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How to Unleash Your Pull-up Work Out Potential with Lat Activation

So what is lat activation and why should you bother with it in your pull up workout? Trying to do pulling movements with the arms instead of the much more powerful back muscles is like driving a car with the emergency break stuck. If you don’t learn to use the lats on chin ups, you will never master them.

pull up workout

However, if you do learn how to feel, contract and use the lats, you will kick ass in the gym when it comes to pull ups or chin ups. Not only that, you will also get a killer v shape back because the lats will grow nice and wide.

How to Start Using the Lats

  • Practice contracting the lats. Throughout the day practice flaring out and flexing the lats (when nobody’s watching you of course). This will build a stronger connection to the muscles that you want to use in pull-ups.
  • Try wide grip thumbless pull-ups. These pull-ups rely more on the lats so you’ll have no choice but to start engaging them. The thumbless grip – thumbs on top of the bar – disengage the biceps so again more lat activation.
  • Lean back. When doing pull-ups or pull-downs, try leaning slightly back so you pull toward the rib cage. Focus on bringing the elbows towards the torso.
  • Pull with elbows. Pull-ups, chin-ups, pull-downs and rows. These are all done with the back, bot the biceps. To feel the back working, imagining your arms as hooks and focusing on pulling just the elbows down.
  • Activate the lats. This is a tip I got from the book Beyond Bodybuilding. Reach out with your arm. Have a buddy try to press your arm up while you use your lats (armpit muscles) to resist him.
  • Try one arm dumbbell rows.
  • To properly train the back with one arm dumbbell rows, row using the lats. Begin by lifting the dumbbell with a straight arm. Imagine your arms as hooks, try to bring the elbow as close to your waist as possible.

Lat Activation Video

The above video shows how to initiate pull ups or chin ups by first packing the shoulders down towards your torso and then flexing the lats. Many advocate doing pull ups with shoulders flexed the whole time.

I prefer doing the entire movement on every rep. This way the serratus and pec minor get a great workout from bringing the shoulder down.

Action Plan

From now on whenever you are doing a pulling motion (weight moves toward you or you pull yourself toward stationary object), you want to initiate the movement with the lats. Pull your shoulder towards your body with a straight arm and then start pulling with the lats by bringing the elbow towards your chest.

VIDEO: Are You Targetting the Right Kind of Muscle?

Ultimately your strength in your chin up and pull up workouts will double or triple when you wake up the and start using the lats – those dormant super muscles.


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34 Comments - Share Are Your Thoughts

  1. One of my favorite exercises is the pull ups. What inspired me way back was seeing gymnasts and seeing how muscular they were by using just bodyweight exercises.

    The pull ups are excellent in building a V tapered back and increase overrall upper body symmetry and strength.

    One thing I do to really focus on the back is to picture all my strength coming from my back muscles and feeling my shoulder blades contract.

    Although it is difficult to perform this exercise in the beginning I believe that a well structured back routine will help anyone make gains in their pull ups. I like to do lat pull downs and rows along with doing pull ups. Although it may sound like a lot it really helps you build back strength which in the end makes pull ups much easier and much sooner.

    -Sam

  2. m

    Yavor:

    A little off topic. We know that when you use a periodization program; it yield the best gains. Could you do a post on how to use periodization with just body weight exercises. Most of the books out there deal with RM and weights.

  3. Yavor

    M,

    great idea. I will write a post on it.

    Sam,

    that was a great way to describe using the back. I prefer weighted pullups to lat pull downs myself, once you are able to do them.

    Cheers guys,

    Yavor

  4. bob

    Hey, really great blog posts… I’ve enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy you put into each post. I actually run AceHealth.org, a blog of my personal research and experiences. If you’re interested, I would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail: bob.mauer65(at)gmail(dot)com, and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.

  5. Yavor,

    Pull ups are my favorite body weight exercise. These are great tips for getting the most out of pull ups and also just thinking about consciously trying to engage your lats while you do them makes a big difference. I’ve noticed I can do about half as many when I do them the right way as I can when I do them the wrong way.

    Alykhan

  6. Hi Yavor,

    I’ve always thought lats are an extremely under-rated muscle. I’m glad to see your blog giving them the attention they deserve. Building the mind-to-muscle link with your lats (as you discuss above) and strengthening your lats will help you increase strength in many lifts, not just pull ups. Some additional lat work can be a great plateau buster, too.

    Cheers, J

  7. Thanks for the post. I like how you stress the importance of focusing on and starting the motion with the lats. I’ve been doing kipping pullups and it has helped increase my strength in dead-hang pullups as well. BUT … I haven’t been focusing intentionally on the lats.

    One my my last workouts incorporated burpee-pullups. I could have used this tip, then. Intentionally engaging the lats would have brought better form throughout.

  8. I tried it — and it helped. I managed to add another rep to each set of 10 pullups during my workout this morning – 120 pullups! Thanks.

    Now it was my grip that was dead. I’m going to have to do some callous scraping soon, before they rip.

    -Troy

  9. Yavor

    Bob,

    I’ll get in touch when I get a chance.

    Alykhan,

    Seems like you have strong biceps and weaker lats. This is actually good news – the lats are easier to get strong than the arms, because they are a huge muscle.

    Jeremy,

    Yup I agree. Lats are a super muscle – they help in pulling, pushing (providing support), deadlifting (keeping the bar close to the legs), etc.

    Troy,

    Great job pushing past your last personal record man

  10. Garrett

    Hey there Yavor. I’ve recently switched up my workout routine to focus more on bodyweight movements after reading your blog posts for a few cumulative hours. I gotta say – my ab definition has increased *significantly* since I’ve been utilizing the “hollow position” in my sets. This functional strength I’m feeling is so invigorating – far more refreshing than the somewhat “plump” bodybuilding style.

