Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates literally outlasted the opposition with his hugely wide lats. His ‘secret’? His intensive training method and a Nautilus pullover machine. But even without this rare device you can train your broad back muscle to proportions that do justice to that name.
The problem with your lats is that, no matter how much weight and volume you throw at them, you’ll never get that pump like your biceps after a dropset of curls or your quadriceps after a super set of leg press/extensions. Those muscles scream bloody murder, while your lats quietly do their job like a loyal soldier.
THE TIRELESS BACK MUSCLE
Your lats – musculus latissimus dorsi in Latin – is a somewhat strange muscle in that regard. One problem is that you don’t see the muscle when you train, which poses a problem in terms of the mind-muscle connection. A second problem is that pulldowns and rows are so-called ‘multi-joint movements’, in which in this case your elbow joint is involved in addition to your shoulder joint. So your lats get help from the biceps, which are much more exhausted than those tireless lats.
The solution? Do conventional pull/chin-ups or a pulldown variation first, then, if your biceps are already exhausted, do a lat stretch with arms outstretched to further exhaust the lats. Examples of exercises that you perform with extended arms are the well-known dumbbell pullovers, pullovers in a Nautilus machine (if you have one) and our favorite: straight-arm pulldowns.
We would like to briefly explain the latter.
Straight-arm pulldowns are a somewhat misunderstood and unpopular exercise. Your lats don’t get help from your biceps, so you can use less weight than with conventional pulldowns. So it is one of those exercises where you have to put your ego aside for a while.
The effectiveness of straight-arm pulldowns for the lats, in addition to targeting the biceps and mid-back muscles, also resides in the constant tension on the lats throughout the range of motion (ROM) of the exercise. With the pullover just mentioned, you only do half of that movement. The pullover is actually much more of a triceps and (to a lesser extent) chest exercise, as EMG research has shown. The machine variant of the pullover, in a Nautilus device, in other words, does put tension on the lats during the entire ROM and is therefore also an excellent isolation exercise for the lats.
By the way, in straight-arm pulldowns you also put the teres major (large round arm muscle) and the posterior deltoid (back shoulders) to work, albeit to a small extent. The much stronger lats do by far the most work.
Straight-arm pulldowns are performed in a cable station. Attach a straight bar or EZ-curl bar to the carabiner and set the pulley to the highest position. Grab the bar at about shoulder width and tension the cable by taking a few steps back. However, do not walk too far back, because then you will have too little cable left to perform the exercise.
Now tilt your upper body about 30 to 45 degrees, so that your arms and torso are in line, just like a regular pulldown. To keep your balance, also bend your hips. This is your starting position and ensures maximum stretch in your lats. Pull now – with straight arms! – the bar towards your waist, while bringing your hips forward. You end the exercise in an upright position.
The key to big, wide lats is to tire them hard. This can be done by doing conventional pulldowns first and then straight-arm pulldowns, but it can also be done the other way around. Doing straight-arm pulldowns first will tire the lats and keep your biceps fresh. This way you make the subsequent conventional pulldown a much more effective exercise.
For lat-specific exercises, we recommend relatively high numbers of reps: 8-12 reps. It is better to reserve the heavy work for your rows.