“Engage your lats!” or “Turn on your lats!” We’ve all heard these phrases uttered from the mouths of our beloved CrossFit coaches. It may seem like they shout about the lats a lot, but that’s because these muscles are extremely important for most movements in CrossFit. In order to become a more efficient and stronger athlete, it is important to know what your lats are, where they are located, and why they are important. Once you figure these out, you will start to see improvements in your lifts and gymnastics movements.
The lats (latissimus dorsi) are the large back muscles that start from mid-back and run all the way down to the waist (see diagram below). It is important to note that they also wrap around the armpits, which assists in helping to rotate the arms. More importantly, the lats play a huge role in pulling and pushing movements, such as pull-ups, toes-to-bar, muscle-ups, snatch, and clean. Therefore, in order to maximize efficiency, it is essential that you know how to use them and what it feels like to use them properly.
Let’s use toes-to-bar as an example: one of the most difficult pieces of learning how to do toes-to-bar is being able to efficiently string multiple reps together. A common fault in linking toes-to-bar is letting your arms hang straight down and then rolling your entire body in towards you to tap the bar with your feet. This results in your entire body swinging forward and backward instead of controlling your kip through the shoulders. Efficiently stringing multiple reps together requires that you know how to properly engage your lats so that you can push down against the bar as you bring your toes up to the bar, and then release this tension so that your body falls through into a superman position before you press down against the bar again to start the next rep.
Furthermore, knowing how to properly engage your lats can help prevent shoulder injuries. Butterfly pull-ups are a prime example of this. This is one of those “sexy” movements in CrossFit that everybody wants to learn, but if done incorrectly, can actually result in pain or injury to the shoulders. So, in order to protect the shoulders, it’s important to know how to activate your shoulders (don’t let yourself sink down into your shoulders) and engage your lats throughout the movement. This will also make you more efficient because you will be able to maintain a tighter circular kipping pattern.
Finally, having strong lats and knowing how to turn them on can lead to better and stronger lifts. Let’s use the snatch as an example: in order to generate the most power and lift with maximum efficiency, you want to keep your bar as close to your body as you can throughout the lift. Where most people fail in this is during the second pull portion of the lift (when the bar travels from above your knees to your hip crease). Oftentimes, athletes continue to pull the bar straight up from their shins, causing the bar to be away from the body. Instead, you need to pull the bar back into your body by engaging your lats (almost like you are trying to bend the bar in half). This will allow you to keep the bar closer to your body and therefore move more weight.