“It’s like your ass but it’s for your shoulder”
These were the words of the mysterious and infamous Coach Alex today as we chatted about our session. I had asked for a private session because I was struggling with some aspects of the training classes. Anything that involved overhead lifting was generating issues in the front of my shoulder and my neck, something that I knew wasn’t supposed to have issues, given what I was doing and the light weights I was using. I have always struggled with “upper body strength”. Year after year, trainer after trainer I had attempted to do something about this. Small weights, the lowest reps, the lightest springs on a reformer and time after time, something would go horribly wrong. I would have an injury, an ache, a stitch or a downright inflammation and I’d have to stop. I’d go back to focussing on what I was okay at, mostly core (which I am spectacular at) and lower body stuff. This isn’t really terrible for function, power from the core can do a lot of hauling around. I did wonder, however, what it was about lifting heavy things with my upper body, or doing pushups that was so infuriatingly difficult.
Apparently, it’s the simple things. When doing a squat or a deadlift or a lunge, one must activate the glutei. When doing anything at all with a shoulder, ya gotta activate the Lats.
It’s not that I didn’t know this. I’ve heard it many times, “Set your shoulder blades”, “Pull down your arm pits” and any number of variations on “Activate your Lats”, but I guess I wasn’t doing it enough because, oh boy, do I know where they are now! Out of the hour I had booked with Alex, about 30 minutes of it was spent with my lats engaged somehow. Overhead press? Lats first, no weights at all. I tried to lift my arm until the engagement faltered. I didn’t lift it very high and I realized, finally and emphatically, why my neck was unhappy with this movement. It would get totally involved as soon as the lat engagement failed and that was most of the time. Oops. Back to basics for me.
Single arm row? Lats! Elbows back, not up, squeeze the shoulder blade at the end. I had 3lbs in my hand and I thought I was gonna die with the burn. Okay okay, I get it now.
Flys? No lat, no take off. I finally found my deltoid again too. What are these little muscles that fatigue in 20 seconds or less, what has been doing the work instead? My neck knows that answer and it’s happy I’m finally paying attention.
Finally, the push up! Think a pushup isn’t all lat all the time? WRONG! I was flabbergasted to find that when I engaged everything I was supposed to engage in the down, the up was easy! Well, easier maybe. The point is, I am a lot stronger than I thought I was when it comes to push ups, I just had to figure out how to DO them. It’s okay, it took what? 40 years or so? Better late than never I guess.
When I think back to time at the gym with the lat pulldown, weights probably too heavy for me and using my arms instead, I feel a little sad at all that wasted energy. All of this does reinforce my belief that GOOD GYM TEACHERS MATTER. I guess if I have to wait until my 50’s for a decent gym teacher to come my way, I’ll just count myself lucky that one came at all.
I promised an Ode which, according to Oxford Languages on the internet is “a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular meter” so here it goes.
In the early morning when I wake from slumber, were I to defy push myself from bed to coffee mug
It is you, Latissimus Dorsi, that I electrify with the promise of warm elixir
And when I brace to lift my tiny globe above my ears, like Atlas, I engage your subtle sinews and am heartened
I pull my struggling cat to my breast for unwanted snuggles and you are complicit in his indignity
I push my dog’s foul breathed face from mine as she disturbs my nap and you are there
In all things, stable yet just out of awareness, an unsung underarm wonder, Latissimus Dorsi, my friend and companion of both sides of my self.