The Role of Lats in Bench Press Shoulder Rehab

I am well known for my spinal rehab work and teaching, but in fact I began my professional career as a part of one of the world’s leading Shoulder Specialist groups. I played baseball as my major sport even representing Australia in the World Youth Series (we took Bronze). When I left High School I was recruited interstate and was planning to play Major League in the USA. I was playing in top level adult teams from the age of 14 and as a pitcher I studied everything I could on the topic. So when I graduated from University I was picked up to join the shoulder team at our premier Sports Medicine Clinic. I had by this time, become focused in weight-training, particularly Bench Press, and had begun to plan a career in Pro Wrestling instead of Baseball.  That’s a whole other story.

So I began working my life with leading shoulder specialists, I attended countless surgeries and absorbed all the anatomy, biomechanical research and education we were involved in. I created rehab throwing programs for Professional athletes and teams, but I noted not one of the specialists, from Surgeons to Therapists really understood weight-training. This is a problem still exists widely today, where few medical professionals understand the biomechanics of the Powerlifts. Let’s face it not enough Powerlifting coaches do either.

So I’m going to discuss the role of the Latissimus Dorsi in my specific shoulder rehab protocols for Bench Press athletes. This is because it is often left out of traditional programs due to a lack of knowledge by therapists of the Bench Press Mechanics.

INITIAL ASSESSMENT

My initial shoulder assessment work involves cervical spine and thoracic spine evaluation prior to shoulder complex examination. Any professional who does not assess these areas prior to heading to the shoulder itself is probably undereducated. I’ve had too many people sent to me for shoulder rehab who actually had cervical and thoracic problems that were being displayed at the shoulder and once these were corrected had no shoulder pain. I’m sure there are many Chiropractors who understand that!

The shoulder complex is an area where the experience of the treating professional plays a huge part in successful return to Bench Pressing. I’ve read professionals who say the Lats does not contribute to Bench Pressing, even a guy with a PhD in Exercise Science (who writes on Powerlifting), wrote that. It was the first time I realized there must be a Home Schooling University somewhere for people like him to graduate from.

So for his benefit, and everyone else’s, here is the basis behind why Lats do contribute to Bench Pressing.

BIOMECHANICS AND PHYSIOLOGY

Agonist/Antagonist

In movement the muscle contracted to produce the desired movement is called the Agonist muscle. Its opposing muscle is called the Antagonist muscle. In a simple example – In a Bicep curl consider the agonist is the biceps and the antagonist is the triceps.

Co-contraction/Co-activation

Now to define co-contraction and co-activation. To co-contract muscles I define as voluntarily contracting both agonist and antagonist muscle groups. Co-activation I define as the voluntary activation of the agonist and involuntary activation of antagonist muscle groups.

In the Bench Press generally the intent is the voluntary movement or contraction of the agonist, and the antagonist gets co-activated involuntarily to provide support to the joint. It is not that the agonist contracts and the antagonist does nothing. Higher level athletes tend to use a co-contraction strategy.

So to Bench press, specifically at the glenohumeral joint we find, primarily Shoulder Flexion, including Transverse Flexion, as the major concentric action. Primary agonists here, producing this, are Pectoralis Major and Anterior Deltoid. Primary antagonist muscles will be Latissimus Dorsi and Posterior Deltoid.

The activation of the antagonist muscles is involuntary and automatic for the protection of the joint. Antagonist co-activation is mostly by peripheral nervous system origins, by the agonist golgi tendon organs and antagonist muscle spindles. In high skill acquisition individuals there will be central nervous system strategies.

So Lats are clearly included in Bench Press by their antagonist joint stabilizing action. It’s physiological fact. So when we have shoulder problems we examine the agonist/antagonist relationship.

So Lats are clearly included in Bench Press by their antagonist joint stabilizing action. It’s physiological fact.

The most common shoulder pain rehab protocols for Bench Pressing, once the spinal components are addressed, are looking at scapula stabilization and glenohumeral stabilization. These 2 areas require entirely separate articles and are not the focus of this article.

The Latissimus part of the stabilization protocol is all I am focusing on today.

LATISSIMUS DORSI ANATOMY

Most people I rehab seem unaware of the actual anatomy of the Latissimus Dorsi, so I’ll address that right now.

NERVE SUPPLY

The importance of thorough spinal assessment is clear when you consider that the Latissimus Dorsi is supplied by the sixth, seventh, and eighth cervical nerves (creating the thoracodorsal nerve). Remember impeded neural efficiency will impact the muscles ability to contract.

ORIGIN AND INSERTION

There are always variations across the population and below are the most common findings.

