“Squats work your whole body. Your legs bend and straighten to move the weight. Your abs and lower back muscles stabilize your trunk while your legs move. Your upper-back, shoulders and arms balance the bar on your back. Many muscles work at the same time, not just your legs.” – Mehdi
What are your lats?
Your latissimus dorsi “lats” for short are the largest muscles in your upper body. That’s right even larger than your chest muscles. Hmm, think those should be trained to increase your bench? That will be another topic later. They are found on your posterior chain and are often referred to as “wings” in the bodybuilding community because if developed enough it resembles the structure of a bat. Your lats connect at 5 different points in the body and are used for numerous functions; humeral extension, adduction, rotation and possibly the most important is stabilizing.
How to engage them?
It is damn near pointless to tell your lifter or client while they’re squatting to engage your lats or whatever vernacular you use if they simply don’t know or understand how to do so. Heck most gym goers may not even know what or where their lat is! And that’s completely ok and a reason I am writing this article. It is one thing to engage them without a barbell and another to do so while holding the barbell on your back, so I’ll give my favorite cues for both.
- Without a barbell
I can’t remember where I read this example but I am no where smart enough to think of it myself ha! you can give me the credit if you want though I won’t mind. Imagine you are sitting in front of a computer typing up a paper with proper posture of course. Now depress “push” your shoulders down as if you were trying to put them in your front pockets. Now while doing that I want you to slide your hands/arms away from your keyboard and toward your belly. Do you feel that?! You should feel an increased tightness/activation in your back aka lats! Boom! You have now engaged your lats.
- With a barbell
Ok so now if we followed the steps mentioned above we know how to engage our lats without a barbell, but now we must utilize this for our squat with the bar. You can mimic the same cues as above if that works for you, if not don’t fret here are a few more! Before the barbell is taken off of the rack we should be thinking to create that tension/tightness in our lats. With our hands on the barbell I want you to secure it tightly in your traps using that knurling to create a “lock” function. Your hands should be squeezing that bar securely so the hands do not roll at all during the lift. This also helps the elbows stay pointed downward as opposed to chicken winging which will lose the tension created in the lats. Now act as if you are bending that barbell over the back. Envision the same motion as a lat pulldown or an overhand pull-up. This depresses the scapula and squeezes everything into the midline of the body. If you were holding a pencil between your shoulder blades it should not fall. Your lats should at this point be fully engaged.
Why should I engage them in my squat?
The lats play a major role in stabilization of the squat. They aid to keep the barbell securely placed on your back as well as help protect the spinal column and keep an upright torso. If you do not train your lats or are a person who overtrains the front half “mirror muscles” of the body you simply cannot stabilize and support heavy loads on your back. Your back will give out and you will look like the hunchback of Notre Dame trying to squat that weight up. It is said by some fitness professionals in the industry, and I must agree, that if you know how to properly engage your lats in your squat that alone can add up to 30 pounds to your number. Who wouldn’t want to increase their squat by 30 pounds by simply learning how to engage your lats. Not to mention this will also keep your spine and hips healthy as the load of the barbell is more evenly distributed throughout the body.
Bonus: Tips To Strengthen Lats
To strengthen your lats you should double down on any pulling movement as opposed to pushing movements. This will greatly positively affect your big 3 lifts (squat,bench,deadlift) as well as make you a stronger physical specimen. Strong back = strong body.
My top 3 exercises for bigger, stronger lats:
- Heavy deadlifts (heavy is different for everyone based on their current strength level).
- Any variation of rows (barbell,dumbbell,cable).
- Pull-ups – Don’t sleep on properly executed bodyweight movements.
Zach Kotecki, NSCA-CPT, TSAC-F, USAW-1