Will we ever find it?
Scientists aren’t sure when the lower lat was lost. It may have happened during the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Some theorize that it may have happened when Babylon fell to Persia. And there are some on the outskirts who claim that, like Atlantis, it may have been lost when a once great civilization and their knowledge was engulfed by the sea.
Who am I kidding? I’m trying to write some witty opener that will grasp your attention like Augustus Gloop’s when he hears the word “chocolate.” So let me get to the sweet goodness of what this article is all about: your lats.
But this is not about the lats you know. No, the point of this article is to educate you about the lost and forgotten lat. The lat that, when you develop it, will make your back look bigger and better than ever.
Before we go any farther, though, I’m gonna give you a refresher on what your lats do. Who doesn’t like a refresher a time-to-time?
Besides being the widest muscle in your body, your lats do more than spread out the sides of your t-shirts. Your latissimus dorsi has numerous functions. It:
So your lats do a lot actually. But here’s something you might not know, there are three distinct branches of your lat fibers. Fibers that you can bias more than the others to elicit more growth in specific parts of your lats. Each one of these fibers pulls your humerus (your upper arm bone) towards your spine at different angles.
Let’s look at the fibers of the lats.
Oh look, a photo from a textbook. Guess we’re about to go to class, son.
Ah, look at those glorious lats. Beautiful, right? Now look at the individual fibers. Notice how they all originate around different parts of the spine and run up towards the humerus at different angles?
Now look at the lower part of the lat. It originates at the iliac crest on your hip. It’s hanging out near the glutes, internal obliques, and all that fascia of your lower back. Looking at this image it’s clear to see that, with the right arm path, you could bias more of the thoracic fibers, lumbar fibers, or iliac fibers of your lats.
Old school bodybuilders professed for years that straight arm pulldowns are the best for lower lats because they provide a better mechanical advantage with arm extension. That’s kinda-sorta-almost-but-not-quite true.
Yes, straight arm pulldowns do extend your arms out in front of you, and they might feel great at the bottom of the exercise. But straight arm pulldowns don’t line up your iliac fibers in the most advantageous position.
So why don’t more people have better developed lower lats? Is it because they lack sufficient mind-muscle connection? Can they not engage their lats? Is it aliens?
Well, it’s for sure not aliens.
The lat pulldown, which even has the muscle in its name, isn’t actually a latastic lat exercise. The lat pulldown is more of a mid-back and teres exercise, at least in the way most people use it; and most lat pulldown machines/stacks have a terrible line of pull for the lats anyway.
Roman swore by the hammer strength row for years. And that does provide a much better stimulus for your lower lats if you line up your arm path correctly. But more on that later. First, let’s go back to the lat pulldown.
With the right tweaks, the lat pulldown can be used to target your lower lats. But you’ll need to use some different attachments or use a single handle and do it one side at a time. In the video below you’ll see me using my Prime Fitness equipment. This isn’t a pitch to go buy their accessories, but, if you care about taking your physique to a next level, you won’t regret picking up any Prime Fitness products.
If you don’t want to tote accessories around in your gym bag, however, you can use a standard lat pulldown bar and two regular handles lapped over the bar to get a better pull for your lats.
Or as I said above, you can use one handle at a time and switch from one side to the next.
Now, once you have your set-up completed, here’s what you need to focus on doing to make the pulldown lower lat focused.
Brace your core and keep your spine neutral. If you do arch, you’re gonna negate your lower lats and end up biasing more of your mid/upper back. So don’t go try to pull the whole cable stack here.
Your lats wrap around your ribcage, and with all lat movements, you want your arms pulling into your spine, but not past it. Keeping a forward arm path places the line of pull of tension more directly onto your lower lats.
Do not drive your elbow beyond the plane of your torso.
With the lower lat-focused pulldown, be aware that you may not get a full range of motion. So if your elbows don’t touch your hips as you drive down, that’s okay. Get the biggest squeeze of those lower lats as you can.
How can you make this exercise more stable so that you can add more tension in those lower lats?
Here the set-up is pretty much the same: brace your core, don’t arch your back, keep your arm path forward of your torso, and drive the elbows down towards your hips.
There is one caveat to the chest supported lower lat pulldown is your active range of motion. So before you start this exercise, you want to make sure you’re keeping your lats in their active range of motion. Here’s how you can test that.
Extend your arms straight out in front of you. Now push your arms forward and feel your lats wrap around your rib cage. Once you feel your lats engage, slowly extend your arms in an overhead motion; but do not lose the forward push of your arms.
My arms with no forward reach
Arms with forward reach, thus stretching the lats around the rib cage.
Once you reach a point where you can no longer extend your arms away from you while moving overhead, then you’ve reached your active range for your lats. That angle, whatever it may be for you, is where you want to place the cable and your arms to do the chest supported lower lat pulldown*.
My lats at their farthest range of active motion.
*This does somewhat apply in the non-supported version I showed above. But because you’re leaning away, your arms will be in a better position for biasing the lower lats than in the chest supported version.
Don’t have a lat pulldown or can’t swap the bar out of the lat pulldown at your gym? You can still use this same strategy by doing half-kneeling cable lat pulldowns.
Now if you have a hammer strength row machine at your gym, welcome to the best bang for your buck lower lat exercise on Earth. With a couple of tweaks to the hammer strength row you can overload the lower lat fibers in both their lengthened and shortened positions.
