Lat Activation Meets Neuromuscular Control

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“How do I activate my lats during a deadlift?”

For a quick overview of the shoulder and a pitcure of the latissimus dorsi (AKA lat) check out the shoulder page of learn yourself.
This topic is based off a question from Mr. Sergio Nazzaro (the famous guy in the glute bridge and clams video found on the hip page of learn yourself), who is currently overseas serving our country. Great man for that. And he’s stuffing his face with the cookies I sent him. You’re welcome, Serg. He sent me an e-mail because he’s been having trouble activating his lats with his deadlifts, so he thought it could be a could topic for this week’s post. And I agreed….so here we go.

I think a lot of people may struggle with lat activation during deadlifts, although the other coaches would know more because they spend more time with all of you coaching these movements. I’m sure they have some great tips to help get your lats working during the deadlift, so never be afraid to ask! But I figured I would add in my point of view too. Sergio mentioned neuromuscular control in his question, which leads into my tangent that I want to start with… then we will get into how to improve lat activation during the deadlift.

Neuromuscular control defined

(I liked the definition at

Neuromuscular control is the mind’s attempt to teach the body conscious control of a specific movement.

I thought this was a great example of neuromuscular control, written by Mark Dutton in Orthopedic Evaluation, Examination and Intervention.

It is believed that there are certain programs for movement patterns that are inherent in the CNS (central nervous system) and that these naturally develop furing the maturation procress of the CNS. For example, [walking] is an inherent motor program. Other activities require learning through successful repetition and the formation of a program within the CNS. Once this program is formed, the individual no longer has to concentrate on performing the activity but can do so with very little [brain] involvement.

Neuromuscular control is something that develops with us as we grow. When we try something new, it’s usually challenging because we have never done it before. Like learning Olympic lifts.

Even if you have a lot of strength, it’s still going to be difficult to do an Olympic lift because your brain has not had to connect that specific movement with your muscles.
And then it just… clicked: That clicking is your body’s neuromuscular system creating a new program, allowing this new task to become more automatic. 
Just like having to activate your lats with the deadlift movement. But like Mark mentions above, new programs can be formed with practice so that you don’t have to think about them as much and they become automatic. I think it’s 2,000 repetitions right?!?! Something crazy like that, but I’m sure we’ve all experienced that moment when you’ve been practicing something FOREVER and finally get it. It doesn’t feel like you did anything particularly different to get it that time — it just clicks. That clicking is your body’s neuromuscular system creating a new program allowing this new task to become more automatic. Which, back from my tangent and on to Sergio’s question, is exactly what we want you to get with activating your lats during the deadlift. As well as with all the other movements at CrossFit.

Bonus: Activating your lats will help decrease the stress on your low/mid back during a deadlift.
So how can you improve lat activation with deadlifts? The next time you get set-up for a deadlift, take a second and try this first. Stand with your back against a wall, palms facing the wall. Keep your elbows straight and push your palms into the wall. THIS is what you want to activate with your deadlift…..turning on your lats (and teres major which is lats’ little helper). Then get back to your bar and try to create that same movement as if you are pushing against the bar…… then PR on your deadlift! Well, yes you may actually have to practice this before you start PRing from this, but you’ll be amazed at how much more you will be able to lift when you get your whole body into the lift. And do so more safely (with decreased stress on the low/mid back)!

What if my lats themselves need help?

If the above doesn’t really work for you, there may be something else limiting you…..

1. Are your lats weak?

Try lying on your stomach and doing the superman exercise, but with your arms down at your side.

2. Is your upper body mobility bad?

All of the following can limit you achieving a good upper back position for the deadlift:

3. Are your shoulder stabilizers weak?

If you can’t get your shoulder blades to squeeze together (especially when fatigued) you may need to do some basic strengthening. Try just practicing squeezing your shoulder blades together throughout the day, making sure that you keep your neck relaxed. Think of squeezing your shoulder blades down and back. This is a small movement though, don’t over power it. Ring rows will also help to strengthen your upper back, as long as you initiate the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Last little tangent….

Use it or lose it: Neuromuscular control can be lost from injury or from dis-use, like glute weakness from sitting on our butts.
The reason I didn’t just tell all of you to go do pull-ups to increase your lat strength (and in turn improve your lat activation with deadlifts) is because neuromuscular control doesn’t work this way! Besides the fact that you use a lot of muscles doing pull-ups, the specific movement actually has to be trained. And it usually has to start from the very basic level, without weight, in order to make sure that the movement is being done correclty. This is the basis behind corrective exercise (like the ones given during the Functional Movement Screen)and rehabilitation after injury. Neuromuscular control can be lost from injury or from dis-use, like glute weakness from sitting on our butts. Which is why exercises like the clams, glute bridges and shoulder alphabet are SO IMPORTANT. These are improving neurmuscular control, so that you can improve as an athlete and reduce injury.

This article was originally published on October 7, 2012 on CrossFit South Bay’s blog.


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