How To Activate Your Lats More During Pull-Ups (5 Tips)

How to activate your lats more during pull-ups (5 tips)

Alongside bent-over rows, pull-ups are one of the most effective exercises for strengthening your lats. 

Despite being a staple compound exercise for the upper body, many lifters struggle to activate their lats during the movement. They find that their secondary muscles take over and, as a result, they don’t see the lat gains that they desire. 

So, how can you activate your lats more during pull-ups? 

  • Use a wide, overhand grip 
  • Retract your shoulders 
  • Have a slight arch in your back 
  • Establish a strong mind-muscle connection 
  • Use a full range of motion 

I’ll break down each of these tips further below and also give you some great pull-up variations to maximize lat engagement. 

However, I’m first going to cover the key reasons why you might be struggling to activate your lats in the pull-up. 

3 Reasons Why You Can’t Feel Your Lats In The Pull Up

3 reasons why you can't feel your lats in the pull up

The key reasons why you can’t feel your lats during a set of pull-ups are: 

  • Your lats are weak 
  • You’re using the wrong grip 
  • Your form is poor 

1. Your Lats Are Weak 

If your lats are weaker than the surrounding muscles, your stronger muscles will take over. Put simply, you’re going to be targeting the surrounding muscles and leaving your lats disengaged throughout the set. 

Every pull-up you perform will activate your lats to some degree. Without your lats, you wouldn’t be able to perform any ‘pulling’ movement, no matter how strong your biceps are. 

However, when your lats are weak, this activation will be negligible. When your secondary muscles (that are supposed to be helping your lats) are stronger, they overpower the lats and dominate the exercise. These secondary muscles include your traps, rhomboids, and biceps. 

2. You’re Using the Wrong Grip 

Your grip makes a huge difference to your lat activation. Using a grip that is too narrow or one where your palms are facing the wrong way can result in next to no lat engagement during the pull-up. 

Using a grip that is narrower than shoulder-width can result in over-activation of the biceps and anterior deltoids, leaving your lats out of the picture. Similarly, using an underhand grip shifts the target of the exercise onto the biceps. 

3. Your Form is Poor 

Poor pull-up form is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it cause activation of the wrong muscles and disengagement of the lats, but it puts you at risk of injury. 

Pull-ups might look easy but they’re easy to get wrong. Common form mistakes in the pull-up include: 

  • Overarching the lower back 
  • Shrugging or rounding the shoulders 
  • Using the wrong grip 
  • Swinging the lower body 

Related Article: 9 Lat Exercises With Dumbbells (With Pictures)

5 Tips To Activate Your Lats More In The Pull-Up 

5 tips to activate your lats more in the pull-up

Here are five tips to increase the activation of your lats in the pull-up: 

  • Use a wide, overhand grip 
  • Retract your shoulders 
  • Have a slight arch in your back 
  • Establish a strong mind-muscle connection 
  • Use a full range of motion 

1. Use a Wide, Overhand Grip 

The best grip to activate your lats during pull-ups is a wide, overhand grip. Your hands should be wider than shoulder-width apart and palms should be facing away from you. 

The wider your grip, the lower your biceps activation and the higher your lat activation. Using an overhand grip further reduces the activation of your biceps, allowing your lats to take over during the exercise. 

Play around with your grip width and find a distance that feels comfortable for you. The sweet spot is different for everybody, but your grip should always be wider than shoulder-width in any pull-up variation. 

Just know the wider your grip is the harder the movement is going to be.  So if you’re used to doing pull-ups with a certain amount of weight (by holding weight between your legs or using a dip belt), you might have to reduce the weight to get used to the new grip.

2. Retract Your Shoulders 

Retracting and depressing your shoulders keeps your lats fully engaged. Imagine you’re holding a tennis ball in between your shoulder blades to squeeze them together. 

Purposefully pushing your shoulders back and down before starting your set of pull-ups will ensure that your lats stay fully engaged throughout. This can also reduce your risk of experiencing pain or discomfort during the movement, which is a common complaint with pull-ups. 

If you find your upper back rounding forward, or your shoulders start to shrug up toward your ears, you’re losing the retracted shoulder position that will allow you to activate your lats more.  Either reduce the load or number of reps in order to maintain a retracted shoulder position throughout the entire set.

3. Have a Slight Arch In Your Back 

Your lower back should have a slight arch during pull-ups. This will naturally happen when you retract and depress your shoulder blades. 

Avoid keeping your back completely flat during pull-ups as this makes it more difficult for you to achieve perfect form. Allow your lower back to have a natural arch so that your chest can open up and you can get maximum engagement in your lats. 

You might be a little confused with this point because I mentioned earlier that you shouldn’t have an arched back, as this can reduce lat activation. But arching your back is only an issue if it’s an excessive arch. To properly perform a pull-up, you should maintain the natural arch of your lower back without exaggerating it.

4. Establish a Strong Mind-Muscle Connection 

Establishing your mind-muscle connection before performing a working set of pull-ups can make all the difference to your lat activation. 

You can improve your mind-muscle connection by visualizing your lats as you perform the exercise. Think about the muscles that are working. 

If you struggle to establish this connection with your lats, try activating them before doing pull-ups. Give them a tap to wake them up or do some banded pulls or lightweight rows to engage the muscles before moving on to pull-ups. 

