The Lats and the Bench Press – Much Ado About Very Little

The lats are "pull muscles," and the bench press is a push. Why did people start emphasizing the lats for bench, and is their importance overstated?
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lats and the bench press

Next week, we’re finishing up a bench guide that will be similar to the squat guide we put out last month.

Several people have specifically asked me to address the role of the lats in the bench press in that guide.  I decided that it would be better to address that issue with a separate article instead of devoting a ton of space in the guide to this topic.

If you know a bit about anatomy and you’re familiar with the bench press, but you don’t spend much time perusing online powerlifting articles, you may find it very, very odd that people are concerned about the lats’ role in the bench.

In common parlance, the lats are a “pull” muscle that you use primarily for movements like rows and pull-ups, which are essentially the opposite of the bench press.  In more technical terms, they’re primarily shoulder extensors, with secondary functions as internal rotators, adductors, and horizontal extensors.

Of those four movements, three of them are counterproductive in the context of the bench; when you press the bar off your chest, you’re in internal rotation (yay lats!), but you’re also trying to accomplish shoulder flexion, abduction, and horizontal flexion (boo lats!).

What’s more, since the bar isn’t actively trying to externally rotate your shoulders (unless your elbows are way in front of the bar), and since your pecs are also strong internal rotators that are firing hard in the bench press, it doesn’t really seem like the lats are needed for internal rotation either.

So, from the outside looking in, it would certainly seem strange that people care so much about the lats’ role in the bench press.  It seems like worrying about the role of the pecs in the barbell row.

Arnold did barbell rows. Arnold had big pecs. Correlation = causation, right?
Arnold did barbell rows. Arnold had big pecs. Correlation = causation, right?

However, in spite of the fact that caring about the lats in the bench flies in the face of both biomechanical reasoning and basic common sense, a lot of people do care.

Hopefully this article will help them (and maybe you) care a little less, and help common sense prevail with a little help from science.

History

As far as I can tell, people first started really emphasizing the importance of the lats for the bench press in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Before that, there was always the vague notion that it was probably a good idea to still train your upper back muscles hard if you wanted a big bench, either to help stabilize the shoulder and shoulder blades while lowering the bar, or as a general injury prevention measure (similar to training the hamstrings to prevent knee injuries if you have strong quads; having strong pecs without strong lats may increase your risk of shoulder injury, the thinking goes).  I certainly think that’s good advice.  However, it wasn’t until around the turn of the millennium that people started touting the lats as a benching muscle on par with the pecs, triceps, and anterior delts.

So why exactly did the lats start getting so much bench press love in the late ’90s and early 2000s?

That’s when powerlifting equipment started to get extreme.

Ted Arcidi became the first man to bench press over 700lbs in 1985.  This lift was performed with a bench shirt, but Arcidi had benched 666.9 the previous year raw.

Anthony Clark soon took the mantle of bench press king, moving the record up to 785.  The gear had improved, but Clark still benched well into the 600s without a shirt (he claimed a raw bench PR of 710, though that isn’t verified).  That’s when thing started getting insane.

Clark passed the equipped bench crown to Tim Isaac in 1999 when Isaac benched 800lbs; 4 years later, Gene Rychlak had moved the record to over 900lbs.  It now sits at 1,102lbs (500kg) courtesy of Tiny Meeker.

The bench shirt is made of dense, slightly elastic material.  The material across the front of the shirt stretches as you lower the weight, storing energy to help you press the bar, sort of like a bow and arrow.  When you pull the string back, the limbs of the bow store energy that’s released when you let go of the string, propelling the arrow.  The same basic principle applies to bench shirts.

When bench shirts added somewhere in the neighborhood of 100lbs, the equipped bench was pretty similar to the raw bench.  You’d lower the bar like normal, the shirt would build up some elastic energy, and then you’d press the bar like normal with the aid of the shirt.

As bench shirts started getting more and more extreme, however, the lift itself was fundamentally transformed.  The best shirted benchers now can bench 200-300lbs more (sometimes even more than that) in a shirt than they can bench raw.

Pertinent to the content of this article, it started becoming difficult to actually get the bar to touch your chest/stomach.

Look at the difference during the descent between Ed Coan’s bench in 1998 (just before the craziness started) and Tiny Meeker’s recent 1,102lb (500kg) lift.  You can see how difficult it is to get weights to touch your chest/stomach with modern shirts, even with absurdly heavy loads.

Now we can see why people started preaching the importance of the lats for the bench press!  With a modern bench shirt, you need to have strong lats just to pull the bar down to your chest and/or to keep the shirt from pulling the arms way out of position.  It doesn’t matter how much you can press if you can’t get the bar to your chest in the first place!

