What Lat Exercises are Effective – (Pulldowns is a 5!)

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Last updated on February 8, 2023

Wide, flaring lats that taper down into a tiny waist represents the classic V-shape that is the very essence of manliness. In order to build those lats, most guys follow the exact same workout recipe . . .


Chin Ups


Seated Rows

T-Bar Rows, etc


The truth is that none of those exercises are very good ways to build the latissimus dorsi. In this article, I’ll rate the best, and the worst, lat exercises on a scale of 1 to 10 on the basis of biomechanics and physics. In doing so, I’ll show you how to stop wasting your time with unproductive moves and start doing exercises that are actually targeting the lats.

Reality Check

Some of the exercises that I’m about to rate as 4s or 5s are the very same ones that the entire gym going world has been told are the gold standard for building a wide back. They are not and I’m about to prove it. Your challenge is to not let your emotional attachment to them blind you to the reality of objective science!

What an Ideal Lat Exercise Must Do

For a lat exercise to be effective it must do three things:


  • The exercise’s direction of movement must align with the anatomical motion of the lats, which is in and down at an angle of around 30 degrees
  • It should follow the direction of the muscle fibers
  • It should not compromise the shoulder joint


Ok, let’s start rating some lat exercises . . .

Chin Ups – Rating: 4

The chin up is a hugely popular, but severely compromised, lat exercise. It involves having your arms straight above you. The lats are attached to the humerus (upper arm) bone. That means that, when you pull yourself up, the lats are forced to pull from a parallel angle. This creates what is known as mechanical disadvantage. Furthermore, pulling directly up does not follow either the anatomical movement of the lats or the direction of the muscle fibers.


When you come to the top of the chin up bar, you are not able to achieve a full range of motion in terms of moving the lats through  inward and downward trajectory.


With chin ups, you are also having to pull the humerus from a dead hang, where your arms are directly above your torso. It is far better in terms of lat activation to pull from a slight backward lean.


To summarize, the chin up does not allow your lats to travel through their designed anatomical movement or range of motion. Furthermore, they place your shoulder joint in a compromising position.

Lat Pulldown – Rating: 5

The lat pulldown is a very similar exercise to the chin up. As a result, the problems that are inherent in one apply to the other. The lat pulldown has you pulling the bar directly down, which is not engaging the latissimus dorsi – the muscle’s anatomical movement pulls your outstretched arm from a 30 degree angle in and down so that the elbow ends up by your hip.


You are able to lean back slightly when doing lat pulldowns, which makes it a slightly better lat movement than the chin up. But it still completely misses the mark when it comes to replicating the anatomical movement, yet alone the fiber direction, of the lats.

Seated Rowing – Rating: 3

Forget what you’ve heard about rowing movements working your upper back – they do not. They mainly work the arms. You can see this just by watching someone do seated rowing, t-bar rowing, bent over rows, or any other type of rowing movement. The arms and the posterior deltoids are doing the vast majority of the work.


Many people think that a rowing exercise is working the traps as well as the lats. However the trapezius does not even attach to the upper arms, so it gets no benefit. When it comes to the lats, the exercise also misses the mark completely. A rowing motion pulls your arms straight back. That does not move the resistance toward the muscle fiber origin, which is on the base of the spine. Nor does it follow that ideal 30 degree anatomical motion of the lat muscles.


A final problem with the seated rowing exercise is that it potentially overloads the erector spinae muscles of the lower back on the return part of each rep.

Lat Pull In – Rating: 10

The Lat Pull In is a one armed variation of the lat pulldown that overcomes all of the problems with the conventional pulldown by changing the angle of pull. As we have already stated, the ideal direction of movement follows the anatomical movement of the lats through its full range of motion. That angle is with the arm about 30 degrees above the shoulder, while you are sitting side on to the cable machine. From this fully extended lat position, you pull downward and inward until your elbow neary makes contact with your hip.


Performing the Lat Pull In allows you to work each side of the lats unilaterally which is something that you have probably never done before. This allows you to better establish a mind-muscle connection with your latissimus dorsi muscle, while also correcting any muscle or strength imbalances.


The Lat Pull In movement is the single best lat exercise you could ever do. In fact, it is the only one you will ever have to do. After all, when you find a 10, why would you want to ditch it for an exercise that is a 5?


Here is an effective rep scheme that will work both your fast twitch and slow twitch fibers, ensuring full development of the latissimus dorsi muscles. Pyramid the weight up on each set but do not compromise form.


Set One – 30 reps

Set Two – 15 reps

Set Three – 10 reps

Set Four – 10 reps

Set Five – 8 reps

Set Six – 6 reps

Set Seven – 6 reps

Set Eight – 30 reps

Wrap Up

Building muscle is hard work. Unless you identify the exercises that really work, you are going to be wasting a whole lot of time and, ultimately, getting less than desired results. Give this Lat Pull In workout a try for six weeks, comparing the activation in the lats to your old workout and discover the difference for yourself.


If you are looking for personal trainer content look no further. SmartFitnessResults is written for not only improve mens health but also womens health, including if you train in a home gym. We have how to articles (for example how to dumbbell rows, barbell rows, pendlay rows, the barbell deadlift, cable rows, pull ups, the seated cable row).


The most effective exercises for a total body workout (both lower body and upper body workout). This includes the best workouts for you to do (for example best shoulder exercises, best leg workout, best strength training exercises, best body weight exercises). Whatever fitness objectives (for example overall weight loss / fat loss, to lose body fat in a particular area – belly fat, to gain muscle / strength / stamina, targeting a body fat percentage) we have the training programs, exercises tips and the appropriate meal plan advice to help you.

Healthy eating is just as important as any workout tips. We also review supplements (for example fat burners, protein powders, mean replacement bars) to allow you to choose the best for your training plan.

Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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