lat divisions, the upper/middle/lower lats and whether you need to train them to build muscle and strength

Do you NEED to train all 3 divisions of the lats?

Aug 26, 2022

Lats are all the rage on social media of late.

Forget the upper back. Forget the traps. Forget the rear delts even. 
All anyone wants is lats.

I don’t mind this. I love lat training and I find all the new research around training the lats fascinating but, the question to ask is do YOU need to be worrying about how to train each division?

Yes, that’s right, the lats have three divisions!

Before you start to scratch your head, I’m not going to go too far in depth on each of the three divisions. All you really need to know is that if you’re doing a lat-bias vertical and a horizontal pulling movement, you’re going to be fine.

This is because the lats are a fan shaped muscle that insert up into the humerus (the upper arm). Because of their multiple insertion points, the fibres of each different division run in a slightly different direction.

The two upper-most divisions of the lats – the Thoracic and Lumbar divisions – run mostly horizontally, meaning they’re given the best opportunity to work with horizontal pulling (rowing) movements.

However, there’s a few things we need to consider here when setting up a row for the lats.

Firstly, the lats are best worked with the elbow tight to the body – this is because the lats are great at performing shoulder extension but not so great at performing shoulder adduction.

Secondly, we need to consider grip. The lats are best worked with a neutral or supine grip, losing leverage when the palm is pronated (facing down to the floor).

Third, slight lean forward is great BUT for all lat bias movements we ideally want a predominantly neutral spine.

Finally, the lats also don’t really contribute to pulling past anatomical position and once the elbow passes behind the body, other muscles around the scapula are given a better opportunity to contribute.

I like to cue initiating the row by pulling the upper arm down rather than back for this with clients. 

So, to set up a seated row to bias the lats, you’d want something resembling this below

Now, we have our horizontal pull for the upper lats. So for the lower Illiac lats, we’re going to need a vertical pull – a pulldown basically).

Using what we just learned from the row, if we want to set up a pulldown for the lats we’ll again need the following

  • A neutral / semi supinated grip

  • Elbow tight to the body

  • A focus on driving the upper arm down rather than back

A fantastic start but there’s a couple of other things we want to consider too here.

Firstly, the lats begin to lose leverage to perform a pulldown if we travel too far over-head.

If you want to find a rough sweet spot, put your arm out in front of you so it runs straight out in front of your shoulder. Then from there, lift as if you were to bring your arm all the way over your head so it’s about a third of the way up. 

That’s about the height we want to be at for an “illiac” pulldown.

There’s a ton of ways you can do this – bench supported, in an actual lat pulldown cable machine etc etc but the most simple and easily accessible will always be the kneeling one arm option.

For 95% of you, that’s all you’re ever going to really have to worry about with your lat training.

Yes there’s more depth we can take it to but unless you’re a giga-nerd like myself, it’s probably not worth venturing down that rabbit hole (for now anyway!)

Thanks for reading,