Baby Got Back: Lats Edition

1 Jul

My sincerest apologies, comrades. This particular post isn’t about derrieres.

What a shame.

Instead, we are here to talk about the other “back” – your lats.

A strong, developed back equates stronger lifts and better posture, as well as helping you to develop that beloved “V-taper” that so many seek. And for those women who do not have a natural hourglass figure, building up the lats (as well as the shoulders) can help give the appearance of one.

In other words, a well-developed back is sexy as hell.


What some people (women mostly) don’t realize however, is that they are training their back wrong. These are the same people that have been exercising for awhile and doing everything to get their backs to grow and develop a better shape, but have either plateaued or just can’t figure out what it is they aren’t doing right.

Let’s just take genetics completely out of the picture for now and talk about the average person. ANYONE can build a prize-winning back if they understand some basic mechanics and have the desire to bust their asses a little harder.

A little bit of throwback for you: There was a time when I had quite an average-looking back for a girl. Skinny fat, barely any muscle at all. Within a year though, I managed to add quite a bit of size to my back, and within 3.5 years have had people asking me how to develop theirs more.

Four years of back progress. 2009-2013.

Four years of back progress. 2009-2013.

So if your back is troubling you, I’m here to help.

Sections of this article (in the following order) will be:

  • Muscle activation and engagement
  • Mobility work
  • Rep ranges, weight, and other specifics
  • Exercise list
  • Program planning


Just like any other muscle, activating the muscles of the upper back prior to training is important for ensuring that you are working them to their full potential. Since your arms act as straps with all back exercises, the tendency is to put too much focus on the arms pulling the weight rather than the muscles in your back pulling the weight.

If you observe someone doing a pull-up or a chin-up for the first time, you will notice that all the force appears to be generating from their shoulders, biceps, and forearms. Thus reducing the power of the movement, causing excess stress to the tendons and ligaments, and excluding the focus muscle group from the exercise.

To properly perform a pullup or chin-up, the lats need to be activated and engaged. Sinking the neck and head into the shoulder blades and allowing your shoulders to shrug at the bottom is not only a good way to get injured, but also once again takes the back quite a bit out of the movement.


The muscles in the back are built through pulling movements. So what happens when your back is not engaged in the exercise? Your arms do all the work. Which is why many people complain that their arms give out before their back does.

Remember that with back exercises, you are trying to work the back. The arms should play a part (obviously), but should not be the focus muscle group.


The muscles in the upper back are activated by a few things: light stretching, contractions, and mobility work (more on that in the next section). Engaging the muscles after all warm-ups have been completed is mostly limited to something called your “mind-to-muscle connection”.

The MTMC This is something I first learned from Kai Greene during the beginning of my journey into weightliting. Putting direct mental focus on the muscle you are working in the movement, ESPECIALLY when you are training a muscle group that directly affects other muscle groups (deadlifts, rows, squats, pullups, etc.), is the key to proper engagement of said muscle.

Kai Greene - 09 -

Just like the example I gave earlier with the pullups, it’s very easy to forget what you are trying to train when other muscle groups are involved to complete the movement.

Another example: If you are doing a deadlift, forgetting that the legs generate most of the power in the movement is a recipe for back rounding and a poor lock-out. It also places a lot of unnecessary stress on your back, when your legs could be doing so much of the movement if you had them properly engaged.

No leg involvement here.

No leg involvement here.

Activation in and of itself is simply not enough. You MUST visualize the muscle before AND during the movement. When you are doing rows, do not think of pulling the arms back. Think of retracting and contracting your lats/shoulder blades to pull the weight. This places nearly all the focus on your back, with your arms just there to hold the weight.

That is what you want.

So remember: Visualize, visualize, visualize. Think to yourself “lats”. Remind yourself that you need to be feeling them during the movement. If your back is sore the next day and your arms are not too different, you’ll know that you have engaged your muscles properly.


All mobility and activation work should be done prior to your upper body sessions. It’s extremely important to make this a regular part of your training program to ensure you are breaking down scar tissue, improving circulation, activating your muscles, and improving flexibility – all of which helps to prevent injury and leads to more weight being lifted, and thus, more muscle being built.

NOTE: Please keep in mind that these are warm-up exercises. Take things slow and work at your own pace, according to your individual flexibility and mobility.

First exercise: Wall Slides

Pic source: T-nation

Pic source: T-nation

Helps to:

  • Improve posture
  • Activate the muscles in the upper back
  • Improve scapular and shoulder mobility
  • Strengthen external rotators
  1. Start by contracting your shoulder blades and standing up against a wall.
  2. Bring your arms to about parallel at a 90 degree angle, keeping your rear delts, head, forearms, and the backs of your hands on the wall.
  3. Focusing on keeping your arms, back, and head against the wall through the whole movement, slowly raise your arms as high as you can until you reach a point of moderately uncomfortable resistance. Hold for a few seconds, and then lower back to starting position.
  4. Repeat several times, and try to raise your arms a little higher every time.

Exercise #2: Scapular Push-Ups

Serratus-2Helps to:

  • Stabilize the shoulders
  • Strengthen the serratus anterior
  1. Begin by assuming a regular full push-up position, hands a little wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Keeping your arms and the rest of your body straight, slowly lower your chest by sinking in with your shoulder blades. You should feel a light contraction at the bottom.
  3. Hold for a moment, and then raise yourself back up to starting position and repeat.

