Lats: Friend or Foe?

latsThe lats are an often revered muscle group.

Most guys are all about getting that “V-taper” and looking jacked.

For women, there’s something incredibly empowering about being about to move their own bodyweight. As such, we have tons of women coming into IFAST who have a goal to do a chin-up.

But are the lats all they’re cracked up to be?

And what happens if you don’t balance and surround those lats with other muscles on the front and back?

Let’s take a little journey down lat row and see what we can learn!

Lat Anatomy and Function

Latissimus_dorsi_The lats are one of the largest muscle groups in your body. One attachment point is on the front of your humerus (or upper arm bone), with the other attachment point intersecting with your thoracolumbar fascia and connecting to your lower back, upper pelvis and sacrum.

If you’re just bouncing around the Interwebz looking for information on what the lats do, you’ll probably see something along these lines:

  • Shoulder Internal Rotation – Turning the arm/hand inward.
  • Shoulder Extension – Bringing the arm down/back from an overhead position.
  • Shoulder Adduction – Bringing the arm down towards the midline of the body.

But this is incredibly limited thinking. Too often we’re focused solely on what a muscle does concentrically (i.e., when it’s shortening), versus what it does eccentrically (i.e. when it’s lengthening).

So while all of the above is true, we could also say the lats:

  • Resist or control shoulder external rotation,
  • Resist or control shoulder flexion, and
  • Resist or control shoulder abduction.

But even this viewpoint doesn’t do the lats justice. Instead of simply looking at their action on the arm, why not look at what happens when the lats act on the pelvis and lumbar spine?

Via their connection to the lower back and pelvis, any time you reach your arms overhead (as you would in a chin-up or overhead press), you are putting the lats on stretch, or lengthening them.

So what happens if you don’t have adequate control of your lower back and pelvis?

Or if your lats are too stiff?

It’s simple: You’ll fall into an anterior pelvic tilt and increased lumbar lordosis.

Sound like any of you reading this? I thought so!

Are You Dysfunctional?

Clients and athletes who present with an anterior pelvic tilt also typically have stiff lats. But how do you know for sure?

Here’s a short video I shot for PT on the Net which describes how you can determine lat length:

Client Assessment: The Overhead Press

Poor overhead reach
Poor overhead reach

If you want a quick and dirty assessment you can use on yourself, try this. Stand at a 90-degree angle to a mirror, and lift your arms as high as they can go.

You should be able to reach your arms fully overhead (~180 degrees), without sacrificing your core and lumbar spine position.

If you can get overhead but you have to arch your lower back or flare your lower ribs to get there, sorry bucko, but you’ve got some work to do.

The next question inevitably becomes, “how did I get here?” or “What did I do to deserve this?”

An obvious first choice is your programming. Most of you whom have spent a dedicated amount of time working on your upper back and lats will be stiff. That should be pretty obvious.

However, sometimes the lats are stiff because they’ve come along for the ride.

If you’re doing a ton of lifts that emphasize extension through the lumbar spine (deadlifts, good mornings, RDL’s, back squats, etc.), then your lats can get stiff as a by-product of all this.

Think about it like this: If you’re always in an anterior pelvic tilt and increased lumbar lordosis, at some point in time your body considers this normal. So just like your spinal erectors can get stiff and short, so too can your lats.

Last but not least, if you breathe poorly (using a hip flexor/paraspinal dominant strategy), again, the lats get locked into this short position almost as a by-product of being in a bad position all the time.

And that’s 20,000 reps of breathing per day. Obviously if you have breathing issues, this is something you’ll need to address as well.

Now that we’ve got a better idea of if you’re dysfunctional or not, let’s talk a little bit about why structural balance is important.

When Good Lats Go Bad

I’ve had a handful of clients come in my gym lately that would appear to have horrible shoulder mobility.

The most obvious example is a former IFAST intern Patrick Castileja also known as “Pat the Lat.” On any given day Latrick* could do somewhere between 15 and 20 chins. Furthermore, he finished up his internship with a 500-pound raw (no belt) deadlift.

(*See what I did there? LATrick?)

So the guy is obviously strong, but his movement quality left something to be desired.

Towards the end of this internship we spent an entire morning working to get his shoulder mobility back. Bill Hartman, Eric Oetter and myself locked ourselves in the assessment room and did everything we could to re-develop his shoulder mobility.

And on the table, we got all of his mobility back. We could take him through all the various shoulder ranges of motion and he was fine.

But as soon as he stood back up and had to use his core/trunk to actively stabilize himself, he would “lose” it.

