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Your latissimus dorsii (latissimus= "on the side," dorsii = "on the back") are the big muscles on the sides of your back that give the taper between your shoulders and your waist. They're kind of like the glutes of the upper body, a big, fatigue-tolerant prime mover that's involved in nearly everything you do, from pull-ups and push-ups to throwing, kicking or even jumping!
All of which is great, but lats are also the cause of a lot of pain and discomfort. That's because we spend way too much time doing nothing physically. Then you head to the gym, do some pulldowns (that's your lats), benches (guess what? Lats) and a few planks (there they are again!) and head home The postural muscles that are supposed to be holding your arms and upper back in place aren't really getting a look-in, but your lats are getting a big wake-up call. So when your body needs something to stabilise your arms and upper back, it calls on your lats because it knows how.
The problem is your lats have several jobs to do, and having them doing those jobs all the time isn't especially good for you. Lats:
- Pull your shoulders down
- Pull your arms down
- Internally rotate your arms
- Flex your thoracic spine
So when you're using them as a postural muscle, that's what you're going to end up with. Much low back pain comes from chronically over activated lats curving the spine out of shape, throwing the load on the lumbar spine in a bad position. A lot of neck pain is coming from the same place: with the T-spine locked down by the lats, the C-spine has nowhere to go and has to work on a tilted base to boot.
The solution is to learn to use the postural muscles of the upper back, the epispinals, rhomboids and the rotator cuff and traps, to do their job of maintaining spine shape and controlling shoulder and arm posture. But in order for them to be able to do it, the lats need to relax. Which means you need to know how to find them, so you can turn them off!
How To Find Your Lats: Part 1
Reach under your arm. When your fingers are touching the base of your shoulder blade, your lat is in the palm of your hand. So now you know where it is, but you can't turn it off with your hands. You need to be able to find your lats neurologically.
How To Find Your Lats: Part 2
Stand tall and move your right arm away from your body. Internally rotate, and then reach down, without moving your shoulder or bending at the waist. The muscle that's doing that is your lat. Do the same on the other side, and repeat a couple of times to learn how to do it without external cues.