Latissimus Dorsi: an Ode

“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.

A diagram depicting the muscles of the shoulder from

9 thoughts on “Latissimus Dorsi: an Ode

  1. Love theOde. I have a super unhappy shoulder at the moment. Lots of Strengthening for the lats. And unlearning the yoga instruction to always lower my shoulders. A whole new shoulderic language.

    1. Hmmm, why not lower shoulders? That is a common directive in my yoga classes, in tandem with push the shoulder blades into the back body (but not squeezing the spine.)

      1. I am told my PT that I need to engage my neck muscles more to allow my scapula and shoulder bones to make space for the touchy tendons and muscles bunched up and causing pain. So the instruction I have is to slightly lift my shoulders and then use the muscles to pull them together across my back.

  2. I wasn’t able to find much info on how to engage the lats during push-ups. Do you have more specific guidance on that?

    1. Well, I wouldn’t call it “guidance” as I’m just a human trying to do a thing but here is what Alex told me. Focus on the “negative” or the down. So you are in plank, (knees down or up), hands under your shoulders, elbows in, and then you engage the lats and slowly lower. She said that the lowering is actually a “row” you are “pulling the floor up” to you instead of passively dropping. As you do this, you are loading up the entire back of your body for a push back up, sproing! I know this cue may not work for everyone but it worked for me. Pulling up the floor made sense in my brain.

  3. I find this very interesting that you and others are having issues with engaging your latissimus Doris, because I thought it was just due to my surgery. I had a mastectomy and reconstruct using a good portion of my right latissimus Doris mussel tissue to recreate a new breast with implant. I have been working with a personal trainer for two years to improve strength and range of motion to help with my shot put and javelin training. I’m finally close to doing 2 chin ups and 12 pushups and so happy with my progress. Having an experienced personal trainer has made the world of difference, slow and steady.

    1. Oh I love this story. Maybe you want to write a blog for us? No pressure but it is a perfect fit. You can find me on the Facebook, Susan Beth Tarshis. Message me if you are interested. Or if you search my name, you can send me an email from my web page. I don’t want to give the bots the chance to mine the email directly here.

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