The fitness world is exceptionally prone to the overreaction/under-reaction phenomenon. That is, fitness-minded people often fall victim to an all-or-nothing view of certain foods, exercises or training methodologies.
- Remember how scary dietary fat was in the 80’s?
- How about evil carbs in the 2000’s?
- Spinal flexion sure was terrible 10 years ago, but now extension is the bad guy.
See what I mean? This kind of thinking is dangerous because it leaves no room for context. It’s easy to pick apart each notion if you dig a little deeper. Sure, a high-fat diet is probably bad if you have heart disease. And refined carbs shouldn’t be your first food choice if you’re overweight. And end-range spinal flexion and/or extension should be avoided if it causes pain. These are all “well duh” answers.
Lately, one muscle group as been catching more and more flack from the functional fitness police: the lats.
THE LOWDOWN ON LATS
Also known as latissimus dorsi, the lats are the largest muscles of the back. Triangular in shape, they originate at the lower back and run up either side of the spine to the humerus. The lats primarily extend, adduct, and internally rotate the shoulder, but they also act as spinal extensors, meaning they help arch the back.
For this last reason, the lats are often implicated in extension-based problems like lower back pain and issues with hip and shoulder mobility. I’d argue that our work at Cressey Sports Performance (specifically with baseball players) has brought many of these problems to light.
At CSP, we do tons of drills with our baseball players that stretch and inhibit the lats. That’s because many baseball players have lats that are so tight that they can’t reach overhead properly. Clearly, if you throw a ball overhead for a living, that’s a problem.
But the other day, I had a general fitness client come up to me and ask me to watch his dumbbell row. He was complaining that he felt it too much in his lats. “I don’t want to feel it there,” he said. “The lats are bad, right?”
I was a bit taken aback. His form was perfectly fine. This client had no injury history to speak of. He was not a throwing athlete. He simply wanted to get as big and strong as possible. Yet he’d taken the anti-lat campaign to heart so strongly that he was afraid of training them.
Yes, chronically short and stiff lats can cause problems. But what if you’re not a baseball player? What if you want to deadlift 500 pounds? What if you want lats so big that they spill out of your $50 Ed Hardy tank top?
Well then, I’d argue that the lats aren’t so bad.
WHY YOU NEED STRONG LATS
From a strength perspective, you need strong lats to be a good squatter, bench presser or deadlifter. If you don’t know how to activate your lats during these exercises, you’re going to crumble under heavy weights.
Remember, the lats are involved in spinal extension (i.e. keeping your back tight and chest up) and assists in scapular retraction and depression (i.e. pulling your shoulders down and back). If you’ve read anything I’ve written about powerlifting, you know you need all these things to happen while lifting heavy.
Here’s what the lats do (or help do) in each powerlift:
- Pull the elbows under the bar (see the video below)
- Keep the chest tall
- Maintains lower back position
- Help arch the back
- Pull shoulders down and back
- Maintain bar position as you lower it to your chest
- Flare the elbows as you press up
- Keep the chest tall/prevent back rounding
- Keep the bar close to your body
- Take the slack out of the bar (see video below)
LATS ON, LATS OFF
Ideally, we want to be able to fire our lats when we need them most (i.e. during a heavy lift) and turn them off when we want them to relax (i.e. when lifting our arms overhead or when we’re simply not lifting). If the lats are chronically short or stiff, then we need to take action.
How do you know if you’ve got stiff lats? Try the back-to-wall shoulder flexion test:
If you can’t pass this test, try it lying on the floor. If you still can’t get your arms “overhead” (or in the case of the picture below, you can’t get your upper arms to touch the table) with your lower back flat, then you probably have tight lats (Tony Gentilcore talks about this test here).
Here are a few strategies to get your lats to relax:
You can often iron out quite a bit of lat stiffness by hitting them with a foam roller. Spend 30 seconds to a minute before each workout using the technique here (the lats technique starts at the 0:26 mark, but watch the whole video to learn how to foam roll from head to toe):
The lats are a secondary respiratory muscle, meaning that if we breathe inefficiently (most people do), our lats can be chronically “on”. Taking some deep, purposeful breaths while stretching the lats can get them to calm down. Here are two of my favorites:
Sometimes if the lats are really tight, you need a more powerful stretch. Adding a loaded stretch (i.e. stretching with added weight) can do wonders. While simply hanging from a pull-up bar might stretch your lats, it’s not very safe for your shoulders, so try these instead:
BEST LAT EXERCISES
Last but not least, here are a few of my favorite lat exercises to build size and strength. Keep in mind, the main objective here is to increase muscle mass and help us “feel” what it means to turn the lats on during the squat, bench and deadlift.
Barbell Bent Over Row
1-Arm Low Row with Band
Supine Cable Pullover
THE LAST WORD
The lats aren’t an inherently bad muscle group that should be shunned. In fact, if you want to be as strong as possible, you need to train your lats hard and heavy while learning to activate them during the squat, bench and deadlift. Keep in mind that stiff lats can lead to bad posture and trouble reaching overhead, so use the stretches and breathing drills here to keep them under control.