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What would be your number 1 tip to do "Pull ups" with the Lats ?

I can do 5-6 "Pull ups" in a set but I don't feel my lats. I have tried using the thumbless grip and pulling from the elbows both seem to have helped but I still don't feel my lats do the work.

After the work out, I sure feel the stretch in my lats but I don't know how to activate them while working out.
However I am able to isolate my lats in other movements. I can feel them doing the work in "Barbell rows" and "One arm dumbell rows" but just don't know how to use them in a "Pull up".

Like wise on a pull down machine, I can use a lot of weight but don't know what muscles actually pull it down :-(

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  • Relevant: Visualization techniques for pull-ups
    – VPeric
    Jul 20, 2012 at 12:54
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    In particular, the tip about "squeezing a pencil" with shoulder blades will be very helpful for you.
    – VPeric
    Jul 20, 2012 at 12:55
  • do a chest-to-bar pullup. how much do you bench and what's your weight?
    – user33409
    Apr 13 at 23:20

8 Answers 8

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Ellington Darden in The New High-Intensity-Training has this to say about training the lats with chinups.

One common mistake is using a wide grip on lat pulldowns and pullups. Bodybuilders believe that wide hand spacing provides more stretch and a greater range of movement for the lats. But the truth is the opposite: A wide grip provides less stretch for the lats than you'd get with a narrow grip. Furthermore, the wide grip actually prevents a greater range of movement by allowing the upper arms less rotation at the shoulder joints.

Now let's look at grip. Your biceps are strongest when your hands are supinated-turned toward you. Yet most bodybuilders work their lats with their hands pronated-turned away from them-which puts them at their weakest. Since the biceps are important supporting muscles for the lats, you'll be able to work you lats harder if you use a supinated grip when you do chinups.

I've had good results with everything else suggested by HIT exponents like Darden and Mentzer, so it's definitely worth a shot applying this as well.

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    Robin : I am not convinced with the last two lines in your post. My Biceps are already big and I believe because they love to do all the work in my back workout, my back isn't stimulated enough. This advice would only make my arms bigger and keep the back lagging. What do you think ? However, I will try the advice in my next back workout and see if I feel differently.
    – Geek
    Jul 14, 2012 at 8:14
  • @Geek I don't really bulk up regardless of what I do (neither does my brother), so it's hard for me to say based on personal experience. It might also depend on how you consciously engage your trunk in doing pull-ups. If you take the dead hang a bit too seriously maybe the lats get de-emphasised.
    – Robin Ashe
    Jul 17, 2012 at 20:32
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    Robin : Just my two cents in case you are interested in bulking up. Take your diet seriously and you will see the results. I don't believe that you need to be genetically gifted if you want a bigger body. It is just that most people prefer to train and not worry too much about the diet. I was the same "not bulking up" for years and then when I became more diet conscious I put up a lot of size. Just my two cents IMO bulking up isn't a big deal, one should enjoy everything :-)
    – Geek
    Jul 18, 2012 at 5:43
  • I'm more concerned with strength gains than size anyway.
    – Robin Ashe
    Jul 18, 2012 at 7:10
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I assume that you are using the grip with your palms facing forward, palms facing inward will tend to emphasize the biceps more than the lats.

The visualization that works for me, rather than thinking of "pulling" from the elbows, is thinking of "squeezing" the elbows to the body. Stand up, and place your hands and arms in the position that you would be in if you were about to do the press part of a clean and press. (Palms should be forward).

Now, squeeze your elbows into your body. As you do this, your chest will probably push out a couple inches, that's ok. That is the ending position of a pullup. Now, resisting the motion with your lats, push your hands and arms upward until they are over your head. That is the motion that you want for your pull up, and that should give you the feeling of lat activation through the entire exercise.

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    John : Can you please elaborate the last paragraph more. I liked the idea of trying to squeeze the elbow to the body, it works. Thanks for the suggestion.
    – Geek
    Jul 14, 2012 at 8:21
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I tried a lot of techniques but none taught me how to use my Lats. I later realized that the best way to learn how to use your Lats is through "Close grip Pullups" as explained in the article below.

