Lats were never high on my list of muscles I cared about, and I never made a conscious effort to enhance them. I was much more concerned with developing strong traps and lumbars, since I participated in Olympic weightlifting. In my mind, wide lats were for bodybuilders. That changed when I started dating a young lady who was completely enamored of big lats. I'd always thought that the opposite sex was attracted to big arms, chests and even glutes. But lats? That threw me, but since they turned her on, I added a few specific exercises to try to make mine larger.
Because I did the three Olympic lifts regularly, along with plenty of assistant exercises to improve my performance, I already had decent lat development. In fact, it turned out that full snatches and snatch high-pulls are two of the very best exercises for building lat strength and size. Some of the most impressive lats in the world belong to Olympic lifters, and if you look at photos of Tommy Kono, Bill March, Pete George, Tony Garcy, Bob Bednarski and Norb Schemansky, you'll see some great examples. One reason so many of the older physique stars, like John Grimek and Steve Stanko, had such tremendous lats was that they all did snatches and snatch high-pulls.
Bodybuilders have always given their lats lots of attention because they provide an eye-catching flair onstage. Quite often they're neglected in strength programs, however, because athletes and coaches do not think they're very important at least not as important as traps or lumbars. Indeed, the lats are vital to the integrity of not only the back but also the shoulder girdle. It's basically the weakest-link concept: In order to maintain proportionate strength, you have to keep your lats as strong as the other muscles of your back. If one area falls too far behind, progress will come to a halt. It's been stated countless times, but it bears repeating: You're only as strong as your weakest bodypart.
The latissimus dorsi is a very broad muscle, situated on the lower half of the back and lying immediately beneath the skin except for a small space where it's covered by the lower trapezius. It originates at the spinous process of the six lower thoracic and all of the lumbar vertebrae, the back of the sacrum, the crest of the ilium and the lower three ribs. Then it fans out and inserts at the bottom of the intertubercular groove of the humerus via a flat tendon attached parallel to the upper three-fourths of the insertion of the pectoralis major.
Most people are surprised to learn how much the lat is involved in the shoulder girdle. It's a prime mover for adduction, extension and hyperextension of the shoulder joint. It assists in horizontal extension and inward rotation. In activities such as rope climbing and chinning, the lats draw the trunk up toward the humerus. Relatively weak lats, in comparison to the pectoral muscles, will cause forward displacement of the shoulders.
One of the bonuses of working your lats is that you're also strengthening the teres major, teres minor, traps and rhomboids, as well as those small groups that make up the rotator cuff. That's good.
I believe the single best exercise for building strong lats is the snatch or wide-grip, high-pull. Certainly, full snatches are excellent, but since you can handle much more weight on the high-pull, it's a better strength exercise. What's more, it's a dynamic movement, and the back muscles thrive on explosive lifts. While not every bodypart can benefit from dynamic exercises, the back can.
If you've never done high-pulls, you may find it difficult to do them correctly. There's a lot of timing and coordination involved, so it may take you some time to master the technique. If you have trouble with the form at first, don't be discouraged. Even if your form is only adequate in the beginning, you're still going to work the target muscles and attachments. With practice your form will eventually improve, and you'll reap even more gains.
Use straps for these. While you may not need them for the lighter weights, you will once you pile on the plates. Take a wide grip. If you know how to snatch, use that same grip for the high-pulls. On most Olympic bars there's a score six inches in front of the collar on each side. Your ring finger should wrap around that score. Strap on, set the bar snug against your shins, with your feet at shoulder width and toes pointed straight ahead. Flatten your back, lower your hips, look straight ahead, and bring the bar off the floor just as you would for a deadlift. The best way to get a bar moving off the floor is to not think about pulling it upward. Rather, think about pushing your feet down on the floor. That will help you maintain a solid starting position.
The bar must stay tight to your body throughout the lift. Once it passes your knees, drive your hips forward aggressively. Your elbows must extend upward and outward. Don't let them turn backward. When they do, you lose your upward thrust, and all you have left is momentum. Your elbows must also stay locked until your traps contract. The bar will be at belly-button height when that happens. This is the most difficult sequence to learn: traps, then arms. If your arms bend too soon, you won't have them available to provide the final, critical pop at the finish. Let your powerful traps do their job, and then bring your arms into play. At the finish of the lift you should be extended high on your toes, with your body perfectly erect and the bar tucked in next to your body near your chest.
Never cut your pull; always pull just as high as you can. With the light weights, you can power-snatch the bar. You want to establish a pattern of pulling to the max from the very first set, and that will carry over to the heavier poundages. The higher you pull, the more muscles get involved, particularly the traps. Obviously, this is also an excellent trap exercise which is good, since strong traps are a genuine plus for every strength athlete.
The high-pull, in essence, is a deadlift followed by a shrug; however, it's more complicated than that. You have to perform it in a fluid yet aggressive manner. The bar can start slowly, but then it picks up speed through the middle and is no more than a blur at the top. The moving bar should resemble a whip with a pop at the top. The start, middle and finish flow together smoothly, not in a herky-jerky fashion. You can only achieve ideal form with practice and concentration.
Once the bar reaches its apex, don't let it crash to the floor. Resist it at the top, and then lower it in a controlled manner. Pause, make sure your body mechanics are correct for the start, and do the next rep.
