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5 Best Upper Lat Exercises (Improve Your Shoulder Strength)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Last updated: April 18, 2023

As a personal fitness and strength coach, I find that a lot of people pay too much attention to the glory muscles like biceps, delts, and quads and then end up with out-of-proportion areas.

And one area that can transform your physique and make you look even broader and bulkier is the lats. More specifically, the upper lats closest to your shoulders.

So, to help you focus a bit more attention on this key area, I got together with five strength coaches to come up with some targeted exercises.

Quick Summary

  • To better target the upper lats, you need to do exercises with heavy loads like monkey rows and wide-grip pull-ups.
  • The trick is to stick with proper form and slow down the movement before you consider loading up with more weight.
  • With more targeted and diverse exercises, you can even overcome a bulking plateau.
A woman working out her upper lat muscles

There are five exercises that I recommend you add to your upper body workout days.

Aim to do three sets with six to ten reps each. And those last two reps really need to be a struggle.

“The latissimus dorsi muscles, known as the lats, are the large V-shaped muscles that connect your arms to your vertebral column. They help protect and stabilize your spine while providing shoulder and back strength.”

- Gregory Minnis, DPT

1. Dumbbell Rows

Here is an underrated dumbbell exercise that should be way more popular than using a cable machine.

The movement is simple but highly effective:

  1. Ideally, kneel on a bench with your right knee and support your upper body with your right hand.
  2. Hold a heavy dumbbell in your left hand and pull it up to your chest slowly.
  3. Consider holding the top position for a second or two and then slowly lowering the dumbbell down again.

The trick is not to go for speed but to slow things down and achieve a long time under tension [1].

2. Pendlay Rows

A man doing Pendlay Rows

For this free weight row, you’ll need to set up a barbell with a reasonably heavy load.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Bend over to reach for the bar with your knees slightly bent.
  2. Use a wide grip on the bar and keep your spine straight in the bent-over position.
  3. Pull the bar up to your chest without raising your upper body and hold it there for a second.
  4. Lower back down to the starting point and feel the burning sensation build up in your lats.

3. Lat Pulldowns

For those that prefer using a cable machine, I recommend doing lat pulldowns:

  1. Find the widest lat pulldown bar available and set up the cable machine to your height.
  2. Grip the bar with your hands as far apart as possible to gain more strain on the upper lat muscles.
  3. Pull the bar down behind your head and hold the tension for a second.
  4. Then slowly release the weight load and repeat the movement.

4. T-Bar Rows

A person doing T Bar Rows

This is a great exercise to do with a barbell as an alternative to the pendlay rows:

  1. Load up one side of the barbell with weights and stand with a leg on each side of the weight plates.
  2. Bend over with a straight back and reach for the bar. If you have access to a t-bar machine, then grab hold of the handles.
  3. Pull the bar up to your chest and hold it there for a second.
  4. Slowly lower it down again and make sure you focus on your back posture to avoid common back injuries [2].
  5. Repeat T-bar rows for the desired number of reps.

5. Wide-Grip Pull-ups

And now for another one of my favorites that too many people avoid:

  1. Find the widest pull-up bar at the gym and get your hands further than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Slowly pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, and hold this position for a second.
  3. Then slowly lower back down again and repeat until you can’t complete a full rep.


How Do You Work Your Upper Lats?

The best way to work your upper lats is with pull exercises with your arms out in front of you or above your head. Exercises like pull-ups and lat pulldowns are great examples.

Are Big Lats Genetics?

Big lats can be partially genetics, but in most cases, athletes can bulk these up more than they think. With targeted isolation workouts, you can add more strain to the upper lats, and that will cause more hypertrophy.

Start Adding More Focused Upper Lat Exercises

You can quickly find that your physique and proportions are not quite in line when you don’t pay enough attention to your lats.

With the above workouts, you’ll achieve the necessary strain to bulk up these muscles more effectively.

And to get a bit more performance out of every training session, I recommend that you include a pre-workout in your supplement stack:

They won’t bulk you up overnight, but the small gains in strength and endurance will add up over the weeks.


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