5 Lat Exercises Everyone Is Doing Wrong

by Michael Shaughnessy

Simple Movement Tweaks for a Big Back

You do these staple exercises, but are you getting the most out of them? Here's how to do them right for a wider back.

When most people train their lats, they end up with an overdeveloped upper back and traps. And they have enough room between their elbows for an elephant to break out of a headlock. Tweak these exercises to build a respectable, full functioning back.

1. The Barbell Row

What Not To Do:

The first example shows chicken-wing elbows and a bar path that does little to work the lats. The upper back, traps, and biceps are doing all the work, minimizing the effectiveness of the exercise while putting a TON of shearing force on the anterior portion of the shoulders.

What To Do:

This is more like it. Angling the torso closer to 45-degrees instead of chest to floor. Moving the bar along the thighs, up, and back into the hip pocket. Lead with the elbows and the arms and end with them flush on the side of the body. This maximizes the work the lats do and mitigates any excessive force on the front of the shoulders and biceps tendons. This is how you build thick, powerful lats.

2. The Dumbbell Row

What Not To Do:

I’m kneeling on a box and chicken-winging the arm. Most people will pull straight up on this move, working more of the posterior shoulder muscles and upper back, completely missing the meat of the lats.

What To Do:

Do this free standing so your core is more activity involved and you’re working the legs for a bonus. The key point here is starting the dumbbell near or past the toes to get a full stretch of the lats and dragging the elbow back and up in an arching “J” shape. Lead with the elbow to get a nice, full contraction of the lats.

There’s also a rotation component happening here since we start further forward with a slight shoulder rotation toward the midline and end with square shoulders, working the obliques and core.

3. The Lat Pulldown

What Not To Do:

Here the elbows are tracking back, putting an anterior shearing force on the shoulder. This also works more biceps, upper back, and posterior shoulders instead of the lats.

What To Do:

You want your elbows tracking down and back – similar to a row – alleviating shearing force on the front of the shoulder while maximizing lat engagement. If you compare the two, it’s obvious that this second movement bypasses the upper back and places way more tension on the lats.

4. The Pull-Up

What Not To Do:

This is a pretty standard looking pull-up with the elbow tracking back and the lumbar in a big extension. Standard, but not optimal! The lumbar extension is what makes it more difficult to access the lats and easier to do the exercise.

What To Do:

Get your hips and knees flexed at 90 degrees. This position takes the extension out and places an emphasis on the lats. Track the elbows forward and down as opposed to straight down and back. This decreases anterior shearing force on the shoulder and brings the arm to the most optimal position for both injury prevention and muscle engagement.

5. The Straight-Arm Cable Pulldown

What Not To Do:

The wrists are bent in extension, the neck and low back are in extension too, and the elbows are locked. These positions aren’t great for engaging the lats. They really just light up the triceps, posterior shoulder muscles, and low back.

What To Do:

Straighten the wrists and think of pointing the knuckles forward as if you’re throwing a punch. Bring the upper ribs down and engage your abs to keep your lumbar spine neutral. Slightly tuck your chin, and pull your head back to keep a long, straight neck.

Bend your elbows slightly and lead with them to bring the bar toward your upper thighs. These simple adjustments will completely change the way you feel this exercise.

The Nonnegotiable Rules

  • Always lead with the elbow, dragging the elbow toward the waist. This maximizes lat engagement.
  • Never bring the elbow so far back that the upper arm bone pushes into the front of the shoulder. This creates an anterior shearing force and puts the biceps tendons at risk.
  • Don’t overarch your spine. Most of us already have enough compression happening there and this just exacerbates bad posture. Knit your upper ribs down and do a slight posterior pelvic tilt instead. This will keep your core engaged.