How To Engage Lats For A Monstrous Deadlift

Most lifters think of lower back and hamstrings when they think about conventional deadlift, not lats. Even those who realize the importance of lats in deadlifts often misunderstood their actual role. When coaching a deadlift, coaches mostly focus on cues like:

  • Chest out
  • Pull the slack out of bar
  • Push through the heels
  • Spread the floor
  • Big breath, make a big belly
  • lock out the hips

But one of the cues which is ignored most of the time is to engage the lats during the lift. The latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) attach the lower back to the
upper arm. Lats originate on the back from T7 (lower thoracic region of the spine) all the way down to the sacrum and across the top of the pelvis and have an insertion point on the medial anterior proximal humerus, essentially in your armpit.

Actual Role Of Lats

A few coaches wrongly assume that contracting lats during deadlifts is essential to prevent the upper back from rounding excessively into a hyperkyphotic posture. Contrarily, lats can’t help to keep upper back straight during deadlift as they don’t attach to the upper thoracic spine. What lats essentially does is to provide control over the tendency of the bar to shift forwards and to keep the center of mass over mid foot. It actually makes the lift a bit ‘lighter’ on your upper back by reducing the moment of spinal flexion thrusted by the bar.

A. Lats Engaged               B. Lats Not Engaged

We won’t get into a detailed discussion of the relation between proximity to the center of mass with the relative decrease in joint extension. But it should be noted that a little technical change by engagement of lats makes the deadlift a bit more efficient with a relatively linear bar path (Shelly Hancock et al.).

Getting Lats Into Action

A real problem for many lifters in engaging lats is the poor mind-muscle connection. Sedentary lifestyle, poor posture while sitting, leaning forward to look at computer/mobile, posterior tilted pelvis positions all contribute to making lats less active functionally. As a result, most people have a hard time feeling lats working in direct lat exercises, much less in the deadlift. Below are a couple drills to get your lats firing into action.

  • For general lats activation use:

Straight Arm Pulldown: Don’t lock out your elbows, keep a slight bend in arms to check triceps over activation. Slightly pause at the bottom to feel the lats contract. Use straps to further isolate the lats. 

 

  • For lat activation specific to deadlifts utilize:

Deadlifts with bands pulling forward: The forward pull of the bands will light up your lats, and you’ll be able to develop a good mind-muscle connection during deadlifting.

 

  • To get most out of your lats in the deadlift, train your lats hard and heavy. Use heavy barbell/dumbell rows and pulls of all sorts. The stronger your lats get, the better you’re able to use them on heavy deadlifts.
References
  • Andy Bolton, and Pavel Tsatsouline. Deadlift Dynamite. Dragon Door Publications, Inc. 5 East County Rd B, #3 • Little Canada, MN 55117.
  • Shelly Hancock, Frank Wyatt, and Lon Kilgore. Variation in Barbell Position Relative to Shoulder and Foot Anatomical Landmarks Alters Movement Efficiency. International Journal of Exercise Science 5(3) : 183-195, 2012.
  • Snijders CJ, Hermans PF, Niesing R, Spoor CW, Stoeckart R. The influence of slouching and lumbar support on iliolumbar ligaments, intervertebral discs and sacroiliac joints. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2004 May;19(4):323-9.

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