By Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
The somewhat elusive ‘V’-shape taper is one of the hallmark characteristics of an outstanding athletic physique. This taper arises from a wide upper back that narrows to small, tight and narrow hips and waist. Most of us are not gifted with such a boney structure, but with some concentration on the upper back, it is still possible to achieve this V-taper, even if your hips are not particularly narrow.
Muscle Structure and Function
The fibers of the latissimus dorsi muscle extend from the lower thoracic vertebrae and the iliac crest of the hip, to converge on the upper portion of the humerus bone of the upper arm near the shoulder. The fibers in the latissimus dorsi muscle have several different angles of pull, depending on which part of the bones the fibers attach. When they act together, the latissimus extends the humerus by pulling the upper arm backward and adducting the humerus by bringing the arm toward the center of the body. The lower part of the latissimus dorsi muscle has a direct line of pull when the shoulder is flexed and the upper arm is raised to above a line that is parallel to the floor. Working with the arms directly over the head tends to activate the middle and lower parts of the muscle more effectively.
The teres major muscle provides most of the width of the upper back near the axilla (armpit). It begins on the inferior angle of the scapula (shoulder blade), and it is anchored on the humerus bone very near the attachment site of the latissimus dorsi. Similar to the latissimus dorsi, it extends the humerus when the arm starts in a flexed position (i.e., with the arm forward). Because it begins on the scapula (shoulder blade), it is more completely activated with the arms stretched directly overhead. Therefore, the wide-grip pulldown is perfectly suited to activate this muscle.
The teres minor is really one of the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder, but it makes up part of the upper back musculature. It is located just above the teres major muscle and provides the last bit of width in the axilla, just below the shoulder joint. The teres minor begins on the upper part of the lateral border of the scapula bone. It anchors on the inferior part of the greater tubercle of the humerus (the larger bump near the head of the humerus). Contraction of the teres minor rotates the humerus laterally, and similar to other muscles in the rotator cuff, the teres minor helps to stabilize the shoulder joint. Finally, it helps to pull the arm backward into extension, which is its primary role in wide-grip lat pulldowns.
Wide-Grip Lat Bar Pulldowns
Pulldowns on the lat machine stress the extension and abduction functions of the humerus. The extension of the humerus activates the latissimus dorsi and the teres major, teres minor, as well as part of the pectoralis and deltoid muscles.
1. Take a wide, pronated grip (palms facing away from your face) on the lat pulldown bar. Each hand should be about six inches wider than the corresponding shoulder. If you choose an even wider grip, you will improve the stretch of the teres major and minor, and this may assist in developing some additional upper back width. Many studies have shown that muscle stretch under resistance will induce muscle hypertrophy and thickness, so having a wide grip is important. However, the latissimus dorsi may not shorten as much during each contraction with extremely wide hand positions. If you want a good upper back width and good tie-ins to the latissimus at the axilla, then stick with the wide grip; if you are after overall latissimus dorsi development, then a narrower grip may better suit your needs.
2. Sit in the chair of the lat pulldown machine and position the thigh-stabilizing pad across the anterior section of the middle region of both thighs, above the knees. The pad should fit snugly on the thighs and prevent your body from lifting from the seat when doing the exercise.
3. Pull the bar down to the top of the chest as you exhale. Make sure your head is pulled backward enough to avoid a collision of your chin with the bar. As the bar is approaching your chest, arch the upper back slightly while you draw your elbows back as far as possible. The extra arch will increase the elbow movement and this will more fully activate the teres muscles by increasing the range of motion.
4. Hold the lat bar at the chest level and squeeze the scapula together for two to three seconds. This position emphases the arm extension, and the squeeze (abduction) functions will fatigue the upper back muscles quickly.
5. Slowly return the bar to the starting position over your head as you inhale. Keep tension on the muscles by preventing the weight stack that you are lifting from touching the remaining stack at the top of the movement.
6. Pause two to three seconds at the top of the movement. The upper back muscles will be fully stretched in this position. Do not allow the weight to ‘jerk’ your shoulders upward at the end of each repetition, otherwise you may overstretch the rotator cuff muscles and destabilize your shoulders. After this stretch-pause, continue to the next repetition by pulling the bar to the chest and repeat the rest of the set in the same manner.
The stretch-pause at the top of each repetition will quickly transform a good basic exercise into a superb exercise for building upper back width. The wide-grip lat pulldown directly targets and provides greater width to the top part of your ‘V.’ With persistence, your upper back will widen enough to force you to do some wardrobe shopping to properly fit your enhanced V-taper. More importantly, by summer, your new wider back-to-hip taper will cause more than a few heads to turn at the beach.
Moore KL and AF Dalley II. Clinical orientated anatomy. Fourth Edition. Williams & Willkins, Baltimore, 1999 691-720.
Inoue T, Suzuki S, Hagiwara R, Iwata M, Banno Y, Okita, M. Effects of passive stretching on muscle injury and HSP expression during recovery after immobilization in rats. Pathobiology, 76:253-259; 2009.
Snyder BJ, Leech JR. Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. J Strength Cond Res, 23:2204-2209; 2009.
Tanimoto M, Sanada K, Yamamoto K, Kawano H, Gando Y, Tabata I, Ishii N, Miyachi, M. Effects of whole-body low-intensity resistance training with slow movement and tonic force generation on muscular size and strength in young men. J Strength Cond Res, 22:1926-1938; 2008.
Lehman GJ, Buchan DD, Lundy A, Myers N and Nalborczyk A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dyn Med, 3: 4, 2004.
Signorile JF, Zink AJ and Szwed SP. A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res, 16: 539-546, 2002.
Illustrations by William P. Hamilton, CMI