Improve Your Lat Flexibility Safely and Effectively

This blog is a guest article from Jennifer Crane, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC.  <<— Do you see all those titles?! This girl knows her stuff.

In this post, I’ll talk about some common misconceptions I’ve seen in the circus community regarding stretching in general. I’ll also introduce a more comprehensive way we can improve lat flexibility safely and effectively, that also will help to prevent injuries.

There are a few different concepts we need to account for any time we want to improve flexibility of a muscle group. In broad terms, I’ll refer to these as active flexibility, passive flexibility, and end range control. First, here are the working definitions of these terms for the purpose of this post:
Passive flexibility: The total length a muscle can stretch when it is being pushed by an outside source. This could be gravity, like when you’re sitting in over-splits, or it could be in contortion class when your instructor is cranking your leg into flat middle splits.

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Huge thanks to the maker of my flat middle splits, Catie Brier <3 

Active flexibility: This is the ability of the muscle group that is opposite the muscle being stretched (the agonist muscles) to overpower gravity (WITHOUT assistance from an outside source) and move the limb as far as possible into the stretch. An example of this is doing a develope into an arabesque in contortion or dance- your glutes and posterior leg and trunk muscles have to do the work to move your leg into the highest arabesque position possible without assistance from your arms or your instructor.

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Sylphie Ariella: www.sylphieariella.com
End-range control: This is the ability of the muscles surrounding the muscle group being stretched to hold the limb at the end range of motion and do the fine-tuning adjustments that need to occur to either keep the limb at end range, or move it safely from one position to the other.  A great example of this is when you’re working on side-scales. You first start by using your arm to hold your leg as high as possible, then when your leg is as high as it can go, you release your arm. Does your leg drop down a little? This means you may need to work on end-range control of your flexibility.

In my experience both as a circus artist and as a circus PT, we are GREAT at working on passive flexibility. How many times do you get to class and immediately plop down into the splits? We really like passive static stretching—it’s something that is heavily ingrained in performing arts culture. While I don’t think this inherently bad, I think we need to pay equal attention to the other components of flexibility. One of the biggest injury predictors in performing arts is a high ratio of passive-to-active flexibility. If your passive range of motion far exceeds your active range of motion, you are more likely to experience injury at that joint.Whenever I’m working with a patient on improving flexibility, I always address each of these three components.  When assigning corrective exercise programs or functional warm-ups, I usually have at least one exercise for each category, completed in the following order:

  • Cardio. I know, we all hate cardio, but you HAVE to do it. Do some jumping jacks, run around, jump rope, do SOMETHING to get your heart rate elevated for 10 minutes. Yep. 10 minutes. Just do it.
  • Passive stretch. Whenever I do passive stretching, I always integrate a contract-relax component to the stretch. This is a type of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) in which we can safely “trick” the muscle we’re stretching into stretching a little bit further by first making it contract. For example- If we’re stretching the lats, I will stretch passively for 15 seconds, then contract for 5-8 seconds by pushing your elbows/arms down into the surface you’re stretching them on, then relaxing again for 15 seconds. I do about 4 cycles of this. If you want to read more about the theory of this type of PNF stretching, check out this link: http://www.functionalmovement.com/articles/Screening/2013-07-04_proprioceptive_neuromuscular_facilitation_the_foundation_of_functional_training
  • Active flexibility. After passive stretching comes active stretching. There are a number of different ways to do this, but I like to take the muscle through a full range of motion into end range of motion, usually with resistance via a weight or a theraband. My favorite type of active flexibility exercises not only activate the mover muscles surrounding the stretching muscle, but also your core…the body works as a whole, not as separate pieces, and I like to train active flexibility in this manner.
  • End range control. With end range control exercises, I will typically start by only focusing on activating the antagonist muscles in the last 10-20 degrees of active range of motion of that joint.  This is usually the most difficult component of flexibility, and tends to be incredibly tiring for these muscles. I believe that this is aspect of flexibility training is a KEY component in preventing injuries in performing artists.

