Lat Contraction – Can This Technique Be the Key to Shoulder Health and Freaky Pushing Power?

Some people complain that bench presses are hurting their shoulders. Even more people than that complain that the parallel bar dip, one of the best upper body exercises, is bad for their shoulders.

Well, in this article I will reveal a technique I’ve been using for years to save my shoulders from excess stress when doing bench presses and dips. If you use this method, you will never hurt your shoulders with these movements and you will skyrocket your strength in the weighted dip, the bench press and other upper body pressing movements.

In the photo above Bruce Lee has been kind enough to demonstrate the lat contraction. I think the photo is from Enter the Dragon, possibly his best movie and (still) a very entertaining one at that.

What Is Lat Contraction?

So this is a method of flexing your lats – the large back muscles in your armpits, which increases your pushing strength and takes pressure of your shoulders at the same time. To do it you flare out the lats pushing them outwards and at the same time push your upper arms towards your body. Imagine having a heavy book and trying to hold it with your armpits.

This dual contraction – pushing outwards with the lats and pushing inwards with the upper arms, creates a very rigid and stale base of support. So on upper body pushing exercises such as dips, bench presses, one armed dumbbell presses (link to a great article by Rusty from Fitness Black Book) you will be able to lift much more weight.

Why does stable support give more strength? It’s like trying to shoot cannon from the ground vs. from a canoe. Force production pushes against the base of support. So the support has to withstand in order for great force to be possible.

Here’s our teaching assistant Bruce Lee helping out once more. Note his flared out lats (the wide cobra-like back muscles) and how his upper arms are pressing down. This is essentially the move.

I first learned about this technique from Pavel Tsatsouline’s book The Naked Warrior, where he was teaching using the lats to stabilize yourself when doing one armed pushups. Pavel describes this as pulling yourself towards the ground instead of trying to fight gravity on the way down in a one armed pushup.

How to Do It

  • Flare the lats. Contract the armpit muscles and push them out against your rib cage.
  • Push upper arms down. Press the arms hard against the contracted lats as if holding a book there and trying not to drop it.
  • Keep the shoulders down. This is the easiest ad most effective tip for shoulder safety. Here’s a great post on the topic by Clint from Crude Fitness.
  • Arms at 45 degrees. You simply cannot press the arms against your lats when they are out wide. Here’s a post I wrote about pushup technique explaining optimal upper arm position.

Action Plan

Here’s how to integrate this technique in your training.

  • Think about proper form. Try to do pushing movements with optimal shoulder health in mind.
  • Develop the lats. Obviously in order to flex the lats, you need to develop them. Work those chinups.
  • Stronger and safer dips.With dips you will press your upper arms against your lats and torso and thus greatly increase safety (by limiting shoulder movement) and strength
  • Safer bench pressing. This is a tricky one, but with practice you will be able to initiate the bench pressing move by contracting the lats and pressing forward with them.
  • Easier one arm presses. So with one armed presses such as the military press (lifting a dumbbell overhead), the side press (lifting a dumbbell overhead and leaning sideways) and the bent press (dropping sideways and extending the arm up) lat contraction will give a stable support for more strength generation.

Note: There is a new DVD dedicated to using the lats: Lats, the Super Muscles Check it out if you are interested in increasing your strength on upper body lifts using the lats.

Below I wanted to share a simply brilliant video showing a stop motion fight between Bruce Lee and Iron Man. It has nothing to do with the post but I wanted you to see it because it’s pure genius – right up to the way Lee’s moves and mannerisms are re-created.