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.
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.
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.