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.
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.
45 thoughts on “Lat Contraction – Can This Technique Be the Key to Shoulder Health and Freaky Pushing Power?”
Another way to take stress off your shoulders is to use dumbbells instead of barbells.
When you are bench-pressing with a barbell your hands are fixed on the bar so when you raise the weight up what your hands really want to do is come together. Your Pecs are pulling on your Humerus (upper arm bone) to bring them closer together. But since your hands are fixed on the bar it puts more shearing force on your shoulders.
The older I get the more I use dumbbells for my weight training routines.
Great post by Rusty on the one arm press and I like your post on push-up technique.
Best – Mike
Mike, great points..
People are hesitant to use dumbbells, because the barbell bench can be done with huge weights. But freedom from injuries is much more important.
Plus dumbbbells require more stabilization.
Yavor, That was a very helpful post. I will definitely be making some adjustments and incorporating your tips when doing chest exercises.
You gotta love Bruce Lee. That first picture has always reminded me of a hooded cobra ready to strike.
This is interesting stuff. I’ll have to try this when I get in the gym. Although I don’t have any shoulder issues (knock on wood), it’s good to know how to prevent them.
And it seems as if everyone’s writing about shoulders these days 🙂
I like to do these as a stand alone, or when I do pushups (at the bottom). I’ve heard people call that hold an “alligator” position. Isometrics work really well for this and a few other exercises, in my opinion.
Very interesting post. Having suffered the last few years with pain in both shoulders and knowing how frustrating this can be with regard to my training this a great tip for anybody with pain free shoulders to keep them that way.
As Mike mentioned above I do all my chest and shoulder work with dumbbells now and have seen great improvements in shoulder stabilization and strength plus I am now almost pain free. I would recommend anybody who doesn’t use dumbbells to include them on a regular basis.
Thanks Yavor will give this technique a try in my next workout.
Sounds like a very good idea to focus on the muscle group to help with those exercises.
If its good enough for Bruce,well who am I to argue!
That’s a very entertaining video love it.
Those shoulders are so fragile.
Interesting point about optimal arm position on pushups and incorporating the lats / keeping the shoulders “down”.
My shoulders have definitely benefited from similar advice.
Bruce Lee was an animal!
Thanks for your post,
Yavor, you have hit the nail on the head(as we say in the US) I wrote about best rotator cuff exercise being the lat pull down a while ago.
I goes into how working the lats will actually reduce and prevent shoulder pain from over working the “pushing muscles”.
BTW, the Bruce v Ironman is brilliant! Bruce is re-incarnated and truly an action figure with attitude!
Give it a shot! Your shoulders will thank you. Bruce by the way was way ahead of his time. I’ve been studying books on him and the depth of his fitness knowledge is incredible.
Glad you are injury free man. Stay that way!
Never heard about this alligator position but it makes sense. I use the technique with pushups too. It’s how I become pushup champ at our gym.
Thanks for stopping by. What caused those shoulder problems? Usually this gives a huge clue as to what to do to prevent them (i.e. do the opposite)
The video is genius! This guy is a very talented artist. He’s got a few more really cool ones too.
Yeah you got it exactly right:
1. keep the shoulcders down
2. don’t flare out the arms – keep ~ 45 degree angle
Excellent way to save the shoulders while still doing very important pushing exercises. This is something I’ll definitely pay closer attention to next time I lift. Thanks!
Another informative post Yavor! Anytime you can get Bruce Lee and Pavel in the same post, it’s got to be good! I have been intensely studying Pavel’s “Enter The Kettlebell” and am amazed that it took me so long to give Pavel’s stuff a try. He actually talks about this technique when doing presses with kettlebells as well.
Bruce Lee was just a beast! I wish he was still around. I can only imagine what we missed out on with his passing.
Try the technique man. Especially on bench presses and dips, it’s a shoulder savewr. On one arm standing presses it’s the key to great pressing strength.
haha yeah, Pavel + Bruce is quite a combo! My original fitness mentor taught me this stuff way back in 2002. He learned it from Pavel’s books.
I think if Bruce was still around, he’d be making even bigger waves now, but ona more philosophical and spiritual level.
Excellent info. I hurt my right shoulder last year and it took a long time, and lots of rehab exercises to fully recover. The shoulder girdle is able to twist and rotate in just about any direction, which is great for range of motion, unfortunately it also makes it unstable and open to injury. I’m definitely going to be incorporating this technique into my training.
By the way I’m a big Bruce Lee fan, I’m impressed you where able to convince him to be your teaching assistant, lol. Great clip too.
Great post! Love your insights.You get a set of rings yet?
Try the technique. I bet you’ll feel the shoulders safer this way.
By the way, have you read books on/about Bruce? The Tao of Jeet Kune do is interesting regarding fighting technique and philosophy but the other one (written by John Little) – the Art of Expressing the Human Body, has some cool routines and exercises Bruce did
Nope, no rings yet. Maybe in the spring I will make myself a set of DIY TRX straps with a thick rope. Doing bodyweight stuff and dumbbells at home now.
And recovering from a shoulder (actually biceps in the insertion point in the shoulder) injury from a very effective (develops killer chest fast) and very dangerous (kills the shoulders even fatser lol) dip variation.
I have the The Art Of Expressing The Human Body book. I bought it a few 3 or 4 years ago, it got me into circuit training. I’m still working on the “flag pole” move though 🙂 Great book. I’m thinking of finally getting one of Pavel’s books. Any suggestion on which one is best or best to start with?
