By Dave Thomas
There’s that scene in Zoolander where Mugatu has him on the runway and they trigger his subconscious to try and assassinate the Prime Minster of Malaysia. He doesn’t willfully decide or even participate, he just goes into kill mode. What if I told you there is one major muscle group in your body that was among the largest, covered all the way from your arms to your lumbar spine, was largely responsible for a lot of visual muscle growth, was directly responsible for most athletic performance and that brainwashed kill-mode execution of a movement, yet is rarely ever targeted as the main muscle in a lift?
It’s not a riddle. Just the reality of life for the hugely used yet never credited lattisimus dorsi, or lats. The silent killer.
P360 Kettlebell Coach Robby likes to talk about the importance of lats when coaching the hardstyle kettlebell swing. Strength coach Eric Cressey calls them the single most influential muscle in the human body and competitive bench pressers have known the importance of lat involvement for decades. However you want to label them, it is important we understand why lats are so critical to most all lifts and what we can do to pay more attention to them on our set up and mid lift execution. Without proper attention to our lats prior to lifting big, it’s like attempting to start a drag race on sand.
We often think of our lats as just the large shape of winged muscles underneath our armpits that flare out when body builders are posing. While true, that just happens to be the most noticeable area of mass they contain and the most aesthetically pleasing. The lats attach at the upper part of the arm and insert all the way into the lumbar making the lats one of the largest muscle groups in the body. The massive over simplification of what the lats main role in fitness and weightlifting would be.
- Adduction. They serve to pull your arms in towards your body (think pull-ups) and to keep them there (cleans, deadlifts, snatches).
- Shoulder Stabilizers. In the overhead position. Weak lats are a recipe for disaster when snatching, performing overhead squats or the Turkish get-up.
- Spine Stabilizers. They serve to help stabilize your spine, specifically in the lumbar region.
The muscle fiber orientation of lats is very unique in the human body. For example, the extremely large hamstrings have a vertical orientation in the fibers go straight up and down. Our pectoral muscles in the chest have a more horizontal orientation (look at a body builder flexing, their chest muscles have striations that go straight across). The lats have a mix of both which makes them very versatile for a number of movements(1). This versatility means they are used or contribute to more movements than any muscle in the human body, and because they are located centered by our spine, lats are one of the main superhighways the force must travel in order to get to the extremities and levers. Thus, it is important we use them the right way to get the most out of our lifts.
Here are some of the major movements in which lats are directly responsible for executing.
Keeping the Bar Tight on Cleans and Snatches
Without creating tension in our lats prior to a clean or snatch, the lift is lost before it even begins. Plain and simple. One of the first things we should do prior to movement is to squeeze are lats tight and pull the bar in close. If we are in the hang position, as we descend we must keep this focus on tight lats. On the set up, we must create and maintain it on the floor and as we rise in the first pull. The second our lats lose tension, the bar will drift away in an arching pattern and we must jump out to receive it. No maximum weight was ever cleaned or snatched by actually jumping to receive weight. It’s a symptom of a problem, not the cause of a lift. And that symptom usually starts with dormant lats.
In the presence of weak or passive lats, force goes everywhere but where it’s actually needed. As you set up for your lift, grip the barbell tightly, rotate the points of your elbows inward a bit and tighten your lats by bringing your scapulae downward. The resulting feeling should be complete rigidity from wrist to thoracic spine.
Keeping the Bar Tight on Deadlifts
I separated deadlifts and Oly lifts here for reason, despite the fact that the point is essentially the exact same. Power lifts and Olympic lifts are just about polar opposite as far as execution. Oly lifts require a high amount of skill and speed, whereas power lifts are a bit more about brute force. Regardless of the speed or execution style of the lift, if a barbell goes from the ground to at least waist height, the lats will play a huge role.
Your armpits will start relatively open on the set up since you are in a reaching position, so the only way you can really lay the foundation of tension in the lats is with a good, tight grip of the bar. On the lift off, keep your shoulders pulled back and as that bar travels from shin, to thighs, to hips, the lats become more critical each step of the way. Keep the lats tight, keep the shoulders back and keep your chin up. As the bar travels upward, the gap from inner bicep to armpit will close, and as it does pretend as if you are trying to crush an apple in the area. This is a bit of an uptick from the clue that Robby likes to use for ring dips (squeeze a sponge) because the stakes are higher.
If you find the bar is constantly drifting away from you on these lifts it likely means you are are not focusing on, or have very undeveloped lats. In a few paragraphs, we’ll get to how you can improve that.
Stabilizing Your Foundation
Why are there still formations still standing after thousands of years like the Pyramids, Stonehenge and the Coliseum?
You don’t build something to last on a swamp. You don’t expect to stabilize heavy weight on weak musculature. The following movements require enormous contribution from the lats either to stabilize the weight or support the vulnerable shoulder in the overhead position.
Keeping You Upright on Back Squats
A forward leaning chest in excess can throw off a back squat in no time, not to mention can get you hurt if you are attempting too heavy of a load prematurely. You may have noticed that as coaches, we always talk about the set up or grip of a back squat which may seem counter intuitive given it’s a leg exercise. But without that good grip and rigidity in the T-spine/lats we have no chance at performing the movement properly. Weak lats create lumbar flexion, and if you remember one thing about weight lifting it is this.
Nothing good ever happens in lumbar flexion.