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Starting Strength in the Real World

Lats in the Deadlift

by Steve Ross, SSC | May 04, 2021

Deadlifts are hard. Anyone who has pulled a sufficiently heavy weight off the floor can tell you about the physical and mental anguish that goes into a limit set of five. But that’s why we do it: hard things are worth doing.

The 5-step setup that Starting Strength Coaches use to teach the deadlift is absolute gold – it’s simple, straightforward, and makes the process easy to learn for beginners. It puts lifters in the correct position to pull the bar off the floor correctly every single time. Plus, any time your deadlift starts to deteriorate, revisiting the 5 steps will often clean up whatever problems you're encountering.

However, following these steps does not automatically guarantee that you’ll pull the bar off the floor in contact with your legs and into the finished lockout position. Especially at heavier weights, conscious thought needs to go into what you’re doing because the amount of deviation from correct technique we can tolerate becomes increasingly small. One of the big issues we see – especially when things get heavy or when fatigue starts to accumulate – is the tendency for the bar to start drifting forward of mid-foot as the pull is initiated. For the sake of this article, I'm going to assume that the culprit is not dropping the hips during the setup, thus kicking the bar forward. The start position isn’t supposed to be comfortable, so squeeze your chest up hard and for the love of God, don't drop your hips!

With that out of the way, I want to focus on the lats – namely, their role in the deadlift and why they are most likely the reason your bar keeps drifting forward during the pull. The latissimus dorsi muscle group originates on the spine from T7- S1, the entire lower back, and inserts anteriorly on the shaft of the humerus. To put it more succinctly, the humerus is connected to the spine via the lats. They are responsible for adduction, extension, and internal rotation of the shoulder, and are an incredibly important piece of the deadlifting puzzle. The lats work isometrically in the deadlift, meaning they do not change length during the pull, and their job is to keep the bar from drifting away from us.

A correct setup will have certain visible characteristics: the bar placed over the middle of the foot, the hips below the level of the shoulders, scapulas directly over the bar with the shoulders just out in front, and of course the back held in rigid extension. The shoulders out in front of the bar is of paramount importance here, because in this correct starting position, the lats' attachment to the humerus will be at 90 degrees and thus best positioned to apply force at their insertion point. In short, if your setup is correct, then your lats will be perfectly positioned to do their job to pull back on the humerus, to stop the bar from drifting forward.

The reason why this matters should be intuitively obvious: if the bar drifts away from the legs, the harder this already difficult physical task becomes and a wave of undesirable effects will result – your weight will shift forward to the toes, the thoracic spine will round into flexion and then all hell breaks loose. When these errors occur, a heavy enough pull simply will not lock out. We like doing hard things but we're not in the business of doing them inefficiently as a way to make life more difficult.

So, how do we stop this from happening? If the setup is correct, how to do we then ensure that our lats do what they're supposed to do? The answer is to brace/engage the lats as we prepare to break the bar off the floor. There are a few ways to think about this, but one that has worked very well for me as a lifter (and more importantly as a coach) is to think about pointing my elbows to the back wall, as if trying to bend the bar around my legs. What this does is aggressively fire the lats, closes the distance between them and the humerus, and effectively pins the bar to the shins. It also renders the entire back segment more rigid, and thus better prepared to transfer the force from the legs and hips into the loaded barbell. Remember that the role of the lats is shoulder extension and internal rotation of the humerus and “elbows back” accomplishes both of these tasks. I'll often use this cue with my lifters as they are squeezing the chest up (Step 4) before initiating the pull.

The effect of this cue can be seen clearly from the sagittal plane. Note the space between the lats and humerus becomes completely closed, indicating contracted lats, as well as the overall improved rigidity of the entire back segment. When this position is attained, the lats are ready to do exactly they’re supposed to and the back is now better prepared to act as an effective force transmitter.

Before cueing the lats.

lats engaged in the deadlift

"Elbows back," engaged lats.

When done correctly, an amazing thing happens: the deadlift cleans up right away and the pull feels "shorter." When performed correctly, it becomes obvious just how effective this is, on literally the very next rep.

If you’re struggling with this issue, give "elbows back" a try and I’m confident you’ll see and feel the difference in your deadlift.   

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