During my years of research, I’ve compiled the very best lat exercises into a handy list you'll find below. As long as you follow this advice, growing the lats you’ve always wanted is within reach of everyone.
However, it requires focus, dedication and the right approach to cultivate a back large enough to provide sunshade for a small family. You have to eat right, rest right and exercise right so your back can grow in size.
The back is a huge area to cover with muscles. Believe me, I know. I chased lat growth using the tried and tested methods for years. I blindly followed advice such as, “just do bent-over rows, they did wonders for your back” and “bro, 3 sets of 10 pull-ups is all you need to grow your lats”.
The result? A near compounded disk in my neck and a torn left lat. After the injury, I couldn’t even lift an empty bar over my head, let alone do pull-ups.
I decided to change angles in my quest for monumental lats, trying everything from powerlifting and bodybuilding to isometrics and loaded stretches. Hell, I even dangled from gymnastic rings for a few years in the hopes of expanding my back. You can’t name a lat exercise or variation that I haven’t tried.
Of all the ones I tried, though, I found the five below to work best. All of them require some sort of equipment, for more info, check out T3's best barbell and best dumbbell guides (maybe even the best adjustable dumbbell guide too).
Let’s row and grow people.
Best lats exercises I use to grow my back
1. Front Banded Deadlift
The deadlift, a.k.a. “the King of Lifts”, works the entire posterior chain, packing mass across your entire back, glutes and hamstrings. If it were an animal it would be a lion.
Regular deadlifts are great, but they’re not the best lat builder. That’s why we loop a couple of resistance bands around the bar and wrap them around a dumbbell or a rack in front of you to make your lats scream.
This simple trick forces the lats to contract throughout the entire movement to keep the bar close to you, so they’re firing non-stop. The result? You’ll love us even more than your lats will hate you.
A note to beginners: perfect your form with an unloaded barbell before piling on the weight.
2. Trap Bar Bent Over Row
Bet you didn’t expect these after that injury story at the beginning, eh?
Well, rowing is an entirely different ball game with the trap bar. This exercise is how I got back to rowing and it’s insanely effective. Your hands are in a neutral position, your body angle eases the stress on your lower back, and you get a wicked muscle contraction thanks to the increased range of motion.
3. Pull Up
Every four years the Olympics roll around and gym rats everywhere put down their protein shakes to stare in amazement and envy at the physiques of top gymnasts. Well, those backs were built on a steady diet of pull-ups and their numerous variations.
As per the video, take a wide grip here, lean slightly back, tense the glutes, keep the chest open and focus on pulling with the elbows. Those are the lats you feel working.
4. Cross-Body Dumbbell Row
If you’re not using dumbbells in your quest for incredible lats then you’re missing out. They’re an awesome tool in your lat arsenal and even come in adjustable form these days.
Now before you all scream that you only feel these in your upper back, there’s a way you can do them that absolutely destroys your lats and it’s incredible. Just watch the video, do what Grandpa Charles Glass says and finally feel your lower lats. Then keep feeling them for days thanks to the DOMS…
5. Single-arm barbell row
I learned about this excellent lats move from the late John Meadows and still remember my shock the first time I tried it. The extreme stretch you get at the bottom of the movement is matched only by the incredible lat pump and phenomenal contraction you get at the top.
They’re actually my personal favourite on the list and the one that finally developed the lats I’d always wanted.
Best lats exercises: Reps and sets
A broad thick back with tapered lats is built by shifting pig iron in quantities. So, if you’re still curling in the squat rack like a newbie you should get stronger before doing anything else. Once you’ve graduated from the small t-shirt and don’t crumble like a paper bag under an empty bar, it’s time to begin adding a little more variety and some volume.
Everyone is different but the following general rules tend to work well for the majority of people looking to gain muscle. Just replace one or two of your current lat exercises with one of the movements mentioned, use the following set and rep ranges and watch your back grow.
Front banded deadlifts can and should be done at a higher intensity. You can even go for a one-rep max, but we’d recommend working up to a tough 3 sets of 3 for hypertrophy focused trainees.
Keep the reps slightly higher for the bent-over rows, around 3 sets of 5 tends to work well for most folks. Just remember to maintain a flat back when you’re going heavy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lifelong friend Franco Columbu apparently argued against adding weight to pull-ups, but we disagree. However, only start wearing a weighted vest when you can hit a very solid ten reps at bodyweight whilst maintaining the form cues already discussed. Keep the reps between 8 and 10 here and you’ll really get a burn.
Crossbody dumbbell rows and single-arm barbell rows can be done anywhere in the 10 - 15 rep range and above. They’re also perfect candidates for intensity techniques. These two exercises should leave you feeling like someone poured lactic acid over your lats.
Best lats exercises: The diet
If your name’s Eddie Hall then you can skip this part, for everyone else, there’s something you need to hear.
The majority of people are a beast in the gym and a wimp in the kitchen. If you’re not fuelling yourself adequately, and with the right food then you’re leaving performance and lat growth on the table. This doesn’t need to be complicated. Just follow this golden rule when gaining mass:
Your calorie intake should be higher than your calorie expenditure.
You don’t need to go crazy either, a couple of hundred extra a day will do it. Mince pies don’t count though so the right diet is extremely important. That translates to a balanced macronutrient intake, based on a foundation of whole foods with an emphasis on healthy protein sources.
Once you have your diet dialled in it can be worth investing in a quality protein powder. Oh, and if I throw you in a pool, drag you out and you weigh roughly the same as a bag of sugar, then you may even want to consider a mass gainer.
You can’t carve a pebble, that’s why Dwayne Johnson’s called “The Rock”.
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