Conventional thinking will lead you to believe that to add mass to your back, you need to work with high-rep sets and more total volume.
However, when you take a closer look at the fiber composition in your back, you’ll see that your lats have about equal numbers of both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. So to build bigger lats, you don’t necessarily have to drop the resistance and crank up the reps.
Working with a variety of rep and resistance ranges will induce hypertrophy while still allowing you to make strength gains and get stronger in your main compound lifts.
Knowing this, what exercises should you focus on to build bigger lats?
#1: Pull-ups and Recline Rows
I like bodyweight pulling variations for a number of reasons. First, they save wear and tear on your body from things like heavy row variations. They also allow you to work with higher rep-ranges and make great finishers and circuits.
On days where I’m trying to focus on my lats, I will follow heavy row variations with a pull-up and recline row circuit. For example:
1) Single Arm Dumbbell Rows x 6 reps (heavy)
2a) Pull-up Variations x Submaximal Reps (leave 1-2 good reps in the tank)
2b) Recline Rows x Submaximal Reps (1-2 good reps left in the tank)
So I’ll perform 2a and 2b back to back without rest as a way to add more volume into my training without using heavy lifts.
#2: Heavy Row Variations
As the lower rep, more resistance component of my lat training, I like using heavy row variations. Your rowing movements should be built around these variations:
- Bent over single arm dumbbell rows
- Bent over barbell rows
- Kroc rows
- Chest supported rows
Bent over barbell rows and dumbbell rows are my staples. I favor dumbbell rows braced over a bench because a) since they are single arm movements, you eliminate strong arm dominance, and b) going heavy on barbell rows can be difficult because you must fully engage your hamstrings and glutes, which could detract from the max resistance you can use.
For rows, I primarily work in the 5-8 rep range. Crank up the resistance here and focus on lifting heavy, not for a lot of reps. As I said before, your lats are made up of equal fast and slow twitch fibers, so lift heavy and then couple the heavy lifting with the bodyweight examples I gave you above.
#3: Cable Rows and Lat Pulldowns
I tend to stay away from machines, just because free weight movements engage more muscle, but cable machine movements are a good way to isolate your lats if you’ve done a lot of compound lifting in your training.
Another good thing about machines, since you have the mechanical assist and little risk for injury, you can do both high-and low reps with the entire range of intensities. They are also a good way to incorporate circuits or supersets.
One of my favorite lat blaster circuits, especially after a day of heavy overhead pressing or hang cleans, is to couple lat-pulldowns with seated cable pulley rows. This is a great way to pump a lot of blood and nutrients into the muscle. For example:
1a) Lat-pulldowns x 12
1b) Seated cable pulley rows x 12
- The key to building bigger lats is to incorporate a variety of rep ranges.
- I always emphasize #1 and #2.
- The possibilities are endless with pull-ups, especially when you start incorporating resistance by adding plates to a weight belt.
- Row variations, for the most part, should be done with heavy weight and low reps.
- Machines are a good supplemental tactic but free weight movements should always be emphasized.