when people think of back muscles, one of the first that comes to mind is the lats, or latissimus dorsi. It’s a big sheet of a muscle, that attaches your upper arm at the biceps tendon and then inserts all the way down through the spinous processes of T7-L5, the thoracolumbar fascia, and the iliac crest. It has some significant fascial connections, essentially tying it to the entire core through multiple layers, as well as plays a huge role in low back, sacral and shoulder stability. To say it’s important is an understatement, especially with big lifts like a deadlift.
I’ve talked about it in the past, but it’s so important that it’s used to reconstruct the anterior wall of the chest following mastectomy from breast cancer.
Now due to its importance for not only pulling your shoulder back and down, but also in increasing spinal stiffness against flexion, as well as tensioning the lumbodorsal fascia and the SI joint to resist against shear forces. As a result, powerlifters and average Joe trainers all encourage their clients to try to get their lats firing more so that they have some level of support to their spines so their backs don’t explode in an epic cacophony of nucleus fireworks all over the place.
The downside is that most people tend to exist in a state where the lats are secondary to upper traps. Sitting, leaning forward to look at a monitor, posterior tilted pelvis positions all contribute to stretching the lats and making them functionally useless, which means they’re even harder to get firing when the time comes to hoist plates against gravity. I’m sure this generation of kids who all seem to have iPhones and iPads at the necessary age of 8 is going to lead to a bumper crop of neck and shoulder issues in about 10 years, let alone a demographic of folks who have no idea how to get their lats to fire.
The big rocks to consider when trying to get the lats to fire are the fact that they can’t get their best bang unless the spine is in an extended state, and if the scapulae aren’t in a depressed state. I’m not talking depressed as in whomever voted for Rob Ford to take office and is now realizing the grave mistake they made. Nor am I talking about New York Jets fans. I’m talking about being in a position that’s closer to the hips than to your ears.
Here’s a quick video of me showing how to get lats to fire for their best potential.
What all this means is the next time you see someone in the gym rocking out rows where their head is below their knee and their back is humped more than Taylor Swift getting content for her next album, they’re probably not getting their lats fired up.
As a result of this lack of lats, most people will not only row with a rounded back, but deadlift with a rounded back, which while not immediately something that will result in backs exploding all over the gym floor, will mean the glutes and hamstrings are less likely to dominate that mofo in favour of the lumbar erector spinae and quads. The tradeoff here is the erector spinae is a tonic muscle, designed to hold posture more than produce speed and force, whereas the glutes are phasic muscles, designed to push stuff into other stuff, rapidly and hard, which makes them the better choice for deadlifting stuff.
So how would you cue this stuff?
I’ve played around with a couple of different options. First, there’s a very basic cue of standing with your back against the wall and pressing your palms into the wall as hard as you can for a full exhale.
This is very effective at getting the feeling of the lats in a shortened state,e specially for those who have trouble getting their backs into position so they can actually feel the suckers going. Once they have this feel, they can usually replicated it when they have to bend down to grab a bar and move stuff around.
Some keys to remember when doing this drill. First, ensure you have your shoulders flat to the wall, essentially retracted and depressed so that they aren’t touching the wall at an angle. If they are, you’ll usually wind up rolling the shoulders forward more often than not, which means you’ll have more work going to the anterior shoulder and upper traps than to the lats. Next, make sure that when you press back into the wall that you aren’t arching your back off the wall to get there, or flaring your ribs out. This is a common feature with lat based drills, as they pull the spine into extension when contracted. As beneficial as this is during a movement like the deadlift, the goal is to just get them to turn on, not produce movement from the spine, and some people will use this compensation to get more activation from the erector spinae than from the lats, so try to keep the back neutral throughout.
Another drill that I’ve recently been playing with is using elastics pulling the arms forward while mimicking the deadlift itself.
This is a step more advanced than the wall pressback, and noticably more challenging as the shakiness can attest to. The goal is to try to keep your arms vertical, as if you’re holding a loaded bar, and not let the elastic pull your hands forward. This is a fairly easy one at the bottom of the movement, but it becomes noticably more challenging as you stand up. Start with a challenging resistance that lets you feel the resistance, but that doesn’t pull your arms forward, and make sure you’re keeping the spine locked and drive from the glutes.
These two simple drills and cues can help tremendously to getting the lats working for compound movements, as well as for isolational training in cases where the individual has to come back from an injury, and also for those who just want to gun their lats in a new angle or position.