David, on Pavel’s books:
Power to the People is great because it explains irradiation and also gives a solid strength-only routine. You will benefit from it the most if you’ve got experience on training for size only (so when you couple strength from Pavel’s book with your experience for size training the combo is killer)
Beyond Bodybuilding is a treasure chest of different articles on all kinds of subjects (like pushup training, different body building hacks, etc).
Naked Warrior is an ok book (convict conditioning has more variation though) on bodyweight training with just the one arm pushup and the pistol squat. The strength of the book is in technique description.
The Russian Kettlebell Challenge is THE book on kettlebells.
Bulletproof Abs is Pavel’s take on ab training (full contact twists, dragon flags, etc)
So I’d start with PTP
Great post. I sometimes tweak my shoulder a little while doing bench presses. I’ll definitely try to incorporate the lat contraction into my lifting.
Alykhan, with benches the main thing is NOT to have the arms flared out, but at a slight angle downwards.
flared out will give you a great chest, but will stress the shoulders a lot.
Another solid post, Yavor.
Lats are so often underestimated and overlooked as a key muscle that should be developed. Thanks for giving us another reason to keep working them hard.
A great program on having proper form is Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. It covers bench press, press, deadlift, squat and clean and press.
Another great exercise that I’ve found to work the lats are pushups with the elbows pointing downward at 45 degrees. A friend told me about this one, he told me to try and do 10 x 10 (which I couldn’t do). In the end, I was really surprised at how much it worked my lats.
I have often struggled with shoulder health, including several injuries while doing dips!
Each time, you guessed it, I was not keeping my shoulders “down” as you describe in this post.
I can definitely attest that engaging the lats and keeping the shoulders packed down will keep your shoulders much healthier.
Also, I have found that doing dips on gymnastics rings or a suspension trainer (like the TRX or homemade options) automatically forces you to engage your lats since you are pressing against an unstable hand hold.
So, doing dips on this equipment is not only more challenging, but also safer.
My two cents…
Just wanted to tell you how well my shoulder is doing after doing this method while I do ring dips or pushups.
Looking forward to more tips like this one!
Yavor, sorry its off topic but wanted to know if pull-ups and chin-ups worked the triceps? What’s the best exercise for these.
Sue, pullups and chinups work the triceps, but only isometrically.
The best exercise for triceps should be a pushing move – dips are fantastic for this. So are pushups.
For pushups the main thing is to have the elbows back, not out to the side. Keep the body rigid like a plank. and only move by pressing up with the arms.
I’m guessing that you want to tighten the back of the arms – if that’s the case, pushups will do the trick as far as tightening the muscle goes.
But the main thing is to lose a bit of weight with a caloric deficit. The reason for this is that the jiggly thingie at the back of the arm is not a muscle that lacks muscle tone, but actually pure fat. So burn the fat off by eating less and exercsing more and your arms will be firm and tight, even if you don’t do any triceps exercises.
Thanks Yavor – how did you know I had that jiggly thingie happening!! Yes, I need more fat loss. Just worried that after the fat loss it will still jiggle. Went from 80kg to 67kg – working towards 55kg.
What does it mean works ‘only isometrically?’
isometrically means the exercise works those muscles in a static way – without moving. But this isn’t important.
Just stick to what you’ve been doing so far – obviously it’s working. When you lose the weight, your arms will be firm,
But still pushups are a great tool for your workout.
As for how I knew – I work with girls as a personal trainer 🙂
I suffer from shoulder pain because of previous injury and your military press advice really helped me in the past. This post is very informative, and will help save my shoulders again! I have been hesitant to move up my weight in military press, and even bench press out of fear of re-injury. Since reading this post and Rusty’s one armed military press I am more confident in increasing weight for these exercises, and feel much more stable performing them. Thanks again for the great tips.
Jordan, if all else fails, I have yet another idea for shoulder training with sub-maximal loads. But this calls for another [ost…
Thanks for the props Yavor 😉
You’re site is kicking ass by the way.
Keep it up!
Just seeing a picture of Bruce Lee made me want to read this post. I always wondered how he was able to perform that move where he spreads his lats like a cobra head. Sadly I am still not able to do it but thanks for the great post.
Yavor – look forward to more posts by you.
As always,a great article.
I was wondering what you were/are doing to rehab your shoulder. I have kind of the same thing after doing dips a while ago. I have no problem with most exercises but my right bicep, (up towards the front delt) hurts when I do things like externally rotate and when my elbow comes far back on rows and pushing exercises.
Any suggestions? I’ve been doing rehab and been training around this, but it’s been this way for ca 3-4 weeks and I want to do whatever I can to speed up the process.
John – my shoulder and biceps are fine now. What did I do? Stopped training anything that hurt me.
I couldn’t do pushups or pullups at all.
Once the pain subsided (after 3-5 weeks) I started doing pushups with proper form (started at 1 pushup, the next day 2, etc.) Once I got to 10 pushups the pain was gone pretty much. Then I started training harder – started a workout of 10 x 10 pushups with 1 minute rest. Then each day I decreased the rest by 5 seconds. Doing this I got to 20 seconds rest at which point I actually started getting more muscular in the chest.
So to recap:
2. start training pushups very conservatively
My elbows have been bothering me and resting them (not pushing through the pain) is the right thing to do. Rest is very important then easing back into a program with good form is the way to go.
Although I really like what you write, It’s been some time since you published anything. I just wanted to know if I am missing anything, like new URL or anything like that
Nope, no new URL. Busy with real world problems I’m afraid.
whats up yavor?
What’s up Gil? Still training hard?
Thank you for this article. Since reading about Lat Contractions, I have seen incredible results when doing chest dips. I do chest dips deep and slow using Lats and I made chest is growing with out the shoulder pain before learning this technique.
God Bless you and Thank you!
Dee, you are very welcome. God bless you too!
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