I seem to have gotten a reputation as the dude who hates on lat training.
I don’t think that characterization is entirely fair. Thus far, I’ve really only delved into the role of the lats in the bench press on this site (tl;dr – they play a small stabilization role at best, and lat strength probably won’t ever limit your raw bench press).
However, while they don’t play much of a role in the bench press, they do certainly play a meaningful role in the deadlift, and I do certainly think you should train your lats.
Before we get rolling, I want to make it clear that the lats aren’t a prime mover in the deadlift – that title would apply primarily to your hip extensors, your spinal extensors to a slightly lesser degree, and your quads in the case of the sumo deadlift. However, even though your lats aren’t the star of the show, they do play a very important role, and properly engaging your lats will help you deadlift more weight.
In spite of the lats’ importance in the deadlift, the role of the lats in the deadlift is often misunderstood. People talk about how lat tension helps keep the back tight in the deadlift (the upper back especially), preventing it from rounding excessively, with the implication that the lats themselves help keep the upper back extended. However, the lats aren’t actually capable of producing a (meaningful) spinal extension moment since individual lat fibers don’t attach to multiple vertebrae (though their ability to tense the thoracolumbar fascia may play a very small role aiding in lumbar extension), and they certainly couldn’t help with keeping the upper back extended since they don’t have attachments on your higher thoracic vertebrae.
Instead, I think the idea of “lat tension” accomplishes a much more basic purpose: Instead of the lats actually helping keep the spine extended, repositioning the scapulae and engaging the lats actually work to decrease the required hip and spinal extension demands of the lift.
The hip extension moment arm in the conventional deadlift is the horizontal distance between the center of mass of the system (we’ll just assume mid-foot) and the hip joint. The biomechanics are slightly more complicated for the sumo deadlift, so this article will just illustrate with the conventional deadlift, though the same basic principles would apply to both variations.
By engaging the lats more, you can extend the shoulder a bit, letting your shoulders move slightly forward relative to the bar. This also lets your hips move slightly forward, decreasing the hip extension moment arm. Depressing the scapulae serves the same basic purpose: It doesn’t extend the shoulder, but it positions the shoulder joint itself a shade further down your torso, bringing it closer to the hips.
Now, don’t expect a night and day difference from these little tweaks. You’ll maybe get a 3-5% decrease in hip and lumbar extension demands in total. That’s definitely enough to help you pull a bit more, but not a night-and-day difference. However, the place it would make a big difference is your upper back, helping you keep your thoracic spine extended (or at least keeping it from flexing too much).
Here’s why: The hips are going to be at least 18-24 inches behind the bar through the first part of the pull, so engaging the lats and depressing the scapulae simply can’t make a huge difference at the hips. With near max loads, the position of the bar relative to the shoulder (and thus relative to the hip and every point along your spine) may only change by 1-2 inches. Yes, that’ll make a difference at the hips and lower back, but the difference would be pretty small (just assuming the hip extension moment arm was 20 inches before, reducing it by one inch would be a 5% decrease).
However, every thoracic vertebra is much closer to the shoulder than your hips or lumbar vertebra. If the T9/T10 junction was 5 inches behind the center of mass (the spinal extension moment arm at that joint) before engaging the lats and depressing the scapulae, it may only be 4 inches behind the center of mass after engaging the lats and depressing the scapulae, leading to a 20% reduction in thoracic extension demands at that joint. And if the T4/T5 junction was 1 inch behind the center of mass initially, after engaging the lats and depressing the scapulae, it may be in line with the center of mass, reducing the spinal extension demands at that joint (the middle/top of your thoracic spine) to nearly zero.
That should be pretty obvious from the image above. As joints get closer and closer to the red line (center of gravity), shoulder flexion (lat engagement) and scapular depression make a larger and larger relative difference.
This should explain the general observation that engaging the lats and depressing the scapulae help the upper back stay tight when deadlifting, even though the lats don’t actively extend the spine, and the position of your scapulae doesn’t impact how well your spine can extend. The simplest explanation is that the slight repositioning of the bar (and the slight repositioning of your body over the bar) via these strategies actually makes the lift a bit easier on your upper back by reducing the spinal flexion moment imposed by the bar.
