Last updated on July 30th, 2021 at 04:49 pm
How many of you have asked, “Why Can’t I Feel My Lats During Pull Ups?”
Pull ups are probably one of the best exercises for developing the lats and upper back.
However, I would hazard a guess that a very high percentage of people complain that they never feel their lats during the movement.
There are a few easy fixes for this.
So, let’s find out what they are.
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Why Can’t I Feel My Lats During Pull Ups?
Not being able to feel the lats on pull ups, and many other back exercises, is extremely common. You can use the 4 checkpoints to make sure you achieve the perfect pull up with lat activation. Firstly, arch your lower back. Secondly, puff your chest out. Thirdly, pull your shoulders back and finally ensure that your elbows remain directly under the bar throughout the movement.
1. The 4 Checkpoints to the Perfect Pull Up
Firstly, I think it’s important to say that your lats are being activated to some extent if you’re able to perform pull ups.
Even if you weigh, let’s say 150lbs, you will need to use your lats to get you up and back down again.
If you think about it, it’s highly unlikely that you could “pull” that amount of weight with just your biceps.
With that being said, there are of course a number of things you can do to ensure that you enhance the amount of lat involvement during pull ups.
I like to use the “4 checkpoints” to make sure that I’m doing pull ups with perfect form.
This will involve:
- Arching the lower back
- Puffing the chest out
- Retracting the shoulders
- Ensuring the elbows remain in line with the bar
I think the initial mistake that many people make is that they try to keep the back completely straight during pull ups.
For me, the perfect pull up involves my chin passing the bar and my sternum touching the bar.
This would be extremely difficult (impossible) to achieve without arching the back.
Having the chest puffed out will aid in pulling the shoulders back, plus it helps to get the chest to the bar.
Plus, there is a tendency to either let the elbows flare out or an attempt to pull the elbows behind you.
By not adhering to any of these factors on their own can hinder lat activation, so don’t make the mistake of avoiding all four.
Shoulder Retraction is So Important
I will say that shoulder retraction (pulling the shoulder blades down and towards each other) is extremely important.
In fact, retracting the shoulders can actually stop you from feeling pain in your shoulders during pull ups (another extremely common complaint).
RELATED====>Do Pull Ups Hurt Your Shoulders?
I often liken shoulder retraction to trying to hold an imaginary tennis ball in place behind me by pulling my shoulder blades together.
However, it’s equally important to adhere to all the other points I’ve mentioned here.
2. Pre-Exhaust the Lats Prior to Pull Ups
For many exercises, not just pull ups, the mind-muscle connection is essential.
There are those who can simply close their eyes, imagine the muscle being worked through its full range of motion, open their eyes, perform the movement, and hit the target muscles perfectly.
Unfortunately, this method of visualization won’t work for everyone.
So, if you’re not feeling your lats during pull ups you may need to pre-exhaust the muscle first.
Well actually, let’s call it pre-loading.
Obviously, you don’t want to completely “exhaust” the lats prior to pull ups, as you’ll probably struggle to get one rep.
RELATED====>How to Do 10 Pull Ups
Basically, what you’re looking to do is get the muscles “working” prior to doing pull ups.
This will actually help with the mind-muscle connection as well.
If you can already “feel” a muscle before performing a specific exercise you are much more likely to hit the muscle.
You don’t want to go overboard here, just a couple of high-rep sets with an extremely light load.
You could perform some lat pulldowns or a row variation.
The idea here is really work on shoulder retraction and to squeeze the lats throughout the movement.
To be honest, I much prefer simple bodyweight “squeezes” and resistance band movements to activate the lats.
Check out the following movements from Brian Klepaki
Lat Activation Exercises
3. Perform Scapular Retraction and Depression Exercises First
I’ve already spoken of the importance of shoulder retraction when performing pull ups.
Another type of “warm-up” you could perform is scapular retraction and depression exercises.
The shoulders happen to be one of the most mobile joints in the body.
However, this also means that they are more prone to injury.
So, it’s essential that you learn how to move the shoulder properly, as well as understanding its capabilities and limitations.
When it comes to lat activation during pull ups it actually helps to perform certain scapular (shoulder blade) exercises.
In a way this activates the shoulder joint to perform at its best when performing pull ups.
And this of course will help you to feel your lats.
Scapular Retraction and Depression Exercise
4. Try Pull Ups With a Thumbless Grip
There seems to be a never-ending debate about thumb position when it comes to performing pull ups.
I’ll openly admit that I typically perform pull ups with my thumb wrapped around the bar.
This has always worked well for me, and I can definitely feel the lats working.
However, I know for a fact that there will be many, many coaches who’ll say that this is the incorrect thumb position for pull ups.
But, I guess it is a case of finding what works for you and then sticking to that method.
And it just so happens that I prefer the thumb wrapped around the bar grip.
With that being said, if you don’t feel your lats during pull ups you may want to try the thumbless grip.
Basically, your thumbs should sit on top of the bar right next to your index fingers.
I will say that thumbless pull ups are great training for real-life situations.
So, if you partake in sports such as rock climbing or mountain climbing, or your everyday activities involve some type of climbing, then go thumbless.
The thumbless grip usually allows for far less bicep involvement, so your lats will have to work harder during pull ups.
5. Go For a Wider Grip
If you’re able to perform a set of pull ups you already know that the wider your grip is, the harder the exercise
Basically, the closer together your hands are for pull ups, the more your biceps will be involved in the movement.
If you performed pull ups with your thumbs touching you’d really feel your biceps working extremely hard.
So, by actually widening your grip on the bar, the less bicep involvement, and the more the movement becomes a lat exercise.
I would hazard a guess that you won’t be able to perform as many reps, but you’ll certainly have a lot more lat involvement.
That being said, going back to a point I made earlier, if you perform proper scapular retraction prior to pulls up you’ll definitely feel the lats working.
The Best Way to Do Pull Ups For a Wide Back
So, hopefully you now understand a little better why you can’t feel your lats during pull ups.
I think the easiest way to ensure that you’re executing pull ups with correct technique is to follow the 4 checkpoints.
This involves arching the lower back, puffing out the chest, retracting the shoulders, and ensuring that your elbows remain in a fixed line with the bar.
And of all of these points, scapular retraction is probably the most important, and most often ignored.
This is the ideal opportunity for you to check out the Pull Up Solution.
This is a 3-month step-by-step guide created by John Sifferman.
The aim of the program is to help you increase your pull up numbers, irrespective of your starting point.
So, whether you’re unable to do a single pull up, or already cranking out sets of 20, John claims that he can help you to dramatically increase how many pull ups you can do.
You can check out what I thought of John’s program in my Pull Up Solution Review.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.