Now, lets get specific to stretching the lats. What are the key players involved in improving flexibility and end range control? The muscles that have to do most of the grunt work involved in active flexibility and end range control of the lats are the parascapular muscles and rotator cuff. The parascapular muscles are a group of muscles that attach to your scapula, shoulder, and/or neck and upper back. These are the muscles that need to be strong enough to control all of that range of motion we get from our passive stretching (with or without instructor cranking!) The rotator cuff, as discussed in previous posts, is in charge of the fine movement adjustments that need to occur throughout shoulder range of motion, but especially at end range, to keep the “ball” of the humerus centered in the “socket” of the scapula.

The following three exercises are my favorite starters for safe and effective lat stretching. I like to do these before circus training, in order to properly activate all of the parascapular and rotator cuff muscles before putting them through the rigors of aerial or acrobatic training. I’ll typically also do some passive and PNF stretching after training, as well.

External Rotation-biased Lat Stretch

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This is my favorite lat stretch. The classic lat stretch we see all the time in circus arts- where your hands are on a wall or bench, with your back arched, allows for a lot of compensations that don’t let the lats stretch fully. This stretch also adds in an extra component of external rotation (from the block). This stretches the fibers of the lats that are responsible for internal rotation of the shoulder, which most typical lat stretches skips. Being in a “childs pose” position doesn’t let you substitute by arching your back.

  • Start in childs pose with elbows shoulder width apart on the bench, and yoga block in hands. Let chest sink, hold 10-15 seconds
  • PNF contract-relax: gently push your elbows down into the bench while squeezing the ball/block. Hold for 8-10 seconds, then relax and stretch slightly further.
  • Focus on keeping your ribs in during this whole stretch. If you let your ribs splay out, you’re allowing spinal extension, which is one of the most common compensations during lat stretching, and significantly decreases the effectiveness of this exercise.
  • You should feel this stretch in your LATS (shocking, I know). If you feel a pinching sensation in the front of your shoulders, back off the stretch and widen your elbows.  If it persists, STOP.

Modified Dead Bug for Active Shoulder Flexibility

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This is my favorite starter exercise to encourage parascapular muscle activation and active control of lat flexibility. It also is a GREAT core exercise, if done right!

  • Start with a theraband or tubing around stall bars (or similar). Hold ends of the theraband with your thumbs pointing up
  • First, engage your abs and focus on keeping your ribs in for the whole exercise. Bring arms overhead, while you simultaneously lower one leg
  • Bring arms only as far overhead as you can WHILE KEEPING YOUR LOW BACK FLAT ON THE FLOOR. This exercise is pointless if you bring your arms all the way overhead but your back is arched. Return to start position, switch legs.
  • You absolutely MUST breathe during this exercise. If you hold your breath, you substitute by using your diaphragm instead of your abs for the core strength component.
  • Keep your ribs in and your low back FLAT on the mat the whole time. The second you start to arch your back, it is no longer an active lat stretch.
  • With this exercise, since this activates muscles that should be “on” to some extent the whole time you do any upper body activities, I do two to three sets to fatigue.

Child’s Pose Shoulder Elevation for End-Range Control

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This is a great exercise to focus on activating your rotator cuff and scapular muscles during overhead, end-range activities. It looks easy, but is deceptively difficult!

  • Start in childs pose with your thumbs up.
  • With one arm, first engage shoulder elevators by shrugging your shoulder up slightly. From here, lift your arm up as far off the floor as you can.  It may not be very far, but thats ok!
  • Focus on engaging the muscles around your shoulder blade to start to maintain end range position
  • Hold this end range position for 5-10 seconds, then switch. This should also be done 2-3 times to fatigue.
These three exercises are a great start to SAFELY improving your lat flexibility, and would be a good addition to your current warm up.  Be sure to measure your progress, too! Take a “before” photo using the measurement method I wrote about in the last post, then see how you improve in the next few weeks! But as always, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! If one of these exercises doesn’t feel right, don’t do it…if you have shoulder pain, go see a physio- you don’t need to live with pain!
Jennifer Crane, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC
Doctor of Physical Therapy
Board Certified Orthopaedic Specialist
Certified Athletic Trainer

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