The Lats: A Primer for Dancers
The latissimus dorsi, or “the lats” as you’ll typically hear people call them in a gym setting, are important, large posterior chain muscles that stretch from the lumbar spine and pelvis to the humerus (the big bone in our upper arm). One need only look at the attachments and insertions of the latissimus dorsi to understand that it is a major player in upper body movement, spinal movement, and coordinating movement between upper and lower body (think, sprinting).
Strong lats are critical for any athletic movement, in other words, so it’s important that we understand the interplay between them and posture, injury prevention, and performance. When we consider how often dancers are in spinal extension—think arabesque or the standing posture we often associate with ballerinas—then we begin to understand the delicate balance between latissimus dorsi strength and latissimus dorsi mobility.
If a dancer’s lats are too weak, he will struggle to even stand with good posture. We’ve all seen the gym rats who bench press every Monday, skip back and leg days, have large chests and arms but rounded, weak posterior chains. (These are the guys I always say might fill out their Polo shirts, but you wouldn’t want to ask them to help you move—their butts are too small and their backs are too weak). Weak lats are terrible for athletic function, but for the dancer they also would be detrimental to aesthetics.
But if a dancer’s lats are too toned up all of the time, she could be asking for trouble in other ways. Sure, she’ll be able to achieve the back extension necessary for a pleasing standing posture or arabesque, but she could eventually struggle with overhead positioning. Why?
Well, remember where the lats attach. Given their relationship with BOTH the humerus AND the lumbar/pelvic region, tight lats could mean spinal extension when raising the arms overhead even before the arms get to where they’re going. This is particularly true when the lats are relatively stronger than abdominal muscles. So this asymmetry could result in both lower back pain and shoulder dysfunction.
We incorporate dedicated latissimus dorsi work with everyone we work with, from general population clients to athletes and dancers alike. These muscles are simply too important to ignore. Every dancer ought to be incorporating at least as many movements like dumbbell rows, standing cable rows, barbell rows, pull-ups (if strong enough), and lat pulldowns as they are pushing movements. But dancers also should be incorporating latissimis dorsi soft tissue work like foam rolling and stretching as well. Female dancers in particular need to ensure that they’re working their anterior trunk (abdominal muscles), because the pressure to get into spinal extension can create potentially injurious asymmetry, pelvic tilt, and overhead instability.
One of my personal favorite exercises to work anterior core and lats simultaneously is the properly executed ab wheel rollout, but weaker dancers ought to be careful trying this movement. In our studio, we consider the ab wheel rollout a relatively advanced progression that dancers must “earn” the right to perform.
Understanding both the functional and aesthetic benefits of strong lats is critical for any dancer of any type. Given the myriad hip, foot, and lower back issues with which the dance world contends chronically, the lats deserve a lot more specific attention, both from a strengthening and flexibility perspective.