Not Feeling Your Lats During Pull Ups? Causes & Fixes Explained!

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Poor technique is the main reason you can’t feel pull ups in your lats You should arch your lower back, puff out your chest, pull your shoulders back, and ensure that your elbows remain directly under the bar throughout the movement.

The 4 Checkpoints For the Perfect Pull Up

An Athletic Woman Performing Pull Ups

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.

The Importance of Shoulder Retraction

“Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the pull-up. This activates your lats and ensures proper back engagement.”

Eric Cressey (Sports Performance Coach)

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).

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.

“Pre-Exhaust” (Pre-Load) 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.

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

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.

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.

“Don’t be afraid to get creative with your grip! There are many variations, and the best one for you depends on your goals and what feels comfortable for your wrists.”

Jeff Cavaliere, AthleanX

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.

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

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.

“Grip width matters! A wider grip emphasizes your back, while a narrower grip targets your biceps more. Experiment to find what feels best for you.”

Christian Thibaudeau (Strength Coach & Author)

I would hazard a guess that you won’t bChristian Thibaudeau (Strength Coach & Author)e 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.

Key Learning Points

  • Poor technique is the main reason you can’t feel your lats when doing pull ups.
  • Follow the 4 checkpoints – arch lower back, puff out chest, retract shoulder blades, keep elbows directly below the bar throughout the movement.
  • Pre-load and activate the lats prior to pull ups.
  • Regularly perform scapular retraction and depression exercises.
  • Try a thumbless grip to activate the lats more and the biceps less.
  • Use a wider grip to stimulate the lats to greater effect.

Want to get better at pull ups while sculpting an amazing upper body? Check out the Ultimate Pull Up Program.

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