Many programs fail to optimize their programming for the back muscles. One big problem already lies in thinking about ‘the back’ as if it’s a single muscle. People do isolation exercises for tiny muscles like the biceps, but what about the lats? Another common pitfall is not programming exercises that stimulate stretch-mediated hypertrophy. Rows, horizontal pulls and deadlifts don’t train the lats through nearly their full range of motion (ROM). Vertical pulling is better, but at the very top there’s still no tension on the lats, as the lats are no longer working against the vertical angle of the resistance. That leaves pull-overs, but those are often impractical to load heavily, they’re quite injurious for the shoulder and they still don’t train the lats through their full ROM.
Enter lat prayers. Lat prayers are a straight-arm cable pull-over with body movement to accommodate the exercise’s resistance curve to your strength curve. This allows you to achieve high muscle tension in the lats all the way from their fully shortened to their fully lengthened position. I called this exercise lat prayers, because the movement resembles a prayer, a prayer for bigger lats that’s bound to be fulfilled by the muscle gods.
Here’s a short video in which I introduce lat prayers while Antoine Fombonne demonstrates the exercise (editing by Blandine @heyblandine):
Here are some more good demonstrations from some of my students:
Notice the variations in technique. All of the above executions are good. You can use different handles and you can perform the exercise standing or kneeling. With weights above about two thirds of bodyweight, you generally need to kneel down. You can also perform the exercise kayak style, semi-unilaterally, or with one arm using a single cable handle. Whichever variation you do, these are the key technique considerations.
Key technique cues
- Position yourself on your knees or standing in front of a high cable pulley with a V- or W-grip or rope attachment.
- Lean forward into the weight and let your arms almost but not fully extend (less than 180° ROM: aim for 120-170°): keep the tension on your lats, not your connective tissue.
- With straight arms, pull the bar/rope into your lap while leaning backwards. It’s a rhythmic motion.
- In the bottom position, your elbows should be in line with your torso, effectively in anatomical position.
- Use your body movement to get a good stretch in the top position (torso more horizontal) and a good peak contraction in the bottom position (torso more vertical). If you don’t get a good stretch, lean over further forwards during the ascent. Kneeling down helps you get a good stretch too. If you don’t get good peak contraction, lean more backwards during the descent, or step back a bit further from the cable tower.
The biomechanics: why lat prayers are the perfect lat exercise
Muscles grow in response to high mechanical tension. The latissimus dorsi can produce the most tension during shoulder extension, which is exactly the lat prayer movement. EMG research also confirms that the lats can achieve their highest muscle activity during shoulder extension .
Within the shoulder extension movement, we can look at the length-tension relationship of the lats to see which parts we should emphasize. The lats’ optimal length for force production is anatomical position, but the lats experience a relatively small decrease in force production capacity at greater lengths: the lats are effective over a large range of motion. Thus, we should train the lats throughout their full muscle length with the greatest resistance in full contraction. In other words, we should train the lats with full ROM exercises that have only a mild sticking point when your elbows are at your sides. Rows fail on both fronts, as they don’t train the lats at long muscle lengths and have a very pronounced sticking point at the top.
In fact, rows are particularly bad when we consider the leverage of the lats. While the lats are strong throughout their full length, they have almost no leverage (i.e. zero internal moment arm) in full shoulder flexion (arms fully overhead) or during shoulder hyperextension (when your elbows go behind your body) [2, 3]. After these points, most shoulder extension is produced by the teres minor, teres major and rear deltoids. So when you perform rows with a full ROM, you get no tension on the lats in the top position. If you pull your elbows back far enough, you’ll pull the muscle insertion point behind the origin, so the lats will even reverse function and become weak shoulder flexors. This is also why it’s so difficult to fully retract your elbows behind your body.
Vertical pulls aren’t much better, because again you lose lat tension when the lats are stretched (when your arms are fully overhead), both because the lats have no leverage and because there’s no resistance.
In contrast, lat prayers perfectly match the exercise’s resistance with the strength and leverage of the lats. You should pull the weight down only until your elbows are in line with your torso and you should not let the weight drag your shoulder beyond its active ROM at the top. Keep the tension on your lats. To further match the resistance curve with your strength, you need to move your torso. Bend over forwards during the ascent to get a good stretch and lean back again during the descent to get good peak contraction. You want to fail in the bottom, also to avoid the risk of shoulder injury like with dumbbell pull-overs, but you want to get a good stretch at the top as well.
Target musculature & the role of the triceps
Lat prayers primarily stimulate the lats (who would have thought?), the posterior deltoids and the long head of the triceps. The latter may come as a surprise to some, but the long head of the triceps is a considerable shoulder extensor. Straight-arm pulldowns can stimulate higher muscle activity in the long head of triceps than barbell bench presses. Since the long head of the triceps is both an elbow extensor and a shoulder extensor, it cannot effectively participate fully during most pushing movements: while it would help to extend your arms, it would also be pulling your elbows back down rather than helping them get up. As a result, most pressing exercises, including the barbell bench press, don’t stimulate much growth in the long head of the triceps . Many training programs train the crap out of the lateral and medial heads, but they leave the long head understimulated. The long head’s very large compared to the other arm muscles, so it’s crucial to get big arms. Lat prayers are a great way to balance out the volume between the heads of your triceps.
That said, some people feel their triceps too much with a certain handle. Using a different handle often solves the problem. Also, check that you’re keeping your arms straight. Some people end up cheating by effectively doing a pulldown followed by a triceps pushdown. This isn’t a powerlift. Good form is more important than moving huge weights.
Pull-over movements can also stimulate the lower pecs well in theory, but this only seems to happen with certain grips and techniques.
Common mistakes to watch out for
- Cheating by letting the arms bend.
- Losing tension on the lats at the top by letting the weight drag you past the lats’ active ROM. Again, the arms should not go fully (180°) overhead.
- Pulling the elbows far back behind the body in the bottom position.
That’s all you need to know. Now go grow some wings to build that V- or X-taper!
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