The Unsung Importance of the Latissimus Dorsi
When thinking of exercises that involve the lats, the first few that come to mind are exercises like the lat pull-down, the pull-up, and seated rows. It’s no dispute that these are great exercises for developing the lats in the sense of their prime movement. But besides their prime movement, the lats hold another, seemingly under-utilized function: spinal stabilization. The lats can and should play a big roll in the squat, bench, and deadlift. Let’s start with the deadlift.
Firstly, the lats help make the spine more rigid during the deadlift thereby improving structural integrity and stability of the spine. Secondly, when deadlifting without actively engaging your lats, a couple of unwanted things can happen. One would be that as you pull the bar, your torso lurches forward which can disrupt your positioning throughout the lift.
Secondly, as you pull the bar, your hips rise faster than the weight does. This leads to your knees locking out way before your hips do which turns the deadlift into a 2-part lift. With your knees fully extended partway through the lift, your hips have to play catch-up which is oftentimes accompanied by over-assistance by your low back muscles.
A simple fix for this is to think about lat recruitment as you’re setting up for the lift. As you get into position for the pull, imagine wrapping the bar around your legs like a horseshoe, or bending the bar around your legs. With the lats engaged, your hips and the bar will move upward at the same rate which will synchronize your knee extension with your hip extension at the top of the lift. As a side note, also think of the deadlift as a pushing movement as much as a pulling movement. The pull is pretty obvious, but the push can be thought of as the same push your legs do while using a leg press machine. By pushing your feet into the ground while pulling with the rest of the body, your positioning throughout the lift will be maintained (not lurching forward) and your knee and hip extension will be synchronized making it one, smooth movement.
Now let’s talk about lat involvement with the squat. Does the bar feel like it’s rolling up and down your upper back during the squat?
Without proper lat recruitment, the bar has a tendency to roll up and down your back.
Like the deadlift, your spine needs to maintain a neutral position and rigidity during the squat. The lats can contribute to positioning and rigidity by using the bar as leverage. In other words, with the bar on your back, pull downward on the bar just as you would during a lat pull-down or pull up. Imagine bending the bar over your back like (you guessed it) a horseshoe. This will effectively pin the bar to your back, increase rigidity, and improve positioning. All in all, your mechanics will be better.
The lats can play an important role in the bench press as well. Engaging your lats will set your back, shoulders, and elbows in a more stable and strong position.
Once again, we are using the bar as leverage by imagining the bar bending into a shape that resembles equine footwear. Before pressing, it can be helpful to pull your body toward the bar to get your lats recruited. As the weight descends, maintain the “bend the bar” imagery. When you press the weight back up, reverse the movement by letting your elbows flare out slightly and move the bar toward your face. Throughout the entire movement, your lats should feel tensed. This gives your body a foundation to press against, aka leverage. Initially, this is a strange sensation because the bench press is a pushing movement yet the primary function of the lats is to pull. But given enough practice, you will learn to press in combination with lat activation producing much more stability and strength.
There is a theme here: use the bar to create leverage, stability, and positioning. When you can apply “themes” to your movement as opposed to isolated checklist items, quality movement becomes much more clear and simple. The challenge comes when you begin implementing new themes to your established movement patterns. For example, if you’ve been bench pressing, squatting, and deadlifting a particular way for years and then introduce lat recruitment, it will initially feel clumsy and uncoordinated. What’s worse is that although the new theme may feel somewhat comfortable during your warm up and mid-range weight, your perceived level of maximum strength will not stand up to your new movement theme. As you approach your 1 rep max, your new theme will invariably revert back to how you’ve done the movement for years. But that’s okay, new themes take practice and time where sacrificing short-term progress pays off in improved long-term progress. Over time and continued effort developing the new theme in your nervous system, the new theme will be adopted as the primary one which will not only prevent injury, but also allow you break through the strength plateaus that your old theme limited you to.