Build Lats of Steel by Learning to Activate Them Properly

A great way to improve your physique and get more control over your upper body exercises is to develop your latissimus dorsi muscles [we’ll call them lats for short in this article]. Everyone likes to work out their shoulders and chest, but the one thing that will provide your upper body with a solid core and improve its girth is be developing the lat muscles.

The lats are often under looked because [men especially] are unable to see the lat muscles when they pose in the mirror, unlike the arms and shoulders. In this article I will explain why working your lats is crucial and what role the lats play in your general body movements and functions.

The lats are the muscles that help you shape a characteristic V-shape on your torso, or what is known in bodybuilding circles as the “flared” lats. The primary role of the lats is to rotate, extend and abduct the arm. Simply put the lats are the “base” for your arms. So no matter how many shoulder presses you do, if your base [lats] aren’t strong enough you simply won’t be able to progress up your weights.

Role in kettlebell training

The lats play an important role in kettlebell training, all three main exercises which include the swing, snatch and clean employ the lat muscles extensively.

Why muscle activation is important

A technique used by power lifters to help them lift the maximum amount of weight possible is to use muscle activation. An age old technique is to work up from lighter weights to heavy weights to their final max weight. The downside to this is that it uses a lot of energy and takes out a lot from your “tank”. Recently it was discover that it’s possible to activate a large proportion of your lower body muscles by standing on vibration plates for 30 seconds before your lifts. The vibrations in essence “wake up” your muscles and get them activated.

When doing upper body exercises such as the bench press and shoulder press and indeed any kettlebell exercises, it’s important to activate your lat muscles in order to get maximum control over your movements. If you don’t do this it will mean that your entire shoulder girdle is weak and not really in tune with the body.

The lat activation technique is otherwise known as “packing the joint” and is very important if you want to get the most out of your time and effort and be able to lift heavier weights from gaining more control over your lifts.

How to activate the lat muscles for the kettlebell press

Being a kettlebell trainer my focus for this article will be lat activation for the key kettlebell press, but you can use the same concept for non kettlebell exercises too.

The lats play a crucial role in the kettlebell press as it acts as a brace or foundation for the shoulders. With a wobbly foundation you cannot lift any serious amount of weight. Unlike the barbell press, the kettlebell press requires a lot more work from the lats as the kettlebell is held slightly off centre, so it requires more work from the lats to keep the kettlebell balanced.

Not only that, but the whole descent of the kettlebell from the top position is almost entirely controlled by the lat muscles, the shoulder muscle have little play in this. Arguably the descent is the hardest part of the exercise.

Lat activation methods

Grab a kettlebell and lift it up to the rack position (the position where the kettlebell is held with one hand and your elbows are by your hips and hand just in front of the centre of your chest, with kettlebell resting on the top of your wrist). With the free hand, place it behind you and onto the lats (on the side holding the kettlebell). Then shimmy your shoulders downwards toward the floor, you should be able to feel your lats become rigid, repeat 5-6 times.

This technique works with a dumbbell if you can find one small enough to hold correctly.

Mastering this technique will mean you have far more control over your shoulder presses and kettlebell presses. Get it right and soon you may be able to go up in weight with relative ease.

The article is written by Abdul Karim a kettlebell instructor from London, you can learn how to perform the kettlebell press discussed here and get full kettlebell workouts on his website.