The following article was written by oldschool bodybuilder and strongman Armand Tanny (b. 1920 d. 2009). He won the title Mr. USA in 1950 and Pro Mr. America! -Mr. Berg
“Forty years ago you would have called it a broad back. Today it’s more popularly known as the “lat spread.” For those few still sadly uninformed the term applies to broad expanse of the upper back. It’s roughly that V-shaped sweep from the shoulders to the waist. The term “lat” is merely a convenient contraction for the physiological tongue-twister, latissimus dorsi, the muscle taking full credit for this impression. Since there’s some doubt about that distinction, this is a good chance to eliminate the weary explanation of origin and insertion of the muscle except that roughly it is bilaterally “V” shaped.
Of course for your information there are several scapular muscles that lend much to the width and depth of this effect. But to keep from slighting lesser known but more deserving muscles merely to glamorize one, it is convenient to approach the thing more from an artist’s than an anatomists’ viewpoint.
The muscles are there, universally the same in the human species, and unless you nurse the suspicion that they are congenitally absent on you (which is often the case when they won’t respond to your present exercises), you can get a complete and detailed explanation of then in your nearest Gray’s Anatomy.
Pure and simple the lats create one of the most pleasing effects in the bodybuilder’s development. Forty years ago had you asked your favorite strongman about a good exercise for the lats, he would have given a quizzical exe and told you to watch the swinging doors on your way out. There is a noticeable absence of lat display in those old timers’ pictures. Those elongated torsos went out with the handle-bar. Today the popular cry is “Spread those lats.”
That isn’t a slight toward the old timer because some of them were truly built, but the modern trend in the last couple of decades is toward the V-man type, that characterized by broad shoulders, sweeping back and trim waist.
Every physique star today has tremendous lat development. The term “lat” here is all-inclusive to mean the entire group of muscles making up the lat development. Whether they had a naturally broad structure or not to start with, they all have enormous width now. All they started with was the usual anatomical structure, but with so many underlying muscles making up the back structure the possibilities were terrific.
Generally the muscles supporting the lats work synergistically; that is, for an upper back exercise all of the upper back muscles help to perform the motion. Consequently development is rapid. Any large group of muscles that works together develops fast.
The quadriceps of the thighs for example. A single exercise like the deep nee bend makes them balloon out. Of course there are variations of the movement that add extra size here and there and the object at this writing is to describe the actions that give the fullest possible development for the lats.
Primarily the action that brings into play the muscles we are concerned with is that which depresses the atm with a range of motion from position vertically overhead, down either forward or laterally to the position vertically downward. Also any hyperextension where the arm is drawn backward either from the lateral or downward vertical position. There it is necessary to do exercises that encompass this wide range of action for full and complete development.
Of course all the muscles under consideration have a definite individual function, but to isolate each one with an exercise for its specific function would be awkward and a waste of time.
The only thing necessary to remember are the exercises and their proper performance. The skeletal location of the muscles, that is, the origin, insertion and so on, should be left to your natural curiosity and lust for research. All we are concerned with is their surface appearance,. They’ll never change position on your bones no matter what you do. All you can do is develop them and when that is done to the fullest, the transformation becomes a transfiguration. You’ll never know them for the same old muscles you started with.
Different individuals naturally, have different body structures. No two developments are alike. You may see the type of lats you may wan but you can’t get identical ones unless you have the same basic structure. Since no particular type can be called ideal you have every chance of developing a lat spread that is impressive and outstanding according to your body type.
Beginners too often want to develop according to their idea. They believe there must be some particular exercise that will accomplish their purpose. Two individual may do the same exercise rep for rep and set for set but their eventual development will be decidedly different.
But in the end, if both had a normally decent start structurally, who is to say which looks better. It is doubtful if any two people in the world are identical so you as an individual must take particular pride in yourself.
You are in a class by yourself and whatever you do to advance yourself physically, you will have created something new, something to be looked at, a thing stimulating to normal interest.
Any you can rest assured that whatever your eventual shape and development you will be admired and respected for a job well done.
Too often beginners, or almost anyone for that matter, will ask, “What is the best exercise for the lats?” Or any other part that interests them.