The moral of the story is this:

A big, stiff set of lats without a strong and stable pair of abdominals to offset them can get you into trouble.

One of my favorite exercises to train shoulder motion with core/trunk stability  is the old-school dumbbell pullover.

ribcageThe goal here IS NOT to expand your ribcage, or to arch your spine like there’s no tomorrow. We’re not talking about 1960’s bodybuilding here (even though those guys had some of the greatest physiques of all time!)

Instead, the two variations described below not only work on inhibiting and/or lengthening the lats, but doing so while maintaining stability throughout the core and lumbar spine.

Lie on your back with a dumbbell or kettlebell in hand. If you’re doing the 3-months position, flex the hips and knees to relax the lower back. If you’re doing the supported version, place your feet up on an Airex pad, or at the very least tuck them in as close as possible to your buttocks.

From the starting position, exhale hard to find your abs. Another cue is to lengthen the back side of your neck. Slowly lower the kettlebell/dumbbell overhead, making sure to keep the back flat and the abs engaged.

If at any point in the movement you feel as though you’re going to arch or extend your back, stop and return to the starting position.

I’ll often perform these either for reps, or for more deliberate reps with a 3-5 second pause at the stretched/midpoint position (as shown in the video). Bang out a good breath or two, and then return to the starting position.

Not only do these exercises crush your abdominals, but it works to improve true overhead mobility as well.

Training the Lats

Once you’ve mastered the above exercises, it’s time to get back into chinning.

We all know that if you want a jacked pair of lats, you have to chin. This much should be self-explanatory.

But this isn’t the way I typically start clients off.

First and foremost, when teaching someone to chin I’m not so worried about their lat development as I am on their lower trapezius strength and development.

Quite simply, I don’t just want you to get your chin over the bar – I want your chest to touch the bar!

The goal isn’t just to develop the lats. I also want to develop the lower trapezius muscles, and teach them how to actively depress their scapulae.

If this sounds complicated, it’s really not. Here’s how I coach the chin-up, along with a progression to get you from A-to-B.

http://youtu.be/Qq9e2CG9HlI&w=590

Unfortunately, many clients aren’t even ready for band-assisted chinning variations due to poor lower trap strength, so I’ll regress them even further. Half-kneeling and tall-kneeling variations are fantastic options in this case.

In the case of the single-arm, half-kneeling lat pulldown, there are a few benefits to starting with this progression:

  • The angle of pull is more shoulder friendly. If I can keep someone at a 45-degree angle versus true overhead motion, mobility will be less of an issue.
  • I can start to infuse the “ribs down” cue. When someone goes overhead, do you have a mobility problem at the shoulder, or a stability problem at the low back/pelvis? The bottom line is you have both – so fix both. This cue will help.
  • I can teach appropriate scapular motion. True scapular depression is a foreign concept to most clients, so I can bridge the gap by starting with a 45-degree angle. This is more of a “back and down” motion.
  • Last but not least, they have more stability. Tall-kneeling is what I often refer to as “core island,” so giving them a bit more external stability (via half-kneeling) early-on isn’t a bad thing.

Once they’ve mastered the half-kneeling variation, it’s time to move to tall-kneeling. While some may not like this progression, I think it’s a solid exercise – assuming they are being coached and cued correctly.

Big things to focus on here include:

  • Exhaling hard to make sure they are in lumbar/pelvic neutral,
  • Keeping the ribs down throughout the exercise (especially when returning to the top position), and
  • Squeezing the scapulae down at the midpoint.

Here’s how the entire progression might look:

  1. Single-arm, half-kneeling lat pulldown.
  2. Tall kneeling lat pulldown.
  3. Band-assisted chin-ups.
  4. Chin-up negatives.
  5. Chin-ups.

Following this progression will not only ensure that you develop the lats, but more importantly, the lower trapezius as well.

Summary

The lats are an awesome muscle group, whether your goal is to be a beast on the athletic field, have a jaw-dropping physique, or crank out chin-ups like it’s your job.

However, building an awesome set of lats without simultaneously building the abdominals and lower trapezius necessary to check them can get you into trouble.

By all means get as strong and jacked as possible, but make sure you’re doing the little things along the way to keep you healthy to boot. Your body will thank you!

Stay strong

MR

41 Comments

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  1. Fantastic article! I seriously wish I could find other words to describe why I liked it so much, but I’m really speechless. It was that good. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Great stuff Mike! What especially resonated with me was, “But as soon as he stood back up and had to use his core/trunk to actively stabilize himself, he would “lose” it.” This is the same issue I have with my extension pattern. That is, I can get out of extension on the table or standing, but as soon as I walk around “BAM!” I’m back in it extension quick than I could type this sentence.

