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The Proven Keys For Lat Activation and The Best Lat Exercises

What specific movements, lat exercises, or lat exercise variations create the best lat activation?

That’s what we’re going to answer today. Great lat activation with a full range of motion means you have the potential for massive gains in your lats!

Knowing what you can do to optimize lat activation means you’ll have the knowledge to modify and dominate your lat exercises and workout for best results!

I’m going to pull strongly from what science has found to best answer this question and rehash it in an understandable and non-boring way!

Latissimus Dorsi Muscle Anatomy

Sorry . . . we do have to jump straight into anatomy! For a thorough understanding of how to best work the latissimus dorsi muscle, we should have a general understanding of the anatomy.

The latissimus dorsi muscle is also know as the lats, or lat muscle.
The latissimus dorsi muscle.

The latissimus dorsi muscle inserts at the bicipital groove of the humerus (essentially the back of the upper arm) and originates at points from the lower thoracic spine and lowest three ribs, all the way down to the top of the pelvis.

When we look at the muscle fiber type of the latissimus dorsi, current research tells us the lats are type II muscle fiber dominate slightly. This means that lifting in a lower rep range with heavier weight and faster speeds may be better for muscle growth.

When looking at the function of the latissimus dorsi muscle, it plays many roles. Based on our goals though, we should know that compound exercises with lots of shoulder adduction or shoulder extension are great for lat activation!

How to Activate the Lats Best in Pulldown Exercises

We know pulldown movements are great for lats, but what type of grip appears to be best? According to research, a pronated grip (palms facing away) on the lat pulldown all around came out on top for lat activation.

Taking this one step further, a wide grip on the lat pulldown may provide better lat muscle activation compared to a closer grip. What’s considered wide is a grip nearly two times that of your shoulder width.

The pronated wide grip lat pulldown is potentially the most effective pulldown variation for lat activation.
The pronated wide grip lat pulldown is potentially the most effective pulldown variation for lat activation.

There’s limited research on lat activation in pull-ups and chin-ups, but one study did find the pull-up to slightly come out slightly superior.

How to Best Activate the Lats in Rowing Exercises

There is again limited research on lat activation in various rowing movements. What is interesting, is that an inverted row with a supinated grip may be one of the best lat exercises for lat activation compared to other rowing movements.

The inverted row is potentially one of the best lat exercises for lat activation.
The inverted row is potentially one of the best lat exercises for lat activation. Here a pronated grip is shown.

Of the other exercises more widely studied, the bent over row seems to be close to the inverted row in terms of lat activation if not equivalent.

One study comparing these exercises also compared the one arm row (using cables) and found it inferior to the bent over row and inverted row in terms of lat activation. More research would be needed to determine which exercise is superior.  

Another interesting trend seen is that exercises that require less lower back stabilization may be better for lat activation.

Queing For Lat Activation

As a personal trainer, giving my clients ques during exercises is highly important so that they can execute the movements properly! Learning how to feel your lats can be tricky, so I’ll give you two great ques to keep in mind for the best lat activation once in the exercises!

Que 1: Lead with the Elbow

This que is a weird concept, but from my experience it really works! What this means is when you’re doing a row or pulldown, envision that the elbow is leading you through the movement.

I’ll often tell people to visualize the hands as just hooks holding the weights and that the resistance is actually behind the elbow.

This que gets more of the back muscles to fire including the lats and especially takes the arm muscles out of the movement such as the biceps.

Que 2: Keep the Elbows Close to the Body

Not all row variations will include this que, but generally this que applies to most all rows and will create better lat activation. The extra focus on shoulder adduction is what ensures great lat activation.

You often see improper elbow winging on the one arm row so this is a great que to keep in mind on that exercise especially!

The Best Lat Exercises and Lat Activation Uncovered!

For a thorough workout of the back musculature and lats, a combination of pulldown and rowing movements will be needed!

Overall, research is limited on many of the common exercises you may see in a typical bodybuilding routine or any workout routine in relation to lat activation. We do however seem to know that the following may lead to better or the best lat activation and lat exercises:

  1. Lat pulldowns with a wide and pronated grip.

  2. Inverted rows with a supinated grip.

  3. Lat exercises that require little lower back stabilization.

  4. Exercises with lots of shoulder adduction or shoulder extension.

Give these tips and exercises a try and put your new found knowledge to the test for the best muscle activation! The broad back you’re looking for is right around the corner!


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  • Edelburg, H.R. Electromyographic analysis of the back muscles during various back exercises. MS in Clinical Exercise Physiology, December 2017, 48pp. (J. Porcari)
  • Fenwick, C. M., Brown, S. H., & McGill, S. M. (2009). Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(2), 350-358.
  • Handa, T., Kato, H., Hasegawa, S., Okada, J., & Kato, K. (2005). Comparative electromyographical investigation of the biceps brachii, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius muscles during five pull exercises. Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 54(2), 159-168.
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    Dyn Med. 2004; 3: 4. Published online 2004 Jun 30. 
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    J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1933-41.

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