In this article, we will examine the anatomy and functions of the latissimus dorsi (lats) and the best ways to strengthen and stretch them. The goal is to give you a better understanding of why stretching the lats is beneficial to your performance and overall health. And hopefully you can incorporate some of the techniques in this article into your exercise program. After all, the goal is for your lats to feel and perform their best.
What are Your Lat Muscles
Are you familiar with the signature v-tapered back? Well, strong lats provide you with that look, but they aren’t just there for superficial reasons. Strong lats help support good posture, spinal stability, and shoulder strength. Lats are triangularly-shaped muscles that cover the majority of the lower thorax. As the largest upper-body muscle, the lats are integral to spinal and shoulder movements. They work with the teres major and pectoral major to carry out most upper-body actions.
Lat Anatomy And Function
Any activity that involves repetitive upper back movement likely involves the lats. They originate at the sinuous processes and supraspinous ligament of the bottom six thoracic vertebrae, and the inferior end of the fibers that connect to your bottom three or four ribs. Muscle fibers extend from the origin points to the insertion point, which is the floor of the intertubercular groove of the humerus. All of these origin points meet in a narrow insertion area that forms the fan-like shape of the lats. The lats work to perform most major upper-body actions, from pull-ups and rows to simple twists and shoulder movements.
What Causes Tight Lats?
Tight lats are fairly common among athletic and sedentary types. Exercising, daily activities, rounded shoulders, and poor posture can cause lats to tighten. Many activities, including cycling, swimming, gardening, surfing, and rock climbing, can contribute to upper back tension. A back workout that involves a lot of lat exercises is a primary cause of lat tightness.
How To Know If Your Lats Are Tight
It is very common for lats to feel tight and you can identify tightness via a few signature signs. Poor posture, rounded shoulders, nagging upper back or neck aches, and pain that radiates between the shoulder blades are signs that you need to stretch your lats. You can also tell if your lats are tight by doing a squat with your arms extended overhead. You can also do the lat tightness mobility test, which is detailed below.
Lat Tightness Mobility Test
In order to perform this test, follow these steps:
- Stand up straight with your feet hip-distance apart and toes pointing forward.
- Sink as low as you can into a squat, ensuring that your hips don’t shift and that your toes continue to point forward. Make sure your heels don’t rise off the ground.
- Your arms should remain by your side up until this point. Once you are in the low squat, extend your arms overhead and point your fingers toward the ceiling.
- If your lats are tight, you won’t be able to hold your arms in an upright position for a very long time. In fact, they’ll probably fall forward or you will feel stiffness/pain in your back.
Why You Should Stretch Your Lats
One of the primary reasons to stretch your lats is to help improve posture. When your lat muscles are tight, you are more inclined to round your shoulders and increase upper-body tension or aches that radiate throughout the upper back. Improving flexibility in your lats and upper back can also increase mobility in the shoulders, scapulas, and spine. Stretching your lats can help make most things easier, from bending down to tie your shoes to doing a wide-grip pull-up. Lastly, your lats aid with deep breathing, but they may impair your ability to breathe deeply if they are tight. Stretch your lats and you may notice an improvement in how well you breathe.
Best Lat Stretches To Try Today
Below, you’ll find 15 ways to stretch and strengthen your lats. You can incorporate them into your warm up or cool down sessions. You can fit them into your upper-body workouts or do them any time you feel tightness or pain in your lats. Some of the following movements are dynamic while others are static, which we’ll identify in the movements.
15. Active Floor Stretch
For this active floor stretch, you don’t need any exercise equipment. You just need some space and the floor, making it great for stretching lats at home or on the go.
- Begin in a kneeling position and then sink back into your hips. Place your hands on the ground in front of your knees.
- Lean your weight to the right and forward to place your right forearm along the floor. Reach your left arm forward and to the right as well until you feel a stretch down your left side of your torso.
- Hold this position for a few seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times and then switch sides.
14. Hanging Lat Stretch
Hanging is beneficial for decompressing the spine and creating space between the vertebrae. Hanging lat stretch is not only great for your lats, but it also works to strengthen grip and improves shoulder mobility.
- Place your hands in an overhand grip on a pull-up bar.
- You should now be in a hanging position, ensuring that your feet are off the ground.
- Relax in the hang, allowing your lats and shoulders to lengthen. Your ears should be close to your shoulders.
- Hang there and breathe deeply. In a static hold, aim to hold for 30 seconds and build up to one minute. In a dynamic hold, start in a static position and then retract the shoulder blades to push down your shoulders.
- Once your ears are by your elbows, hold the position for as long as you can.
13. Bench Kneeling Lat Stretch
A gym bench is the ideal piece of equipment to use for this stretch, but it isn’t necessary. YOu can use a piano bench, office chair, kitchen chair, or sturdy box and place something comfortable under your knees.
