Build a Strong Upper Back in 4 Weeks

This four-week training plan will help you build your lat muscles and strengthen your upper back.

It's time to bring back the lat muscle! This article is a battle cry for those who have neglected their lats for their mirror muscles. It's time to rekindle your relationship with those powerhouses to boost your Bench, Squat, Deadlift and even Shoulder Press.

RELATED: How to Engage Your Lats During the Deadlift

Lats are the big sweeping muscles along the sides of your back, which help you to "pack" your shoulders, do Pull-Ups and help stabilize your spine. Do you need a visual? Google "Franco Columbu Lat Spread." His are arguably some of the best lats in the game.

If you lack these muscles or don't know how to use them, your major lifts are suffering big time.

Our goal in the next four weeks is to bring awareness to these muscles. As for results, you can look forward to a wider, more muscular back and much stronger lifts.

We are going to focus on just two things: contraction and tension.

RELATED: How to Effectively Develop Lat Strength

Contraction is simply being aware of how to contract and relax your lat muscles. Think Pull-Ups and Rows.

Tension is the ability to create isometric tension in your lats for stability. Think pulling your shoulders down tight before a Deadlift or "packing" your shoulder blades before a Bench Press.

Lat Muscle Exercises

Paused Pull-Ups


Perform a strict Pull-Up with absolutely no cheating. Pause 1 to 3 seconds at the top with your chin over the bar. Feel the tension build in your lats. For further activation, spread your chest at the top. Perform 5 sets of 3 reps. This move focuses on both contraction and tension.

Note: If you cannot do a single Pull-Up, use the Inverted Row with a barbell in a power rack or gymnastic rings to receive a similar adaptation.

Bent-Over Barbell Row

Bent-Over Barbell Row

There are many variations of this old-school favorite. For our purposes, it's best to put bumper plates on the bar while it rests on the ground. With a slight bend in the knees and a flat back, create tension in your lats, lower back and hamstrings, then row the barbell to your upper abs. Place the bar back on the ground and repeat. This dead stop technique will be helpful for your Deadlift. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps.

RELATED: Complete Shoulder Warm-Up for Strength and Stability

Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Clean & Press

Clean and Press

This strength and coordination challenge comes from Pavel Tsatsouline. Start with a light kettlebell and work your way up slowly. Place it on the ground, smash the base of your palm into the handle and grip it extremely tight. Swing the bell back between your legs and clean it up to shoulder level with the bottom of the kettlebell facing up. Once the kettlebell is cleaned, press it overhead maintaining balance with the bottom still facing up. Oddly, this exercise engages your lats to maintain tightness and control the upside down kettlebell. Your lats will feel like they do on the Bench Press.

IMPORTANT: If you lose control of the kettlebell, get out of the way and let it drop to the floor. Do not try to save it or allow it to fall on you. This exercise should not look like a circus act. If it does, the weight is too heavy. Perform 5 sets of 3 reps per arm.

Renegade Row

Renegade Row

It's important to stay tight and maintain tension throughout the body during a lift. The Renegade Row is a perfect way to practice this. Place two dumbbells on the ground. Assume a push-up position with your feet out wide for balance and grab the dumbbells. Now, with one arm braced to support your weight, row the dumbbell with the other hand to your upper ab area. They key is to maintain tension throughout your whole body and keep your body as straight as a board for the entire set. This is an extreme core strength builder as well. Perform 5 sets of 5 reps per arm.

Many great exercises can work your lats. These four are especially designed to build your lat muscles and, more importantly, create awareness of how to create tension in them.

Sample workouts for the next four weeks:

Tension-Focused Workout

  • Kettlebell Bottoms Up Clean & Press - 5 x 3 per side
  • Paused Pull-Ups -  5 x 3

Contraction-Focused Workout

  • Bent-Over Barbell Row - 3 x 10
  • Renegade Row - 5 x 5

Add these powerful workouts to your current routine to start the process of mastering your lats. Allow two to three days of rest between the tension and contraction workouts. For example, perform the tension workout on Monday and the contraction workout on Thursday. Give this four weeks, and your awareness and ability to use these powerful muscles will boost your lifts and pack on size.

Not only will you lift more and look stronger, you'll also help bulletproof your shoulders. Most people do too much pressing and not enough pulling. This leads to muscular imbalance, frustration and eventually an injury. It is always wise to do two pulling moves for every pressing move. Your ability to use your lats properly will lead to better "packing" of your shoulders during the Bench Press and a more stable spine during Squats and Deadlifts.

To get stronger and reduce your risk of injury, put these lat exercises into your program today.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock