Often neglected, I see countless lifters from all around focusing on their pecs, biceps, triceps abdominals, etc. However, I very rarely see too many athletes spending a lot of time on their back muscles. This is a huge mistake, the latissimus dorsi is the most important muscle of the upper body. What if I told you that by training the latissimus dorsi (lats) you could lift more weight for all your lifts? Would you train them, or still focus on the same old boring un-effective upper body routines that get you nowhere? In this post, it is my mission to enlighten the reader as to the importance of this muscle group and to show how to properly use your lats.
Origin and Function of the Lats
The lats originate from the middle of the thoracic vertebrae (mid-back) all the way down the spinal column to the sacrum and illiac crest (top of the hip girdle), and they insert in the inner tubercular groove of the humerus (inner front portion of the shoulder). The sheer size and shape of this muscle alone should highlight its importance. The lats have many functions and assist many muscle groups. However, their prime function is arm extension (moving you arm behind you), adduction (moving you arm towards you body) and internal rotation of the shoulder.
Problems Activating the Lats
Although many people may be aware of the function of the lats, they still have a hard time working them even though they perform many “back” exercises. Why is this? It has to do with our lifestyle. For the majority of people, our days are spent sitting behind a desk in front of a computer. This results in a flexed spinal position with forward rounded shoulders. Therefore, this results in over-activation of the upper trapezius (traps) and under-activation of the middle and lower traps. Not only does this contribute to shoulder problems (i.e. shoulder impingement), but it makes it more difficult to activate the lats. Since the upper traps are over-activated, the shoulder girdle is more unstable and as a result, whenever we perform a “back” exercise in the gym, we are working more of our upper traps and less of our lats. This severely limits our potential.
Exercises and Techniques to Activate the Lats
Stretching the Traps
First and foremost, it the traps are tight, as described in the previous section, we need to stretch them.
The following exercises should help:
Side Neck Stretch
Sit on a chair or bench with perfect posture and try to touch your ear to your shoulder. DO NOT shrug your shoulder up to meet your ear. You can use your hand to pull your head down for an even deeper stretch. However, BE GENTLE and don’t rush this. Hold this position for 60 seconds.
Side Neck Stretch With Lean
Sit on a bench or chair and perform the side neck stretch described above, except this time grasp the side of the bench opposite to the side you are stretching and lean away from your hand. This allows for an even deeper stretch. Hold this one for at least 2-3 min.
Side Neck Stretch With Direct Pressure (Not Pictured)
This will be performed standing. Take a lacrosse ball, or tennis ball, and place it in the groove of your traps. Next lean into the ball against a wall and apply pressure to the traps. From here gently grab your head and lean away from the stretch. This is a very powerful stretch which may take some time to get used to. Start out with 30 seconds each side and gradually increase the time as the stretch becomes more bearable.
Now that the traps are stretched out we will have an easier time activating the lats.
Static Arm Extension
Hold your arm at 90 degrees and place your elbow against a padded bench and push down as hard as you can for about 5-10 seconds. This will not only get you in the habit of activating the lats for your upper body exercises, but it will also help you “feel” your lats as well.
Floor Tuck Lever
One of the greatest exercises for lat strength and activation is the front lever. However, the front lever is an extremely challenging exercise that deserves a post in its own right. We can though take advantage of some of its benefits, including lat activation.
Lie down flat on the floor, using either gymnastics rings or a smith machine. Your hands should be about shoulder width apart. From here turn your armpits forward, keep your arms straight and pull down WITH STRAIGHT ARMS as hard as you can. The goal is to lift you butt up off the ground. At first this may be challenging and you may not get far, that’s ok. Just keep plugging away at it as the weeks go on, it will pay off.
Support Position on Gymnastic Rings
Gymnastics rings are a great tool for upper body strength. The variable of stability is now added to the exercises, thus requiring more body awareness and muscular control. Without going into too much detail, the lats are vitally important for shoulder stability on the gymnastic rings. Just try this exercise and you’ll see what I mean.
Set a pair of rings just high enough so that your feet are a couple of inches off the floor. Jump up until your elbows are locked out. As you find your balance, turn the rings outward at a 30-45 degree angle and push your shoulders down into the rings. This forces external rotation at the shoulder and allows the lats to contribute to stabilization. Do not shrug your shoulders up. Do not let your arms touch the straps. Do not let the rings, or your arms, touch your sides. Work your way to holding this position for one minute.
If this is too tough at first, then just scale the rings down and work your way up to full bodyweight. Trust me it is well worth the investment.
By consistently training your lats for functional movement and activation many roadblocks that once stood in your way will soon be torn down. I remember how for the longest time I could not progress on pull-ups or hanging leg raises due to shoulder pain. I could never figure out the reason why, so I searched online relentlessly and every source I found told me some pretty good advice, but they left out this one little “secret”, the lats. I never knew how to properly use them. So by sharing the knowledge, I hope that this helps you all with your training progress to building bigger and better bodies.