How can you grow a wider back? In this post, I’m going to breakdown how to properly train the back for width based on the muscle functionality.
Just like many other gym goers, the one thing that I really wanted to achieve when I first started lifting weights was to get a wider back.
If you’re seeking to build a wider back, there are two primary factors that play a role:
- Your Lat development.
- Your waist circumference
The smaller the waist, the more pronounced your V-Taper will be and the wider your back will appear.
Obviously, you cannot alter your waist with training. You need a good diet for that. And that’s a topic for another day.
In this article we’re going to focus on how to add more width to your back by optimizing the growth of the Lats through optimal training techniques.
Let’s get right into it.
In order for us to understand how we can effectively target the lats, we need to first understand how they function.
The lats are responsible for:
Shoulder adduction – bring the arms closer to the body when they’re out to the side. Think of bringing the weight down during lateral raises.
Shoulder extension – bring the arms closer to the body when they’re out in front.
Most people are under the impression that vertical pull (such as pull ups and pulldowns) are better at building a wider back.
And horizontal pulls (like rows) are better at building back thickness.
However, this is not the case at all.
Rows are actually great for targeting both width and thickness.
This is supported by this 2004 study, where the seated row out-performed the lat pulldown for both the lat and trap activation.
And this 2014 paper shows that lat pulldowns are great at targeting both the lats and the traps.
Rows are the dominant way of targeting the lats through shoulder extension.
Where as pull ups and pulldowns target the lats through shoulder adduction.
From a programming perspective, you would want your back workout to include vertical and horizontal pulling exercises to target the lats from all angles.
Speaking of vertical pulls.
Vertical Pulling Exercises
Vertical pulling exercises are usually pull-ups and pulldowns.
While a lot of people put the pull-up on a pedestal, there’s really no difference.
As a matter of fact there’s supporting evidence that suggest that the lat pulldown is better at isolating the lats by incorporating less biceps involvement (study).
This Bacheor’s thesis also supports that argument.
So if you want to incorporate some indirect biceps work you can do pull-ups.
If you want to isolate the lats and reduce biceps involvement, you can do pulldowns.
What about grip and hand position?
Grip and hand position
However, there was this one 2002 paper that showed that the front pulldown is slightly better at lat activation.
However, since the front pulldowns puts the shoulders at a less vulnerable position. And allow for heavier loads to be used I’d recommend sticking with front pulldowns.
Commonly, most trainees believe that the wider the grip the wider the back. But again, this is not really the case.
And while the differences are small, this 2014 paper suggests that a medium pronated (palms facing out) grip is better at targeting the lats. Medium as in 1.5 times shoulder width.
This was mainly based on the trend that they observed of higher lat and trap activation during the eccentric. In other words, when lowering the weight.
And this medium grip also allowed for heavier loads to be used.
This 2010 study supports this as it found that a pronated (overhand) grip produced higher lat activation compared to supinated (underhand).
What about cable attachments? Should you only stick to the straight bar?
As much as I love the V-Bar pulldowns, I would suggest sticking with the straight bar when doing vertical pulls.
A close grip pulldown will emphasize more on shoulder extension. Since most rowing exercises are going to target the lats through shoulder extension it’d be wise for you use a straight bar so that you can target the lats through adduction.
That being said, you can do both variations.
From a mechanical stand point, the fact that you’re using a vertical pull to do shoulder extensions will hit the lats from a different angle. Which is always a good thing.
Also, if the idea of shoulder adduction confuses you here is something that you can do that will improve your pulldown form.
Extend your arms above your head as if you’re about to do a pulldown. Have your arms at about 1.5 times shoulder width with a pronated grip.
Instead of focusing on pulling your hands down, focus on pulling your elbows in. Visualize your elbows moving in a arch as they come down to your body.
I’ll talk about this in more detail later in the article, but this type of practice is what really helped me increase my lat activation during pulldowns.
Horizontal Pulling Exercises
Like we already said, rows yield a slightly higher lat activation compared to pulldowns.
Which basically means that if you want a wider back, rows are a must in your back workout.
The question is:
Is there a way to target more back width with the rows?
Oddly enough, there’s not a lot of data that looks into grip width and hand position for lat activation. So we’ll have to rely on bio-mechanics to see if there is any difference.
With rows, we basically need to flip the narrative – wide grip is going to target more back thickness whereas a more narrow grip will target back width.
This sounds confusing, but it actually makes complete sense.
If we look at the seated cable rows
A close grip will allow you to better perform shoulder extension. By driving your elbows down and in, which will emphasize the lats over the traps.
Whereas, a wide grip will more effectively emphasize horizontal shoulder abduction and scapular retraction, which target the rhomboids and traps.
The same holds true for dumbbell rows and barbell rows.
Speaking of dumbbell rows, which is my personal favorite horizontal pull for the lats. You really want to focus on pulling your elbows back in an arc, rather than just straight up.
This is true for all rowing exercises, but I’ve noticed that dumbbell rows is where most people have a hard time with that. And they often tend to just pull the dumbbell up.
Also, use a bench. With the dumbbell rows you want your torso to be almost parallel to the floor.
Standing too up right might allow for heavier loads, but you seriously limit the range motion of the lats.
One of the most common issues I hear people have when trying to build a wider back is that they cannot feel the lats being worked.
While this is not necessarily a problem, if your form is good, studies have shown that better mind-muscle connection leads to better lat activation overall.
This is probably because most who do not focus on targeting the lats end up having the biceps and traps take over and do most of the heavy lifting.
This study, for example, concluded increased EMG activation of the lats following palpation (touching) and thinking about engaging the lats.
Some experts suggest a pre-activation routine to engage the lats and allow you to really feel the lats contract.
What I’ve found to work really well for me is just doing “practice runs”. I basically mimic the exercise movement, without actually doing to exercise, and focus on squeezing/flexing the lats. This has really helped me improve my rows and pulldowns.