Assessing for Lat and Teres Tightness with Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Limitations in overhead shoulder mobility are common and often a frequent source of nagging shoulder pain and decreased performance.  Any loss of shoulder elevation mobility can be an issue with both fitness enthusiasts and athletes.  Just look at all the exercises that require a good amount of shoulder mobility in the fitness, Crossfit, and sports performance worlds.  Overhead press, thrusters, overhead squats, and snatches are some of the most obvious, put even exercises like pullups, handstands, wall balls, and hanging knee and toe ups can be problematic, especially when combined with speed and force such as during a kipping pull up.

Assessing for Lat and Teres Tightness with Overhead Shoulder MobilityWhen assessing for limitations in overhead shoulder elevation, there are several things you need to evaluate.  I’ve discussed many of these in several past blog posts and Inner Circle webinars on How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility.

I am worried about what I am seeing on the internet right now.

I feel like the mobility trends I am seeing are focused on torquing the shoulder joint to try to improve overhead mobility.  Remember, the shoulder is a VERY mobile joint that tends to run into trouble from a lack of stability.  Trying to stretch out the joint or shoulder capsule should never be the first thing you attempt with self mobilization techniques.  In fact, I have found it causes way more problems than it solves.

Think about it for a second…

If your shoulder can’t fully elevate, jamming it into more elevation is only going to cause more issues. Find the cause. [Click to Tweet]

In my experience, the focus should be on the soft tissue around the joint, not the shoulder joint itself.  The muscles tend to be more of the mobility issue from my experience than the joint.  Just think about all the chronic adaptations that occur from out postures and habits throughout the date.

Two of the most muscles that I see causing limitations in overhead shoulder mobility at the latissimus dorsi and the teres major.

Here’s a quick and easy way to assess the lat and teres during arm elevation.

Assessing and Improving Overhead Shoulder Mobility

For those interested in learning more, I have a few Inner Circle webinars on how to assess and improve overhead shoulder mobility:

Enhancing Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Enhancing Overhead Shoulder MobilityOverhead shoulder mobility is one of the things that a large majority of people could all improve on if addressed appropriately.  This seems to be limited in a very large percentage of people, especially in those with shoulder pain and dysfunction.  Perhaps it has to do with our seated postures or our more sedentary lifestyles, but regardless limited overhead shoulder mobility is probably going to cause issues if not addressed.


Enhancing Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Here is a clip from my brand new educational program with Eric Cressey, Functional Stability Training for the Upper Body.  In the clip I am assessing someone with limited overhead shoulder mobility.  During the assessment it became clear that he had a few issues limiting his mobility, but I wanted to demonstrate how a few simple manual therapy techniques can clear up this pattern rather quickly if assessed and treated appropriately.

It really goes back down to a proper assessment and know what you are looking for when assessing people.  This is just a very small clip of some of the great information we cover in our new program, which is on sale for $20 off this week (sale ends Sunday May 18th at midnight EST).   Click here or the image below to order now before the sale ends!

Functional Stability Training for the Upper Body

Pull Up or Chin Up? Which is Better?

Similar to my article on squat technique variations in the past, this week is dedicated to the pull up and chin up exercises.  Two similar, yet different exercises with some obvious benefits and differences between the two, most notably biceps involvement with the supinated position of the forearm during the chin up.  Personally, I have always thought of the chin up as more of a “beach muscle” exercise and something that I often avoided, especially in overhead athletes that already have issues with SLAP tears and the involvement of the long head of the biceps.

Pull Up

Photo by Jayel Aheram

Pull Up  Versus Chin Up

A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed some differences that were new to me, and may influence our choice between the pull up and chin up exercises.

The authors compared EMG activity of several muscle groups during both the pull up and chin up in 25 healthy subjects.  Both exercises showed significant involvement of the latissimus dorsi, ranging from 117-130% MVIC, obviously.  The chin up, as expected, had significantly higher biceps activity, however, the chin up also had significantly higher pectoralis major activity.

The pull up did have one advantage in regard to the EMG activity.  Lower trapezius activity was significantly higher in the pull up versus the chin up.

So is the pull up or chin up a “better” exercise?

I guess it depends on your definition of better since neither are bad.

