Here's How to Strengthen and Stretch Your Lats (Plus, Why You Should)
If you're like most gym-goers, you're probably vaguely aware of the commonly referenced upper-body muscles that have been given shortened names: the traps, delts, pecs, and lats. While all of these muscles are important, the lats (the latissimus dorsi) deserve some ~special~ attention.
Why? Well, they do a lot. Your lats are the largest muscles in your upper body, starting in your underarm and extending all the way to the top of your glutes in a fan-like shape. That means they're hugely helpful in many upper- and total-body movements, though their primary functions are to pull your arms down and in toward your sides and stabilize your core, according to Jess Glazer, a personal trainer based in NYC. (P.S. Read her inspiring personal story about becoming body positive.) But if someone asked you to flex your lats, would you be able to? For most people, the answer to that question would be no. Here's how incorporating lats training into your routine can improve your fitness, plus how to do it.
Why Lats Training Matters
Most people's lats are neglected. "Due to the nature of society and daily habits involving computers, sitting at a desk, spending time on phones, and lack of movement, everyone tends to slouch," Glazer points out. When you slouch, you "turn off" or disengage your core as well as your back muscles, she explains.
"Sitting and standing up straight requires you to keep your shoulders back, chest open, and core engaged," she adds. "Good posture requires strong lats. Not only will strong lats improve your posture, but good posture will also improve your self-confidence!" Plus, having weak lats will force other muscles to pick up the slack, resulting in neck and shoulder tension, she says. (Also try these three stretches to undo your desk body.)
In short, stronger lats mean better posture and a stronger core, both of which can lead to fitness gains. Hello, strict pull-ups! (Related: 6 Reasons Your First Pull-Up Hasn't Happened Yet)
The Beginner's Lats Workout
Before you start, do a little research on your own lats. "The first thing you should do is find the connection while firing your muscles, so engage the area under your armpits and drop your ribs so they're not popping out," says Glazer. Once you've become aware of where and how to activate your back muscles, you're ready to move on to the exercises.
Perform these moves as a circuit, or incorporate them into your regular workout routine. If you're opting to do these as a circuit, perform three rounds of all exercises, and do one final round of the three exercises that require four sets.
1. Seated Row
A. Using a resistance band or cable row machine, sit upright with legs out straight. If using a resistance band, hook it around feet. No matter the equipment, roll shoulders back and down, "packing" them into lats.
B. Keeping the elbows tight and close to body, row elbows straight back, pinching shoulder blades together.
C. Reset with control, then repeat.
Do 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Pro tip: If using a machine to perform the cable row, select a weight that is tough but that doesn't compromise your form. "Challenge yourself; these back muscles are large so you should be able to lift heavy!" adds Glazer.
2. Bent-Over Fly
A. Stand with soft knees holding a dumbbell in each hand by sides. Hinge forward at the hips with a flat back and neutral neck. Allow arms to hang down under your chin with a slight bend in the elbows.
B. Leading with your elbows, bring your arms back and imagine you're hugging a tree backward, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold for 1 second before lowering down with control.
Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps with dumbbells between 5 and 10 pounds.
Pro tip: This move can be performed with dumbbells or a resistance band.
3. Superman Lift
A. Lie facedown on the floor with arms and legs extended. Squeeze glutes to glue ankles together and lock arms tight next to ears. Keep neck neutral and gaze down toward the floor throughout the whole movement.
B. Use your back to lift legs off ground, trying to lift quads off the ground without bending at the knees. Lower with control. Repeat with just the upper body.
C. Once you've mastered isolating the lower and upper, add them together, lifting all four extremities off the ground and holding at the top before lowering with control.
Do 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
4. Scapular Push-Ups
A. Start in a high plank position.
B. Without bending your elbows, slide your shoulder blades back and together, sinking into shoulders without dropping stomach or hips.
C. Press into palms to push middle-upper back away from the floor, separating shoulder blades.
Do 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Pro tip:This is a small but challenging movement that targets your serratus anterior, an often ignored but crucial set of muscles that support good posture, overall shoulder health, and your lats.
5. Pull-Up Progression
If you can perform a strict pull-up, go for maximum unassisted reps, pulling from your lats as much as possible. Other options include using a resistance band to assist (as shown in the video) or performing negatives where you jump up (chin to bar) and then practice lowering yourself down as slowly as possible. You may need a box depending on the height of your pull-up bar. (Here's a full breakdown of pull-up progressions.)
Do 4 sets of maximum repetitions to failure.
How to Stretch Your Lats
One crucial way to get the most out of incorporating these exercises is to also stretch your lats. "The best way to activate and recognize your lats every day is to properly stretch them first thing in the morning and whenever you've been sitting for a long period of time," says Glazer. "This will help your body and brain become more aware of your positioning." Plus, the right combination of stretching and strengthening is most likely to help prevent slouching-related back pain. (In a pinch? Try these six moves that nix everyday tension.)
A. Start on hands and knees. Round spine toward the ceiling to move into "cat," dropping head and tailbone toward the floor.
B. Then arch back into "cow," dropping stomach toward the floor and lifting tailbone and crown of head toward the ceiling.
Repeat this sequence for 60 seconds.
Pro tip: This sequence stretches your entire back, including your lats.
2. Bench/Chair Elbow Stretch
A. Kneel on the floor with elbows resting on a bench or chair and arms extended. Keep neck in a neutral position, gaze toward the ground.
B. Slowly press chest and head toward the ground while keeping core engaged. For a deeper stretch, bend elbows so hands touch shoulders.
Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
3. Resistance Band Arm Release
A. Loop a resistance band around a sturdy pole and then wrap the other end around one wrist.
B. Step back until resistance band is taught, allowing upper body to bend toward the ground. While keeping arm straight, carefully allow the band to pull your arm away from your body. Gently rotate shoulder from side to side to stretch the lats and shoulder.
Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds on each side.