  11. Yavor

    Garrett, mastering your body weight kicks ass, doesn’t it!

    For long periods of time I train my midsection only with whole body movements. Learning to brace as if for a punch, the essence of the hollow position, makes it very easy to get pretty decent abs.

    Cheers,

    Yavor

  12. Garrett

    I’d also really appreciate your opinion on whether or not this routine I’m planning would result in overtraining, as that is my worst fear:
    I’ll be doing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy training for the next 4 weeks.
    Mon – push and pull muscles
    Tues – rest/HIIT
    Wed – push and pull
    Thu – rest/HIIT
    Fri – push and pull
    Sat – rest/HIIT
    Sun – full rest

    I’m just scared of the training sessions lasting longer than an hour or so (I’ve heard only bad things about that).

  13. Yavor

    Real over training occurs slower. The danger here is that you are not going to drag your butt to the gym. As long as you have desire to train, you should be fine. Try subing slow cardio for HIIT if al else fails. But you should be fine.

  14. Garrett

    Awesome. Thanks, Yavor.

  15. These are great tips, I can’t wait to try the wide grip thumb less pull-ups. Its the little details like this that make the difference.

    Cheers

    Michael

  16. Yavor,
    Another great post. I am working the Convict conditioning program and am at the uneven pullups phase. I really like this program! I am looking forward to being able to do one arm pull ups at some point. This are going to be harder than the one arm push ups for sure!

    -Kelly

  17. Yavor,
    This is a wicked post. I was a guy that couldn’t even perform a chin up so I stayed with the chin up and have been shying away from the pull up (thumbless, wide grip) like you described. I am going to try activating the lats, and get my biceps out of the exercise!

    Cheers,
    Jordan

  18. Yavor,
    This is a wicked post. I was a guy that couldn’t even perform a chin up so I stayed with the chin up and have been shying away from the pull up (thumbless, wide grip) like you described. I am going to try activating the lats, and get my biceps out of the exercise!

    Cheers,
    Jordan

  19. Yavor, I just had to check in to let you know I had a back workout and used the technique you described. Awesome!! It was very interesting, not only was I stronger because I wasn’t relying on my arms, but I got much better contractions too.

    Cheers

    Michael

  20. Hey Yavor, I like the new blog design. The lats are very powerful muscles definitely. Besides pullups, I like doing kettlebell Turkish Get Ups and Snatches to train my lats. These exercises really uses them big time!

    Anna

  21. I think more often than not I end up using more of my arms than my lats when I do pull-ups – my emergency break is shot! I started using resistance bands to assist me on the way up to try and fix this problem.

    I like the video you made. Definitely a nice touch. Thanks for the cool post.

  22. Its interesting you mention one arm dumbbell rows, cos i added time ago this exercise to my workouts … The reasong being i only had a couple of dumbbells and didnt want to invest more money on the discs!!

    Yes, one arm dumbbell exercises are quite tough. I like them. They require more stabilization, and you feel it.

    Well, back to the pullups … i’ve found that changing my grip works well too. It helps to make it more challenging.

    Just my 2cents.

    Regards.

  23. On the practical side, strong lat muscles are important for solid punches in boxing. As a trainer, I’ve learned it’s pretty even:
    5 Pull-ups – better move well
    12 Pull-ups – can hit a little
    20+ = Packs a punch!
    Unlike other Austin gyms, we start the fitness part of your training on the chin-up bar.
    Great story.

  24. awais

    your explanations are very good.

    I finally figured out what you meant by leaning back when doing pullups. Imagine your chest attached to a chain and being pulled up and hold this position throughout the pullup. In this position your shoulders go back and chest is pushed out. When leaning back you don’t need to look up at the pull up bar.

    Next as you said pull first with your shoulders then with your arms.

    Pullups promote good posture. Lats are incorporated best when good posture is used, hence pushing chest out and shoulders back.

    your thoughts of using the lat pulldown for preparing for pullups is revolutionary.

    I searched online sooo much too find out how to do pullups properly and your advice was the best.

    Can you do an article on Dips. I know for chest dips you have to bend at the hip as well as keeping your chest out (incorporating lats)

    Currently I am training doing L sits I want to eventually move from that position to a handstand. Which is years away.

  25. awais

    Yavor can you also write an article on promoting good shoulder health when working out.

  26. Yavor

    Awais, I have written a sort of part 1 article on shoulder health:

    http://relativestrengthadvantage.com/lat-contraction-shoulder-health/

    I have filmed another video and will do a part 2.

    Cheers!

  27. Hey Yavor! ;-)

    Thanks for sharing all these awesome tips on the king of upper exercises man! :-)

    How do you like this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEpfVy_if6U&NR=1

    Mark

  28. Yavor

    Mark, that guy has got strong hands. Cool stuff!

  29. Totally agree with this article, alot of the time myself i use to use my arms to pull myself up, but have had a greater consciousness since the summer when i started working out again, and use my lats to pull me up instead, really brings out the v us men strive for

  30. Yavor

    Mike, yeah, for somebody like you who’s got great biceps, using the arms might come easier initially. But as you learn to control the back you will see how much more powerful it is.

  31. I am definitely trying the thumb-less wide grip pull ups.

    But Yavor, how do you feel about negative pull ups at the end of sets to fatigue yourself even more…where you jump into a completed pull up position and then slowly lower yourself down.

  32. Yavor

    Tony, good idea but only on the last set.

  33. David

    Hello Yavor, I don’t seem to be doing too well on pull and chin ups.I could flex my lats alright when I’m not on the bar, but when i go on the bar on pull ups i flex my forearms a lot more, and on chinups my biceps. My posture slips a bit on the way up as well. Is there anyway to make flexing your lats more natural?


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