5 Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Upper Back

by Julia Malacoff
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5 Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Upper Back

Your latissimus dorsi (aka your “lats”) are probably not something you think about very often when you’re working out. Abs, glutes, biceps — sure. You know where those are and how to work them. But the lats? They often get overlooked in favor of muscles that are more visible and easier to activate.

What many people don’t know is that these fan-shaped muscles, which span a large portion of your back, actually do a lot for you, and making them strong has a ton of body benefits. “The lats attach into the middle and lower back, the lower ribs, the pelvis and the upper arm and are involved with pulling movements with the arms like rows, pullups and straight-arm pulldowns, as well as extension and rotation of the arms,” explains Melody Schoenfeld, a strength and conditioning coach. “They are also involved with trunk rotation and even with breathing.”

They even play a role in exercises you might not expect. “With proper form, the lats can help pull the spine into a proper extended position for the deadlift, resisting the tendency of the back to round from the weight of the bar,” Schoenfeld notes. They also play a role in maintaining proper form in squats and bench presses.

In other words, you want your lats to be strong. But how do you know if yours need work? Here are the top five signs to watch out for.



Tight lats are weak lats, says Matt Kite, a strength and conditioning coach and master coach for D1 Training. “If the lat and scapular regions do not allow you to fully extend overhead, it’s a sign they need some work.”

Here’s how to test your range of motion: “Lie on your back, bend your knees and keep your feet on the floor, which will flatten out your lower back,” Kite explains. “Try to extend your arms overhead and to the floor behind you without bending the elbows. If elbows bend or your arms don’t touch, get to working on those lats in both strength and range of motion!”

Shoulder mobility might not seem like a big deal, but it’s important. “The shoulders are highly utilized by everyone, athlete or not,” Kite points out. “When lifting, reaching and holding objects in our day-to-day routine or in workouts, we rely on the optimal function of our shoulders all the time. And the biggest supporter of the shoulders are the lats.”



Lots of people are working toward achieving their first pullup (or chinup) to no avail. They’re strong, at a healthy bodyweight and have been working on band-assisted pullups or negatives for a while. Not being able to do a pullup despite putting in the work could be due to neglecting the lats. “The lats are [the] primary source of strength in the pullup, with other shoulder and back muscles operating as secondary movers for stability and assistance,” says James Shapiro, trainer and owner of Primal Power.

Though people often try to pull with their biceps or traps during the pullup movement, the most efficient muscles to utilize are actually your lats. “Don’t expect to go far in reps if you don’t focus on building your lats, because your body is just like a car engine,” Shapiro adds. “If you don’t maintain the engine, you won’t get high performance.” If you want to knock out a set of strict pullups like it’s no big deal, strong lats are a must.



To be fair, this can be due to plenty of other factors, but the fact is, strengthening your lats will only help with postural issues. “There are many muscles that contribute to this, but, for example, in a person who trains a lot of pressing and pushing movements without doing many pulling movements, strengthening the lats can go a long way in improving posture,” Schoenfeld says.

And for some, weak lats can actually be at the root of poor posture. “Sitting all the time with bad posture leads to a weak mid and upper back, which is also turning off your abdominal region,” Kite says. A strong core is also necessary for good posture, so exercises where you need to resist rotation, like the Pallof press, landmine presses and more can help train the entire region at once.



“One sign you might have weak lats is weakness or pain in your upper arm or shoulder, because the latissimus dorsi are involved heavily with several upper arm movements from the shoulder and attaches to the upper arm,” Schoenfeld says. “Weakness or pain in that area can often be a symptom of weak, tight or painful lats.” Of course, you’d need a physical therapist to determine if this is the reason for your pain, but sometimes the fix is as simple as upping your strength in this area.



You’ve probably heard the cue from trainers to “drop your shoulders” or not keep your shoulders next to your ears. If you find yourself unable to do this during certain exercises — especially upper-body ones, it could be due to lats issues. “The functional capacity of the lat is to stabilize the shoulder,” Shapiro explains. “During a bench press motion, a major cue is to think about pressing into the bench with your shoulder blades and tucking in your arms into your lats. If your shoulders start to shrug up toward your ears, then we’re looking at a weak lat structure, amongst other muscles, that need to be developed so that they don’t get dominated by other muscle groups.”

This can happen in other upper-body exercises too, like pullups, lat pulldowns and seated rows. “Lat weakness is especially evident when accessory muscles such as the upper trapezius (aka “the traps”) compensate by shrugging the shoulders up to assist the primary muscle (the lats) during the exercise,” says Armen Ghazarians, trainer and CEO of FinishFit. While you might not be aware you are doing this, a qualified trainer can help you identify it and take steps to better utilize your lats during these exercises.


> 6 Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Glutes
> 6 Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Core

About the Author

Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.


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