If you are weightlifting for good looks and to impress the ladies – looks like the chin up is best for you – high lat activity with greater biceps and pec activity.

For those worried about posture, shoulder function, and general athleticism, as well as for those that may have some shoulder pathology, the pull up may be the better option as you minimize pectoralis major activity and maximize lower trapezius muscle activity.  Both are common goals when dealing with posture and upper body cross syndrome.  The lower trapezius is often an area that gets weak, especially in the presence of shoulder pathology, so any exercise variation that increases lower trap involvement is a plus for me, especially when you are likely performing the exercise primarily for the latissimus.

For the athletes, especially the overhead athletes that don’t want to emphasize biceps activity especially when the body is distracting away from the body, I would say the pull up is probably better suited.  Especially when you consider the above in regard to posture.

What do you think?  Does this information change your perspective on the pull up and chin up exercises?  What have you used as criteria to choose between the pull up and chin up?

The Lat Pulldown – How to Maximize Latissimus Activity

The lat pulldown exercise is such a common exercise that I bet you’d be surprised if I told you that I think you are performing it wrong.  OK, so maybe you aren’t doing it “wrong” but I bet there is a better technique you can perform to maximize our training of the latissimus dorsi muscle.

image I think at this point in time, it’s pretty much common knowledge that performing the lat pulldown in front of your head is the safest and most appropriate use of the exercise.  Dr. Axe in Delaware showed this many years ago. But I’m sure that you’ve seen many people at the gym perform the exercise behind their head.  Are they nuts?  Well, no, their probably putting their shoulder in a disadvantageous position but I bet they are actually getting a better lat workout than someone performing the exercise in front of their head.  I’ll explain more in a video below.   Furthermore, a new study recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Lusk et al sheds some light on the debate about grip width and forearm position (pronation vs. supination).  Let’s look at all these factors.

Grip Width

Comparing a wide and narrow grip, Lusk et al showed that there were no significant differences in latissimus dorsi, middle trapezius, or biceps brachii EMG activity between grip positions.

Forearm Position

Comparing a forearm pronated position versus supinated position, Lusk et al noted that having the forearm pronated (palms out) during the lat pulldown exercise resulted in a statistically significant increase in latissimus EMG activity.  Also of note, the supinated position did not increase biceps EMG activity

Body Position – “Through Your Head”

While performing the lat pulldown behind the head is not great for your shoulders, performing in front of your head really ruins the exercise for me.  We’ve all seen it before, the common technique of extended your spine and leaning backward, effectively making the exercise more of a middle trapezius workout than a latissimus workout.

There is a solution, though. There are a bunch of new machines that allow you to perform the lat pulldown “through your head” rather than in front or behind by eliminating the traditional straight bar.

Watch this video below, note these from the clips below:

  • The first clip is what I would call the most common technique for the lat pulldown.  Note the lumbar extension and the angle that the exercise creates.  Again, changing this from a lat to a trap exercise.
  • The next set, I instruct the model to try to perform the exercise with good posture, as upright as possible.  As you can see, better, but still not perfect.
  • Next, let’s look at using a machine that has two separate arms to pulldown rather than a straight bar.  See the difference?  The back does not extend at all and the line of pull is “through the head,” maximizing the lat.
  • This can be done on many different machines, such as a Keiser, Free Motion, Cable Pulleys, etc.
  • Here is an example of how to modify a straight bar if that is all you have.  I don’t like to just use two handles on one pulley.  The grip is too narrow for me and you end up having to perform in front of your head.  If you don’t have two separate pulleys, try putting two hand grip straps on the straight bar as shown.  Again, note the proper spine posture and pulldown “through the head.”  Not a bad modification if that is all you have.

Clinical Implications

To summarize:

  • Grip width doesn’t change latissimus activity, so I would recommend a width that is comfortable for your shoulders.
  • Forearm position does make a difference.  You can maximize lat contribution by using a pronated position.
  • Pulling down behind the head is bad for your shoulder and in front of your head takes away from lat activity.  Try pulling “through your head” to maximize latissimus.

What do you think?  Have you had better results with the “through your head” technique?  Do you have any other suggestions of modifications for those out there that don’t have a method of performing lat pulldowns with two pulleys?