Why the lats are so important in the Bench Press

You’ll often hear about big benchers talking about the importance of the lats in the bench press, and how one must learn to use their lats in that lift. When pressed even the more experienced lifters have a hard time describing exactly why this concept is important – they just “know” it is. And to the newly initiated this advice can seem counter-intuitive.

Isn’t a bench press a pushing exercise?

Aren’t the lats a pulling muscle?

Aren’t the lats the antagonist in a bench press and if so how they are really contributing so much to the exercise?

Let’s examine this topic and answer these pressing questions in more detail (do you see what I did just there?).

When it comes to the basics – Fitness 101 so to speak – the pecs are pushing muscles and the lats are pulling muscles. The lats are the main muscles working in lat pulldowns and rows, etc. And at a very basic level, the pecs and the lats are antagonists. But to answer this question we need a deeper level of knowledge, and this is where understanding anatomy comes in handy.

Latissimus_dorsi_

The lats are primarily a pulling muscle, true, but the lats insert on the front of the humerus (upper arm bone – specifically the bicipital groove of the humerus), not the back of it as common sense might lead you to believe. When the arm is out in front of the body the lats are pretty easy to figure out, they pull the arm back to the body (shoulder extension and shoulder adduction for the nerds out there). But what happens when the humerus moves behind the body, as in the finish position in row or, as it pertains to this discussion, as in the start position at the bottom of the bench press when the bar is on your chest? Remember muscles work by pulling the insertion to the origin. Once the insertion point moves behind the origin (which runs along the vertebrae T7 and below and the thoracolumbar aponeurosis, among other things), now when that muscle shortens it is actually bringing the arm forward (shoulder flexion) when the arm is in the extended position (behind the body). If you give someone a broomstick, have them put it in bench press position, and then ask them to flex (contract) their lats – and they know what they are doing – the broomstick will move forward a few inches until the humerus is more in-line with the body.

It is true that having big lats and a big back will give you a nice sturdy shelf to bench press off of. It is also true that bigger lats can give you some spring or some leverage – as the triceps come down with the elbows tucked then can press against the lats, create added stability, and help with the bench press. You can feel this by getting a nice pump in your lats during your next bench day. Those things are all true and all nice to know, but they don’t explain why the lats are so important in a bench press. The lats literally contribute by helping you driving the bar off the chest, in this instance (the first part of the bench press) they are a pushing muscle, not a pulling muscle. Their contribution decreases as you continue to press the bar away from you. But the lats aren’t completely finished helping you even after the first few inches of the press.

stanefferding

Stan Efferding knows the importance of lats

Another key function of the lats is to produce internal rotation (think of patting your stomach with the palm of your hand while your elbow is at your side). Most good lifters know to flare your elbows out as you press up after the initial press on a bench. This flare will create some internal rotation which helps activate the lats among other muscles (you have 5 key internal rotators). This is also why good boxers and martial artists know that when throwing a punch the arm isn’t just extended but the hand is also rotated in a bit as one punches – this increases muscle activation which increases stability which increases power and strength.

If one is very weak off the bottom of the chest – if the bar doesn’t even budge at max weight – and one has a normal bench grip (forearm perpendicular to the bar at the bottom) then it is likely the lifter’s lats are weak. Exercises like pull-ups (bodyweight, weighted, with any grip), bent over rows, dumbbell rows, cable rows, and pulldowns can all help add strength and size to the lats. I have actually found that the lats are not sensitive to programming at all – you can do high reps, low reps, high weight, short rest, etc. – as long as you train hard and incorporate progressive overload every week or so the lats seem to respond. Unfortunately the bench press doesn’t fall into this same category – it is very picky in terms of how it responds to programs after beginner levels are surpassed.

A good lifter will have strong lats. Lats will help a little bit in squats and a little bit more in deadlifts but they help the most in the bench press. My rule of thumb was that whatever I could bench press (either max weight or for reps) – I should be able to perform a 45 degree bent over row (Yates Row) with. Another simple guideline is what you can dumbbell press you ought to be able to dumbbell row. If you can’t that means your lats might be under developed and they might be holding your strength back.