If you have a training partner, getting them to lightly touch or flick your lats as you’re performing the movement is a great cue to continue to keep your mind-muscle connection toward your lats.  This is a trick that many top strength and conditioning coaches use when they want their athletes focusing on a specific muscle.  

5. Use a Full Range of Motion 

Using a full range of motion in your pull-ups is vital to obtaining maximum engagement in your lats. 

Focusing on taking your muscles through their full range of motion is necessary for every exercise in the gym, but especially for pull-ups. This involves bringing your head above the bar and allowing your sternum to lightly touch the bar at the top of the movement. 

Full range of motion allows you to achieve full shoulder extension and shoulder adduction, both of which are key functions of the lats. Maximizing the movement around your shoulder joint is, therefore, going to increase your lat activation. 

If you can’t pull your head above the pull-up bar then try targeting your lats using one of the pull-up variations below.

Related Article: The Most Effective Pull-Up Warm Up (Science Backed)

Pull-Up Variations That Target The Lats More 

Here are some great pull-up variations and alternatives that will target your lats nicely. They are perfect for those of you who struggle to keep your lats engaged in full unassisted pull-ups. 

1. Banded Pull-Ups

Banded pull-ups are a great regression exercise to traditional bodyweight pull-ups. The resistance band makes the movement slightly easier so you can focus on squeezing your lats. 

Use the resistance band to help you pull yourself up. This will increase your range of motion and help you to perfect your pull-up form before progressing onto unassisted pull-ups. To maximize your lat activation, try slowing down the negative phase of the reps. 

How-To Do Banded Pull-ups

  • Loop the resistance band over the high bar and the opposite end through the loop to secure it onto the bar. 
  • Using an overhand grip, hold the high bar with both hands, shoulder-width apart. 
  • Using a box or bench if needed, place your feet into the resistance band so that you are hanging down from the bar. 
  • Slowly pull yourself up until your chin reaches the high bar, pulling your elbows to the side as you raise yourself up. 
  • Pause for a second before slowly returning back to the starting position. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets. 

2. Overhand Bent Over Barbell Row

Performing bent-over barbell rows with an overhand grip that is more than shoulder-width apart will maximize lat activation. 

Lead with your elbows and keep your arms close to your sides as you pull the bar up to your torso. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together and add a small pause at the top of each rep to activate your lats even further. 

How-To Do the Overhand Bent over Barbell Row 

  • Load a barbell to the desired weight and bend down to grip the bar with both hands. Use an overhand, shoulder-width grip. 
  • Lift the barbell up to your hips. Hinge at the hips and bend at the knees so that your torso is leaning forwards. 
  • Allow the barbell to hang down by your thighs with your arms fully extended. Begin the movement by bending at the elbows and pulling them behind your body to bring the barbell up to your torso. 
  • Squeeze your lats before returning to the starting position. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets. 

3. Wide Grip Cable Lat Pull Down

Cable lat pull-downs are a great alternative to pull-ups when you’re struggling to engage your lats. Using a wider grip reduces activation of the biceps and shifts the target of the exercise onto your lats. 

Focus on slowing the movement down to enhance your mind-muscle connection. As with pull-ups, retract and depress your shoulder blades to avoid over-activating your traps. Squeeze your hands tightly around the cable handle to keep your lats activated throughout the whole set. 

How-To Do Wide Grip Cable Lat Pull Downs

  • Select the desired weight and adjust the knee pads and seat height according to your needs. 
  • Sit down with the knee pads resting on your thighs and reach up to hold the bar with an overhand grip, wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  • Squeeze your lats to pull the bar down to lightly touch the top of your chest. Avoid leaning too far back. 
  • Pause for a second and return the bar back to the starting position. You should feel a nice stretch in your lats. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets. 

“I’ve Tried Those Things, I Still Don’t Feel My Lats” 

If you’ve given the above exercises a go and you’re still struggling to feel your lats, you might need to try some different back exercises first. 

Pull-ups are an advanced exercise that requires a decent amount of strength and stability to perform correctly. If you can’t do them very well, focus on other exercises that will help to build your back strength. 

Here are some other articles to get you started: 

Once you’ve built some strength and power in your lats, you can then move on to the easier pull-up variations, such as banded pull-ups or slow negative pull-ups. Eventually, you will reach the point at which you can do a full set of unassisted pull-ups. 

Final Thoughts 

Lat activation is key to a great pull-up. When you’re able to fully engage your lats during a set of pull-ups, you will start to see the back growth that you’re looking for. 

If you’re struggling to engage your lats, strip things back to basics and start building up your lat strength until you feel ready to tackle pull-ups. Perfect your barbell bent-over rows and lat pulldowns to learn how to properly engage your lats during a back exercise. 

Keep your grip wider than shoulder-width, perfect your form, and focus on improving your mind-muscle connection, and you’ll get there soon enough!

Further Resources

About The Author

Athina Crilley

Athina Crilley is a Biochemistry graduate, a qualified personal trainer, and a women’s health and nutrition coach. She is passionate about helping women to balance their hormones and regulate their cycles. She is the host and producer of Finding Flo podcast, which covers all things women’s health and nutrition.