    Quick question. When you say “exhale hard” and “keep the ribcage down”, are you saying that we should keep our rectus abs and obliques contracted throughout the entire movement? If so, how hard is this contraction? Just hard enough to maintain neutrality?

    Also, props to New York State of Mind playing in the background of the 3-month pullover video. Ahh, 1994…bringing back memories of my early teenage years!

    • If you live in extension, then yes, you’ll have to think about keeping the core activated and ribs down all the time. The goal is to get to a point where you don’t have to think about this, and it’s more reflexive and natural.

      And I’d like to think that if I’m in the gym, we’re listening to good music!

    • If you live in extension, then yes, you’ll have to think about keeping the core activated and ribs down all the time. The goal is to get to a point where you don’t have to think about this, and it’s more reflexive and natural.

      And I’d like to think that if I’m in the gym, we’re listening to good music!

  3. Mike,

    What is your experience in regressing the Supine KB Pullover? I’ve experimented with relative success with something such as Supine Shoulder Flexion – same movement pattern, without the weight.

    In regards to shoulder cuing – would you advise including an upward shrug (if an individual is lat dominant with clearly lowered shoulders) to avoid any “bumping” of the humerus on the glenoid socket?

    My mind is churning with ideas. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

    Looking forward to your reply,

    Miguel
    http://www.miguelaragoncillo.wordpress.com

    • Miguel –

      Doing this as more of a “mobility” exercise would absolutely work – you’re chasing the same end goal, just without load.

      I always tell my interns two things you always have control over – load and range of motion. There are very few bad movements, but any movement can be bad when overloaded or taken through an inappropriate range of motion.

      Also, I haven’t coached a shrugging motion in the past, but that could theoretically work. I’ll let you try that out and give me some feedback.

      Thanks!

  4. Awesome stuff Mike!! Quick question on the progressions, for someone that can already do chins but has very poor shoulder mobility, would you just fix the shoulder mobility with breathing, core and pullover exercises then go straight back to chinning? Or would you then go through the outlined progressions for the lower trap development? If so, what sort of time would you spend on each?

    • Matt –

      I’d follow the progression. Too often people that are great at chins can’t do one single “Chest-up” because their lower traps are so weak.

      As far as timeline goes, that’s totally individual and based on the degree of dysfunction and/or weakness that’s present.

      Don’t focus on time or quantity – focus on quality. Do it right and you’ll be thankful you did!

      • Thanks for the advice Mike,

        I put the dumbbell pullovers into my session tonight along with the other shoulder and lat mobility work I have been doing. 🙂 Very tough on the exhale, had to go very light.

        I will start implementing the half kneeling pull downs again also, did these in your bulletproof athlete program but need to do them again now that I have got some better tissue quality in the lats.

  5. Sorry for this newb-like question but you could explain in layman’s term (or better yet with a video?) what this type of breathing looks like:

    “if you breathe poorly (using a hip flexor/paraspinal dominant strategy), ”

    I’m not really what poor breathing looks like, but odds are I’m breathing incorrectly so some images/videos/description would be helpful so I could correct things. (Note, I’m working on slowly correcting anterior pelvic tilt/lordosis.) Thanks again for all the great info you provide.

  6. Sorry for this newb-like question but you could explain in layman’s term (or better yet with a video?) what this type of breathing looks like:

    “if you breathe poorly (using a hip flexor/paraspinal dominant strategy), ”

    I’m not really what poor breathing looks like, but odds are I’m breathing incorrectly so some images/videos/description would be helpful so I could correct things. (Note, I’m working on slowly correcting anterior pelvic tilt/lordosis.) Thanks again for all the great info you provide.

  7. Great stuff. Pretty much the same progression I have implemented through alot of trial and error. Where do you put the lat pullover in your programs. I have debated back and forth whether to use it later as an “accesory and core” exercise or earlier as maybe one set in the warmup.

    • I think you can use a band variation or something low-load to pattern/correct in the warm-up, and then use again with load as a core/accessory exercise later in the session.

    • I think you can use a band variation or something low-load to pattern/correct in the warm-up, and then use again with load as a core/accessory exercise later in the session.

  8. Mike, excellent stuff, as always. I love the way you take the time to really explore these topics in depth. So thanks!

    Two questions:

    1. Have you seen the “hollow” pull up style? Pavel anointed it his top upper body pull. I have gone to this approach, and it seems to correct a lot of the lat “malfeasance”. Primarily by PPTing, and neutralizing the lat’s effect on the pelvis. Any thoughts?

