Posted by on Sep 16, 2014

Jordan Syatt is a charming Jewish guy with an affinity for lifting things up and putting them down. An IPA 5X PLing world record holder & WSBB certified strength coach, his mission is to help you get strong — as strong as humanly possible. Join Jordan’s Fitocracy Powerlifting Team!

When I first started training all I ever heard about were the lats.

They were endlessly touted as the key to improving The Big Three and – according to the strongest lifters in the world – once I learned how to use my lats my strength would drastically increase.

In an effort to target this elusive muscle group I tried every exercise imaginable; variations of Pull Downs, Chin-Ups, Pull-Ups, and Pullovers encapsulated my programs while I slowly gained size and strength.

Despite my relentless focus I couldn’t feel my lats. My back grew and strength slightly increased but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t feel my lats doing the work. As a result, my technique regularly broke down and I hit sticking point after sticking point without making significant progress.

Then, during one unforgettable training session, I finally felt my lats.

Pulling for a max single with the bar barely above my knees, I hit the all-too-familiar sticking point. Driving through my heels – fighting with every fiber of my being, I could feel the blood vessels bursting around my eyelids.

After what felt like hours of pulling, my training partner howled “chest up, shoulders down!

Obediently, I forced my chest up, shoved my shoulders down, and – for the first time in my life – felt my lats pull the bar in towards my hips.

Effortlessly, the bar plowed through the sticking point and, soon after, lay motionless in my hands as hips and knees locked out to finish the lift.

Savoring the glorious moment, I stood upright – loaded barbell in hand – flexing my lats in a proverbial “fuck yes!” kind of way.

Years later, I now understand how to use my lats to their full potential in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift.

Through my experiences I can look back and understand which techniques worked and which ones didn’t. Having coached a variety of athletes, lifters, and strength enthusiasts, I’ve been able to develop a system that will teach you how to feel your lats and use them to build a stronger Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift.

Part 1: Functional Anatomy

I know.

Functional anatomy sucks.

It’s boring, tedious, and most of us don’t care about why; we just want to know how.

That being the case, this section will be brief and to-the-point. Minimal fluff and nothing overly fancy; just basic functional anatomy written with the sole intention of providing the necessary information to help you understand how to use your lats.

lats

The lats function to adduct, internally rotate, and extend the arm.

The lats function to depress the scapula.

The lats function as a weak scapular retractor.

For a brief overview of these movements, Watch This Video:

Using our knowledge of their functional anatomy, we can make use of a variety of coaching cues and strategies to recruit the lats as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

That’s it. Functional anatomy is over.

Part 2: Understanding Coaching Cues

A great coaching cue is worth a million bucks.

With a great cue (or a combination of great cues) a good coach can teach anybody how to perform even the most complicated of exercises.

For example, remember what my training partner yelled at me when I hit the sticking point?

Chest up, shoulders down!

Those are two separate cues which, in combination, are meant to put my body in the most advantageous position to finish the lift.

Generally speaking, there are two categories of coaching cues: Internal Focus and External Focus.

Internal Focus Cues cause you to focus on how your body moves relative to itself. For example, “shoulders down!” is an Internal Focus Cue as it causes me to think about how my body moves in relation to itself.

External Focus Cues cause you to focus on how your body moves relative to something in your environment. To illustrate, “drive your heels through the floor” is an external cue as it causes me to think about how my body moves in relation to my current environment.

While both cueing styles work, external focus cues are more effective than cues with an internal focus.

Keep this in mind as we move forward and discuss a number of my favorite drills and cues that will help you learn to use your lats.

 Part 3: Three Simple Drills to Feel Your Lats

The three drills provided below make use of our knowledge of functional anatomy and force the lats to work in the ways which they are designed.

Watch the videos, follow the instructions, and perform each drill several times through. You may not feel your lats the first (or even the 10th) time you try it, but keep working and eventually you’ll feel those suckers kick in.