Exercise #3: Band Pull-Aparts

Pic source: T-Nation

Pic source: T-Nation

Helps to:

  • Teach proper scapular contration
  • Strengthen external rotators
  • Stretch the pec minors (very important for improving shoulder mobility)
  • Activate the muscles in the upper back
  1. Hold a band or rubber tube with straight arms, a wide grip, and arm’s length out. Keep the band at eye-level.
  2. Slowly pull apart the band out and down, contracting your shoulder blades at the same time. Focus on your rear delts and traps. They should be contracted hard in this position.
  3. Bring back to start and repeat.


So now that we have covered the grand importantness (new word) of muscle activation, mobility work, and engagement, we can go over some fun stuff.

Like how you should be lifting and stuff.

I’ll give you a hint: it starts with H, and ends with Y.

If you’re a smart cookie, you will have guessed HEAVY. If not, you probably need this article more than anyone.

The back is built through HEAVY lifting. Just like your legs, your back is working all day. In order to properly stimulate growth, you need to overload the muscles. This is done through heavy weight training, and lower reps.

If there is one man in bodybuilding that I have the utmost respect for, it’s Dorian Yates. His style of training and work ethic is absolutely incomparable. Nobody has denser muscle than he did. His trick? Heavy weights, lower reps. Some forced reps.


This is how you build a thick, dense, powerful back. Leave high rep ranges out of the picture if your goal is putting on some serious muscle density in this area. The lats especially respond well to lower rep ranges and heavy weight.

The lats also respond remarkably well to forced rep work, including “cheating” reps. Using a little bit of momentum to get in a couple more reps is a long-kept “secret” from the great bodybuilders in the old times. Arnold believed that cheating reps with bicep curls was the key to big biceps. And just the same, cheating reps every now and then with your heavy back workouts can be the key to making those wings explode.

Forced reps cause serious overload to the muscles, and in turn help to build more muscle. Luckily, cheating reps with back exercises are relatively safe so long as you aren’t throwing yourself halfway across the gym.

All of that being said, I generally recommend that people stick to the 5-8 rep range for back work, with about 4 working sets per exercise.  Keep the volume high and the weight heavy, with some forced/cheating reps thrown in once a week for some extra overload.

Now, when I say heavy weight, I mean HEAVY. You should not be able to get up to 8 reps easily unless you are doing a warm-up. If you’re not prepared to make some seriously contorted faces, you’re probably not prepared to grow a bigger back.


Want to touch on something else that is also extremely important for muscle activation and engagement throughout the movement. The way you grip the bars/handles is very important.

If you are grabbing with your thumb wrapped around the bar/handle, you are already involving your arms too much in the movement. In order to really place the focus on your back and away from your tendons/arms, start adopting a thumbless grip for all of your back exercises.


This not only engages your back more, it also improves your grip strength. If you find that your grip is failing before anything else however, feel free to use straps. They are a wonderful tool for pulling movements.


My top favorite back exercises (in no particular order):

  1. Rack Pulls (below knee, or knee level)
  2. Deadlifts (Snatch-grip for more trap/upper back emphasis)
  3. Face Pulls
  4. Seated Close-Grip Rows
  5. One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
  6. Kroc Rows
  7. Close-Grip Lat Pulldowns
  8. Corner Rows

NOTE: I never do wide-grip pulldowns. Why? Because I find that it is damaging to the shoulders. I always suggest a medium grip, close grip being the most preferable. Very little shoulder involvement and less chance for rotator cuff injury.


I’d love to put together a sample plan, but time restrictions will not allow me to at this time.

However, I have a few recommendations for you when putting together a program.

  1. Start with compound movements FIRST. Make these the heaviest. Always start with things such as rack pulls or deadlifts, and keep the reps low and the weight high.
  2. Do not go to failure every workout. Keep the weight heavy for your exercises, but try not to always work to failure. This can work against you. Leave an extra rep or two in the tank.
  3. Warm up for 10 minutes prior to each upper body workout.
  4. Stretch after every session. Every. Session. Pec minors, rotators, upper back, lower back, triceps, biceps.
  5. VISUALIZE! Can’t stress enough how important this part is.


If you are doing everything I have recommended, and STILL cannot seem to add any muscle, I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that you are eating like a 15 year old girl. So yeah. Eat more.

Happy training!!



5 Responses to “Baby Got Back: Lats Edition”

  1. Yulwei July 4, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    Tried thumbless rip on bent over rows and definitely felt more engagement but I still need to work on my mind muscle connection

  2. Volkan July 4, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Great article! You have put a lot of effort on this, I can tell. The last pic took my breath away for a few seconds haha.

  3. shitisrad July 16, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Strong post ma’am – Learnt a bit here.

  4. Andrej July 24, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    Eight exercises listed and barbell rows isn’t one of them? Appalled!

  5. elizabeth August 1, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    Can I say that I love these kinds of articles from you? I loved your squat post, and this is no different–it’s clear that a good deal of thought and consideration is put into each one and like the squat post from some time ago, there are many great takeaways here that I will definitely keep in mind. Keep it up!

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