- Kneel on the floor with your hips and knees hip-distance apart. The bench in front of you should be far enough away that you can fully extend your arms to touch it.
- Hinge at the hips to lean forward, maintaining a straight back and sturdy core. Place your hands on the bench and keep your arms straight.
- The more you lean forward, the more your arms come into a straight line with your shoulders. Sink back into the hips and keep your palms pressed into the bench.
- Remain in this position, feeling the deep stretch along your lats, tucking your chin to stabilize your spine.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds as a static stretch, or make it dynamic by moving from kneeling to upright and back again 10-12 times.
12. Supine Kettlebell Pullover
Although this article’s focus is on lat stretches, this dynamic movement aims to strengthen the lats and the abdominal muscles. This exercise falls under the plank umbrella, and it helps you from extending your spine. Maintaining stability while moving the kettlebell in a controlled manner is an excellent way to increase your ab strength. Don’t use your biceps to muscle through this stretch, or they will spazz out and you’ll have to stretch them before continuing.
- Lie flat on your back in a supine position, but grab a kettlebell that isn’t too heavy before you lay down.
- With the kettlebell in your hands, extend it straight above you, engaging your core and pectoral muscles. Brace your spine against the floor and keep your hips flexed as you lower the kettlebell overhead to the ground.
- Return to the starting position, using your abdominal muscles and lats to do so. Complete a total of 10 reps and then rest. Complete two more sets of 10 reps.
11. Bent Arm Wall Stretch
In this stretch, you will focus on one side of your upper back at a time. This will enable you to identify any lat imbalances that may exist. If stretching one side triggers more tension, then that side is likely tighter and you can work more to lengthen those muscles.
- Stand up and face a wall, making sure to keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees slightly and lean forward against the wall. Raise your right arm over your head, hinge at the elbow so that your forearm is parallel to the floor. Lean your bent right arm against the wall.
- As you press into the wall, feel your right lats stretching and hold this position for 30-45 seconds. Repeat on the other side and stretch each side at least twice.
10. Foam Rolling
There is nothing greater than the release you get from foam rolling, which should be a staple in everyone’s stretching repertoire. Myofascial foam rolling works to massage muscle fibers and increase muscle length. It also works to reduce tension in muscle tissue, improving blood flow to the area, which may help accelerate recovery and reduce inflammation.
- Lie down on your right side, extending your right arm out overhead. Your thumb should face upwards and you should rotate your shoulder externally.
- Place the foam roller underneath your right armpit perpendicular to your body.
- Roll back and forth across the upper lat and into the armpit, ensuring that you do not roll down to the ribs. It is very easy to crack a rib, so make sure you don’t roll your ribcage.
- Repeat up and down rolling for at least 30 seconds and then switch sides.
9. Exercise Ball Stretch
You will need an exercise ball for this stretch, which works to lengthen the lats and improve overhead mobility. If you want a slightly different version of the stretch, place your palm on the ball and face it up or down.
- Start in a tabletop position with your knees directly under your hips and hands directly under your shoulders.
- Place your right hand on the exercise ball with your thumb facing the ceiling.
- Press your left arm into the ground for support while you engage your core muscles. With your right arm extended out on the ball in front of you, roll it forward to sink deeper into the stretch.
- Once you feel the stretch, hold this position for 20-30 seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
8. Eagle Pose
Although this is a traditional yoga pose, it also doubles as a great lat stretch and shoulder opener. It does use different leg and foot positions, but this pose is going to focus on arm positions that help you stretch your lats.
- Stand up straight with your arms straight out in front of you. Bend your arms and cross the left arm over your right, hooking at the elbows.
- Once your arms are hooked at the elbow, bring your forearms together and wrap your right palm around your left palm, crossing at the wrists.
- Raise your elbows to shoulder height while you maintain a straight spine and hold this position for about 30 seconds.
- Release your arms and then repeat crossing the other way.
7. Upward Salute
One of the main things to remember when you stretch your lats is to get as much length in an overhead position as possible. Similar to other lat stretches, the upward salute uses an overhead position to stretch the lats. It’s a staple in the Sun Salutation, which is found in most yoga classes.
- Stand up straight and raise your arms overhead and keep your shoulders relaxed. Face your palms toward each other.
- Remain grounded and keep your arms in line with your shoulders. Clasp your palms together and tilt your head back slightly to look up.
- If you want to intensify the stretch, reach high using your core muscles and lean back just a bit. If your core is too tight, consider engaging in some ab stretches before you do this stretch.
6. Child’s Pose
Child’s pose is a classic resting posture in most yoga classes, but you can achieve a dynamic back stretch while doing it. Ideally, you extend your arms as far out as you can to create length in your upper back.
