Every Olympic year, I find myself marveling once again at how each sport shapes its athletes’ bodies: the bulging thighs of sprinters and cyclists, the lean mass of marathon runners, the powerful necks of wrestlers and male gymnasts, the broad shoulders of swimmers. Television coverage of the 2004 games in Greece devoted lots of attention to the swimmers, and that got me thinking about the latissimus dorsi—about why this muscle is so pronounced in swimmers and how it relates to yoga.
While the lats aren’t often mentioned in yoga classes, and most yoga students don’t look like swimmers—you know, the telltale triangular-shaped torso, rounded upper back, and tendency to stand with the palms of the hands facing backward—the lats do support the torso and shoulders in some yoga poses. And perhaps most important for yoga practitioners, tight, short lats can negatively affect your posture and significantly limit the range of motion in your shoulders.
You have one lat on each side of your back, just under the skin. These broad, flat muscles originate on the upper posterior pelvis and on the lumbar and lower thoracic vertebrae (the vertebrae of the lower and lower middle back). The lats’ long muscle fibers then extend diagonally up and out across the back and through the armpit to the inner upper humerus (the upper arm bone).
Just as with any muscle, when the lats contract, they try to pull the bones to which they attach closer together. If your shoulder is flexed—that is, if your arm is up in front of you or overhead—contracting your lats will pull the arm and torso together, creating shoulder extension. This is what happens when you do a chin-up, row, or swim freestyle. The muscles are also worked when you do lat pull-downs—reaching overhead to grab a bar, then pulling it toward your chest—in a gym. (I don’t recommend the variation where you pull the bar behind your head. Most of us already carry our heads too far forward, and this variation can exacerbate that tendency.) The lats are also worked if you start with your arms up and out to the sides (shoulder abduction), then pull them in toward your sides, much like you do when you swim breaststroke (shoulder adduction).
Although you infrequently pull your arms down against resistance in yoga, you do employ a lesser-known action of the lats—lifting your torso by planting your hands at your sides—in a number of asanas such as Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) and some arm balances in which the torso is kept relatively upright, including Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose) and Lolasana (Pendant Pose).
In Upward Dog, for instance, if your lats aren’t strong enough, your torso will sag toward the floor and your shoulders will hunch up by your ears. Try the following exercise to feel the lats’ action for yourself. Sit on the floor with your spine erect and your legs straight out in front of you in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Place a block at its lowest level next to each hip, and put a hand on each block. Press your hands into the blocks, straighten your elbows, and lift your torso so your hips come off the floor.
If left to their own devices, the lats tend to roll the shoulders down and forward and close the chest when they lift the weight of the torso. This is undesirable in Upward Dog, and indeed in almost all yoga poses. To counter that tendency, activate the back muscles below your shoulder blades, including the lower trapezius, which will pull your shoulder blades down and help open your chest.
To experience this, sit again in Dandasana with your palms on blocks beside your hips. Lift your breastbone and pull your shoulder blades down toward the back of your waist. Keep the breastbone lifted as you gradually press your hands into the blocks and lift your torso and hips off the floor. You’ll need these actions for Upward Dog: the lats lifting your spine and torso up while the lower trapezius keeps the chest open.
As you might guess from the above example, the lats can be a powerful influence on your posture. If they’re strong and tight from regular strengthening activities like swimming or rowing, or weak and tight from too little stretching or strengthening, the tightness will roll the shoulders forward and down toward the chest, contributing to a collapsed chest. Pulling the shoulder blades down and back in most of your yoga poses will help strengthen the muscles that oppose the lats, especially the middle and lower trapezius. These same muscles will also be strengthened if you practice Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and focus on lifting and opening the chest.
Tight lats can cause another big problem for yoga practitioners; they can reduce the range of motion in shoulder flexion (that is, when you bring your arm forward and up overhead). You need shoulder flexion in many poses, including Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with the arms overhead, and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). You especially need full shoulder flexion, which is 180 degrees between the torso and humerus, in Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Downward-Facing Tree Pose, more often called Handstand). Without full shoulder flexion, your back has to over-arch to compensate.
There are many ways to stretch the lats and improve your shoulder flexion, but a good method is to lie on your back with a rolled towel across your upper shoulder blades, at the base of your neck but not actually under your neck. Bending your knees and placing your feet flat on the floor, lift your pelvis and move your buttocks toward your heels, then bring your pelvis back to the ground. This lengthening is necessary because one of the lats’ many actions is to extend (backbend) the lower spine; to stretch the lats, you need to counter that tendency. Next, stretch your arms up toward the ceiling and then overhead toward the floor. Keep your elbows straight and lengthen the lats from your waist, across the side ribs, and into the armpits.
If you feel pain in your shoulders, use a block or other object to support your hands at a height where you feel a stretch but no pain. Hold this position for two to three minutes, breathing smoothly and evenly. Over time, your lats will lengthen. When they do, you may be able to use a bigger roll under your upper back. As the height of the prop increases, most students need to use a little support under the head to avoid hyperextending (overarching) the neck.
The lats have yet another action that influences shoulder flexibility and function in yoga poses. In addition to performing shoulder extension and adduction, and torso elevation and its postural influence, the lats powerfully internally rotate the shoulder. Many other muscles help the lats do this, including the pectoralis major (the primary muscle of the chest), the subscapularis (one of the four rotator cuff muscles, located deep in the back of the armpit), and the teres major (which originates on the outer edge of the shoulder blade and travels with the lats through the armpit to the inner upper humerus).
To experience internal shoulder rotation, stand with your arms by your sides and face your palms back, then continue the rotation until your palms face out to the sides and the little-finger sides of your hands are forward. If you hold that rotation and bring your arms forward and overhead, your palms will face out away from each other and your thumbs will point forward. This is internal shoulder rotation with flexion—and, with very few exceptions, it’s not the rotation you want to accompany shoulder flexion in your yoga poses.
In fact, to create the shoulder position you want in almost all yoga poses, you must use the muscles that oppose the lats. Before taking your arms overhead into flexion, for example, rotate your arms externally by turning your palms forward and continuing that rotation until the palms face out to the sides; hold that rotation as you raise your arms, so your palms face each other and your thumbs point back when your shoulders are fully flexed. Also, whenever you stretch your arms overhead, whether lying on a roll or standing in Warrior I, don’t engage the lats to arch your lower back and poke your lower ribs forward. Instead, move your kidneys backward—they’re located just inside your back lower ribs—and feel your back rib cage lift away from your lower back. Visualize the lats lengthening from the back of your waist diagonally up and out, over the side ribs to the armpits, and let the lift continue up through your arms to your fingertips and beyond.
When your lats can fully release, your whole pose will open up. You probably won’t wind up with the pronounced triangular torso of an Olympic swimmer, but you’ll most likely experience a wonderful sensation of inner spaciousness.
A licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad runs a private physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon. She regrets that she cannot respond to correspondence or calls requesting personal health advice.