Scapular Adduction and Depression:

Cable Pullover with Reactive Floor Press:

Straight-Arm Lat Pull Down:

Part 4: How to Feel the Lats During the Squat

In this section I provide you with several of my favorite coaching cues designed to teach you how to feel and recruit your lats during the Squat. If one cue doesn’t work right away, don’t worry; keep trying and eventually you’ll feel them kick in. If not, there are plenty of other cues to choose from.

Cue #1: Imagine pinching my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades and pull the bar straight down into your back.

Description: With the bar resting on your back, fully retract your shoulder blades. From here, pull the bar firmly into your back. If the bar can roll around on your back then you aren’t pulling down hard enough.

Cue #2: Make the letters on your shirt visible to the wall in front of you and wrap the bar around the front of your body.

Description: With the bar resting on your back, force your chest up as high as possible and actively try to bend the bar around your shoulders. If your chest is falling forward and/or you aren’t actively trying to bend the bar then you aren’t recruiting the lats to their full potential.

Cue #3: Hit the wall in front of you with your chest, pinch my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades, and pull the bar straight down into your back.

Description: With the bar resting on your back, force your chest up as high as possible, fully retract your shoulder blades, and pull the bar directly into your back.

Part 5: How to Feel the Lats During the Bench Press

In this section I will provide you with several of my favorite coaching cues designed to teach you how to feel and recruit your lats during the Bench Press. If one cue doesn’t work right away, don’t worry; keep trying and eventually you’ll feel them kick in. If not, there are plenty of other cues to choose from.

Cue #1: Put your shoulders in your back pocket and bend the bar towards your feet.

Description: Holding the bar directly above your chest, shove your shoulders down/away from your ears and try to bend the bar. You should feel the pressure of the bar on the outsides of your palms.

Cue #2: Shove your shoulders down/back towards your heels and actively pull the bar towards your chest.

Description: Rather than think about lowering the bar to your chest, imagine pulling it to your chest. If you can do this while keeping your shoulder blades pinched together you will definitely feel your lats take load off your shoulders.

Cue #3: Imagine pinching my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades, raise your chest up to the bar, and bend the bar towards your feet.

Description: Holding the bar directly above your chest, fully retract your shoulder blades, bring your chest up as high as possible (without taking your butt off of the bench) and try to bend the bar. You should feel the pressure of the bar on the outsides of your palms.

Part 6: How to Feel the Lats During the Deadlift

In this section I will provide you with several of my favorite coaching cues designed to teach you how to feel and recruit your lats during the Deadlift. If one cue doesn’t work right away, don’t worry; keep trying and eventually you’ll feel them kick in. If not, there are plenty of other cues to choose from.

Cue #1: Hit the wall in front of you with your chest, shove your shoulders into your back pocket, and pull the bar into your body while driving your heels through the floor.

Description: Get your chest up as high as possible, force your shoulders down and away from your ears, and actively pull the bar into your legs throughout the entire lift. If the bar drifts away from your body then you definitely aren’t using your lats.

Cue #2: Imagine pinching my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades, force your shoulders down/back towards your heels, and show the letters on your shirt to the wall in front of you.

Description: Fully retract your shoulder blades, force your shoulders down/away from your ears, and make sure your chest stays as vertical as possible throughout the entire movement.

Cue #3: Imagine pinching my pointer finger in between your shoulder blades, grip the bar so tight that your knuckles turn white, and pull the bar into your legs throughout the entire movement.

Description: Fully retract your shoulder blades, grip the bar as tight as humanly possible, and forcefully extend the shoulders while making sure the bar touches your legs throughout the entire lift.

Part 7: Wrapping Up

Learning to use your lats is one of the most challenging concepts for a lifter to understand. As a result, lifters often get discouraged and, after a while, give up trying altogether.

Through reading this article I hope you’ve found some helpful information that will help you learn to use your lats to their full potential.

If you only learn one thing from this piece, let it be this: there is no “right” or “wrong” cue. A cue that works for you may not work for your training partner or client. Try everything, be creative, and don’t stop until you feel those suckers pulling.

Featured image is courtesy of Amber Karnes and used under a Creative Commons License.

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