The Right Way to do Pullups and Chinups

Now these are not really close grip but they are not the wide grip pull ups. This lack of width while doing pull ups engages the Lats differently and you can feel the Lats. They also increase your volume tremendously as you are using your Lats more than your biceps. However I feel that Bicep involvement is there in this movement also. Once you learn how to use the Lats you can then migrate to the wider grip option easily. The trick here is to learn how to use the Lats.

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Not a popular tip -- but you may have to switch to a more "neutral" or "supinated" grip style of pull-ups (often called "chin-ups") instead!!

This is because the lats, in addition to being shoulder extensors, are also strong internal rotators of the arm (an effect which may be even further enhanced due to them also overlapping the inferior angle of the scapula as well). And, in individuals with certain shoulder anatomies, applying forces across internally-rotated shoulders can lead to shoulder issues --- instability, impingement, pain, etc... -- to the extent that the body may well subconsciously "restrict" and significantly limit the forces provided by the lats just to protect and prevent injury to the shoulder complex! Consequently, as a result, your "other pull-up muscles" -- i.e., elbow flexors such as the biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis -- will then have to "pick up the slack", and you may end up feeling like the whole pull-up exercise ended up just being a workout for your arms!

And so to get around this, you may just have to start doing pull-ups with a more externally-rotated (aka "neutral/supinated") grip instead.

** Edit -- interestingly enough, using a "pronated" grip is often said to actually target the lats more relative to "neutral/supinated" grips, which are sometimes said to instead target more the biceps and/or the brachialis. But, if you're an individual with the suspect shoulder anatomy described above, your body may limit the recruitment of the lats and thus as a result your "pronated" pull-ups may end up mostly targeting the brachioradialis forearm flexor instead! So, rather than a "lats workout", those pronated pullups may simply end up being just a "forearm workout" instead!

** Edit #2 -- in fact, perhaps ring pullups may be the ideal pull-ups variant here! Notice how the hands externally rotate during the concentric phase of the exercise -- this should help "counteract" the tendency of the lats to internally rotate the arm, and consequently enforce a safer and more comfortable "trajectory" of the arm and shoulder complex for the exercise!

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First off, congratulations. Doing 5-6 pullups per set is no easy feat.

If you're getting your chin over the bar without kipping, you probably are engaging your lats to some degree. Pullups are a compound muscle exercise that will engage your lats, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, etc. Its possible that your lats are adequately developed for this exercise at the current weight. If you're able to do a full range of motion, you might consider trying to increase the number of reps per set you do, or add weight with a weight belt to further stimulate your back.

There is a pretty good description of a visualization technique for exercise the here... But from your description, I'd say you're doing it the right way.

Bodybuilders will sometimes focus on "wide grip pullups" or "wide grip pulldowns" (on a cable pull) to isolate their lats. My experience is that they DO isolate my lats, but are also cause pain in my rotator cuff. Your experience may vary. A link to a bodybuilding site that discusses pullup variations is here

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Pretend that between your shoulders and elbows are wings. Try and lift with this part and not as much with your arms. Also with all exercises have that mind body connection. This is what Kai Greene recommends. Hope it helps

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    A link to Kai Greene would be helpful
    – FredrikD
    Jul 17, 2012 at 8:09
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JohnP described it very good but what he emphasized too little is the part with your "chest push out". You should really focus on your chest pushing out and bring your chest all the way up to the bar. That's brutal I know but that's the part that works your lats the most. If it's too hard for you, start with a supported pull up and really focus on your chest, imagine walking very proud with your chest out, that's how it should look like;)

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Wide grip, and palms facing forward will help to isolate the lats.

If, as many people do, you use a narrower grip with palms facing towards you allows shoulders, core and arms to carry too much of the work load, so you wouldn't be as sore afterwards.

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