Written by Dr. Quinn Henoch
The latissimus dorsi (lat) is a very powerful muscle. Training this area involves common exercises such as rows, deadlift variations, pullups, etc. However, because most of these exercises require forceful shoulder depression, this can lead to some imbalances in regards to overhead training. The tone of the lats, can make it difficult to reverse the motion of shoulder depression, in order to achieve full shoulder elevation.
Here, we will discuss a few ways to inhibit excessive tone in the lats, in order to achieve overhead movement.
First a couple quick tests to get a feel for how restricted your overhead position is.
Supine Shoulder Flexion:
• Have your arms pointed straight to the ceiling, with your palms facing each other
• Slowly move your arms over your head, towards the floor – without changing your ribcage or lower back position.
• Ideally, you are able to reach the floor without changing your trunk position.
Supine Shoulder Flexion With Full External Rotation
• The lats internally rotate the shoulder when they contract. So, to test lat length, we externally rotate the shoulders. Of course, there are other muscles at play here as well, but that doesn’t change the end goal here.
• So, this test is the exact same as the test above, except that your arms are externally rotated, and your palms are facing towards your face.
• Slowly move your arms over your head, towards the floor – without allowing your shoulders to internally rotate or trunk to change position.
• Most people’s range of motion will be more limited here, and that’s normal. However, one should still be able to come within a foot of the ground behind them, and ideally even closer than that. Many of your will find that externally rotating the shoulders SIGNIFICANTLY reduces your overhead flexion capacity. So you can imagine how much compensation is happening in movements like chin-ups and front squats, where elevation + external rotation is required.
Not only do the lats internally rotate and extend the shoulders, but they also play a role in lumbar extension, due to the attachment to the thoracolumbar fascia. So these drills will focus on a position of posterior pelvic tilt, lumbar flexion, and shoulder elevation.
For improving the rack position of a front squat here are a couple drills to throw in. You can perform these at the beginning of your session as part of your prep, or you can perform them in between strength exercises, during your rest period.
1. Rockback with elbow reach
• This is one that I’ve harped on before.
• Spread the shoulder blades apart and put air in that upper back.
• As a progression, you can also inch the arms out into more and more elevation/overhead flexion as you go through sets
• 4 sets of 4 breaths.
2. Deep squatting lat stretch
• This will help open up the squatting pattern in general. Same idea as the drill above, but you now have more leverage to achieve length through the lateral chest wall.
• 4 sets of 4 breaths.
Here are a couple drills to improve full overhead range of motion. You can perform these at the beginning of your session as part of your prep, or you can perform them in between strength exercises, during your rest period.
1. Lat Hang
• This is a great warm-up for chin-ups or overhead pressing. Don’t try to be a hero. Use a box to support your weight as much as you need.
• The important thing is that you pull your pelvis underneath you and maintain your breathing pattern
• 4 sets of 4 breaths
2. Wall Supported Reach
• This is a Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) special
• It looks a bit odd, and may seem counternintuitve to think that thoracic kyphosis can improve shoulder flexion. However, what we are doing is restoring the natural congruency of the upper back and curved shoulder blade. Improving segmental flexion of the spine will give you more slack (a buffer zone) from which you will have a better capacity to extend. I’m including two variations.
• 4 sets of 4 breaths.
After performing these drills, re-test your self-assessments above and see if there is a change. Be sure to take your warm-up sets seriously in regards to barbell training. Your empty bar and lighter weight sets should be where you really focus on strict movement, and stabilizing the new range of motion that you have created. That is how you will create lasting change.
Give this stuff a shot, and report back in the comments – along with some of your other favorite exercises to achieve some lat inhibition and improve overhead range of motion.