One of the most common mistakes made in the gym is the inability for people to fully engage their lats during back training. Even seasoned trainers struggle with this — even if they don’t know they do. In a day and age of heavy rowing and deads, the lats can be left behind from a development standpoint, and that makes for “top heavy” back development.

No, this is not an article about how rows or deads aren’t good for back development. Obviously, they are. My point to this article is more of that full back development with sweeping, full lats is not the norm like it used to be in the 80s and 90s. We have a current state of back development in the sport that erectors are thick and upper backs overpower lat development. This is in part due to priority on heavy, compound movements, but also—in a lot of cases—the lack of ability to engage the lats for optimum growth and development.

I want to give some pointers that I feel strongly will help to balance out your back development and allow you to fully engage the lats to take your back to the next level.

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The most important thing you can do to engage the lats fully is to change your mindset from moving as much weight as possible to using the weight to contract the lats through a full range of motion. With rowing and deads, the idea is to move weight — a lot of it. There is no full range of motion, as the muscles like the erectors and traps and small muscles of the back work more to stabilize the spine and scapula while pulling big weights. The best way to do this is to start back workouts with lat work that tends to isolate the lats more and work up in weight to a point where you are using the heaviest weight possible but still getting a full stretch and squeeze in the lats. When you move into barbell rows, deads, and T-bar rows later in your back workout, you can then move to a more powerful and explosive rep style to move heavier weights. This will further fatigue the lats and push them to even more growth.

Form is critical here because you need to put the lats in a position where they are working as hard as possible while eliminating the other stronger muscles of the back from taking over. One of the best ways to do this is with a lat pulldown so that you can change your feet and torso position to put yourself in the most advantageous position to push the lats hard.

Most people will sit with the pad over their knees and have their feet slightly in front of them, but this allows for momentum and the ability to use the lower back to “yank” instead of pull the bar to the chest. Instead, a more advantageous position for your feet is to have them positioned behind you so that the torso remains upright the entire set. This forces the upper body forward and almost entirely eliminates, or limits substantially, any momentum where the other muscles of the back can take over for the lats. Full range of motion is crucial here because the lats need to be worked from full stretch to full contraction for optimal benefit.

Another point that is important is to not pull the bar to the upper chest or chin, but rather to the lower chest. This allows for more retraction of the scapula, and one of the biggest mistakes made by trainers is going too heavy and, thus, not allowing for full retraction. Training biceps or triceps or even squatting is not terribly complicated, in that if you move the bar from Point A to Point B, you typically will involve the muscles needed for hypertrophy. But training back is considerably different — especially in relation to lat development.

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Another tip to fully engage the lats is hand position. It is my opinion that most people struggle more to engage lats fully with an overhand position, so moving to a neutral grip will help most people considerably. Even more so, going to an underhand grip can help with this. In fact, this is my best advice for people attempting to fully engage the lats that aren’t used to doing this: use my method of placing the feet/legs behind you during a lat pulldown, while using an underhand grip and pulling to the lower pec with a weight that allows a full stretch and squeeze. From there, you can build poundage weekly in small increments to increase strength and provide more stimulus while still maintaining a full range of motion.

This needs to be done with rows as well, but it is harder to engage the lats during a row than a lat pulldown. I do not recommend attempting this with power movements like barbell rows or T-bar rows, but rather with machine rows, dumbbell rows, or pulley rows. Keep the power movements for your explosive reps that focus more on upper back development and use the machine rows, dumbbell rows, etc., for lat development.

The key to full back development is knowing how to train the different muscles of the back optimally. It is also important to use a myriad of back exercises for full development because there is an infinite number of angles that can be utilized to train the muscles of the back. If you work to engage the lats fully with more isolation work, your back development will progress and you will end up with balanced development that wins shows. Even if you don’t compete, full back development will enhance your physique if even at the beach or while riding your motorcycle white trash (without a shirt). It is important to note that shirts are for losers. Just Sayin’.