Now we know why people originally started preaching the importance of the lats for the bench press.  So why are people still repeating the advice today for raw benching, even though it was initially intended for shirted benching?  The most likely explanation is just that it got embedded deep in the consciousness of the internet, and few people care to question it.  Similar phenomena:  people training their posterior chain for the squat (especially their hamstrings) while neglecting their quads, doing a lot of extra triceps work for bench and little chest work apart from the bench press, and training the deadlift with a lot of rack pulls.1  These are the largely unhelpful ideas that I still see hanging out; there are several more notions that were very popular several years ago that have (thankfully) died out in the raw powerlifting community.


From the title of this article (and from the intro), you should have a pretty good idea about my take on the importance of the lats for the bench.

There are three main reasons I don’t think the lats are overly important for the raw bench:

  1. Simple biomechanical reasoning
  2. The fact that, even under extreme circumstances, the lats are at best weak shoulder flexors
  3. Data on muscle activation

Biomechanical rationale:

I’m simply mentioning this again for the sake of thoroughness, and so the overall argument would all be in one place, instead of spread throughout the article.

As I mentioned in the intro, the lats are primarily shoulder extensors (with shoulder flexion being required during the concentric part of the lift), with secondary roles of shoulder horizontal extension and shoulder adduction (with horizontal flexion and abduction required during the concentric part of the lift).  Most of the lats’ functions run counter to the joint actions you execute during the bench press, and the one that is beneficial (internal rotation) can easily be accomplished by the pecs.

Put more simply, the bench press is a push, and the lats are pulling muscles.

The bench press is a push, and lats are pulling muscles. So why do people emphasize the lats? Click To Tweet

At best, lats are weak shoulder flexors:

This is a position put forth by Tim Henriques and Chris Duffin, two people I respect very much, but with whom I disagree concerning the role of the lats for the raw bench press.  Tim states this position explicitly, and Chris seems to imply it.

The basic argument is this:  The lats are generally shoulder extensors, but when you move into shoulder hyperextension (with your upper arm going below your shoulder in the plane of your t-spine, as it would at the bottom of the bench press), the function reverses.  The lats, more appropriately, function to bring your arms back to a neutral position – upper arm parallel to your torso – meaning they function as shoulder extensors when your elbows are in front of your torso, and as shoulder flexors when your elbows are behind your torso as they would be at the bottom of a bench press.

Unfortunately, this position seems to run counter to the data.

In simple terms (if the explanations and graphs below sound like a foreign language to you), your shoulders are probably never extended enough in the bench press for your lats to aid much in shoulder flexion.  It is true that when the shoulders are hyperextended – your elbows are way behind your torso – the lats’ function can reverse so that they can aid in shoulder flexion.  However, in the range of motion your shoulders go through in the bench press, it’s likely that your lats never reach that “crossover point,” and if they did, they’d still be in a very disadvantageous position to help with shoulder flexion very much.

I found two studies that specifically looked at the muscle moment arm of the lats in different shoulder positions.

The first study looked at the muscle moment arm for the lats from 0 degrees (arms flat by your sides) to 80 degrees (arms almost straight out in front of your) of flexion.

Note:  Muscle moment arms basically tell you how much a particular muscle can aid in a particular joint motion.  For example, a large extensor muscle moment arm tells you that a muscle can aid a lot in extending the joint it crosses, and a small extensor muscle moment arm tells you that a muscle can only aid a little bit in extending the joint in crosses.

The muscle moment arm for shoulder extension peaked at ~4cm at roughly 45 degrees of flexion, and decreased to ~2.75cm at 0 degrees of flexion.  At the bottom of the bench press, your shoulders are in roughly 20-30 degrees of hyperextension.  Based on the rate of decrease in the lats’ extensor moment arm, it’s highly unlikely that they would reach the “crossover point” and have a flexor moment arm given another 20-30 degrees of shoulder extension.

From Kuechle, 1997
From Kuechle, 1997.  Positive numbers are shoulder extensor moment arms, and negative numbers are flexor moment arms.  The lats are the black line near the top (following the same basic pattern as the teres major).

The second study was similar, except that it split the lats into upper, middle, and lower sections.  This is probably a better strategy, since the muscle fiber orientation in the lats varies considerably top to bottom.  Here, unfortunately, the data stops at 10 degrees of flexion.  However, it seems that the trendline for the upper lats’ moment arm is flattening out (so it would probably never become a flexor moment arm).  The middle and lower lats’ moment arms, on the other hand, look like they may cross the x-axis and become flexor moment arms.  However, they’re so small in the first place, and they change so gradually, that if they could produce a flexor moment at the bottom of the lift, it would still be pretty trivial.

