By Jacob Sterny, Head Coach, Valhalla Barbell Club
The Latissimus Dorsi Muscles (Lats) are one of the largest muscles of the trunk and responsible for many functions. These large muscles originate (begin) at the 7th Thoracic Vertebrae through the 5th Lumbar Vertebrae, the Illiac Crest found at the top of the Pelvis, the inferior portion of a few ribs (think back and lower) and at an inferior portion of the scapula. They insert (attach) near the top of the Humerus (the bone of your upper arm). These powerful trunk rotators are tasked with the jobs of extending, adducting (moving towards the trunk), internal rotation and horizontal abduction of the shoulder joint. With these being two of the largest muscles of the trunk it is extremely beneficial to understand why you need these muscles for what you do in class and life and why weightlifters ( and their coaches) love Lats so much.
Keeping the Bar Close
Weightlifters love Lats. In addition to having big Quadriceps, Hamstrings and Upper Backs weightlifters and their coaches love having big and effective Lats. But why Lats? What’s so special about these muscles you may have never heard of prior to this article? Throughout the pull of either a Snatch or Clean the Lats are in play. These large muscles are tasked with the very important job of making sure the bar does not separate significantly from the body. The more space that is created between the body and bar throughout the pull or at the finish, the harder it is to maintain position and use the rest of the body efficiently. That is why the pull and pray method or the banging of the bar off the hips excessively hard can be very ineffective when trying to lift heavier weights. A looping effect is created if the Lats disengage and the turnover portion of the lift is slowed down significantly, creating less room for error and a greater chance of missing a lift.
Maintaining Trunk Integrity
In addition to assisting with bar proximity during the pull these muscles allow us to maintain trunk integrity increasing the protection of the spine while moving heavier loads. Setting the Lats before pulling or squatting heavy allow us to maintain a neutral torso and stronger back position than if we were to pull with the back position of a small dog dropping a deuce in your backyard. Finding, strengthening and learning how to properly engage your Lats on a Back Squat, Bench, Deadlift, Snatch or Clean can lead to a marked improvement in overall weight lifted. Placing the stress of heavier weights on these larger muscles also leads to a greater chance of injury prevention by taking pressure off of smaller tendons and muscle groups that can be found in the upper body.
Stronger Pull Up
The key to developing a stronger Pull Up is through stronger Lats. The Lats are one of the major muscles that initiate the Pull Up motion by helping depress the shoulder blade, much like you will see in the Scapular Pull Ups that have been programmed in class as of late. Developing this motion not only teaches you how to properly initiate a Pull Up it also helps teach us to keep the shoulder safe when perform movements such as this. Whats more is the amount of stress these muscles, if used properly, can take off of the smaller and much weaker bicep tendons of our upper arms.
Faster Turnover on Cleans
If you’re having trouble getting your elbows through on cleans fast enough you may have not yet developed enough motor control to produce the speed necessary to get your elbows around the barbell into a high and stable front rack position. Mobility may also be an issue here from doing too much Lat work and not enough mobility work, but developing stronger Lats and learning how to use them can improve your ability to transition your elbows quickly around the bar in a Clean and also improve your ability to hold a more upright rack position when performing a movement like a Front Squat.
Endless Possibilities…for Safety?
There are many things that developing stronger Lats are good for in Weightlifting or when performing strength movements. That is why I need to stop myself here before this turns into a 50 page dissertation. The take away for you should be the functional aspect of these muscles. In class we are performing a lot of ring and gymnastics work. Developing and maintaining stronger Lats will not only improve your performance on these movements it will also keep you safe. These muscles when used correctly can lend to a very strong form of protection when performing these movements in class. Also, developing stronger Lats and a stronger shoulder girdle because of it, will allow for safer and more efficient function throughout your life. Therefore by not stressing the smaller muscles and tendons of the upper arm and the smaller stabilizer muscles of the shoulder, you will have a lesser chance of injuring one of these areas when you are doing something as simple as putting away a stack of dinner plates.
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