 

Add in additional lat training and see how you – and your bench – respond. Let me know how it works out for you.

 

 

 

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23 thoughts on “Why the lats are so important in the Bench Press

  1. Ken O'Neill

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more. At 70 I’ve learned those lessons the hard way, although the major one occurred due to a cataract lens replacement surgery recuperation resulting in visual distortion between the ‘fixed’ eye and the other: that bottom step into the garage I saw my foot go on wasn’t really there, and a belly flop onto the garage floor was havoc for one cuff.

    Injuries can be blessings – you have to learn things the momentum of habit otherwise blinds and immunizes you to learning. I’m convinced not a ‘pre-existing’ condition was involved, at least the set up for one.

    Since then I’ve worked my ‘lats’ more than ever and it shows. However, looking at the anatomical drawing in your post, there’s much more than merely consideration for the latissimus dorsi needing to be taken into account and trained. Our ‘rotator cuff’ model is simplistic. A large number of muscles contribute to forming that pocket we call the shoulder joint. They all need to be trained. In my case, external rotators most off all. Add to that learning appropriate form innervating lats – no kyphosis shoulders, learning to contract shoulder blades down and together – they all add up synergistically.

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  3. William

    “Whatever you can dumbbell press, you should be able to dumbbell row”

    To what extent is this true? I can dumbbell row at least 150%-200% of what I dumbbell bench press, is this normal even though I only barbell bench?

  4. Tim Henriques Post author

    Hi William – thanks for your question. It is worth noting by saying what you can dumbbell press you should be able to dumbbell row is not the same as saying what you can dumbbell row you should be able to dumbbell press, I think most people would find they can dumbbell row more than they can dumbbell press. Likely using only 1 arm at a time (so all of your energy is sent there) and with a 1 arm dumbbell row you can use a fair amount of body English to lift the weight (especially if you turn it into a Kroc row). In your case it sounds like your lats are strong enough, which is a good thing, but it sounds like your chest might be comparatively weak as I do think your press to row ratio is off, personally I might be able to row 10-20% more than my press but definitely not 50-100% more. I would also look at your barbell row compared to your bench, is that way off as well? Good luck with your training – Tim

  5. Derrick Blanton

    Hi Tim, very provocative ideas! No question the lats are big players on the bench press.

    I must confess that I am struggling a bit with this idea that the lats act as flexors of the arm, though! I did my best to write a couple of clear, semi-concise questions which I hope you have time to answer, and help me better wrap my mind around this concept.

    “Once the insertion point moves behind the origin (which runs along the vertebrae T7 and below and the thoracolumbar aponeurosis, among other things), now when that muscle shortens it is actually bringing the arm forward (shoulder flexion) when the arm is in the extended position (behind the body).”

    OK, two primary questions:

    1. If the lat is able to shorten from a position of hyperextension to pull the arm back to neutral, then there necessarily must be muscle fiber length to shorten from and effect movement.

    Every muscle has a position of maximal contraction, yes? For biarticulate muscles, we call it actively insufficient, but regardless we are talking about a length/tension relationship. At some point, the muscle can contract no further, and thus cannot effect further movement.

    Forgive me, but once the lat’s insertion and distal attachments hit neutral shoulder extension, is this not the point where the lat is maximally shortened? If the lat reverses its action from extension to flexion, then the point of that reversal must be the point of maximal contraction, yes? Because we need new length to effect movement of the joint in either direction.

    I’m struggling to see how hyperextending the humerus further provides more length at the lat, to re-contract and reverse course! And not just reverse course weakly, but with enough length to provide agonistic force against hundreds of pounds on a bench press. Where is the length coming from? Where is the lat stretching to “shorten and bring the arm forwards”?

    In a nutshell, how does hyperextending the humerus effectively re-stretch the lat to then shorten again and contract back to neutral?

    2. If the lat reverses its extensor action, and shifts to a humeral flexor when the humerus is hyperextended, why then during a row, or a pull up, does the effect of maximal lat contraction not stop the humerus at neutral, but rather allow the humerus back behind the body?