- Begin on all fours in a tabletop position, stacking your hips over your knees and shoulders over your wrists.
- With your toes untucked, sit your butt back towards your heels. You may need to angle your knees out to the sides a bit to get comfortable.
- Your arms should be extended out in front of you, but try to extend all the way through your fingertips to really feel a stretch along your lats. Hold this position for as long as you need to.
5. Standing Side Lat Stretch
For the standing side lat stretch, you can use anything from a squat rack to a door frame. You should feel the stretch run deep down your side, from your lats to your obliques.
- Stand in front of the piece of gym equipment or door frame and turn your body sideways so that your right shoulder is facing the equipment.
- Keeping your fight side by side, raise your arms straight overhead and then move them laterally to the right to grab the equipment/door frame. Keep your hands right next to each other and relatively straight.
- Extend your hip out to the left until you feel a stretch along your entire side. Hold this position for about 15-20 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
4. Dynamic Back & Shoulder Stretch
If it’s back day at the gym, the dynamic back and shoulder stretch is great to include in your pre-workout routine. This stretch also works to warm up the shoulders to improve flexibility, extension, and flexion.
- Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your arms by your sides, extending your elbows.
- Swing your arms straight in front of you so that the shoulders are in flexion. Your arms should come straight overhead, and you should ideally feel a stretch in your upper back.
- In a controlled movement that flows, bring your arms back down and repeat the upward swing again. Repeat a total of 10 times.
3. Downward Facing Dog
Yet another classic yoga pose, downward dog makes it onto this list for good reason. Although this position can help stretch your hamstrings and calves, it also creates space in your upper back. It’s a great full-body stretch you can do any time of day.
- Begin on all fours in a tabletop position, stacking your hips over your knees and shoulders over your wrists.
- With your toes tucked, lift your knees off the floor and push your hips back gently, straightening your knees and lengthening at the waist.
- The last thing you want to do is round your back and shrug your shoulders. You want to drop your shoulders, widen your lats, and push your butt up and back. You can bend your knees slightly if necessary to maintain proper form.
- Hold this position for about 20-30 seconds and then return to the starting position.
2. Lat Pull-down
While pull-ups are phenomenal for increasing upper-body strength, they can be difficult. Fortunately, you have lat pull-downs, which involve a similar movement to the pull-up. This exercise challenges your upper back, targeting your lats and traps.
- You can take a neutral or wide-grip position on the lat pull-down machine. Wide-grip may be more difficult if you don’t usually do this exercise. That’s because the wide-grip version works your lats harder.
- Choose a weight that is comfortable to start, and you can increase as you progress through the exercise.
- Grip the pull-down bar and sit down on the seat, planting your feet flat on the floor and wedging your thighs under the stoppers.
- Lean back slightly (no more than a 45º angle) and engage your lats to pull the bar down to your chest. Pause for a brief moment before returning the bar to an overhead position. Repeat for a total of 10 times, rest, and complete two more sets of 10 reps.
1. Overhead Lat Stretch
If you lift weights or play sports that involve powerful movements, you should regularly engage in overhead lat stretches. Many boxers and other athletes use this stretch in their warm-ups.
- Stand up straight with your feet hip-distance apart and raise your arms straight overhead.
- Grab your right wrist with your left hand and sway your hips to the right as you pull your right wrist to the left overhead.
- You should feel a stretch along your lats and ribs, but make sure not to extend too much, so as not to break form.
- Hold this position for about 20 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
When to Stretch Your Lats
You should incorporate lat stretches into your pre- and post-workout routines. Warming up with some of these movements can help reduce the risk of injury during workout, while cooling down with some may relieve post-workout tightness. Even if you don’t hit the gym, health experts advise stretching your lats periodically throughout the day. This is especially true for people who sit at desks or stand up all day. When you stretch your lats, you counteract the natural rounding that takes place, and you can keep your upper back loose and limber as a result.
Dynamic vs. Static Lat Stretches
You should ideally engage in dynamic lat stretches prior to starting your workout. These active movements can stretch and warm up your lats and shoulder joints to help optimize your range of motion. Vertical arm swings, for example, help to create more space and mobility in the shoulders, making that movement very dynamic.
If you just finished a hard back workout or are stiff from sitting all day, your muscles are naturally sore. In these scenarios, you want to focus on static lat stretches, which work to lengthen the lat muscles. You can hold static stretches for 30-60 seconds, but you can hold them for a little longer if necessary. Make sure that you ease into static stretches to help avoid injury when your muscles are sore and tired.
Tight lats can affect the most basic of movements, which is why you should aim to stretch them daily. You don’t have to do all of these stretches every day, but consider fitting some of them into your pre- or post-workout routines, or even on your lunch break. Just remember to engage in both the dynamic and static stretches, as they benefit your body in different ways, but they primarily help to relieve tension.