There is really no “best” exercise for anything. Any and every exercise is beneficial if done hard enough. But let’s took at it this way. If you can use a lot of weight on an exercise for the part you want to develop, the chances are you are extending the muscles to the limit with a corresponding great response.
The chances are also that you are using muscles that are not directly associated with the group you are concerned with.
On the other hand you can do presses behind the neck with a two hundred pound barbell but here you are working the triceps to a great extent.
It is best to use the heavy exercises as the basis for any workout. These heavy ones force you to work harder because they engage more muscles. They are more stimulating and tiring but they are conditioners that develop stamina along with the muscles. They force your body to conditions that develop stamina along with the muscles. They force your body to condition itself for the tremendous demands made on it, consequently the supply will increase. By creating these demands the normal reaction is to oversupply and with the proper rest, you should be capable of putting out more effort each succeeding time.
With the heavy exercises as a basis for your workouts you can build around them with supplementary lighter exercises. The order in which you do them doesn’t matter. Some bodybuilders diligently follow the theory of doing the light exercises first and the heavier ones last in a workout. It doesn’t matter when you do them.
Some contend that by doing the heavier one first they are too tired for the lighter ones. But by the same token if they did a lot of lighter ones first they would be too tired for fullest effort on the heavy ones. But from another standpoint, any time you are so tired you find it difficult to do either the lighter or heavier exercise last, you are working too hard. At the conclusion if any workout you should still feel fairly strong and capable of putting out near maximum effort if you had to.
Most of the lat exercises are of the heavy variety. Since many muscles constitute the lat structure…if we were to isolate the latissimus dorsi muscle itself it is doubtful that heavy poundage could be used. But with the many other back muscles to assist in the process the work is distributed and a greater poundages can be used.
Exercises for lat development
Two arm chin (pull up); bent over rowing motion; inclined pulley; pull over. There are variations of all of these we will discuss. There they are, fundamentally four exercises and if you put any number of them in your workout you would not have to do anything else for your lats.
Possibly there are other exercises that could be included and we will assume there are but if you already know them there’s no need to discuss them.
The first one under discussion, and possibly the most all-inclusively by way of number of muscles in action is the two arm chin and its variations. The most popular and effective of the chins among those who favor this exercise is the chin behind the neck. Any place where you can hang with your feet clear of the floor is all right. Get a grip with the hands about three feet apart.
Pull up until the bar touches as low as possible on the back of the neck. Ten repetitions is sufficient. Should this number of reps go too easy simply suspend some weights around the hips. There’s little chance of cheating on this exercise so the only thing necessary is to do them. Three to five sets of these in a workout is sufficient. The lats will pop on this one.
A variation os the plain chin-up with the hands about shoulder width apart. The chin ascends past the level of the bar. The same system of reps and weights is used as in the chin behind the neck.
Now that you have the fundamental pull up motion you can place the hands in any position you wish. The palms may be turned in or out and the grip very close or very wide. No further explanation is needed. Just do them and the effect will be startling and pleasing.
There is an additional one, quite difficult, but mighty effective once you can do them. Turn sideway to the bar. Clasp the hands togethers over the bar. You might have to stand on a bench to get situated. Now from the hanging position pull up and arch the body forward until the chest touches the bar. Five reps without weight is good: ten excellent. Another different one is the bent-over rowing motion.
Almost every bodybuilder is familiar with this one. The barbell is on the floor. Bend over from the waist keeping the knees reasonably straight. Grasp the bar with hands either close together, far apart, or shoulder width apart. The object now is to pull the bar into the chest about pectoral level while maintaining the bent over position.
With the legs and body in a rigidly jackknifed position it is difficult to use a really great poundage. Therefore allow some freedom of motion for both the legs and the back. In this way considerably more poundage can be used. The object mainly is to sort of snap-pull the weight to the chest. You will have to cheat a little to do it. Cheating on exercises is sometimes more effective than a program of rigid adherence to paper definitions.
Three to five sets, ten repetitions each, in a workout is plenty. Every rep seems like the last on this one and your fortitude is at stake.
A variation of this is to stand on a bench holding two dumbbells. Bend over with your chest on your thighs, knees slightly bent and the bells hanging below the level of the bench… Now pull them into the shoulders. Very effective.