If you read this site consistently, all of this should sound pretty familiar. It’s very similar to a previous discussion of bar position in the squat; while variations in bar position (high bar vs. low bar vs. front squat) don’t make a huge difference for the lower back and hips (assuming you use similar cues), they do dramatically affect the demands placed on the thoracic spinal extensors.
Some useful cues for engaging your lats and depressing your scapulae are “put your shoulder blades in your back pocket” (I think I picked this one up from Tony Gentilcore) and “pull the bar into your shins” (focus on doing so from the shoulder like a straight arm pulldown; it’s easy to just sit way back behind the bar so that it scrapes your shins). Just simply focusing on pointing your elbows toward the wall behind you tends to help as well. This article has some more good cues.
If you’re not quite sure what engaging your lats in the deadlift should feel like, here’s a great drill I learned from Dean Somerset:
You can even make this drill a little more specific by putting the band around your wrist to free up your hands, and actually doing your first few deadlift warmup sets with anterior band tension to get your lats firing in the deadlift.
This slight technique shift should also make the deadlift slightly more efficient, with a bit less front-to-back deviation in bar path.
The center of gravity for the system needs to stay over midfoot. If the bar hangs straight below your shoulder, more of your bodyweight will necessarily be behind the bar, meaning the bar will need to start a bit further in front of mid-foot, and the center of mass of your body will be a bit further behind mid-foot. As you lift, the bar will need to drift back toward your body as your hips extend and your body’s center of mass shifts forward.
By engaging your lats, depressing your scapulae, and extending your shoulders a bit, you’re repositioning your body’s mass forward slightly, allowing the bar to shift backward a bit at the start of the pull, positioning the center of masses for both the bar and your body closer to the system’s center of gravity. As you extend your hips, your body’s center of mass won’t need to shift forward quite as much, so the bar won’t need to drift back quite as much, leading to a more linear bar path.
Indeed, this has actually been studied with intermediate-level weightlifters (average deadlift max was ~170kg/375lbs, though the image below is from a subject with a 1rm of 275kg/605lbs). Starting with the shoulders slightly more extended and the bar slightly closer to the ankle yielded 43-44% less front-to-back movement of the barbell versus starting the pull with the bar slightly further forward, directly beneath the shoulder joint.
Now, it’s debatable whether a slightly more linear bar path really matters (since you’re trying to overcome gravity, which is pulling straight down, the additional effort required to move the bar front-to-back is negligible; as long as the system COM stays over mid-foot, deviations in bar path shouldn’t be a big deal), but if you’re more of a stickler about bar path than I am, this is another point in favor of actively engaging your lats in the deadlift.
In conclusion, the primary role of the lats and scapular position in the deadlift is not to actively keep the upper back extended or “tight,” but rather to actively make the lift a bit easier on your entire posterior chain – a little easier for your hip extensors and lumbar extensors, and considerably easier for your thoracic extensors.
Engaging the lats in the deadlift seems to come fairly naturally for most people. Indeed, when you see a deadlift video dead on from the side (especially with experienced lifters), you’ll generally see that the bar is a bit behind the shoulder, meaning the lats must be engaged to extend the shoulder under load, even if the lifter isn’t consciously thinking about engaging their lats.
(This video shows a good example of how this looks with heavy weights: you’ll see that the bar isn’t very far behind the shoulder – because that would take ungodly strong lats – but it’s very clear that the bar isn’t directly under the shoulder until the bar passes the knee.)
However, if this is a topic you haven’t previously thought about much, it’s probably worth actively engaging your lats in your next few deadlift sessions to see if this little tweak helps the lift feel a bit easier, especially for your upper back. Make sure you don’t overdo this adjustment, though, shifting your weight way too far forward. Let your lat strength dictate where the bar goes, and the position of the rest of your body should naturally adjust accordingly.
If you want to get the most out of your lats in the deadlift, then you’d better train your lats! The heavier the weights get, the harder it is for you to extend your shoulder to a meaningful degree; the stronger your lats are, the more this little tweak will help you. Heavy rows of all sorts are your friend.
For even more deadlifting goodness, keep your eyes on Strengtheory for the next couple of weeks. I’m working toward finishing a big deadlift guide (in the same vein as the Squat and Bench guides) which should be out soon-ish. If you really want to fully understand the deadlift and improve your pull, you won’t want to miss it.
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