Bruce Lee Cobra Lats: How to Build Powerful, Functional Lats

By on August 11, 2020

Big lats are one of the most important features if you want to develop an athletic and imposing looking physique. A huge wingspan makes you wider, while a dramatic V-taper gives you a superheroic silhouette.

Bruce Lee Cobra Lats

But lats do a lot more for us than just that – in fact, they do a lot more than many people realize. One of the most memorable scenes featuring Bruce Lee is the balcony scene: where he blows up his lats to cobra-like proportions. Bruce developed those lats for a reason: they help dramatically with punching power. And if you look at the backs of boxers, you’ll see that Bruce was not alone in making that connection.

This might come as a surprise, considering that lats are primarily pulling muscles. But of course, that’s precisely the contribution that the lats make: helping to snap the punch back. And in the case of a powerful 1-2 combo, this helps to rotate the torso, thereby throwing your entire body into a juggernaut cross. That quick rechambering also gives the punch its snap, and prevents your arm from getting trapped. Lats additionally help to stack the shoulders, and to provide additional mass behind the punch.

Bruce Lee Lats

Outside of combat, lats play a range of other critical roles. They are absolutely central to rock climbing for example, which also makes them crucial for things like parkour and generally running across rooftops like Batman. Like the glutes – which they are often used in conjunction with – the lats are “antigravity muscles.” While the glutes are the largest muscles in the body, the lats have the honor of being the largest confined to the upper body.

More fundamental still, the lats actually play a huge role in spinal stabilization. You may think of your lats as your “armpit muscles” but in fact, they originate right down by the hips: coming from the iliac crest and lower spine and attaching at various points all the way up to intertubercular groove of the humerus. They actually help with extension and lateral flexion of the spine. Strong lats can help prevent lower back injury, while generally improving a hunched, front-heavy posture.

So, how do we train them?

Building Big, Powerful Lats

One of the best moves for building functional, powerful lats comes from Pavel Tsatsouline. No big surprise there!

Pavel recommends that the ideal pull up should maintain the same hollow-body position that a fighter adopts in the ring. This involves contracting the abs to pull the belly button toward the spine, while engaging a posterior pelvic tilt. If you do this while standing with your back to the wall, you should find your lower back touches the wall, while your shoulders round.

V-ups hollow body

With that rigid position maintained, you are now going to perform a strict pull up with legs together (any other position will actually bring your center of gravity upward and thus reduce the amount of resistance), and thumb on top of the bar. You are at the apex of the movement only once your chin is above the bar, and you should simultaneously retract the scapulae: bringing the shoulder blades toward your hands. This will strengthen the scapulae retractors, which is important for other movements like the front lever, too.

The hand position not only mimics the way you actually use your hands when climbing (if you ever needed to climb into a window for instance) but also subtly alters the engagement of the lats. Anything that adds a little flexion to the wrists will increase lat activation.

Climbing lats

Pavel actually has a “fighter pull up program” that offers the best programming to use this type of pull up. Here, you perform your rep maximum, followed by four more sets of descending rep counts. The higher the initial set, the more steeply you drop off. The program is performed for five consecutive days, followed by a rest day. This is a great program for anyone who wants to add to their max number of pull ups and will be guaranteed to add size and strength.

The 25 rep max version of this program involves doing sets of 20 or 25, followed by sets of 16, 12, 8, and 4. At this point, you are training endurance as much as strength, but don’t see that as a negative: if you want to improve your posture and resilience against injury, then improving strength endurance is critical. Otherwise, the postural muscles become weaker, which introduces loss of stability and the potential for injury.

That said, if you want more lat power, then you can use this same program using a weighted vest. Alternatively, you can try a lat pull down in order to add even more weight.

Other Types of Pulling Strength

While the pull up is a wonderfully functional movement, it isn’t enough on its own to develop the lats maximally. That’s because the pull up is a vertical pull. In my personal opinion, training the vertical only is the equivalent of doing hundreds of military presses and never performing a bench press! This will transfer better to punching, grappling, and moving furniture! The horizontal pull is one of Paul Check’s 7 Primal Movement Patterns (the pull is often separated into vertical and horizontal) and is included in many such lists.

Hybrid training

You can use the seated row or bent over row as an example of a horizontal pull, but I’m also a big fan of the bodyweight row/inverted push up. Here, you’ll be lifting a smaller percentage of your bodyweight, owing to the fact that your heels will be on the floor, which makes this a great movement to use as mechanical drop set with the pull up: perform as many pull ups as you can to failure and then immediately lower yourself into the bodyweight row without rest. You can even alter the angle mid-set to squeeze out even more reps.

I love mechanical drop sets as they allow the development of both power and endurance.

I would also recommend adding a rotational element to your horizontal rowing movements. Not only because there is a general absence of movements that target the transverse plane in many training routines, but also because this will better mimic the way you often use the lats in real life. A great movement for this is the single-armed bodyweight row with rotation. Here, you’re going to pull yourself up with one hand and then reach upwards with your free hand. This is common with overly-expensive tools like TRX, but you can achieve the same effect with a gymnastic ring, rope, towel, or dip bar.

I would also recommend adding a rotational element to your horizontal rowing movements.

Just as effective is the single-arm standing cable row with rotation. This movement has the added benefit of forcing you to brace your core. It won’t allow you to maximally engage or train the lats, but is perfect if great for developing real, functional performance and teaching useful movement patterns for things like wrestling, or dragging things along the ground. Keep the elbow in toward the body to target the lats predominantly.

When performing these movements, you can again increase lat activation by adding a little flexion to the wrists, making sure to tuck the finger knuckle under the bar when rowing. But I advise combining a range of different hand positions and pulling angles for the most complete back development.

Better grip

A great way to develop strength, endurance, size, and power in the lats is by rock climbing. Rock climbing is fantastic as you’ll be keeping continuous engagement in the lats and combining both a vertical pull to move upwards, and a horizontal pull to keep you close to the wall (especially when traversing). You’ll naturally combine this with explosive movements for dynos, along with every manner of hand position, unilateral movements, and everything else in-between.

Bruce Lee: Legend

I was big into rock climbing at university, and some of the guys there had insane lats and unbelievable gripping strength.

Don’t have a climbing wall? If your gym has monkey bars, this will work well too. You can also try climbing along fences or similar. Alternatively, grab onto your pull up bar and try not only pulling yourself up, but moving around the bar. Vary your cadence, alter your grip, and try moving not only

Rope climbing is also fantastic.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Ian says:

    The best Lats belong to RING-GYMNASTS for a reason. Straight-Arm holds on the rings or Bars/railings (if wide-enough) is the greatest way to build powerful, strong upper-body inside and out.

    Iron-Cross, Maltease Cross, Victoria Cross, Inverted Cross with reps (up and down etc) combined with Back-Levers, Front-Levers and Planches, Handstands etc are incredible total upper-body-workout (inside and out).

    Sadly few bother to train Straight-Arm Strength on the Lateral chain. It’s only front, back or overhead. They are missing Lateral-Chain Strength which leads to imbalance between Front, Rear and Side head of the shoulders.

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