When learning how to perform high-pulls, most trainees break the lift into two very distinct segments with a pause in the middle. It really does become a deadlift and a shrug. The transition is the most difficult to master. Think of it as an extension of the start, rather than as a separate stage. Try to accelerate the bar through the middle range of the rep, and the finish will come automatically. You drive your hips forward, and in the next instant shrug your traps. That will give the bar the velocity to help it climb high and height is what this lift is all about.
Concentrate on perfecting your form before getting greedy with the numbers. I should add that it's essential to have a strong lower back in order to handle heavy weights on this lift. Otherwise you won't be able to maintain the proper mechanics, especially through the critical middle portion. So make sure your routine includes good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Doing both would be even better.
With practice you'll soon feel satisfied with your technique. At that point you can start doing heavy triples instead of all fives. Do three sets of fives as warmups, and then work as high as you can doing threes. This will enable you to handle heavier weights, which translates to greater strength and development.
The wide-grip chin has long been a standard for bodybuilders, and it's still one of the best for building outstanding lats. It's also one of those simple exercises that are often neglected in favor of more complicated movements. One great thing about chins is that you can do them almost anywhere. I used to chin on the doorway of a garage and on the goalposts before my run at the high school track. Chinning is one of the true tests of upper-body strength, and many fire departments, police academies and government agencies include them in their fitness tests.
How wide you grip the bar may depend on how wide the chinning bar happens to be. Some are rather narrow, but you should go as wide as possible. Straps are permissible, although I've never found them to be necessary. Your grip isn't going to fail in the short time you're holding onto the bar. Very few people are proficient at this basic exercise, mostly because they don't do them often enough. If you do them consistently, however, you'll find yourself making rapid gains. Of course, bodyweight is a factor in how many you can do. On the other hand, I've seen some heavy athletes achieve admirable results.
The most remarkable in this regard was Charlie Aiu, a member of the football team at the University of Hawaii. Charlie was one of my favorite athletes because no one worked harder. In fact, my biggest problem with Charlie was keeping him from doing too much. He used to sneak back to the weight room to do extra work after I left until I caught him and put an end to that. Charlie was drafted as a free agent by the San Diego Chargers and was, to say the least, a longshot, since they'd also drafted three other rather high picks for that same position. He was one of my strongest players and in excellent condition, but he still needed something to catch the coaches' eye.
When Tommy Suggs had been the strength coach for the Houston Oilers, I'd assisted him at their summer training camp. I recalled that the entire team had to do a set of chins before going onto the practice field. I told Charlie if he could do high reps on chins, it might make an impression. He readily agreed to give them a try.
It wasn't going to be an easy task because he weighed 255 pounds. The first time he did them, he managed a rough three, but he was determined, and he did chins as his first exercise four times a week. Using the routines I gave him, he could do 15 by the time he left for training camp. As a bonus, the added lat strength enabled him to increase his bench press and power clean considerably. He made the team. I never knew for certain if his chinning prowess helped his cause, but it sure didn't hurt.
I've given this routine to many people, most of whom needed to perform chins as part of the fitness test for some civil service department or the military. Do four sets of just as many as you can on each set, and record the total number of reps you perform. In the beginning the first set is by far the strongest, and then the others drop off fast. Your sets might be: 10, eight, six and four. Keep in mind that it doesn't matter where you start. The next time you chin, your goal is to add to that total. Since you did 28 the first time, you need to do at least 29'more, if possible, but at least an increase of one. The added rep or reps can come on any of the sets.
Your second session might be: 11, 8, 6, 5 for a total of 30. Continue that routine, and over time you'll be able to double your total. Take a day off every so often, and the next time you do chins, go for broke on the first set try to improve your personal best by three or four reps. As with every other exercise, once you beat a certain number, it's always easier to do it the second time. The key to success with this routine is to add at least a rep per workout. What if you're having one of those days, and you just can't improve or even match your former best? Add a set to push your workload up. I've had athletes start out with five chins and end up doing 30.
Do them first in your workout, while you're fresh, and always chin to the front, never to the back of your head. The shoulder girdle isn't designed to rotate in this manner, and you take a great risk of injuring your rotator cuff and shoulder joints. Chinning to the front is more effective, since you can do more reps, and is not risky unless you use bad form. The movement should be smooth all the way up and all the way down. If you start jerking around like a hooked mullet, obviously, you can irritate your shoulders and elbows. And don't snap back down after completing a rep, since that's also tough on the shoulders and elbows. Learn to do your chins in a smooth fashion from the outset, and you'll do them that way forever.
Another excellent lat exercise is pulldowns on the lat machine. As with chins, you need to do them in a controlled manner and pull to the front, not behind your head. I usually relegate these to auxiliary exercises, since you can't use nearly as much weight as you can on high-pulls. That means I keep the reps relatively high'15s or 20s.
On the other hand, you can use seated rows done from a low pulley as a primary exercise because you can work them hard and heavy. For those I deviate from my usual five sets of five reps to five sets of eight. I run the reps up slightly due to the fact that the form on these is much simpler than it is on the more complicated high-pull.
Rowing machines and swimming are also excellent exercises for enhancing the lats. If you have only a limited amount of equipment at your disposal, remember that all you need are a barbell and a place to chin. Work the high-pulls and chins diligently, and your lats will respond so much so that your back might be mistaken for the wingspan of a Stealth bomber.