Origin: There are considered to be five areas where the lat originates. The spinous process of thoracic vertebra 7-12, thorocolumbar fascia, iliac crest, the lowest 3-4 ribs and in approximately 40% of people there is an attachment to the lower border of the scapula (worthy of consideration in scapula stability protocols).

Insertion: The intertubercular sulcus of the humerus. Basically under the bicep tendon on the front of the humerus.

ACTION

When acting insertion to origin – the Lat Extends, Adducts and Internally Rotates the Shoulder.

When acting origin to insertion – the Lat can extend, rotate and laterally flex the spine.

ANTAGONIST MUSCLES

Deltoid and Trapezius are the primary antagonists to pure lat insertion to origin actions.

REHAB CONSIDERATIONS 

  1. IMPINGEMENT. I’ve laid out the above information in a format that allows you to see the actions and the antagonists together. This is one of the primary considerations in shoulder rehab. Many people will be given a diagnosis of ‘shoulder impingement’ or ‘subacromial impingement’. In Bench Pressing this often occurs when the Upper Trapezius, acts as an Agonist and the shoulder girdle elevates. Combine this with the deltoids force vector which causes humeral abduction, and in the presence of a dysfunctional rotator cuff, and you get humeral elevation and abduction which creates the resultant ‘impingement’.
  2. Depending upon the individual assessment I begin a Scapula Stability and Rotator Cuff protocol for 2 weeks prior to integrating a specific Lat protocol. Now my Rotator Cuff rehab differs significantly from other therapists in that I have developed exercises different to those traditionally taught to Health Professionals in their Universities. This is due to my weight-training experience and anatomy understanding. I NEVER use a band for Rotator Cuff rehab, only weights of various forms. I use Dumbbells, Kettlebells and Clubbells only, and the exercises themselves are unique and I teach these in my Workshops. That can be addressed in another article.
  3. Once Scapula and Rotator Cuff protocols have been addressed then I begin the Lat protocols.

LAT REHAB PROTOCOLS

Remember I’m giving you an understanding of my Shoulder Rehab approach for Bench Press pain and problems. The plan here is on how to use the Lat within that specific goal.

1. I often find people over think exercises. So I instruct with physical cues not ‘activate this muscle’ as an instruction. Such as in teaching external rotation of the humerus, I combine this with scapula depression and retraction in one motion. The cue, for example, is “pull your shoulder blade to your opposite glute” Now I tend to begin this in Side lying, not in standing. So that is the scapula position cue. To achieve this you will find that the person will have used their Lat to depress the shoulder girdle, the humerus is kept in adduction, as the agonist muscle, thus preventing the upper trapezius activation that often occurs with the frequently used cue “Retract your shoulder blades”.

2. The cue to pull the scapula to the opposite glute is part of my plan to teach lat contraction and arch control for the final Bench Press transition phase. So even in the early phase of scapula and glenohumeral treatment we are setting up the Bench position.

3. Lat Isolation. I do find that frequent Lat activation in ‘isolation’ produces a better connection for a client. So I also instruct a particular Lat exercise that I created. I actually evolved this from the legendary trainer Vince Gironda. What I did was take his brilliant ‘Racing Dive Row’ which is a bilateral movement, and turned it into a unilateral standing exercise. Every person I have ever taught this to has said they never felt their Lat contract as strongly as they do on this exercise. So here is the ‘secret’ Lat activation, the cueing is the detail that produces the result. You need to cue it correctly and it will work perfectly. The pictures show the start and end points.

Here I either use a band, lat machine with single handle, or cable cross over.

The cue used is to “pull your elbow to your pelvis” this is the insertion to origin cue, once this is achieved I then add in “now lean into this laterally” this is the origin to insertion cue.

TRANSITION TO BENCH

Here the rehab has come to the point where the person is now going to Bench without pain, this may take days or weeks depending on the individual case.

When you transition this to the Bench you have taught the person to feel the Lat to create the arch. When setting up on the Bench I use the cue, which began with the External Rotation in Sidelying, to “pull your shoulder blades to your opposite glutes”. Here you get the insertion to origin action that creates the arch with Lat strength. For extra tightness, especially for significant singles or doubles, I then add in “now pull your glutes to your opposite shoulder blades” an origin to insertion, cue as well.  The tightness that produces is only sustainable for those maximum efforts.  

SUMMARY

The above has explained the rationale for inclusion of Lat training into shoulder rehab for Bench Press athletes. Every case has its own characteristics and must be assessed as such. This is an article on the most common approach I find relates to the shoulder dysfunction. Just don’t let anyone ever say that Lats are not used in Bench Press again. Educate them.

Just don’t let anyone ever say that Lats are not used in Bench Press again. Educate them.

Gus Cooke coaching Andrew Lock to ProRaw 9 for a 200kg Bench Press

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