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Updated: Oct 26, 2022

When it comes to optimizing movement technique, understanding the finer details of human anatomy is essential.

Muscles are the contraction machines by which the human skeleton is moved. Consequently, understanding correct movement mechanics depends on knowledge on how muscular contractions affect skeletal movement.

In this article, I am going to explain the function of the lats as well as their importance in the bench press.

When we look at the classic line of thought in human anatomy, we can see that the latissimus inserts at the front top of the humerus. Accordingly, when this part of the lats contracts, it internally rotates the humerus. This plays a role in pressing the bar up in the bench press, albeit a rather meaningless one as the prime movers in this exercise are the pec major, anterior deltoid, and triceps.

The more interesting part of our analysis is the one where we look at the lat’s ORIGINS.

As we can see in the picture below, this muscle has several origins:

  • Inferior 3 or 4 ribs

  • T7-L5 spinal processes

  • Thoracolumbar fascia

  • Iliac crest

Several observations can be made here:

Firstly, as the lats attach to the inferior 3-4 ribs, they play a crucial role in ELEVATING and isometrically holding the rib cage up. An elevated rib cage is crucial for reducing range of motion, pre-stretching the pecs, as well as keeping the back tight in the bench press.

Secondly, the lats connect to the spinal processes of vertebrae T7-L5 as well as the thoracolumbar fascia. Here we have a triumvirate of back stability forming. The lats - in this specific role - are crucial for keeping the low back muscles contracted to form a force chain from the shoulder joint all the way to the feet and into the floor. With tighter lats, we prevent a power leakage in the back while producing stronger drive into the floor with our feet. The greater the stability we produce, the stronger the bench press.

Thirdly, parts of the lats originate at the iliac crest, which represents a connection point for the upper back into the pelvis, legs, and floor. This has strong implications for selecting the right foot position: The closer we position our feet towards our head, the greater the arch we produce, the greater the tightness in the lats, the stronger the bench.

It is of paramount importance to arch the lower back and lift the rib cage as high as possible in the bench press to produce the strongest drive upwards.

Fourthly, the lats attach to the inferior (meaning: lower) part of the scapula. A contraction of the lats in this area pulls the shoulder blade downwards as well as onto the ribcage and towards to the spine - locking the entire middle and lower back into place to create greater stability on the bench. This creates a seamless force transfer between the bar (shoulder/wrists/arms) as well as floor (hips, legs, feet).

In summary, the lats have three main functions in the bench press: holding up and stabilizing the rib cage; depressing and pulling the shoulder blade inwards; tightening the lower back muscles.

All of these functions are designed to create a better force transfer between the lower and upper body, as well as to create the largest surface area of muscle mass possible to press the bar off from.

How can we make sure that the lats are properly engaged in the bench press?

Several cues can be used for this.

My favourite one is to not just lift the chest in the starting position but also lift the rib cage upwards and BACKWARDS into a direction behind our head. This will move the shoulders and bar slightly downward on the body. Remember, as the lats DEPRESS the shoulder blade and have a diagonal, downward-orientated fibre direction, we cannot just rely on the cue “lift your chest up”. This would merely pull the shoulder blades TOGETHER, but not downwards.

Here is a number of other cues you can use to activate the lats more. I encourage you to experiment with them as everyone has different ways of learning and visualising movements.

“Close the curtain”

Picture your lats being like two sides of a curtain closing.

“Squeeze the orange”

Picture holding an orange in your armpit and squeezing it. This will engage predominantly the upper fibres of the lats.

“Put your lats into your back pockets”

Picture putting your left lat into your right back pocket as well your right lat into your left back pocket. This resembles the natural downward diagonal fibre pathway of this muscle as seen in the picture below.

"Putting the lats into the back pockets" as seen in the tightening of the muscles below the armpit.

A word of caution: Do not expect your lats to grow massively from bench pressing.

Do expect them though to create the highest arch and tightest back possible to produce your strongest bench ever.

As stronger is better.


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