If you happen to belong to a well-equipped gym this one is stimulating to growth. We’ll call it the “inclined lat pull.” It is a special arrangement where the weights are suspended vertically from an overhead pulley with the pulling end of the cable where the hand grips are at approximately a forty-five degree angle. Form the sitting position on the floor the feet are braced against a stationary block with the knees about a quarter bent. Let the torso fall far forward. Now from this position pull back on that cable with the arms as far and hard as possible. This one stretches the muscles to full extension and the pull back from here if you don’t use the back too much is a real grind on the lats.
Then also there is the pullover, either straight or bent arm. Int he bent arm method a heavy poundage can be used. Lie supine on a flat bench with the head hanging free of the end,. The barbell is across the chest with the hands about shoulder width apart. With the elbows held bent, let the weight slide back past the head and down as far as you can tolerate. Pull it back to the starting position. The leverage is great so you’ll have to hook your feet under the bench or have someone hold them. Three to five sets, ten reps each, per workout. Some of our top strength stars have no trouble doing this exercise with as much as two hundred and fifty pounds.
The straight arm pull-over can be done lying supine on the floor. The action on the muscles is fundamentally the same but the arms are held straight and a lot less weight must be used.
Well, there’s the extent of the lat exercises you’ve always wanted to know about. Not very revealing or novel, some of you might say, and the chances are you have done all of them before. But if you are satisfied with the results you have gotten, you have just read one person’s opinion. If you are not, read on while I slip into the first person and give you a few personal prods.
Beginners as a rule are continuously doubtful that they are doing the right exercises. The see a man with thick sweeping lats and they wonder why theirs aren’t like that when they have knocked themselves out the past six months. Perhaps they have a ready received first hand or read the advice offered by some physique star but still they are sure they are missing out on something. They’ll tell you they have devoutly followed the program outlined by so-and-so “for more than a month already,” but they haven’t gained a thing. They’ll turn to a dozen other sources for information on lat development while the only thing they might develop is an anxiety neurosis.
Sure, you may have worked out six months and only gained an inch on your chest but how about us guys who have been at it ten of fifteen years and are smaller now than we were last year at this same time. It happens, and don’t think it doesn’t. But maybe next month we will be bigger than ever if we can pull out of the slump.
This process of bodybuilding isn’t consistent. A beginner must realize that fact. Six months of training to him is like six years. In those months he has probably pushed himself to the limit on his lats but they don’t remotely approach what he had in mind for them. In the first place his limit wasn’t much because he hadn’t developed the capacity to really push himself. Maybe next year he will have.
Of course he looks like he’s putting out maximum effort and he also thinks he is. The chances are it is maximum for him. But did you ever see a champion train? When you see that geared-up machine go into action it reminds you of a big black locomotive grinding and screeching up a grade. It’s all power and it’s constructed to put out effort.
A year from now you’ll be more of a machine than you are at present and your former efforts will seem rather weak by comparison. But you had to start building some place and there’s no place like the bottom. Long before I had ever specialized on bodybuilding I was doing the three Olympic lifts competitively. I attribute a lot of my lat development to the quick lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk.
In fact my lats were so powerfully developed I performed a front level the first time I ever tried it. When I finally turned to bodybuilding my lats developed even more.
Today they are where I want them and I can maintain them easily. I do two lat exercises in a workout now with excellent response. This past year I have concentrated on the wide-arm chin behind the neck and the bent-over rowing motion. If you will include any two or three of the exercises I listed in your workouts there’s no reason you shouldn’t reach top lat development.
The only real gem of advice I can offer is work. Get in there and go. Work like hell. Honestly fellows, there’s no secret. There’s nothing mystic or obstruct about it. It’s yours for the taking if you’ll work at it.
You’ll find I haven’t devoted too much time to the discussion of the lat exercises in this article. I’ve listed the ones I liked and think are best, gave you a brief explanation and a suggested number of sets and reps. M real object was to impress on you that the development of the lats, like any other muscle group, will take time, maximum effort and consistency. The few hints I have offered will add to your store of knowledge. If anything I have mentioned has helped you, this mission is completed.”