Most of the back exercises you’ve done for years overload the shortened position of your lats. But if you step back and perform the hammer strength row from a half-kneeling position you’ll overload the lengthened position of your lats. But if you stand up and step back slightly with the hammer strength row you’ll overload the shortened as well.
Superset these two together and you have everything you need to toast every inch of your lower lats.
What if all you have is a few dumbbells or kettlebells at home but no bands or cable apparatus? First off, buy some damn bands. Seriously. After this pandemic these things should be a household staple for everyone with a gym membership.
If all you have are some dumbbells or kettlebells, there are a few tweaks to rows you can make to illicit a bit more lower lat contraction. Will it be as effective as cables or hammer strength rows? Maybe. Maybe not. Okay, fine, it won’t be as effective as using cables. But something is better than nothing, right?
One of the best ways to fully shorten your lats, and thus hit more lower lats, with dumbbells row is to mimic the motion you’d make with a cable. When biasing more of your lower lat fibers, your arm path should move in a slight “J” shape.
(The “J motion” row is the sixth slide in this post.)
View this post on Instagram
This is a row variation I stole from Eugene Teo. If all you have are dumbbells, this is a great exercise for hitting your lower lats. And if you combine it with a J-motion as you row, holy bat poop Batman will you feel it in your lower lats.
Here’s another reason why these are great: they force you to engage your glutes and challenge hip stability. Your lats not only pull weight toward your body, but they stabilize your trunk and torso.
Keep the weight moderate on these. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per side with 60 seconds of rest. If you really want to feel your back like never before, make sure to MAINTAIN tension in your lats as you lower the weight to the ground — don’t be careless with the lowering portion of this lift, keep it controlled.
Now that you’ve read this you should feel like your lats doubled in size.
You have to, ya know, actually lift heavy stuff to do that. But now that you know how to bias your lower lat more, let’s look at some context of how you can apply this to your next back day.
And since the world is still crazy, I’ll give you three workouts you can do; one that covers the gym, one that’s dumbbell/barbell only for home gym peeps, and a band workout for those who only have bands at the moment.
So, we’re gonna start this day with an old school exercise you’ve probably done before, the straight arm rope pulldown. No, this does not bias the lower lats per sey, but we’re only doing this to get blood flowing into lats so that you are warmed and ready to go.
Perform 2 sets of 12-20 reps, keep weight light and tempo slow as you are focused only on warming the lats up. (Tip: for more lat activation here, elevate your heels on plates. Sounds silly, but it will shock you how much more lat engagement you get)
Now that you’re warmed up, here’s your meat and potatoes:
A1) Deadstop Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps per side; rest 60 seconds
B1) Hammer Strength Step Back Row – 3 sets of 10-12 reps per side; pause in the concentric for 2 seconds on each rep, rest 30 seconds before B2
B2) Hammer Strength Half Kneeling Row – 3 sets of 8-10 reps per side; 3 second eccentric with a 2 second pause in the stretch on each rep, rest 60 seconds before going back to B1
C1) Wide Grip Seated Row – 3 sets of 10-12 reps
C2) Seated DB Curl – 3 sets of 10 reps
Since you don’t have cables at home, we’ll have to stick with dumbbells and barbells (or whatever lifting implement you have). This is where things get a bit tricky, because quite frankly, it’s really hard to bias your lower lats as effectively as cables or hammer strength row can do.
But I’m gonna give you things you can do that are better than nothing.
You won’t have cables to do a pulldown for warm-ups here. But you can substitute a lat-focused pullover. Tip on this one: think about pushing the dumbbell AWAY from your body at the top to stretch your lats around your ribcage more.
A1) Gentlemen Rows – 4 sets of 10 reps per side; pause in the concentric for 2 seconds on each rep, rest 30 seconds per side
B1) One Arm Landmine Row – 4 sets of 8-10 reps per side
B2) Landmine Row – 3 sets of 10-12 reps per side; 3 second eccentric with a 2 second pause in the stretch on each rep, rest 60 seconds before going back to B1
C1) Dumbbell Jansen Row – 3 sets of 10-12 reps
C2) Incline DB Hammer Curl – 3 sets of 10 reps
If all you have are bands, well, you’re just gonna have to do less than efficient stuff. But you can still overload the contracted portion of your lower lats and focus on higher reps, 1.5 rep schemes, or long squeezes.
For your warm-up we’ll stick with the pulldown and do a resistance band straight arm lat pulldown.
A1) Half-Kneeling Band Row – 3 sets of 10 reps per side; pause in the concentric for 5 seconds on each rep, rest 30 seconds per side (This will be the same motion as the half-kneeling cable row from above, so just do the same thing as that video but with a band.)
B1) Resistance Band Pullover – 4 sets of 10 reps
B2) Standing One Arm Band Row – 3 sets of 12 reps per side; hold the squeeze for 2-3 seconds on each rep, rest 60 seconds before going back to B1
C1) Yoga Push-Up – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
C2) Resistance Band Pulldown – 3 sets of 10-15 reps
There you have it. We’ve uncovered a treasure that even Ben Gates thought was lost. And with this knowledge you can now go forth and build more mass in your lower lats. More well developed lats will not only help you build more strength, but it will make your back look wider and more impressive than ever.
Thank you, Robbie, for this deep dive on lat training. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to wave hello and let him know. For more back training articles check out How to Double Your Pull-Ups in 6 Weeks and How to Train Your Back Without Equipment.