Your latissimus dorsi (aka “lats”) probably isn’t something you think about very often when you exercise. Abs, glutes, biceps – of course. You know where these are and how to operate them. But lat? They are often overlooked in favor of muscles that are more visible and easier to activate.
What many people don’t know is that these fan-shaped muscles that cover most of your back actually do a lot for you and strengthening them has tons of benefits for the body. “Lats attach to the middle and lower back lower ribs, pelvis, and upper arm and are involved in the extension and rotation of the arms, as well as pulling movements such as rows of arms, pullups, and straight-arm pulldowns. Explains strength and conditioning coach Melody Schoenfeld. “They also take care of trunk rotation and even breathing.”
They even play a role in exercises you might not expect. “With proper form, lats can help pull the spine into an extended position suitable for deadlifts and resist the tendency of the back to turn from the weight of the bar,” says Schoenfeld. They also play a role in maintaining proper form in squat and bench press movements.
In other words, you want your lats to be strong. But how do you know if yours needs work? Here are the top 5 Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Upper Back
5 Signs You Need to Strengthen Your Upper Back
1. YOU CAN’T FULLY EXTEND YOUR ARMS OVER YOUR HEAD
Matt Kite, strength and conditioning coach and master coach for D1 Training, says tight lats are weak lats. “If the lats and scapular areas don’t allow you to fully extend over your head, that’s a sign they need some work.”
Kite explains how you can test your range of motion: “Lie on your back, bend your knees and keep your feet on the floor, which flattens your lower back,” explains Kite. “Try to stretch your arms above your head and toward the floor behind you without bending your elbows. If your elbows are bent or your arms aren’t touching, start working on those lats in both strength and range of motion!”
Shoulder mobility may not seem so important, but it is. “Shoulders are pretty much used by everyone, athlete or not,” says Kite. “As we lift, reach and hold objects in our daily routine or training, we always rely on the optimal function of our shoulders. The biggest supporters of the shoulders are the lats.”
2. AS MUCH AS YOU TRY, YOU CAN’T DO A PULLUP
Lots of people are working toward achieving their first pullup (or chin-up) to no avail. They’re strong, at healthy body weight, and have been working on band-assisted pull-ups or negatives for a while. Not being able to do a pullup despite putting in the work could be due to neglecting the lats. “The lats are [the] primary source of strength in the pullup, with other shoulder and back muscles operating as secondary movers for stability and assistance,” says James Shapiro, trainer, and owner of Primal Power.
Though people often try to pull with their biceps or traps during the pullup movement, the most efficient muscles to utilize are actually your lats. “Don’t expect to go far in reps if you don’t focus on building your lats, because your body is just like a car engine,” Shapiro adds. “If you don’t maintain the engine, you won’t get high performance.” If you want to knock out a set of strict pull-ups like it’s no big deal, strong lats are a must.
3. YOU’VE GOT BAD POSTURE
To be fair, this could depend on many other factors, but the truth is, strengthening your lats will only help with posture issues. “There are many muscles that contribute to this, but for example, in someone who does a lot of pressing and pushing without doing too many pulling movements, strengthening the lats can go a long way in improving posture,” says Schoenfeld.
And for some, weak lats may actually be at the root of bad posture. “Constantly sitting with bad posture leads to a weak middle and upper back, which in turn occupies your abs,” says Kite. A strong core is also necessary for good posture, so exercises, where you need to resist rotation like the Pallof press, mine press, and more, can help train the entire area at once.
4. PAIN IN YOUR UPPER ARM OR SHOULDER
“Since the latissimus dorsi is heavily involved with several upper arm movements from the shoulder and attaches to the upper arm, a sign that you may have weak lats is weakness or pain in your upper arm or shoulder,” says Schoenfeld. “Weakness or pain in this area can often be a sign of weak, tight, or painful lats.” Of course, you will need a physical therapist to determine if this is the cause of your pain, but sometimes the fix is as simple as increasing your strength in this area.
5. YOU SHRUG YOUR SHOULDERS WHILE WORKING OUT
You’ve probably heard the tip from trainers to “drop your shoulders” or not to keep your shoulders near your ears. If you are unable to do so during certain exercises, especially upper body exercises, it may be because of lats issues. “The functional capacity of the lat is to stabilize the shoulder,” explains Shapiro. “When doing a bench press movement, an important tip is to consider pressing down on the bench with your shoulder blades and tucking your arms into your lats. If your shoulders start to lift up toward your ears, we’re looking at a weak lats structure that needs to be developed so that it doesn’t become dominated by other muscle groups, among other muscles. “
This can happen with other upper body exercises as well, such as pullups, lat pulldowns, and seated rows. “Latitudinal weakness is particularly evident when accessory muscles like the upper trapezius (aka “traps”) compensate by raising the shoulders up to assist the primary muscles (lats) during exercise,” says Armen Ghazarians, trainer and CEO of FinishFit. . You may not realize you’re doing this, but a qualified trainer can help you identify it and take steps to better use your lats during these exercises.