ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Upper Body Workout: The Best Exercises for Your Lats

Upper Body Workout: The Best Exercises for Your Lats

Reading Time: 4 minutes 18 seconds


Date: 2021-08-25T00:00:00-04:00

Ah, the "V-taper"! Many people aspire to create the athletic physique that makes the waist look smaller and the upper body look larger. Building the latissimus dorsi (lats) is one of the best ways to create that look.

However, keep in mind, strong lats do more than just provide an aesthetic appeal. The lats support healthy posture and play a role in several functional movements.

This article will provide some guidance on how to help clients build a strong, healthy, V-shaped back. We'll start by exploring where the lats attach in the body, the function of the muscle, and finish by focusing on some of the best exercises for developing strong lats.

Latissimus Dorsi Muscle Anatomy

The lats are one of the biggest muscles in the body. They are large, flat, triangle-shaped muscles that stretch down the middle of the spine and inferior ribs to the iliac crest and up across the shoulder blade. Each lat muscle inserts in the intertubercular groove of the humerus (under the arm near the front side of the armpit). Both lats, side by side, create a large, diamond-like shape across the back.

Lat Muscle Function

The lats play an important role in upper body movement (primarily the arms at the shoulder joint) and torso shape.

Movement/Function: The lats contribute to a few different movements at the shoulder joint:

  • Internal rotation

  • Adduction

  • Extension

The lats are also known to play a role in breathing (1).

Aesthetics: Well-developed lats are the primary reason for the V-shape that many clients desire. The bottom of the V starts at the lower back and extends up under the armpits. It helps create that look of a smaller waist and larger upper body.

Lat Exercises

Because the lats are attached to the spine and are a key contributor to several shoulder actions, there are many ways to engage them. The following list includes some of the best ways to target the lats during your clients' workouts.


Regular pull-ups are a great bodyweight exercise and an effective way to target the lats.

Clients should grip the pull-up bar with palms facing away from the body (hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width). Once they have a solid grip, they will extend the arms, raise the feet off the ground, and drop the shoulder blades. They will pull the chest up toward the bar and focus on pulling the elbows down toward the sides of the body. When they reach the top of the pull-up, they will slowly lower the body back to the starting position.

If your clients cannot do a bodyweight pull-up, you can use a large resistance band looped from the bar to their foot, an assisted pull-up machine, or spot them to help them complete assisted pull-ups. You can also have them start with negative pull-ups!

Negative Pull-Up

The negative pull-up is very similar to a regular pull-up. However, clients will need a bench or partner to get themselves into the starting position because this exercise is only the second half of the regular pull-up (the eccentric phase of the lift).

With the same grip as a regular pull-up, the client will use a bench or partner to lift them to the top of the pull-up position. Once the client is in place, the partner will release their grip and the client will slowly lower themself down to the ground as slow as possible.

Lat Pulldowns

Add lat pulldowns to your clients' workouts—another excellent exercise for targeting the lats.

Your client will grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and establish a seated position with good posture. Much like the pull-up, the client will drop the shoulder blades and pull the bar down toward their chest with an emphasis on pulling the elbows down. Slowly and with control, they will reverse back to the starting position.

Straight Arm Lat Pulldown

The straight arm lat pulldown can be a challenging one to do correctly. However, once your clients learn to feel the lats engage, it should be easier for them to master it.

Your client will use the lat pulldown machine. However, instead of remaining in a seated position, they will stand behind the seat and face the bar or rope attachment. The client should firmly grip the attachment and take a couple of steps backward. They will pull their shoulder blades down, keep the core long and engaged, and slightly hinge at the hips. Keeping the arms straight and pulling with the lats, the client will pull their arms down and back toward the sides of their body. They will slowly control the weight back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Row

The one-arm dumbbell row is another strong exercise for targeting the lats and back.

Using a secure bench, the client will place their left knee and their left hand on top of the bench for support. The right foot should be placed firmly on the ground and the right hand should be hanging below the right shoulder but firmly gripping the weight (with the palm facing the body). The client will lift the weight by driving the elbow up towards the ceiling and then slowly lower the dumbbell back down to the starting position. Repeat the exercise on the opposite side of the body as well.

Tips for Success

Hypertrophy Training: If you're looking to increase muscle size (hypertrophy), the workout routine should include 3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions.

Proper Form: Proper form for each exercise is essential for success. If the lats aren't firing, your clients are not going to get the results they want.

Eat Right: Proper nutrition is critical. Without the right nutrients, the body can't build muscle.

Grip: You can vary your clients' grip on the lat pulldowns, regular pull-ups, and negative pulls-up to make things more challenging. Wide grip and close grip for all three exercises are common modifications that can drive change.

Although the lats are the largest muscle in the back, they aren't the only muscle. So, if clients are focused on developing an incredible back for function or aesthetic purposes, don't forget about the rest of the back muscles (trapezius, erector spinae, etc.)!

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