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These Lats Exercises Protect Your Spine and Build Strength at Once

Kara Jillian Brown

Kara Jillian BrownMay 27, 2020

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When you think about muscles you can easily work at home, lats likely aren’t at the top of your list. But you shouldn’t put off lats exercises until you can get back in the gym. Gold’s Gym senior director of fitness Andy Coggan says that lats play a crucial role in day-to-day movements.

“The lats, or latissimus dorsi muscles, is a large fan-shaped muscle that makes up a large part of the back, extending from an attachment at the upper arm and connecting all the way down to attach again at the hips and spine,” says Coggan. Anytime you’re pulling or climbing upwards (think: rock climbing), your lats are involved. “The connections to the upper and lower body mean that virtually any trunk movement or upper body activities are impacted by your lats. If you want to pull, bend, twist, or row effectively you will need to train your lats for maximum capability.”

Isaiah Harmison, a Houston-based founding instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp, says lats exercises help protect your spine.

“The back is the home of the spinal cord which is responsible for receiving and transmitting sensory information,” says Harmison. “It is extremely important to strengthen the lats to provide stability and protection for the spinal cord.”

And unless you have an injury, pretty much anyone can work their lats.

“Everyone should incorporate pulling movements into their routine to balance out a training program unless they have an injury that prevents them from doing so,” says Coggan. “If you have pre-existing shoulder issues or anything else that prevents one of these exercises, chances are that you’ll be able to emphasize one of the other exercises as an alternative. The muscles of the back can be trained in many different ways, so talk to a fitness professional about your options for training your lats under the circumstances you’re working with.”

The best lats exercises to protect your spine

1. Lat pulldown

Beginner-friendly

“I like this move because it is specifically designed the target the lats,” says Harmison. “Although you may feel some accessory muscles (biceps, shoulders, triceps) working as well in this movement, it is a great lats exercise if done properly.”

How to do it: To perform the lat pulldown you can use a lat pulldown machine or you get creative by attaching a band to a higher set point, like the top of a door frame or top of a fence. Begin either seated at a lat pulldown machine that has a long lat pulldown bar or started in front of your resistance band set up. Grab the bar/end of the band with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your palms facing forward. Pulling down so your hands are in line with the top of your chest. At this point, Harmison says your back should have a slight inward arch, your lats should be contracted, and your chest should be out toward the bar/band and slightly facing up. Your shoulders should never at any point move forward or down.

Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to15 reps

2. Rows

Beginner-friendly

Both Coggan and Harmison recommend this lats exercise. “This is one of my favorite lats exercises because it allows for large weight loads which in the long run helps develop a greater amount of strength and muscle in the lats,” says Harmison.

How to do it: This movement can be performed with barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells, says. Coggan. With whatever implement you’ve chosen, bend at the waist while maintaining a very straight and strong back and your arms fully extended out below you. Pull the weight in toward your ribs by lifting your elbows back and beyond the trunk of your body being sure to squeeze your lats. After you’ve reached beyond your body and your hands are close to your side, reverse the movement slowly so that the weights are safely lowered to fully extended arms.

Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to15 reps

3. Pull-ups

Intermediate-to-advanced

Pull-ups are one of the most basic human movements involved in climbing, but are not often well mastered by the average person,” says Coggan

How to do it: If you don’t have a pull-up bar and can’t access a gym, head to a nearby playground. Begin hanging from a bar. Lift your chin over the bar by forcefully driving your elbows down and in toward your ribs to lift your body completely above the bar. When lowering your body, slowly descend until your arms are just short of full extension and repeat.

Modification: If you haven’t yet mastered a pull-up, Coggan says to start with a horizontal pull-up. This uses a lower bar that you can lean back from with both feet on the ground. So instead of pulling all of your body weight straight up, you’re lifting some of your body weight and on an angle. As your strength increases, Cogan says you can lower your angle to the bar (walking your feet further and further forward) until you are hanging straight down from it and lifting almost all of your bodyweight.

Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to15 reps

4. Supermans

Beginner-friendly

“I enjoy this movement as a back activation exercise, but it’s also great because it can be done almost anywhere,” says Harmison.

How to do it: Lie flat on your stomach and raise both hands and both feet by squeezing your back muscles. Hold this position for a couple of seconds and then relax. To intensify this movement, while holding the superman position draw your elbows toward your back. This will provide a stronger contraction, Harmison says.

Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to15 reps

5. Shoulder extension

Beginner-friendly

“Shoulder extension exercises help strengthen a very functional movement of the upper body that is powered by the lats in large part,” says Coggan. “When done correctly, this is a great exercise to isolate the lats effectively.”

How to do it: To complete this exercise you will need a resistance band that can be looped around a sturdy object or a cable pulley resistance station. In both cases, set the band/pulley at about eye level. Starting in a standing position, slightly bend forward from your hips with your arms fully extended in front of you and slightly higher than shoulder height. Holding the end of the band/pulley handle, drive your palms down toward your hips without bending your elbows. Be sure to focus on squeezing your lats rather than flexing forcefully with your arms which is a common error when performing this exercise. Slowly return your arms in front of you under control until they are above shoulder height again and repeat for reps.

Complete 2 to 3 sets of 10 to15 reps

Mistakes to avoid while performing lats exercises

When exercising your lats, Harmison says you want to maintain good posture. He says he always sees people performing rowing exercises with a rounded back. “Performing this exercise with a rounded back put an individual in a compromised position that is highly susceptible to injury,” says Harmison. Coggan adds that he also sees people overemphasize their biceps when aiming to target their lats. Instead of excessively flexing at the elbow, Coggan says to drive your elbows back while extending your shoulders down.

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