engaging the lats

The Surprising Reason Why People Have Trouble Engaging the Lats

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The Surprising Reason Why Most People Have Trouble Engaging the Lats

Do you or your clients have trouble engaging the lats when doing pulldowns or pull-ups? For many people the problem is simply that their muscles work in the wrong order. What we notice is that some people are using the arm flexors more than the lats, and with some people the scapula does not move optimally.

We will see that in the end these two problems are in reality one, a disturbance of the movement sequence, and that what is commonly advised is actually of little to no help.

The less effective approach

Common coaching cues are:

  • Use a lighter weight
  • Squeeze the lats

They are not really effective since they will only “mask” the underlying issue. These are a band-aid kind of solution, ultimately time consuming and frustrating. Such coaching cues will only work with lighter weights. Or at the beginning of the workout when fatigue is low. As soon as you start adding plates or when fatigue sets in, the faulty movements are going to resurface.

What is wrong is the “vertical pull” motor pattern. A motor pattern can be seen as the auto-pilot sequence that the brain activates when performing a specific movement. You can over-ride it if you are extremely focused and are allocating a lot of brain power to the task. Needless to say, this is a losing proposition in sports performance and even with bodybuilding, because the return on investment is low. You don’t have an unlimited neural output and it should be directed elsewhere anyway.     

But let’s dive deeper and see what is actually going on.

Over-reliance on arm-flexors

Very often people work more with the arm flexors than by engaging the lats. Why?

Many people cannot access their posterior chain for a variety of reasons. Some are of neurological nature. For instance, as kids they were discouraged from performing upper body throwing and climbing activities. Or, as posturology experts do a great job of explaining, something is going on with the feet.

For instance the flexor of the hallux is one key muscle involved in our ability to activate the posterior chain. Be it because of your footwear or muscular weakness/imbalance, your big toe may be preventing you from reaching your full strength potential on posterior chain exercises.

Or, if you prefer a plain and simple explanation, some trainees have spent so many years training the “mirror muscles” aka those you can see in the mirror that they cannot use the posterior chain effectively anymore. As the saying goes, “train it or lose it.”

Whatever the reason is for this posterior chain “handicap,” an obvious clue to this faulty pattern is the speed of movement at the wrists vs elbows.

In an ideal situation, elbows and wrists should move simultaneously. But if the person’s arms flexors work more, the wrists will move faster than the elbows. When the hands and elbows do not move in harmony anymore, the movement seems off, it lacks fluidity. The exercise looks clumsy and poorly mastered. It is hard to describe but will be obvious in the gym. Just picture the way an athlete moves and superpose it to what is happening right in front of your eyes, it will become a no-brainer.

Sub-optimal scapular motion

When trainees struggle with vertical pulling, chances are that the scapula does not move optimally. The ideal movement of the scapula is called scapulohumeral rhythm.

The scapula participation in the range of motion available at the shoulder joint is nothing short of huge. The shoulder joint has evolved with bipedal gait. And its purpose has shifted from locomotion to prehension. Your hand is only as good as what it can actually reach and grab. So, ideally, we need a wide range of motion. This range of motion is called the circumduction cone.

In fact, the shoulder joint structure has evolved to work in coordination with the trunk, scapula, and arms to allow extended mobility. Even if we tend to imagine the articulation of the shoulder as being composed of a single joint. It is in fact made up of 5 joints:

  • The glenohumeral joint, which is well-known as the ball and socket articulation. It joins the head of the humerus with the glenoid cavity of the scapula.
  • The acromioclavicular (AC) joint where the clavicle and the acromion of the scapula meet.
  • The sternoclavicular (SC) joint where the clavicle meets the sternum.
  • The scapulothoracic (ST) joint, which is a “floating joint,” that allows the scapular to glide over the ribcage.
    And, for extra credit, a fifth pseudo-joint called the subacromial-subdeltoid joint which you will find mentioned in most French functional anatomy books.

The following video illustrates perfectly what the cone of circumduction is and why it matters in all movements at the shoulder joint.

Of course, to be able to access the full range of motion, it is necessary to coordinate all these joints and their accessory muscles, much like an orchestra needs a conductor to be melodious.

Let’s see how it relates to a vertical pulling motion.

The chin-up and pull-down motion

The challenge in vertical pulling is to counteract the forces at play. These forces pull the shoulder upward while our goal is to pull the bar towards the clavicles. This is only possible if we follow a precise sequence. The optimal sequence is to pull the shoulder blades to the spine and down (retraction and depression of the scapula.) The muscles involved are:

  • Rhomboids and medium trap fibers (trap 2) that bring the shoulder blades towards the spine.
  • The lower fibers of the trap (trap 3) that allow depression of the scapula.
  • The lats which will bring the arms in adduction and extension.
  • Finally, we will contract the flexors of the arms (biceps, brachial, and brachioradialis) to pull the bar to the clavicles.

Of all these muscles the trap 3 are often the weakest and therefore the limiting factor.

Here are a few examples:

Strength and hypertrophy potential

If we only use the arms we can still do the movement, right? Yes, but you will never reach your full strength, or even hypertrophy potential. Simply because, just like an orchestra obeys the conductor, the body obeys the laws of physics.

Point number one. The action/reaction principle states that each force generates an equal and inverse force. That’s why in order to pull the bar towards us, the lats must have a stable base against which to develop their action. Here, it is the infamous depressors of the scapula that provide this base.

Secondly, to produce maximum force, all the forces involved must act synergistically. In order to potentiate this summation of forces, the strongest muscles must be engaged first. In this case: the muscles of the back must come into play before the muscles of the arms.

How do you get there? Learning the proper sequence.

First, one thing not to do. Charles did not like the machines that use counterweights to offset bodyweight. He believed that it was actually making the stabilizer muscles “dumber” and ultimately setting you up for injury and poor performance. A good base work of scapular motion will do wonders, and some coaching cues are better than other.

Here’s two of Charles’ golden nuggets:

  • One of his favorite cues was to ask the trainee to initiate the motion with the elbows. Imagine that you are trying to elbow someone behind you as hard as you can.
  • The second was to place his fingers on the bottom of the sternum and ask the trainee to push it when performing vertical pulling exercises. What happens is the trainee will automatically lean backward and in so doing will perform a scapula retraction. Charles would have his athletes go up and stay 5 seconds in isometric hold for several sets.

These cues, contrary to the one mentioned at the beginning of the article, do a great job of rewiring the motor pattern instead of just focusing on surface level issues. Indeed, they will shift focus on the scapular motion instead of the lats themselves.

To conclude, if you have trouble with vertical pulling exercises, make sure to use the right muscle activation sequence and use the right muscles. When you are struggling with vertical pulling exercises, your workout may benefit from adding specific exercises to strengthen trap 3 and others to strengthen the scapula retractors. You may actually be surprised about how weak you are on these seemingly easy exercises. Don’t get discouraged, put in the work, and remember that it is a stepping stone towards stellar chin-ups and pull-ups!