Last Update  On January 10, 2012
Lat Activation During Back Training

by Vladi
Q: I don't feel my lats during pull-ups and rows what should I do?
A: The mind muscle connection is actually quite easy to develop. Of course it takes a little time but not that much. First let's take a look at the lats. The are the largest upper body muscle and are responsible mainly for shoulder extension (the opposite movement of the overhead press).
During pull-ups and back exercises in general the lats simply pull the humerus (upper arm) close to the body. That's it. It's not a rocket science.
Now, let's see why people fail to activate their lats during pull-ups, rows...etc.

Mistake 1:
Not arching the back

This is huge. During all back exercises you should arch your back or simply stick your chest out and make yourself look proud. The minute your upper back rounds during pull-ups and similar exercises the lats cannot contract effectively because they are actually stretched. It's hard for a muscle to be stretched and contracted at the same time and you will end up lifting the weight/you using arm strength mostly.
How to fix it: Push your chest out and keep it that way during all exercises - rows, pull-ups, lat-pull downs...etc.

Important note: Many people will advise you also to retract your shoulders. DON'T even think about your shoulders. Just stick you chest out and they will assume the needed position. Why? You can cause shoulder impingement if you artificially reduce the range of motion of your scapulas besides you can have retracted shoulders and caved in chest. At the same time a proud chest is impossible to achieve with shoulder rowing forward. Try it.
Arch your back/stick your chest out
Mistake 2: Not Starting From a Dead Hang

You should always start your pull-ups and lat-pull downs from a dead hang. This is very important for two reasons - avoiding shoulder impingement and lat activation. Many people believe that you should keep your shoulders constantly retracted during back exercises. However not allowing your scapula to move can cause shoulder impingement. I've experienced it while doing improper rows - I was so focused on keeping the shoulder blades together and back that at some point a sharp front shoulder pain hit me during the negative portion of the movement. I fixed it quickly by simply letting my shoulders row forward. The pain went away after a few proper form workouts.
You should always let the weight stretch your back muscles. This basically means that the the rhomboids, traps, lats...etc will relax and stretch at the bottom prior to each rep. This will ensure a better contraction during the actual movement. Now let's go back to the lats.
When you assume the dead hang position on the lat pull-down machine or the pull-up bar just let your shoulders go up. The first movement of the pull-up/lat pull-down is the most important. You should focus on bringing your shoulder DOWN and then finish the rest of the movement. This small initial movement is called scapular pull-up and will make you feel your lats because it's impossible to pull your shoulders down from shrugged overhead position without using your lats. However make sure you don't flex your elbows.
The Dead Hang Start
Look at the video for better clearance. Each pull-up should start like this and you will have screaming lats.
Mistake 3: Performing Arm Dominant Pull-ups

Your biceps are bullies. They will try to lift the weight for you during each back exercise and if your focus is just on lifting the weight instead of lifting the weight using the lats you will end up with poor lat recruitment and small lats. I'm not talking about taking the biceps out of the movement - it's impossible. Just don't arm the weight/you up.
Other ways to improve mind muscle connection


Another great way to develop a mind muscle connection with your lats is to use the so-called
pre-exhaustion principle. Basically you use an isolation exercise which in this case will be the pull-over and then you do your other back exercises. When you have hit the lats first they will become the weak link during pull-ups...etc. I recommend that you use a cable for your pull-overs because they offer a greater range of motion than a dumbbell pull-over on a flat bench. Of course a pull-over machine is great too as I explain in this article but not that many gyms have it.

Using a close grip instead of a wide grip

Many people believe that wide grip pull-ups are the key to big lats. This is not the case. I go in details about the this in the following article:

Wide Grip Pull-ups Vs. Close Grip Pull-ups.

Pulling from the elbows

Another popular way to increase the mind muscle connection is to imagine your arms as hooks and pull through your elbows. This will ensure that you start the exercise with your back. I recommend first trying this with a moderate weight on the lat pull down machine because you will be able to focus on technique rather than survival.

Any questions?

"Yes. it better to use pull-ups for lat activation?"

No. The “best” pull-up is the ring pull-up and the position of your hands does not make that much of a difference when it comes to lat activation. Read the following articles for better clearance.
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