The Best Lats Exercises For A Robust Back


It’s always upsetting when we look at our reflection in the mirror and do not see the physical form of our body that we would like to see. 

Some people look at their reflection and wish their skinny arms were more muscular and toned. Others want their quads or pecs to look bigger or more well-defined. As a final example, many look at their bodies and wish to be leaner with more defined abs rather than a round belly pooch.

All of these physique goals have one thing in common—they focus on the “mirror” muscles, the ones we can readily see when we flex or pose in front of the mirror.

Although the muscles on the front of the body, like the abs, chest, quads, and biceps, are important, and it’s perfectly valid to strive to strengthen and build them, it’s also important to focus on the often-neglected muscles on the backside of the body, such as the lats.

Having a strong back is critical for injury prevention, athletic performance, and functional strength for activities in everyday life.

In this article, we will share some of the best lats exercises to give you inspiration and guidance for your lats workouts so that even if you can’t see them, your lats are just as strong and well-defined as your pecs and abs.

We will cover: 

  • What Are the Lats?
  • Benefits of Lats Exercises and Lats Workouts
  • The Best Lats Exercises For A Robust Back

Let’s dive in! 

A lat pulldown, one of the best lats exercises.

What Are the Lats?

The lats, short for latissimus dorsi muscles, are a pair of large, triangular, or V-shaped muscles on either side of your spine. They span from the very inside of your upper arm by your shoulder down to the back of the pelvis at your waist, creating a dramatic taper that spans your entire back.

The primary function of the lats is to stabilize the spine while supporting and providing strength to the arms and shoulders. The lats allow for bending to the side and keeping the spine straight during rotational movements as well as during more static postures.

The latissimus dorsi muscles also help extend, rotate, and move the shoulder. For example, the lats are one of the primary muscles involved in any pulling motion, whether pulling back on something in front of you (like opening a car door or heavy refrigerator door) or pulling down on something that is overhead.

The lats also help adduct the arms, which is the motion that involves pulling your arms back down to your sides after they have been abducted or brought out to either side of your body, like the letter “T.” 

Due to the many functions of the lats, these key back muscles are heavily involved in exercises like pull-ups and rowing but are even involved in running, walking, and breathing.

A person doing a deadlift.

Benefits of Lats Exercises and Lats Workouts

As can be seen, the lats are involved in a lot of common movement patterns necessary for both athletic activities as well as those needed in everyday life. The lats are also necessary for non-movement in that they are critical for stabilizing the spine and giving the shoulders and arms a stable base of support.

Therefore, performing our best lats exercises will improve your functional strength and help ensure that the strength in your pushing muscles on the front side of the body (pecs and deltoids) is balanced with the strength in your pulling muscles (lats).

Muscle imbalances in these groups of muscles can limit your overall strength, reduce the efficiency of your movements, and increase the risk of injury. 

The following are the benefits of regularly performing our best lats exercises:

  • Strengthening your back
  • Stabilizing your spine
  • Improving shoulder adduction and pulling strength
  • Reducing your risk of injury
  • Improving overall core support and function
  • Enhancing breathing
  • Increasing running speed, throwing, swimming, and rowing
A person doing a kettlebell swing.

The Best Lats Exercises For A Robust Back

Although there aren’t a ton of exercises for the lats, there are options for lat exercises no matter what equipment you have available, including dumbbells, barbells, weight machines, and even just bodyweight lat exercises.

Arguably, the most common lats exercise is the pull-up, but there are other exercises that either target the lats specifically or strengthen the entire back, including the lats, so even if you have yet to master the pull-up or simply want to ensure your lats workouts are well rounded, there are plenty of options. 

For example, although deadlifts are typically considered an exercise for the hamstrings and glutes, deadlifts also are a great way to work your lats. When performed correctly, this exercise engages your lats to help pull the weight up while also stabilizing your spine. 

Here are some of the best lats exercises for a strong back:

A person doing a lat pulldown.

Strength Training Exercises for the Lats

#1: Pull-Downs

The lats are the primary movers in the pull-down motion, so some of the best lats exercises that can be done to target this area are the lat pull-down machine, resistance band lat pull-downs, and straight-arm pull-downs using a cable machine. 

Focus on pulling down from your whole back by retracting your shoulder blades. Additionally, vary your grip width to activate different muscle fibers in the lats.

