5 Best Upper Lat Exercises (Improve Your Shoulder Strength)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers | Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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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.
  • According to a study from MDPI, doing drop sets pushes your lats to work harder and can stimulate additional muscle growth.
  • 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 exercises, are the large V-shaped muscles that connect your upper arms to your vertebral column. They help protect and stabilize your spine while providing shoulder blades 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 strength 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.

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 starting 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 who prefer using a cable machine, I recommend doing 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 pulldown 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 pendlay rows:

  1. Load up one side of the barbell rows 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 muscles to avoid back injuries.
  5. Repeat T-bar rows for the desired number of reps.

Related: T-Bar Row Alternative: Level Up Your Back Exercise

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 feet 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.

Lat Activation Techniques

When I first started lat training, I found activating my lats a bit challenging, especially when muscles like the biceps, traps, and shoulders take over.

So, I learned used to these two techniques for maximum lat engagement:

  • Pre-workout activation drills: Exercises like scapular pull-ups or straight-arm pulldowns can help 'wake up' the lat muscles, ensuring they are engaged and ready for the workout.
  • Muscle Engagement: During the warm-up, concentrate on feeling your lats working. This can be achieved by performing movements slowly and with control, focusing on the contraction and relaxation of the lat muscles.

Advanced Techniques for Lat Growth

If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter looking to enhance your lat growth, here are a few techniques that have helped me get over plateaus:

  • Drop sets: After completing a set of a lat exercise at your usual weight, immediately reduce the weight and continue to do more reps until failure. According to a study from MDPI, this technique pushes your lats to work harder and can stimulate additional muscle growth [1].
  • Supersets: Combine two different lat exercises back-to-back with no rest in between, like doing a set of bent-over rows immediately followed by lat pulldowns. This increases the intensity and endurance demand on your lats.
  • Eccentric loading: Focus on the eccentric (lowering) phase of the exercise. For instance, during a pull-up, lift yourself up quickly but take 3–5 seconds to lower back down. This increases time under tension, a key factor in muscle growth [2].

FAQs

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.


References:

  1. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/9/9/119
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
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About The Author

Senior Coach
Tyler Sellers is a trained athlete and author with contributions to publications like Men’s Health, The Healthy, Fox Business, NerdWallet, Weight Watchers, and MSN. His unique approach extends beyond physical techniques, emphasizing the significance of mental techniques like the flow state and mind-muscle connection.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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