Many lifters and athletes train the deadlift but often do not fully understand what muscles they are training.
By knowing what muscles are working, you can identify your weaknesses more easily and understand how to address them more directly.
So, do deadlifts work the lats? Yes, the deadlift does work the lats. The lats function to maintain a neutral position of the upper back and to keep the bar close throughout the pull. However, the deadlift is unlikely to be enough for your lat training. I recommend including some horizontal and vertical pulling movements in your routine as well.
In this article, I will cover:
- The role of the lats in the deadlift
- Whether or not deadlifts are enough for lat training
- How you can tell if you have weak lats in the deadlift
- Deadlift variations that target the back more
By the end, you will understand how the deadlift works the lats, whether the deadlift is enough for the lats, and the importance of strong lats in the deadlift.
The Role Of The Lats In The Deadlift
While the lats are not a prime mover in the deadlift, they have two important functions.
These are to maintain the position of the upper back and to keep the bar close to the body during the upwards phase.
1. The Lats Help You Keep A Neutral Back Position
The lats work in the deadlift to maintain a neutral, or straight, upper back position where the shoulders are not pulled forward.
2. The Lats Keep The Bar Close To The Body
When deadlifting, the bar should stay close to or against your body. This keeps the bar moving straight upwards rather than drifting back and forth.
The lats work to keep the bar close to your body and maintain this straight upwards bar path.
Read more about deadlift bar path in my article What Is The Best Deadlift Bar Path? (Plus, Mistakes To Avoid).
Are Deadlifts Enough For Lat Training?
For most lifters, the deadlift will not be enough for lat training.
While the lats are working during the deadlift, they are not a prime mover and act more as a stabilizer (to keep the upper back neutral) and secondary muscle (to keep the bar close).
The lats are also taken through a very limited range of motion in the deadlift, which merely happens due to the change in torso angle as well.
To incorporate more direct lat work into your program, my recommendations are to include some horizontal pulling movements (rowing variations) and vertical pulling movements (pull-up or pulldown variations) through a full range of motion and varying rep ranges.
Wondering if pull-ups can make your deadlift stronger? Check out Do Pull-Ups Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How).
Want to improve your deadlift technique?
How Can You Tell If Your Lats Are Weak In The Deadlift?
There are two key signs that your lats are weak in the deadlift.
1. Your Upper Back Is Rounding Throughout The Movement
While some rounding of the back is normal, especially on near maximal attempts, excessive rounding or rounding that increases throughout a set or rep is indicative that your lats are not strong enough to maintain a neutral position.
If you can’t tell if your upper back is rounding, film a set of deadlifts from the side and compare your starting back position to your back position throughout the rep. You should also compare your form from rep to rep across the set.
2. The Bar Moves Away From Your Body
If the bar is moving away from your body throughout the movement, it may be a sign that your lats are not strong enough to keep the bar close to you.
This could also highlight a problem with your start position, as this can cause you to kick the bar out in front of you.
As I recommended above, film your deadlift from the side and look to see if the bar is drifting out in front of you. The goal should be to have a bar path that is as close to vertical as possible.
Read our articles What Is The Best Deadlift Shin Angle? (Science-Backed) and How To Deadlift Without Hitting Your Knees (5 Tips) to find out how to prevent the bar from travelling too far away from you.
3 Tips To Strengthen The Lats In The Deadlift
Three tips you should follow to strengthen the lats in the deadlift are:
- Train the lates more
- Use deadlift variations that challenge upper back position
- Deadlift more frequently
1. Train The Lats More
If deadlifts are the only exercise you are using to train the lats, then you are likely holding yourself back.
Introducing or increasing direct lat and upper back training will help strengthen your lats and therefore benefit your deadlift.
You will want to include a mix of horizontal and vertical pulling exercises.
My personal favourites are a chest supported row for a horizontal pull, and a wide grip pulldown for a vertical pull.
I recommend adding these in twice a week for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.
Find out other ways powerlifters train the back in How Do Powerlifters Train Back? (3 Must-Do Workouts).
2. Use Deadlift Variations That Challenge Upper Back Position
Using deadlift variations that challenge the upper back position allows you to strengthen the lats in a way that is specific to the deadlift.
There are 3 deadlift variations I recommend for strengthening the lats in the deadlift:
By pausing just off the floor when doing a deadlift, you are increasing the demands on the lats to maintain the upper back position and also keep the bar close to you.
I recommend starting with 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps leaving 2-3 repetitions in reserve.
You should aim to increase load week to week for 4-6 weeks.
Snatch Grip Deadlifts
The wider grip of the snatch grip deadlift makes it far more challenging to maintain the position of your upper back and therefore causes the lats to work harder.
It is also harder to keep the bar close to you with the increased range of motion.
Start with 3-4 sets of 6-8 and look to increase load as you hit 8 reps.
Learn more about the snatch grip deadlift by reading our article, Snatch Grip Deadlift: What Is It? How-To, Benefits, Muscles.
While Romanian deadlifts are typically used for hamstring and glute training, they also demand more time under tension for the lats to maintain the position of the upper back.
I recommend performing 3 sets of 8-12. Start with a load you can do for 8 reps and increase when you hit 12.
Looking for more exercises to improve your deadlift? Read our article, 12 Deadlift Accessories To Increase Strength And Technique.
3. Deadlift More Frequently
For those that may only be deadlifting once per week, introducing a second session of deadlifts can be a great way to not only increase the strength of your deadlift overall but also the specific details like lat strength.
This secondary day could also incorporate one of the variations suggested above alongside a heavier normal deadlift session.
The lats work in the deadlift to maintain position of the upper back and to keep the bar close against the body throughout the movement.
To improve the strength of your lats in the deadlift I recommend training the lats more through direct lat work with horizontal and vertical pulls, incorporating deadlift variations that challenge the lats more such as paused deadlifts or snatch grip deadlifts, and deadlifting more frequently if you are only deadlifting once per week.
What To Read Next
- What Muscles Are Used In The Deadlift (Complete Guide)
- Do Deadlifts Work The Abs? (Yes, But Not How You Think)
- Are Deadlifts Back or Legs? (What Day To Put Deadlifts On)
- 9 Lat Exercises With Dumbbells (With Pictures)
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.