From Ackland, 2008. The gray lines are the flexor/extensor moment arms (negative is extension, positive is flexion), and black lines are abduction/adduction moment arms.
From Ackland, 2008. The gray lines are the flexor/extensor moment arms (negative is extension, positive is flexion), and black lines are abduction/adduction moment arms.

It’s not out of the question that regions of your lats may be able to produce a very small shoulder flexor moment at the very bottom of the bench press, but the effect probably isn’t worth writing home about.  Of course, there’s plenty of variation in muscle insertion points, and super long arms or benching with a close grip would require a larger-than-normal amount of shoulder hyperextension when the bar’s on your chest (increasing the odds of the lats having a flexor moment arm through the start of the ROM).

However, for most people, most of the time, the lats’ ability to aid in shoulder flexion to help get the bar moving off your chest is likely either trivial or nonexistent.

The lats just aren’t very active when benching:

I found two studies that compared lat activation in the bench to that of other important muscles.

The first study was performed on subjects with a minimum of 2 years of training experience, and it looked at pec, triceps, front delt, and lat activation for the flat bench, decline bench, incline bench, and overhead press with varying grip widths.

Untitled design-11
From Barnett, 1995.

The most important thing to note here:  the labeling of the y-axis on the lats’ graph (bottom right).  Muscle activation for the lats was more than an order of magnitude lower than for the other muscles.  Generally EMG studies require a standard disclaimer about the limitations of EMG, but the data here are pretty unambiguous: The lats had less than 1/10th the electrical activity of the pecs, front delts, and triceps.  That’s what you’d expect from a muscle playing a role in passive stabilization, not from a primary mover.

The second study is from Russia.  It’s pretty similar to the first study, except that it shows muscle activation at each time point throughout the lift, instead of cumulative muscle activity (which is what you’re looking at with integrated EMG, as used in the first study).

From Кичайкина, 2015
From Кичайкина, 2015

The line labeled b is when the bar is on the chest.  The top graph is bar velocity.  The other graphs are, in order, muscle activation of the lats, front delts, pecs, biceps, and triceps.  This is a submaximal lift from a world-class bencher.

As you can see, lat activation is pretty low throughout the lift.  It climbs up a bit through the second half of the descent, but is very low throughout the entire ascent.  It’s especially low during the first part of the ascent (between lines b and c), which is when the lats are oft-theorized to play the largest role.

From Кичайкина, 2015
From Кичайкина, 2015

This is data from a 90% load from a well-trained (but not world-class) lifter, benching 110kg (242lbs).  The graphs are the same as in the first image, except that the biceps and triceps were flip flopped so it goes velocity, lats, delts, pecs, triceps, biceps.

Lat activity here:  basically nonexistent.

Lat activity in the bench press? Basically nonexistent. Click To Tweet

Takeaways and Recommendations

Just so I’m not misinterpreted, I’m not saying the lats do absolutely nothing in the bench press.  I’m sure they aid in stabilizing the shoulder, they probably help the pecs (and your other internal rotators) keep the shoulder internally rotated, and they may be able to add a tiny bit of force at the bottom of the lift just by flexing/flaring, which can push against the humerus to help drive it upward.  However, they are vastly less important for the bench than your actual prime movers:  your pecs, front delts, and triceps.

I’m also not saying you shouldn’t train your lats.  Your lats are easy to overlook since they’re not a prime mover in the squat, bench, or deadlift, but they help a bit in all three.  Especially in the squat and deadlift, they’re likely much more important than you could easily quantify via their fascial connections which can help stabilize the lumbar region and aid in the transfer of force between the spine and the hips.  At the very least, having strong pulling muscles will probably aid in shoulder health and stability if you also have strong pushing muscles.

Your lats are vastly less important for the bench than your pecs, front delts, and triceps. Click To Tweet

However, what I am saying is that, in the context of raw benching, the lats just aren’t overly important.  Some minimal level of lat strength is probably required for shoulder stabilization, but really prioritizing lat strength for the purpose of building a bigger bench is woefully misguided.  Prioritizing your pecs, front delts, and triceps will give you a much larger return on investment.

Stay tuned for the bench guide coming next week!  Until then, check out some of the other bench articles on Strengtheory about why you should avoid over-tucking your elbows, and how to optimize your bar path.

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1A squat suit helps by storing elastic energy through the back of the suit, and it actively tries to push you forward, so you sit back into a suit to get the most carryover, making posterior chain strength much more important and quad work much less important.  Since the bench shirt helps the most at the start of the press, pec strength is much less important, and triceps strength for the lockout is much more important; similarly, training high board presses to improve lockout strength helps with shirted bench a lot because the shirt is doing less at lockout; deadlift suits give the most pop off the floor, meaning most people struggle at lockout deadlifting with a suit vs. from the floor or from mid-shin when deadlifting raw.
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