    2. Also, to take this logic a bit further. Doesn’t the lat pulling the pelvis into anterior tilt sort of diminish some of the wisdom of the “break the bar over your back” SQ cue? Seems like it might further exacerbate some of the lumber hyperextension compensations that you wrote about previously in your “brace vs. arch” discussion.

    You are the best of the best, MR!!

    • 1 – I like the concept of keeping the ribs down, but I don’t believe in true abdominal hollowing. If you get the ribs down, you get the TVA anyway (without conscious thought) and inhibit the lats to some degree.

      2 – Yep – I’ve moved away from a lot of the traditional PL cues in an effort to get my people stronger and more injury resistant. Seems to be working for me thus far.

      • Thanks, Mike.

        Just by way of explanation, the hollow position is not a TVA “draw in”, rather a hard brace, as in what precedes a hanging leg raise, or toes to bar. This will slightly flex the open chain hips due to the pelvic tilt, and possibly cause a measure of kyphosis on the other attachment. Basically the entire body is held rigid as a board, with the arms dissociated, the effect is that of a crescent moon, or banana.

        I gather it is a gymnastics position, and protects the spine for various maneuvers. The only hitch is you must have a bar high enough so as not to have to flex anything.

        Did I mention how awesome this post was? Keep doing work, MR!

  9. Mike, excellent stuff, as always. I love the way you take the time to really explore these topics in depth. So thanks!

    Two questions:

    1. Have you seen the “hollow” pull up style? Pavel anointed it his top upper body pull. I have gone to this approach, and it seems to correct a lot of the lat “malfeasance”. Primarily by PPTing, and neutralizing the lat’s effect on the pelvis. Any thoughts?

    2. Also, to take this logic a bit further. Doesn’t the lat pulling the pelvis into anterior tilt sort of diminish some of the wisdom of the “break the bar over your back” SQ cue? Seems like it might further exacerbate some of the lumber hyperextension compensations that you wrote about previously in your “brace vs. arch” discussion.

    You are the best of the best, MR!!

  10. Hi Mike. This was great. Quick question about the ribs. I am someone with a naturally flat lordotic posture that I’m working on with your A&C program. I’m also working on internally rotated shoulders and lower trap development. Since reading your lower traps article my chin up number has dropped dramatically but I think I’m now doing it with correct scapular movement.

    But I also try and keep my chest up as this naturally brings my shoulders back and makes it easier to retract my scapulae. Should I actually be thinking ribs down? Or should I just be thinking ‘don’t hunch’?

    • Kieran – Hard to say without seeing you move. Keep in mind, you can still think “long” versus “chest out.”

      Too often with “chest out” that also means “arch the back” or “flare the ribs.” I’d rather think long as it gets the desired position more times than not.

      Thanks!
      MR

  11. I love articles like this…. simple, effective, graduated, goal driven planning for strength development. Nice one Mike.

    • LOL I wish – I’d love to have a combo plate-loaded lat pulldown/cable row. This is just a standard cable crossover.

      A boy can dream!

  12. Thanks Mike for yet another informative article. I love your writing and learn such a lot about anatomy and functional training from you. I’d also really appreciate knowing in simple terms what you mean by breathing using a hip flexor/paraspinal dominant approach. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

    • Phil – Lots of interest in this. Once I get all the BPA stuff wrapped I’ll put it at the top of my list. Thanks!

  13. Fantastic write up here Mike. It is always important that you balance your training. I always preached this, especially for the “chest” guys. What’s the point in having a huge chest if it puts you in such a functional disadvantage because you haven’t ‘spent any time on your rhomboids, lower traps, etc…

    I found your blog through Mike Renoild’s blog and I clicking the subscribe button right now.

  14. Congratulations for the article Mike, it’s very interesting.

    I would ask if you can help me with the next issue: When I finish to do Pendlay Rows or anyone kind of row parallel to the floor, I feel my low back hurts, it’s a similar pain to fatigue. I think this means I have a weak lower back, but I’ve been doing some planks and I usually train Romanian Deadlfits on my “Legs” day.
    So if you can give me some tip I will thank you.

  15. I really enjoy your stuff. I’ve just got a moment to actually read this (been on the list for past month). It was worth the wait and for me personally the lats have played a major part in generating some anterior stiffness and re-establish some control at my pelvis. Thanks again for the quality of work you continue to produce. Good luck with Bulletproof Athlete, if anything like BPK&B it will be a cracker

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