width, you shouldn’t be able to straighten them’there will always be some bend in the elbows, and the lats will always feel hooked, or pulled out. Do as many strict reps as you can in that manner. When fatigue sets in and you can’t possibly get any more strict reps, then, sure, go ahead and use some body motion and lean back a little as you pull the bar to your chest. You should be able to knock out another four to six of these cheat reps, which not only extends the set but also overloads the lats for a longer period.
As for moving the bar on a slightly different plane of motion, that means moving the bar on an angle instead of straight up and down. That’s assuming you’re in the proper position when you begin a set, which makes the angled plane of motion more adventageous for working the lats properly. On chins and pulldowns keep your lower back arched and your chest thrust high toward the ceiling as you pull your shoulders down and back. The palms-only grip is the finishing touch. You also want to be conscious of driving your elbows down and back on each repetition.
With the new grip, plane of motion and body position you should be able to feel and better isolate your lats, which allows you to work them more intensely. As I said before, you’ll know when you’ve hit the nail on the head when you get good contractions and a good stretch. (In fact, you may want to say, ‘Squeeze,’ in your mind when you tense your lats in the finish position and, ‘Stretch,’ as you release. Remember, the harder a muscle stretches, the harder it can contract.)
Try to feel the fatigue products building up in your lats so you get a burn and a good pump’strong indications that the lats are getting the brunt of the work.
On rowing exercises there are five aspects to concentrate on to get the most out of your training.
1) Start with a false grip, meaning the thumb and fingers are on the same side of the bar. Use straps or sponges to reinforce your grip.
2) Maintain an arched lower back and a flat upper back throughout the set. Set your torso slightly above parallel to the floor and keep it there throughout the set. Keep your knees flexed, your head up and your butt below the level of your torso throughout the set. Above all never let your back round over and your head dip or your glutes rise. Stay in that butt-below-the-torso arched-back position at all times. If your butt tends to rise as you pull the bar into your lowers, the weight is probably too heavy. You’re definitely breaking form. You may be working hard trying to manhandle that heavy weight, but your lats are not working very hard, if at all.
3) Keep your torso down and over the weight and row the bar or plates into your abs. Sure signs the weight is too heavy for good form include standing up with the weight, dropping your chest to meet the bar and using momentum to heave the bar up to your dropping chest. Since the lats cannot contract when the lower back is rounded, that’s a recipe for poor lat stimulation and growth.
4) Perform the barbell row on a slightly tilted plane of motion. Lower the bar down and out for maximum stretch, and then pull it up and into your lower abs.
5) Pull your elbows up and back as far as possible and squeeze hard for maximum latissimus contraction.
These rules apply to bent-over rows performed with either an overhand or underhand grip as well as to T-bar rows.
When you perform one-arm dumbbell rows, the plane of motion is much greater. Instead of rowing the dumbbell straight up and down, row the ‘bell as if you were sawing a piece of wood. Reach far forward as you lower the dumbbell, and then pull it upward and back’pulling your elbow as far back as you can for maximum contraction.
Don’t expect to get these new motions perfect the first time you try them. You’ll have to reduce your poundages a little and emphasize isolating and stimulating your lats and feeling the sensations you experience when you train them properly: muscle ache and exhaustion, a burning sensation as lactic acid and fatigue products build up in the lats and a good pump as the lats become engorged with blood.
That’s not to say you can’t build up to some respectable poundages after a learning period, just that you’ll have to reduce poundages so you can learn the proper motions and positions and get the most lat stimulation. As I said above, you’ll know when you’re using too much weight if you’re forced to bring other muscle groups into play to complete the exercise. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that if you have to use every ounce of mental energy and every muscle group in your body to move the weight, you’re not rowing properly. You’re more likely doing something that looks like bent-over cleans, a half-deadlift and half-rowing motion, and yank-and-lay-back pulldowns, mostly working arms, delts, traps, spinal erectors and even glutes and legs.
Check your ego at the door when you walk into the gym. Use sensible weights and good form, and concentrate deeply, visualizing yourself having lats like Dorian Yates or Ronnie Coleman.
Rowing, Planes of Motion and Maximizing Lat Feel
Many lat exercises, which most bodybuilders think are performed on a straight-up-and-down plane, are in fact done on a tilted, or angled, plane. I’ve discussed a few examples in the accompanying article. But how do you know for sure that the plane of motion you use is correct for any rowing exercise or for your individual body type and shape? Feel, or innervation, of course. The plane of motion that allows you to isolate and feel the lats working is the correct one. You must feel and sense the lats working, especially on bent-over rowing motions, on which you can’t watch your lats as you train. You have to view your body as a bio-feedback machine that can give you invaluable information as to whether you’re training your lats’or any muscle, for that matter’correctly. Learn to separate the good feelings from the bad. Your body will teach you the exact form, range of motion, plane of motion and technique for maximizing lat innervation, isolation and stimulation for maximum growth.
Here are a couple of rules to keep in mind whenever you are training. Follow them faithfully, and I can assure you more productive workouts and better results.
Rule 1: If you can’t feel a muscle as you train it, assume you’re training it incorrectly. I can guarantee you that your exercise performance is not optimal for muscle stimulation or growth.
Rule 2: If you agree that the purpose of lifting weights is to make the target muscle group do most of the work (100 percent isolation isn’t possible and on compound movements the use of other muscle groups is unavoidable and necessary), then muscle stimulation and making the muscle work hard are your primary goals, not seeing how much weight you can move in any manner or how many reps you can cheat up. If the target muscle isn’t working hard, then, again, assume your method is wrong.
On the other hand, if your target muscle burns and aches and swells with pump, and the contractions make the muscle cramp, assume your form and methodology are correct.
Rule 3: Arthur Jones used to say that trainees should find ways to make an exercise harder, not easier, to make it more effective. Make your exercises harder, and your workouts will become more productive.
Everyone has heard the saying, Practice makes perfect. The idea is that the only way to get good at anything is to practice doing it a lot. The trouble is, practice does not guarantee perfection’often it’s the contrary. The new saying’popular with tennis and golf instructors, batting coaches, track and field coaches and gymnastics teachers’is, Perfect practice makes perfect; practice does not.
If you think about it, practice is no guarantee of success if you practice a movement incorrectly and continue to do it incorrectly. You’ll never learn how to do it right because you’re teaching the muscles, nerves and neural units how to do something the wrong way. Practicing incorrectly just ingrains bad habits that are hard to unlearn. Bad form feels ‘right’ and natural, while correct form feels wrong and unnatural.
So if you keep doing chins, pulldowns and rowing motions wrong and yet are complaining about how you can’t feel your lats when you train, then you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. You’ll never learn from your mistakes or do the necessary experimentation to find the correct groove that allows you to feel your lats. You’ll just keep making the same mistakes over and over, never improving. To use Zulak’s Law of Training: Those who train their muscles without using their minds are doomed to fail.
Oh, and one last question: Are your training perfectly, or are you just training? ‘G.Z. IM