Latissimus Dorsi - the most influential muscle in the body?
Article by Luke Weal
Matt Roberts Chelsea
Ok I admit that's a pretty big statement, but consider your response if you were asked the question what do you use your lats for during a workout?
If your answer was limited to anywhere along the lines of pull ups, pull downs or even pull overs, then read on to see just how underestimated this key muscle group is.
Introducing the lats
So let's kick off with the basics…and see whereabouts the lats are on the body.
The lats attach from vertebrae T6, all the way down to the sacrum, then from the posterior illac crest of the pevis, up to the last 3-4 ribs, and finally across the scapulae and into the humerous.
Now as you can appreciate, looking at the diagram below, that's a pretty large surface area crossing some vital areas of the body. Not quite as basic as you initially thought? Here is a list of a few of the movements the lats are involved in…
1) Humeral extension
a.k.a - moving an elevated arm towards the hip
e.g - concentric phase of a pull up
2) Humeral adduction
a.k.a - bringing arms towards the midline of the body
e.g - during a pec fly or a pull over
3) Humeral internal rotation
a.k.a - rotating the humeral head inward toward the body
e.g - during a dumb waiter
4) Humeral horizontal abduction
a.k.a - starting with arms out in front of body then moving backwards
e.g - during a reverse fly
So now we know where the lats are and what they can do how can we maximize their use to enhance our training?
Putting on muscle mass
In terms of increasing the size of a muscle, the lats are already at an advantage. As visible from the above diagram they are pretty big naturally, allowing for greater growth potential.
But it doesn't stop there; the makeup of the lats is unusual in the sense that it has a combination of longitudinal and horizontal muscle fibers, therefore allowing stimulation from many different movements and exercises.
As a result you can train your lats with a broad variation of horizontal/vertical rows and pulling exercises, as well as isometric stimulation during movements like deadlifts, without the same risk of overtraining associated with smaller muscle groups.
So with a big surface area, more options for stimulation, less risk of overtraining, the lats have a great recipe for growth.
Improving the big 2 - Squats and Deadlifts
Squats and deadlifts are arguably the two biggest muscle and strength building movements.
But when looking to improve force production stability is essential. So how can the lats help improve these key lifts?
Let's start with setting the bar. For the squat, the lats actually have to pull the bar down and back onto your traps, pushing the rib cage and chest forward and up. Keeping tension through the lats in this position will secure the entire spine allowing safe lifting.
Similarly, during the deadlift the lats pull the shoulder girdle down and back, once again securing a safe lifting position for the entire back. So the lats allow us to support the resistance during these lifts, but they also play a big role during them. In both lifts, the load is either on the upper back, or held in the hands, quite far away from the feet and lower limbs.
So the force that we generate has to travel through the body and transfer into the bar. Here is where the lats come into play again. The force moves from the feet and lower limbs upwards and crosses the pelvis, into an area of connective tissue known as thoracolumbar fascia. With the help of other core stabilizers, the lats drive the force upwards and into the bar.
If your lats were weak, then not only would your lifting position and safety be compromised but some of the force would be lost during this vital transfer, resulting in less weight being moved, and an increased risk of injury.
The same principles apply during exercises such as the bench press. Predominantly a horizontal pressing exercise for the chest but once again the lats pull the shoulder blades down and back creating a safe lifting position. When lifting correctly, the lower limbs are essential to generate force from the floor up to the bar, using a leg drive. So just like the squats and deadlift, the force is transferred in the same manor, from the feet, up to the pelvis, through the thoracolumbar facia and the lats, and finally into the bar. So keeping your lats strong will allow you to bench safely, as well as push more weight form your chest.
Healthy shoulders, back and hips
So the lats are a huge influence when adding more weight to the bar when lifting is concerned, but now let's look at a few key joints on our body.
Let's start at the top, as most people are aware shoulder and upper back health is important to say the least. But when considering shoulder health, most people tend to overlook the lats and their effect on the scapula position. Not only do they indirectly affect the scapula through its humeral movements, but it has a direct effect on some important scapula motions.
It works in opposition to the upper traps to depress the scapula. As well as play a part in retracting the shoulder blades together. Ever heard “shoulders back and down” it's exactly that!
Now for the lower back and hips. As discovered earlier, the lats help hold a neutral spine during key exercises, but this also has an effect on the hips. By holding a neutral spine and securing the lower back, this will indirectly allow more movement through the hip joints, helping to improve mobility and quality of movement.
Strong lats are a win win right? Correct, but how about tight lats? Just like all muscles, tissue quality and length is also important. If the lats are too tight, it can have negative effects. Lets take the shoulder joint for example. In addition to a scapula depressor and retractor, they also assist in downward rotation of the shoulder blades. If they are to short this will restrict upward rotation and range in any overhead movements. So how do we ensure strength but prevent tightness? Foam rolling and soft tissue work in conjunction with flexibility and mobility work is paramount to make sure your benefiting from all the positives of your lats strength.
Take home points
1) Strengthening your lats with a variety of movements with help improve, deadlifts, squats, pressing and of course pulling strength.
2) Looking after the quality and length of the tissue with soft tissue release and mobility drills will ensure good shoulder, back and hip health as well as secure them during exercise.
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