Level Up Your Back Workouts by Adding One New Exercise

Aug 5, 2022 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

 Back Workout Focusing on Lats
Doing countless rows, pull ups, and lat pull-downs but not seeing any real improvement in your back size? You might be neglecting the three core movements that are crucial to challenging your lats.

Marc Lavallee has trained Canadian military units in the Search and Rescue Technician (SAR-Tech) program, along with members in their active duty and selection phases. He currently coaches for a policing agency.

In this blog, Marc teaches you how to make the most of your back workouts by challenging your lats with dynamic movements. Try his favorite exercise in your next back workout to build a more beastly spread.

Mark Lavalee
Marc Lavallee

What’s Your Back Training Missing?

When training our back muscles, we often like to stick to two planes of movement: horizontal pulling (which includes all rowing exercise variations) and vertical pulling (which includes all of your pull-up variations and lat pull-downs).
The problem with only focusing on these two planes of motion is that they don’t challenge your lats in dynamic ways.

You need to consider what movements the latissimus dorsi muscles (the large, flat muscles that make up the majority of your lower back) are responsible for. You also need to consider the fiber orientation of the lats if you want to maximize your back muscle gains.

The lats are responsible for three main movements:

 

  1. Extension of the shoulder
  2. Shoulder adduction
  3. Internal rotation at the shoulder

Back Anatomy & The 3 Main Lat Movements

Back Muscle Anatomy

1. Shoulder Extension

Shoulder extension refers to pressing your arm back behind you past your thigh. If you were to raise your arm out in front of you, then lower it back down past your thigh — that’s shoulder extension.This is just one responsibility of the lats: bringing your arm back into extension. Think of a straight arm cable pull-down.

2. Shoulder Adduction

Shoulder adduction is the action of bringing your arm back to the midline of your body. Think of the end of a lateral raise where your arms are holding the dumbbells away from your body. Now, we have to bring your arm back toward your body. Think “add” to midline.

3. Shoulder Internal Rotation

Finally, we look at internal rotation of the shoulder — think about rotating your arm toward your body like you’re throwing a ball. You rotate in toward the body like at the end of a pitch, same as a baseball pitcher.

Another way to think of internal rotation is like cabinet doors. If you stand with your elbows at your side, hold your forearms in front of you, and rotate them toward your midline like the doors of a cabinet, you are internally rotating your shoulders.

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How to Actually Challenge Your Lats for Growth

When evaluating your own training, you need to ask yourself this: Are you challenging your lats in the three planes of motion mentioned above?

If you stick to pull-ups or lat pull-downs, you’re stuck to a fixed bar in a static position, which only challenges one or two of these positions.

Always using a straight bar could create some cranky shoulder, elbow and wrist joints over time. Think about how the fiber orientation of the lats predominantly run horizontally. Is vertical pulling the best option?

This also happens for the majority of your row variations using a barbell or straight bar.
You don’t need to hit all these movements for every single exercise in your program, but you should consider them for challenging the lats, avoiding cranky joints, and balancing each arm by working them unilaterally.

As a tactical coach, we often test our members with pull-ups or chin-ups for special operations/units. There’s obviously nothing wrong with testing these movements, but we could be leaving some serious gains on the table and missing out on functionality by sticking to bilateral movements only.

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The Holy Grail of Lat Exercises

My suggestion is to try a high cable single-arm half kneeling lat pull-down. (That’s a mouth full!)

To set this up, position the cable at a high anchor point and stand at a distance that gets the cable angle approximately at 45-60 degrees.

Your arm should be out in front of you at the angle mentioned, elbow fully extended with your palm facing down. To initiate the movement, rotate your grip (palm facing up), and finish your pull with your elbow beside your ribs.

With this variation of pull-down we are challenging internal rotation, adduction AND extension of the upper arm. The lats are engaging in every possible way, giving you the biggest gain for your buck.

If you fully protract your shoulder blade at the start position you will also engage the serratus anterior, which is often referred to as the “boxer’s muscle.

Here’s a good example of the movement, just be sure to rotate your grip:

Next time you train back, consider the responsibilities of the lats and how you can best challenge them for the most gains. By including shoulder extension, adduction, and internal rotation, you’ll be sure to maximize the movements of your lats and build those back muscles faster.

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