Well, your core for one. And your glutes. But when it comes to all around strength and stability, you need strong(er) lats.
The latissmus dorsi is the broadest muscle in your body. It stretches from the lumbar portion of your spine, runs beneath your traps, and terminates near your bicep. This makes your lats a primary extender of the upper arm.
Because your lats cross multiple joints, they play a vital role in not only stabilizing your shoulder and rib cage but your pelvis and hips as well. So when it comes to strength movements like deadlifts, if you have weak lats, you’re leaving gains on the table.
Engaging your lats while deadlifting is important for injury prevention. During deadlifts, your lats act like anchors for your arms. If you have weak lats, you won’t be able to hold or lift as much weight, at least not without jacking your back up.
But do you even know how to engage or “feel” your lats?
Many lifters lack lat awareness. That’s partly due to our society that keeps our backs hunched over at desks all day. Sitting hunched over for years on end lengthens and weakens all the muscles in your back. So what do you thinks gonna happen when you go to the gym? If you expect to be able to activate your lats after years sitting behind a desk, you got another thing coming.
So what do you do if your lats feel like they’re “turned off?”
The first thing you need to do is touch yourself. And I’m not talking like the Divinyls way of touching yourself either. Touching the muscle you’re working creates a proprioceptive response. So by feeling the muscle you want to work actually work, you increase your mind-muscle connection.
Dumbbell rows are the easiest way to get started. Simply take your free hand and place it on your opposite lat. Press that hand into your lat and feel it work the entire time throughout an entire rep.
But my favorite way to train this concept is actually with a barbell.
Created by bodybuilding legend John Meadows, the Meadows Row is the barbell version of the one arm dumbbell row. And it’s hands down the best exercises for building badass lats. Again, because it allows you the freedom to touch your working side.
If you happen to have a landmine attachment, this is a pretty easy exercise to set up for. If you don’t, all you need to do is wedge a bar into the corner of a wall.
Performing the Meadows Row is pretty simple as you’ll see in the video below. But there are a couple of things remember when you do this exercise:
Use smaller plates instead of the large 45-pound plates as this will improve your range of motion and give you a larger stretch on your lats.
Raise the hip closest to the bar higher than your other hip. This maximizes the stretch on your lat as you row.
Don’t twist your body as you row. Maintain a neutral position with your spine and pull your elbows hard in toward your waist.
As a warm-up, perform 2 sets of 12 reps per side of Meadows Rows. Or if your goal is to increase your wingspread, use this as one of your main exercises for 4 sets of 8-10 reps per side.
Outside of touching yourself, there’re other exercises you can use to increase feeling in your lats.
Pronated to Supinated Single Arm Cable Rows
Starting with your palm facing down — pronated — slowly pull the handle to your side. As you get to the halfway point, rotate your wrist into supination — palms facing the sky.
This twisting from pronation to supination turns on more of the muscle fibers in your lats. Once you pull the handle into your side, squeeze your lats as hard as you can for some extra tension. Slowly lower the weight back and twist your hand back to pronation as you release the cable.
Use this as a warm-up exercise to pump blood by doing 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps per side. Or hammer your lats at the end of a workout, performing 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side with 30 seconds rest.
Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
Your latissmus dorsi activates anytime you extend your shoulder joint. Meaning, anytime you pull an object toward your body, as if you were throwing it behind you, your lats light up. Why do you think rowers have such massive backs?
When it comes to feeling your lats, there’s no better exercise than the straight arm pulldown.
Straight arm lat pulldowns isolate your lats while taking them through the full range of motion for shoulder extension. If you want to light your lats up like the Griswold’s house at Christmas, there’s a small tweak you can make to the movement. Check out my explanation in the video below.
If you still can’t feel your lats, all hope is not lost. There’s a deadlift variation that’ll toast your back, arms, and fingers while igniting a fire in your lats. It’s a lift Hercules used to build his massive strength and size.
Decades before The Rock played Hercules, another muscular monstrosity graced the screen as the Greek hero. Steve Reeves, a bodybuilder turned actor — and at one time the highest paid actor in Europe — had one of the most awe-inspiring physiques in the 1950s.
Steve was one of the strongest bodybuilders in his day. And his wide, muscular back was his greatest calling cards. He attributed his massive back to a deadlift variation he created. And today we know it as the Reeves Deadlift.
When it comes to building superior upper-back, arm, and grip strength there’s no better exercise on Earth.
Today, most men lack grip strength. According to a study at the University of North Carolina, the last generation of men are weaker than their dads.
Steve Reeve’s Deadlift will test your grip strength better than a carnival game. More upper back strength and a vice-like grip is cool and all. But the Reeves Deadlift is a stellar exercise when it comes to lat activation.
Because your arms are out wider in the Reeves Deadlift, your lats act like heavy duty anchors to keep your arms attached to your torso.
“Squeeze your armpits like you have oranges in them and you’re making juice” is a common cue given in regards to deadlifting. But the Reeves Deadlift helps to drive home that point even further. By “squeezing” your armpits with your arms extended, you increase the tension in your lats. And the more tension you can create, the more you can increase your mind-muscle connection.
Performing a Reeves Deadlift is only going to be possible if you have access to bumper plates. I doubt you have the grip strength to grab standard 45-pound plates with your fingertips whilst performing a deadlift. So using smaller 10 or 15-pound bumper plates makes this exercise more manageable
Feel Your Lats to Build a Bigger Back
Feeling your lats isn’t something that will take place in one or two sets. If you’ve struggled to feel your lats engage, getting them to fire is going to take a whole lot of time and practice. So be patient. Don’t get uppercut by discouragement when you don’t feel your lats right away. Stick with these exercises above to help you recruit more muscle fibers in your lats.
And once you’ve mastered these and have your lats operating at new levels, get stronger and sexier with these row variations.