#2: Deadlifts

As mentioned, even though deadlifts primarily target the posterior chain muscles like the glutes and hamstrings, they also work your lats. This makes the deadlift a great total-body, functional lats exercise.

All deadlift variations will activate the lats to some degree, but hex bar deadlifts and barbell deadlifts are typically more effective at recruiting the lats compared to dumbbell deadlifts or single-leg Romanian deadlifts given the higher loads with a bilateral movement and nuanced differences in the lifting technique.

A person doing a row.

#3: Rows

Any kind of rowing motion or row exercise will target the lats.

This includes everything from using a rowing machine to dumbbell rows, barbell rows, landmine rows, TRX or suspension strap inverted rows, bent-over rows, single-arm kettlebell rows, Pendlay rows, cable rows, and resistance band rows.

When you are performing rows, focus on keeping your spine as stable and straight as possible as you powerfully retract your shoulders, bend your elbows, and pull the weight towards your body.

#4: Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are probably the most classic example of an exercise for the lats.

To fully engage your lats during a pull-up, think about driving your elbows down toward the ground rather than raising your body up to get your chin above the bar. This subtle difference in the mental cueing can help better activate the lats rather than the deltoids.

If you have yet to master regular pull-ups, you can do negative pull-ups, which involve starting at the top position with your chin above the bar and then slowly lowering your body, working on the eccentric contraction of the lats. 

As you get stronger, you can start to incorporate the concentric, or listing, phase of the pull-up.

A person doing a pull up.

Another alternative is to perform assisted pull-ups.

You can either use an assisted pull-up machine or loop a resistance band over the top of the pull-up bar and under your knees or feet to offset some of your weight and help you lift your body up.

As you get stronger, you can decrease the amount of assistance you are getting. 

Once you are able to do regular pull-ups, you can increase the difficulty and further strengthen your lats by wearing a weighted vest or using chains to attach weight plates to your body.

It is also beneficial to vary the distance of your grip when performing pull-ups to target different areas of the lats. In addition to the standard-width grip, perform narrow grip pull-ups and wide grip pull-ups to target different muscle fibers.

You can also perform dead hangs in the pull-up position to work the lats.

Chin-ups, with your palms facing your body, also utilize the lats to some degree, but not as much as pull-ups. 

However, incorporating chin-ups into your lats workouts is a good way to vary the type of motion and train different movement patterns.

#5: Dumbbell Pullovers

Dumbbell pullovers and other straight-arm pullovers are also good exercises for the lats.

A person doing a lateral raise.

#6: Lateral Raises

Lateral raises involve lifting weights out to the side of your body with straight arms. 

This exercise primarily targets the shoulder abductors, but the lats are involved in shoulder adduction, which is the motion involved in returning the weights back to the starting position. 

If you use heavy weights and focus on moving as slowly as possible during the adduction portion, this becomes a good exercise for the lats.

#7: Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell swings are a great total-body strengthening and metabolic exercise. This exercise also works the lats as you pull the weight up and stabilize the shoulders and spine. 

#8: Medicine Ball Chops

Like kettlebell swings, medicine ball chops are a great dynamic exercise that utilizes many major muscle groups, including the lats.

The butterfly stroke.

Aerobic Exercises for the Lats

In addition to resistance training exercises that target the back, certain cardio exercises also strengthen the lats. Here are some of the best lats exercises you can add to your cardio lat workouts:

  • Rowing (indoor erg rowing or outdoor rowing)
  • Freestyle swimming
  • Backstroke
  • Butterfly
  • Elliptical machine with resisted arms
  • Kayaking
  • Stand-up paddleboarding
  • Cross-country skiing
People on rowing machines.

As we can see, although there are fewer lats exercises than there might be for other key muscle groups like the quads and glutes, it’s just as important to do exercises for the lats as it is for the muscle groups we can readily see in the mirror. 

The lats are one of the primary muscle groups in the back and are recruited for many key movements involving the trunk, core, and upper body. Therefore, it’s important to regularly incorporate our best lats exercises into your lat workouts.

Looking for other workout routines to add to your strength training? What about a full upper-body workout? Check out our upper body gym workout and the best chest exercises for your next trip to the gym.

Medicine balls.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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