The Best Lat Exercises: How to Use Your Lats in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift

how to use your latsWhen I first started training all I ever heard about were the “lats.”

They were endlessly touted as the key to improving the squat, bench press, & deadlift and, according to the strongest lifters in the world, once I learned how to use my lats my strength would rapidly increase.

In an effort to target this elusive muscle group I tried every exercise – yup, even the best lat exercises –  imaginable. Variations of pull downs, chin-ups, pull-ups, and pullovers encapsulated my programs while I slowly gained size and strength.

Despite my relentless focus, I couldn’t feel my lats. My back grew and strength slightly increased but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t feel my lats doing the work. As a result, my technique regularly broke down and I hit sticking point after sticking point without making much progress.

Then, during one unforgettable training session, it happened.

Pulling a maximal effort heavy deadlift, I started to get the infamous “max effort shakes” as the bar passed my knees and hit every lifters favorite spot: the sticking point.

Driving through my heels and pushing the floor away from me as hard as I possibly could, I remember thinking I could feel the blood vessels bursting around my eyelids.

After what felt like hours of pulling (probably 3-4 seconds) my training partner, Nick, yelled “chest up, shoulders down!

As if I was on autopilot, I forced my chest up towards the ceiling, shoved my shoulders down towards my back pocket and, for the first time in my life, I felt my lats pull the bar in towards my hips.

I immediately plowed through the sticking point and, soon after, the bar lay motionless in my hands as my hips and knees locked out to finish the lift.

My lats locked the weight out for me…

I'm now one of the only people in the world to deadlift 4x my bodyweight

I’m now one of the only people in the world to deadlift 4x my bodyweight

It was a momentous occasion and one that helped me progress as both a lifter and a coach.

Now, years later, I not only understand how to use my lats in the squat, bench press, and deadlift…I’ve also developed a system using the best lat exercises to teach other lifters how to “find” their lats as quickly as possible.

In this article I’m going to share with you my private system, show you exactly what the best lat exercises are, and precisely how to use your lats in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

But First: Quit Telling Your Clients to “Engage the Lats!

You know what pisses me off?

Every time I hear a coach yelling at their client to “use your lats!” or “engage your lats!” or even just “LATS!

First and foremost, most clients don’t even know what the hell a “lat” is. 

Second, and more importantly, if they do know it is they probably have zero clue how to use it.

As coaches we need to quit telling our clients to engage their lats and instead use simple cues that automatically force them to be recruited.

I know that’s much easier said than done which is why I’m writing this article. Later on I’ll discuss a number of my favorite cues to teach you how to use your lats for the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

The Best Lat Exercises Part 1: Functional Anatomy

Functional anatomy sucks.

I know.

It’s boring, tedious, and most of us don’t care about why, we just want to know how.

Don’t worry. 

This section will be brief and to-the-point. Minimal fluff and nothing fancy.

Just basic functional anatomy written with the sole intention of providing you with the necessary information to help you understand how to use your lats.

how to use your latsWhat Do the Lats Do?

The lats function to adduct, internally rotate, and extend the shoulder.

The lats function to depress the scapula.

The lats function as a weak scapular retractor.

The lats function as wings when you want to show off to your friends that you can fly around the block. Don’t ask for references.

For a brief overview of these movements, watch this short video:

Using our knowledge of their functional anatomy, we can make use of a variety of coaching cues and strategies to recruit the lats as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

That’s it.

Functional anatomy over.

The Best Lat Exercises Part 2: Three of the Best Lat Exercises to Feel Your Lats

The three drills provided below make use of our knowledge of functional anatomy and force the lats to work in the ways which they are designed.

Watch the videos, follow the instructions, and perform each drill several times through. You may not feel your lats the first (or even the 10th) time you try, but keep practicing and eventually you’ll feel those suckers kick in.

Scapular Adduction and Depression

Cable Pullover with Reactive Floor Press

Straight-Arm Lat Pull Down

The Best Lat Exercises Part 3: How to Feel Your Lats During the Squat

squatIn this section I provide you with several of my favorite coaching cues designed to teach you how to feel and recruit your lats during the squat.

