Jim Steel Barn Door Lats Article

Ten Tips For Developing Barn Door Lats

How to develop a strong, thick back with barn door lats!

I have always admired "barn door lats"! A big, massively muscular back that has plenty of detail. Franco Columbu was the first bodybuilder that amazed me with the width of his rear lat spread, and then Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman took it to another level with both width and detail. I have always loved back training, and have always had a strong “mind muscle” connection when training it. I think that admiration goes back to when I was in high school and went to a Barbarian Brothers seminar where they demonstrated bent over rowing a 500 pound barbell for reps, inspiring me to immediately go home and start performing bent rows just like the massive twins. Over the years, I have picked up some very helpful tips on both getting my back thicker and wider and with more detail, so I broke the tips down into the strategies that helped me the most.

1. Everyone who had a great back deadlifted!

Yates, Coleman, Colombu. Three strong deadlifters who had thick, massive backs. Deadlifts work the low back (see Yates’ “Christmas tree”) mostly and also develop inner thickness along the spine that make the erectors stand out in bold relief.  Although Coleman and Colombu used weights in excess of 700 pounds in their training, Yates stayed in the 405-500 pound range and performed slow, ¾ , constant tension reps in his deadlift training, which I believe is the most beneficial way to train the exercise, because of the tension and slow eccentric loading. Use perfect form in the deadlift. Like most beneficial exercises, there is a high risk of injury when performed in a sloppy fashion. Do not jerk the power bar off of the floor, instead, take the slack out of the bar before you begin the pull. Push hard through the ground. Keep your back flat and bar close to the body. I like that Dorian didn’t touch the ground on his deadlift, bringing the bar a few inches from the ground and then turning it around quickly. Deadlifts, however, will not develop a complete back. Yes, it hits all of the back muscles both directly and indirectly, but you still need direct work on the other muscles that make up the back for it to be complete.

2. Squeeze and contract the muscle!

I asked world champion powerlifter Kirk Karwoski one time how he developed his huge back (besides deadlifts) and he told me that he did T-Bar rows very strictly, really squeezing at the top and feeling the lats contract. This is a very important point when training lats. Take the barbell row for example. Yes, I have heaved them and been sloppy with them in the past, but that was mostly when I was powerlifting. I eventually bent rowed a single rep at 585 pounds. However, when I was bodybuilding, I rarely used over 315 pounds and most of the time stayed in the 225 pound range. I focused on driving back and leading with my elbow and pulling low into my belly, really squeezing and contracting the lat muscles. 

3. Exercise machines are great.

I have always been an advocate of free weights for powerlifting and for just getting strong, and still believe that they are superior for training athletes, but since I have turned to a more hypertrophy based program, I have used a combination of exercise machines, cables, dumbbells and very rarely, barbells. There are so many great machines out there these days that provide resistance all the way through the movement, and allow you to manipulate the angle, the pathway of the pull. I think about driving my elbow back and down to hit the lower Lat, and driving up and back for the mid back. Unilateral cable rows are great for this , as are different types of rowing machines such as a plate loaded iso-lateral low row. Machines allow you to control the movement all the way through and to really hold the contracted position and squeeze!

4. Supported lat rows should be in your back training program.

Because of my low back issues in the past, I turned to types of chest supported rows for back development. There are machines for this, but I like the dumbbell support rows the best. Lie face down on an incline weight bench with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Pull the pair of dumbbells until your elbows are even with your torso, and then squeeze, contract and repeat. In this movement, you can bring the dumbbells low or high, depending on which part of the back that you want to emphasize.

5. Try a different “twist” on dumbbell rows. 

I stole this tip from IFBB pro Ben Pakulski years ago. When performing the dumbbell rows, put the same foot forward as the arm you are working. Please don't put your knee on the weight bench. That makes me nuts. Keep your feet slightly staggered and on the ground, providing a stable base for the pull. By putting the same foot forward as the arm that you are pulling with, it makes it much harder to twist, which can cause low back strain. Also, try pulling different angles with the dumbbells. Pull low to the hip on some sets and pull a little higher to hit the mid and upper back.

6. The back is more than just the Latissimus Dorsi.

Look at the diagram of the back in this article. Yes, the lats are a big part of the back, but look at the trapezius, the rhomboids, etc. Particularly focus on the role that the trapezius plays in the back musculature.

Hit those traps hard to train for a massive back. I like straight arm cable rows and straight arm support rows for trap development, pulling back and squeezing the contraction. Traditional barbell shrugs are fine also, but give the straight arm version a shot. You will feel your traps isolated much more than a traditional shrug. If you are performing the traditional shrug movement, think about bringing your traps to the back of your ears. Perform a variety of exercises and focus on the parts of the back that you are trying to develop when performing them.

Barn Door Lats Chart
7. Weight is important but not that important, but slowing down the movement is.

If you are slinging weights around and not feeling the muscles in the back, bring the amount of weight down. Yes, you need to use some decent weight to stimulate growth, but I believe that if the weight is so heavy that you can not feel the lats or other muscles of the back during the movement, the weight is too heavy. So, just use enough weight to get the peak contraction, and if you find yourself using sloppy form, back the weight down, and squeeze like hell. You will find that gains come faster when you slow down the eccentric portion of the movement, start the movement without momentum (a key), and pause at the peak of the movement. Watch Yates’ Blood and Guts DVD. His form is impeccable on his back exercises, and the results speak for themselves. Think about dropping your shoulders down and driving back with your elbows when doing your rowing exercises, and (once again) squeeze and contract. You can get development by using heavy weights and poor form, but the best way to do it is to be strict. And it's also the quickest way to make progress. Why waste your time?

A massive back with barn door lats is a huge key to a bad ass body. Don't be just a chest and biceps guy. A big, gnarly back, packed with slabs of muscle from top to bottom is the mark of a complete physique. These tips should get you started on a good back foundation. Plug them into your program and let us know your results!

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About The Author - Jim Steel
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog Basbarbell and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Jim Steel is co-host of the RAW with Marty Gallagher Podcast along with Marty Gallagher and J.P. Brice and is a monthly content contributor at IRON COMPANY.