The Science of Training: Lats

By Josh Bryant and Joe Giandonato

Brian Buchanan’s lat development capped off a surreal X-Frame

Line up two guys side by side with the same amount of muscle mass and body fat percentage, the guy with superior v-taper looks bigger and leaner.

Big backs cement bodybuilding legacies, look no further than Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and Ronnie Coleman — a “wide-latted” shortlist of Mr. Olympia emeriti whose back development dwarfed the giants they face on staged.

Bottom line, if you want to win on the bodybuilding stage, rake in dead presidents on the Chippendales stage, or build a physique that terrorizes even the most jaded tailor, you need a “latitude adjustment”.

Today, we are providing that latitude adjustment completely guided by science.


The lats, or latissimus dorsi, is a huge and very versatile muscle. Its fibers originate from the posterior layer of the thoracolumbar fascia, spinous processes and supraspinous ligaments of lower six thoracic vertebrae and all lumbar vertebrae, sacral and iliac crests, inferior scapulae, and the lower three ribs in which it interdigitates with the external obliques, joining distally on the floor of the intertubercular groove of the humerus. 

From its multiple anchor points to its distal attachments, its fiber arrangement, though largely transverse, runs the continuum from near parallel to almost perpendicular as fibers converge closer to its insertion on the humerus. 

As iron addicts, bouncers, debt collectors, and strength coaches, we know the direction of muscle fibers dictates function and considering their diverse continuum of fiber arrangement, we know they are capable of supporting a wide array of movements, including: extension, horizontal abduction, adduction, internal rotation, of shoulder — the latter two are performed in tandem with the pectoralis major and teres major.

The lats can further be divided into three unique sections based off of muscle fiber angles and internal moment arms. This would tell us that training movements that involve shoulder extension in a position of moderate shoulder abduction target the upper lats; for example, a wide grip bent over row.  Whereas, the lower and middle lats are more involved in shoulder adduction and more effectively targeted with pulldowns of various angles.

The lats are strongest in shoulder extension, as verified by EMG analysis, when the shoulders are partially flexed and/or adducted, so the muscle can extend the shoulder to pull a load rearward, such as a straight armed pulldown, or to draw the body towards a fixed object, such as a pull-up. It can be ascertained from this finding that dead-hang pull-ups, while difficult and looking bad ass, won’t cut the mustard in optimally recruiting the lats, additionally, performing pull-ups from a dead-hang kills the muscle-building effects of time under tension – as you must stay in the muscles’ active range, unless of course, you’re in search of some Billy club forearms.  

Furthermore, the lats contribute to deep inspiration and play a role as a mechanical expectorant, helping expel mucous and other foreign bodies from the airway by contributing to coughing and sneezing.

Its role in spinal — particularly, lumbosacral — stabilization has been widely debated. Though “tighter” and shorter lats may result in lower back and shoulder pain given their expansive coverage and multiple insertion points embedded within the back.

Fiber Type Distribution

In 2013, tissue biopsies revealed that the latissimus dorsi is largely composed (67%) of Type II muscle fibers implying that it is best designed for explosive activities involving pulling, throwing, and other explosive phasic-influenced movements. 

Contrasting findings from 2007 indicated the lats were evenly split with approximately 50 percent fast-twitch and 50 percent slow-twitch muscle fibers.  

What we can deduce are the lats are composed of both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers and therefore require wide range of rest periods, reps, tempos, angles, and training intensities.

Additionally, since the lats are a big, strong muscle, don’t let your grip limit their development. If your grip fatigues out before your lats, or is simply not strong enough to keep up—strap up!  You can develop your grip by other means in the interim, but never at the expense of your lats.  

Muscle Activation

Some lifters cry big ol’ alligator tears about their biceps “taking over” when targeting the lats with movements such as pulldowns.  One study from 2009 demonstrated that novice lifters were able to increase lat activation by incorporating back activation cues while executing garden variety lat pulldowns.

A more recent 2018 study revealed that that intentional focusing on the biceps, while performing bicep curls, not only led to a stronger mind-muscle connection, but damn near double the bicep of growth to that of subjects that just focused on lifting the weight from point A to Point B. Take home point from these studies is focus on your lats, when training your lats. 

Here is how you can increase lat activation in training:

1.Bodybuilding Pose—A lat spread is a difficult pose, not only can you boost hypertrophy with this isometric tension pose but it further teaches you to “turn on your lats”, if you can effectively hit this pose, be rest assured your biceps won’t take over when you are doing lat pulldowns.
2.Always initiate the movement with the lats, it’s nearly impossible for the lats to catch up.
3.Pull with your elbows—When executing any pattern that targets the lats, instead of thinking about pulling the weight with your hands, focus on pulling the weight with your elbows.
4.Tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets—this cue introduces both scapular depression and retraction, and greatly increases the tension created by shoulder extension and adduction of pulling movements.
5.If all else fails, try a thumbless or “false grip”, as this reduces biceps involvements and makes it easier to feel the lats working .

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is, well-developed lats are the centerpiece of  a well-developed  physique. The lats play an important role in nearly every strength exercise, even if they are not the prime mover.  Now you are without excuse with our latitude adjustment.

Become an expert in maximizing hypertrophy with Josh’s ISSA Bodybuilding Specialist Course.

   Ackland, David C., et al. “Moment Arms of the Muscles Crossing the Anatomical Shoulder.” Journal of Anatomy, vol. 213, no. 4, 2008, pp. 383–390., doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2008.00965.x.

Bogduk, N., Johnson, G., & Spalding, D. (1998). The morphology and biomechanics of latissimus dorsi. Clinical Biomechanics, 13 (6), 377-385.

Orozco-Levi, M., Gea, J., Sauleda, J., Corominas, J.M., Minguella, J., Aran, X., & Broquetas, J.M. (1995). Structure of the latissimus dorsi muscle and respiratory function. Journal of Applied Physiology, 78 (3), 1132-1139.

Paoli, A., Pacelli, Q.F., Cancellara, P., Toniolo, L., Moro, T., Canato, M., Miotti, D., & Reggiani, C. (2013). Myosin isoforms and contractile properties of single fibers of human latissimus dorsi muscle. BioMed Research International. [Epub 2013 Jul 22].

Park, S.Y. & Yoo, W.G. (2013). Comparison of exercises inducing maximum voluntary isometric contraction for the latissimus dorsi using surface electromyography. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 23 (5), 1106-1110.

Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, et al. “Differential Effects of Attentional Focus Strategies during Long-Term Resistance Training.” European Journal of Sport Science, vol. 18, no. 5, 2018, pp. 705–712., doi:10.1080/17461391.2018.1447020.

Snyder, Benjamin J, and James R Leech. “Voluntary Increase in Latissimus Dorsi Muscle Activity During the Lat Pull-Down Following Expert Instruction.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 23, no. 8, 2009, pp. 2204–2209., doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181bb7213.

Srinivasan, R.c., et al. “Fiber Type Composition and Maximum Shortening Velocity of Muscles Crossing the Human Shoulder.” Clinical Anatomy, vol. 20, no. 2, 2007, pp. 144–149., doi:10.1002/ca.20349.