If one cue doesn’t work right away, don’t worry. Practice using the same cue several times to see if it eventually “clicks.”

If not, choose one of the other cues provided below:

Cue #1

Pinch my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades and pull the bar straight down into your back.

Description: With the bar resting on your back, fully retract your shoulder blades. From here, pull the bar firmly down into your back. If the bar can roll around on your back it’s either in the wrong position or you aren’t pulling down hard enough.

Cue #2

Make the letters on your shirt visible to the wall in front of you and try to bend the bar around the front of your body.

Description: With the bar resting on your back, force your chest up as high as possible and actively try to bend the bar around your back. If your chest is falling forward and/or you aren’t actively trying to bend the bar you aren’t using your lats properly.

Cue #3

Hit the wall in front of you with your chest, pinch my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades, and pull the bar straight down into your back.

Description: With the bar resting on your back, force your chest up as high as possible, fully retract your shoulder blades, and pull the bar down directly into your back.


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The Best Lat Exercises Part 4: How to Feel Your Lats During the Bench Press

benchIn this section I provide you with several of my favorite coaching cues designed to teach you how to feel and recruit your lats during the bench press.

Cue #1

Put your shoulders in your back pocket and bend the bar towards your feet.

Description: Holding the bar directly above your chest, shove your shoulders down/away from your ears and try to bend the bar. You should feel the pressure of the bar on the outsides of your palms.

Cue #2

Shove your shoulders down/back towards your heels and actively reach your chest up towards the bar.

Description: Rather than think about lowering the bar to your chest, imagine pulling your chest to the bar. If you can do this while keeping your shoulder blades shoved down towards your back pockets you will instantly feel your lats take the load off your shoulders.

Cue #3

Raise your chest up to the bar, bend the bar with your armpits, and slide your shoulder blades down your back towards your butt.

Description: Holding the bar directly above your chest, bring your chest up as high as possible (without taking your butt off of the bench) and try to bend the bar with your armpits (not your hands) while actively depressing your shoulder blades. 

The Best Lat Exercises Part 5: How to Feel Your Lats During the Deadlift

JRS DeadliftIn this section I provide you with several of my favorite coaching cues designed to teach you how to feel and recruit your lats during the deadlift.

Cue #1

Imagine you’re holding a big, juicy orange in each armpit. Now make orange juice.

Description: Shove your shoulders down/away from your ears and imagine using your armpits to squeeze the oranges as hard as you possibly can. This is one of my all-time favorite cues credit to Dean Somerset. 

Cue #2

Make your arms as long as possible and shove your shoulders down/away from your ears throughout the entire lift.

Description: Keep your arms completely straight and do NOT let your shoulders shrug up towards your ears. Keep your arms as long as you possibly can.

Cue #3

Hit the wall in front of you with your chest and pull the bar into your body by squeezing your armpits.

Description: Get your chest up as high as possible, force your shoulders away from your ears, and actively pull the bar into your legs by trying to squeeze your armpits as hard as you can. If the bar drifts away from your body then you aren’t using your lats.

The Best Lat Exercises Part 6: Wrapping Up

gavelIf you only take 4-things from this article, let it be these:

1) Learning how to use and feel your lats takes a lot of time and practice. Be patient and don’t get discouraged when you don’t feel them right away. Stick with the best lat exercises and keep on trying – your hard work will pay off.

2) There is no “right” or “wrong” cue. A cue that works for your may or may not work for a client or friend. Try everything, be creative, and don’t stop until you feel those suckers working.

3) A pair of well developed lats are sexy as hell. Even if you don’t care about lifting a shit ton of weight (which you should because #gainz) you’d be wise to spend time building your lats as they increase your attractiveness level by roughly 732%.

4) Humans can’t fly yet but I firmly believe a pair of well developed lats will be the catalyst for the first human flight. So what I’m saying is this: if you want to fly then you need to start doing weighted chin-ups.

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-J






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