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.
When underneath the racked barbell, place both feet underneath your hips, draw your shoulder blades back, grip the bar extremely tight and with hand placement close to your body. This set-up results in attention placed in the right spots and lat activation. With this set-up, we can now focus on our Valsalva breathing and then, as a far afterthought, the actual squat.
Turkish Get-Up, Overhead Squat & Snatch Lockout
Any weight that is moved overhead must go through the lats, and any weight that is held in that position relies almost entirely on the lat muscle group supporting shoulder stability. Think of the drag racing on sand analogy. There is no application or support for power without a strong base underneath it. Watch anyone performing overhead squats and you’ll see the upper part of the lats literally twitching, the fibers firing non stop from the demands of the supported overhead position. As such, premature heavy overhead work without first developing the lats can be a very costly mistake on the shoulders.
How to Get More Out of Your Lats
There are a lot of ways we can target our lats on different movements and lifts. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
- Deadlifts for 8 reps @ 60-70%. The focus should not be on challenging load, but on the creating and maintaining maximal tension in the lats and complete control over the barbell not drifting.
- Deadlifts for 8 reps @ 60%…with a pause at the top. Perform the reps but pause at the top with perfection in the lockout. Focus on feeling your lats.
- Pull-ups with a pause at the bottom. This will help ensure each rep is initiated with a drive of the lats rather than momentum of any kind. Lats have almost no power when they are fully lengthened (why we are very weak on front squats, relatively speaking), so by working them at a point of weakness we make them stronger.
- Grip the shit out of everything. Lat activation is directly tied to your grip. In absolutely everything. Sometimes, it can be just as s simple as gripping the barbell harder.
- Light Turkish Get-Ups for Reps. We don’t want to be challenging the CNS or shoulder stability here. We want to be forcing the lats to maintain tension for an uncomfortable amount of time.
- High velocity med ball slams at 10 – 20#. Load in med ball slams is not something I ever apply focus. Focus on speed and reaching absolute peak extension in the overhead position. From there, slam the ball as if your aim is to make it explode. Remember, lats are responsible for pulling your arms towards your body so when MB slams are done properly this way, the focus is almost exclusively on your lats. Want an easy way for your pull-ups to go up? Lighter, faster MB slams.
- Heavy Holds and Walks. Stay upright and focus on the crushing an apple/squeezing the sponge.
- Aggressive Eccentrics on the Kettlebell Swing. Drive the bell back between your legs, don’t simply let it return to position. Send it there with authority. Robby is really good at teaching this.
- 100m Rowing Sprints @ 100% using just your upper body. Rowing at 100% is not something you can maintain for anything longer than a few hundred meters at a time. Especially if you all but remove your legs. And for the sake of lat development we want power, not endurance. Row for 100m at a time, sets of 15 – 20 with very little rest. Think 30 seconds between sets. Use less of your legs and more of your upper body’s pulling power. Note: This is a drill to target lats, not rowing technique. Don’t do this unless you are a highly proficient rower less you develop some pretty nasty habits.
- Sprints. Yes, sprints. Running sprints. Many strength coaches use chin-ups as an indicator on whether or not an athlete is getting faster. Why? Because lats help contribute to synergistic power between the opposite arm and the opposite him since that’s the muscle group in which the power travels(2). This is known as the serape effect, which is a “rotational trunk movement that involves ballistic motions…It stretches these muscles to their greatest length in order to create a snap-back effect. When this tension is released from these muscles they shorten for the completion of the movement, and a greater velocity is applied than had the muscles performed from a normal resting length.(3)” While predominant in track and field throws, it also works in sprinting as one muscle contracts the upper body counter lengthens. Sprints are a great way to increase transfer of force in the lats for other movements.
- Overhead Kettlebell Swings. These are an excellent developer of the lats.
- More pull-ups and chin-ups. Plain and simple. No need to reinvent the wheel.
If you are having trouble breaking a PR or just having trouble tying a movement together, chances are you can improve whatever the movement may be with greater focus on the lats. Once you become proficient in the movements, start incorporating some of the tips above into your workouts and you’ll see you numbers go up for sure.
Dave Thomas is a co-owner coach at Performance360 in Mission Beach and Crown Point, San Diego.