Any experienced lifter or strength sport competitor knows that the lats are an extremely important muscle group. Using them properly can vastly increase your strength and protect your back from injury. Engaging the lats can be tough to teach to inexperienced lifters. Most beginners don’t have the ability to contract their lats as easily as they can a contract their biceps, for example. One of my favorite cues is to think of posing as a bodybuilder when they flare their lats. I try to picture this whenever I lift and need to engage my lats hard.

In your training program, you should have a lot of lat work consisting of mainly row variations. One thing I see when assessing many lifters’ programs is that they do not train their back enough, yet they press twice a week. Pressing more than you pull is a good way to get a shoulder injury. I typically train four to five days a week. If your schedule is like this, a great way to keep your back movements a top priority is to superset them with your pressing.

In addition to this, when I am able to train an extra day and I don’t want to do anything too taxing to my big lifts, I will incorporate a full bodybuilding back training day. This day will consist of all kinds of pulldowns and rows, using a lot of different angles. Keep everything light and with a lot of reps in the 10 to 15 range. Work on squeezing each rep and feeling your lats on every movement. Feeling how to engage them on accessory work will make it easier to activate them on the compound lifts.

Here is an example of a bodybuilding day focusing on the lats and upper back. On this day I like to give the low back a rest, so I keep everything chest-supported.

1. Lat Pulldowns

I love the Multi-Grip Attachment for using multiple grips without having to switch attachments. Start wide and do a set of 10, take a short rest of 60 seconds, move to the middle grip for 10 more, then the inner grip for another 10. Repeat one more time for a total of six sets.

2. Chest Supported Row

Keep these rows simple and on the lighter side. Hold the top for a second on each rep. I also like to add a pair of Fat Gripz to challenge my grip as well. Four sets of 12 here.

3. Wide Grip Pull-Ups

You don’t have to go crazy wide here. A few inches outside of shoulder width will hit the lats a little harder. These are more challenging than a normal pull-up or chin-up, so if you can’t do at least 10 then use a band to assist you. I know some of you big guys out there like to avoid pull-ups, but it’s a movement you should always incorporate into your program. I like to do just three sets of max reps, but make sure you’re able to do at least 10 each set.

4. Seal/Prone Row

This has to be my all-time favorite row variation. You are hitting the exact opposite motion of a bench press. If you need to strengthen the lats for the bench press then this is your exercise. Unlike bent-over row variations, you cannot use any momentum, so the movement stays very strict. Just take a bench and prop it up on some blocks. You also need to use a cambered bar for full range of motion. The American Cambered Grip Bar is where it’s at for this one. It gives the perfect angle to hit your lats with a good range of motion. Also, this is the perfect bar to do shoulder-friendly floor presses with. Four sets of 12 here, again with light weight and squeezing hard for each rep.

5. Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns

If you want to learn how to use your lats properly to unrack a bar for bench press, this is the movement you need. The bottom of this movement is also exactly how you should be engaging your lats for the deadlifts. Remember to flare them like a bodybuilder — every rep, that’s what I’m thinking. The Tsunami Lat Pulldown Bar is my favorite to use here. It bends slightly, getting an extra squeeze with the lats with the perfect rotation for the movement. Do high reps to finish here, three sets of 15.

Add this day in when you have some time and you will not only have healthier shoulders, but your technique will also improve on the big lifts.