One of the hardest muscles for new clients of mine to connect with is how to feel and activate their lats.
Beginners doing rows for lat development often feel their shoulders, biceps, and/or forearms doing most of the work.
If that sounds like you, you’re in luck!
I’m going to teach you a few awesome ways to activate your lats, the best rows for defined lats, and how to know if you are working your lats.
- How To Feel Your Lats - 2 Simple Cues To Activate Lats
- The Biggest Mistake When Doing Rows For Lat Activation And Muscle Growth
- The 3 Best Variations Of Rows For Lat Development
- Frequently Asked Questions
Since lats are a difficult muscle to connect with, let’s keep the cues simple. I learned this first one from Jordan Syatt and it’s still one of my favorite cues to give a new client when they do rows.
“Make Orange Juice”
Something I learned very early on when helping clients during rows for lat growth is that the simpler, the better. No one cares about the specific muscle names and the insertion point of it.
That’s where the “make orange juice” comes in.
Here’s how to feel your lats using the orange juice technique.
- From a standing position extend your arms to your side about 12 - 18 inches from your midsection. Your elbows should be locked out.
- Now pretend that someone places an orange in your armpit.
- You’re going to bring your arms a few inches closer to your side so the orange can stay nestled in your armpit.
- Now you make the orange juice. Squeeze that hypothetical orange in your armpit as hard as you can so you start making orange juice.
- You should feel the long muscle down the side of your back being engaged as you squeeze. That’s your lat!
If you were to flair your elbow out and bend your elbow, you won’t create tension on that orange because you aren’t engaging your lats.
But if you can keep your arm straight and squeeze as hard as you can, you’ll engage them.
The newspaper technique to engage your lats
Another simple cue you can do is the newspaper technique.
This helps some of my clients because they actually feel pressure against their hand instead of the hypothetical orange.
Extend your fingers out straight and put that hand in the opposite armpit. That’s your “newspaper”. You DO Not want to let that newspaper fall out from your armpit.
How are you going to do that?
By squeezing your armpit. Try it by squeezing your armpit to create tension around your hand.
You should definitely feel the difference between just having your hand in your armpit and squeezing it to activate your lats.
Anytime you do rows for lats, do either the orange juice or newspaper technique in your head to engage your lats before you start the movement.
Now that you know how to get activation to feel your lats working, the next step is making sure you are doing the row exercise correctly.
The main reasons people don’t feel their lats during rows is:
- Excessive shrugging by pulling the weight in a straight line.
- Bending the wrist for more bicep activation.
- Using too heavy of a weight so other muscles need to help compensate.
- Using too light of a weight where lat engagement is not necessary.
As you can see in the left picture, I’m pulling the weight straight up so it’s causing my shoulders to shrug to make room for my arm to come up. My lats are not engaged.
To feel your lats during rows, pull your elbow towards your hip as you raise the weight.
By reaching back towards your hips versus pulling straight up, the lats become engaged and you’ll feel it more and build more muscle.
Chest Supported Rows
The chest supported row is one of my favorite rows for lats because the bench allows you to stabilize your body so you can focus on the muscle being worked.
Since you’ll be rowing both dumbbells at the same time, I want you to think that you have oranges in both armpits. Before you perform the rep, ensure you are making orange juice and then row the weight up.
At the top of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together for additional lat recruitment.
Learn more about chest supported rows and the best variations.
You can’t go wrong with a traditional dumbbell row for lat growth.
I’ve found that the airplane technique works great for this rowing variation.
It’s common for clients to throw their elbow out as they raise the weight. If you were to do that with your “newspaper in your armpit” that newspaper is going to fall out.
By keeping your armpit squeezing the newspaper throughout the movement, the lats will be engaged.
Try any one of these 15 dumbbell row alternatives once you’ve mastered the classic dumbbell row.
Seated Cable Rows
The best machine row for your lats is the seated cable row machine.
You can use all the cues you learned above to really target your lats. This exercise is great because you are sitting so you don’t have to worry about stabilizing yourself.
This is a great exercise for a back workout for beginners.
Frequently Asked Questions
The lats are one of the hardest muscles in the body to connect with.
We tend to overuse our shoulders, biceps, and forearms in rowing motions so it’s normal for it to be harder to connect with your lats.
Just like with anything in life, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
The lats connect from your humerus (arm) to your spine. If you are working your lats you may feel tightness in the area from your armpit all the way down the side to the middle of your rib cage.
Just like as any muscles gets larger when you work it because of increased blood flow, you might feel that along the side of your body.
If you want try foam rolling your lats to connect better with the muscle, check out my Foam Rolling For Lat Activation Guide.
If your lats aren’t growing it’s because of:
- Poor exercise selection. Make sure to do plenty of rows, pulldowns, and pul-ups.
- Not training close enough to failure. Always try to get to 1 - 2 reps away from failure. If you get done with a set and could have done 8 more reps, you’re not pushing it hard enough.
- Eat more calories. Muscle growth happens in a calorie surplus so you’ll need to be eating to fuel your workouts and grow your muscles.
- Eat more protein. Eat at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight to grow your lats.
Don't Feel Lats In Rows Recap
To feel your lats, you want to ensure you are engaging them and performing the row movement correctly.
A simple technique is to pretend you have an orange in your armpit and you are trying to make orange juice. Squeeze that armpit to make the juice, aka engage your lat.
A proper lat row will have your elbow reaching back towards your hip instead of straight up and down.
When you can combine those two techniques, you’ll always feel your lats in rows!