    Should the lat have a powerful flexor moment past neutral, why then would the elbow keep traveling behind the body with a forceful lat contraction on a row? Shouldn’t the powerful lat contraction prevent the humerus from hyperextending on a row at all, as the flexor moment kicks in at neutral, acting as a “humeral brake” at the body’s midline?

    Perhaps this is a function of the rear delts hyperextending the humeri? Does it not seem odd that the powerful lat can flex the humerus forwards against hundreds of pounds of load on a bench press, but fails to stop the tiny rear delts from hyperextending the humeri on a row or pull up?

    OK, so it really wasn’t all that concise, apologies! Brevity is not my strong suit.

    Tim, thanks if you have time to answer! I’ve enjoyed your work for many years, so please accept these questions in the intended spirit of learning new things.

    All the best, DB.

  6. Tim Henriques Post author

    Hi Derrick – thanks for the post, you raise some good points and I am glad to see you are thinking about it. In essence I don’t disagree with anything you said, but I think you are assuming the arm goes through the same ROM on a press and a pull and that might be where the differences lie. For example in a cable row, proper form will be to puff up the chest, pull the shoulders back and lean back about 10-15 degrees. In doing this generally the humerus will be in that maximally shortened position (humerus essentially vertical) at the end of the ROM. And what is the toughest part of a row (or a pulldown)? The last few inches. If you force yourself to truly sit upright and not lean back at all, or even if you actually lean forward, and now you try to row you will find your strength is greatly diminished. Here is a quick pic to illustrate the point (note her butt is inline with the center of her chest and not the end of her back as it would be if she was lying on a bench press). You are correct that it is the rear delt/rotator cuff that is producing continued extension (along with momentum from the moving bar) and also the traps and rhomboids are retracting the shoulder which adds continued power. I know for me if I sit very upright on a row and try to go very heavy those last 2″ are really tough because I can feel my lats stop contributing to the exercise.

    http://fittipdaily.com/seated-cable-row-1675/

    The idea of a muscle being able to do both actions is not that radical. The pectoralis major does this as well, it is well known as a shoulder flexor (dips, closegrip bench) but it also does shoulder extension (from a flexed position) as in a pullover. It helps contribute to the first part of a chin-up but once you are about 90 degrees it stops contributing. The deltoid, when looked at as a whole, does both abduction and adduction; the traps can do both elevation and depression.

    I hope that is a little more clear, great question, good luck with your training.

  7. Ron Lorensen

    I have always supersetted chin ups with my bench workout. I vary the reps and add weight at times . I think it adds to my bench workouts ..

  8. Rich Watkins

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  12. Pete

    So, when i do bench press i,m tranining my lats. And the next day i can,t train lats true? Because i was doing:
    Monday-Thursday: Push excercises
    Tuesday-Friday: Legs
    Wensday-Saturday: Pull excercises( only rows, not pull-ups)

  13. Jeff

    I think Derrick made some good points that you didn’t answer.

    Further, I think you do a disservice by not mentioning that “results may vary” depending on genetics. Anatomically short humerus (probably a very good bencher) will have a ROM where the anterior surface of the humerus does not pass the origin even a little. It would take someone with extremely long arms to even get more than an inch of lat help even with maximal arch.

    I think this article is begging for a picture like:
    http://bonytobeastly.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/how-to-work-out-workout-as-a-skinny-ectomorph-trying-to-build-muscle.jpg

    Or some shots of people,from the side, benching to illustrate the anterior surface of the humerus going past the spine…

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  16. Ethan Wolf

    What about the idea the lats are contributing to shoulder depression as well and in turn helping to stabilize the scapula along with the traps and rhomboids for the movement. While they do not attach to the scapula directly, they still seem to be highly active during scapular depression during all phases of the benching movement. Preventing scapular instability with this activation during pressing motions (push ups, dips, bench particularly) seems to help with shoulder pain and excessive rotator cuff strain which seems to accompany improper scapular position and stability in said pressing movements. Thoughts?

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