After seeing a video on the Robertson Training Systems forum of some deadlifts, I noticed that the puller’s biggest problem was that he wasn’t using his lats to his advantage.

I thought simply telling him this would be enough, but alas, I was wrong. He said he really doesn’t know how to turn them on when he deadlifts. After doing some thinking, it really doesn’t surprise me. There are so few people who talk about coaching in general that it’s no wonder the topic of lat recruitment never came up.

I’m going to show you what it looks like to have your lats on and off, outline the benefits of using your lats in your pulls, as well as how to get yourself and your clients in the right position.

“How Can I Tell if I’m Engaging My Lats?”

The easiest thing to look for is the bar drifting forward. Obviously, you’ll need a video camera or a coach for this one. If you’re experienced, you may be able to just feel it.

However, the bar won’t always drift forward without lat recruitment, at least to an extent that is visible. This is where you examine their shoulder position and look for tension in the lats. You’ll be able to tell fairly quickly whether or not a person is using their lats to their advantage or not.

Let’s start with a video.

The first rep is to show what it looks like to pull without your lats activated.
The second rep shows the lats activated.

Now pay very close attention, because it’s hard to see in this video. That’s why I chose to use it, however. I want you guys to know that mistakes aren’t always screaming out loud to pay attention to them. Sometimes they are very subtle.

Watch the bar in the first rep. It immediately comes out in front as I’m trying to get it to break the floor. This happens very quickly.

If you have trouble seeing it, try staring at the end of the bar rather than at my hands.*

Also on this note, you can use a video analysis software such as Kinovea or Vernier Video Physics to track the bar’s path.

Now, watch it again and pay attention to my back position. It’s very subtle, but you can see slight instability at the T-L junction, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you remember that only 176 lbs is on that bar.

Now keep your eyes on my back a look at the position right before I initiate the pull. Thoracic spine = kyphotic.

The last thing to examine on this first rep is my spine position at the top when I finish the rep. My spinal curve is excessive and my back is swayed.

Now check those things on the second rep.

My shoulders are very obviously in a much better position.

The bar does NOT come out in front and actually travels back. This shows the bar staying close to my center of mass.

My spine looks WAY better, eliminating the instability, excessively kyphotic curve, and the swayback finish.

Benefits of Engaging the Lats

The most obvious benefit is that the bar stays close to your center of gravity. To spare you from most of the biomechanics of it, I’ll just say that when the bar is further out in front of you, it feels heavier than it actually is.

Then there’s the very important fact that the lats connect to the spine! Turning these muscles on gives stability to the spine.

There is also fascia interwoven throughout your body that also accomplishes spinal stability.

If it wasn’t apparent already, these things mentioned above are going to make your pull way stronger.

This will work especially well for those of you, like myself, who have trouble off the floor rather than at lockout.

To spin off of keeping the bar close is that it’s going to allow you to use more of your hamstring strength (or build it if you don’t already have it!).

When the bar manages to drift out in front of you, there’s a big issue with balance. Those big leg muscles, such as your quadriceps and hamstrings, want to pick that heavy ass weight up off the ground. When the bar gets away from you, however, those muscles end up getting used to keep you from falling over instead of getting you strong.

“How Can I Recruit My Lats?”

By now it is obvious that you want your lats working during your pulls, but you’re wondering about the answer to the above question.

If you have a coach or training partner, as you ideally have, have them keep their eyes on you. Most people will be able to tell if you’re doing it wrong, at least after they’ve seen it done correctly.

Then, try the cues in the following video.

Now, AT’s pull isn’t perfect, but his set up position gets WAY better after I cue him to turn his lats on (he never does).

In the first cue, you place your hands behind the bar by the client’s shin ask him or her to push their arms into your hands.

In the second cue, you place your fingers at their armpits, asking them to pinch your fingers.

Another cue that is less hands on is to tell them to “keep the bar close” or “pull the bar into you”, but I’ve found this method is slightly less successful.

All of these cues will bring the bar back towards their center of mass if the client understands them.

If you don’t have a partner or coach to help you, don’t fret just yet.

In this video, Aaron Cunanan demonstrates a great way to cue your own lats to turn on by rolling the shoulders over first, then correcting by going the complete opposite direction.

Go Pick Up that Bar!

Hopefully this helped clear up the confusion on engaging the lats. You now know what it looks like, how it’s going to help you, and how to fix it. As soon as I started paying closer attention to my lat involvement in my pulls, my back felt WAY better, and I’m sure it will for you.

As always, let me know if you have questions.

*This method of diagnosis doesn’t always work for everyone, but it will work for the purposes of our lesson.