Welcome back to Squat University. Last week we started a blog series on improving upper body mobility by addressing limitations in thoracic spine (mid-back) mobility. This week we’re going to move on and discuss two muscle groups that limit mobility from both the front and back side of the body: the latissimus dorsi, teres major and the pectorallis major/minor.
In order to show great technique during any overhead barbell lift (and even get a proper hold of the barbell when you place it on your back when squatting) you need a sufficient amount of flexibility in these muscles. If you haven’t screened your mobility to see if these are weak links, check out “this blog” now!
Lat and Teres Major Flexibility
Today I want to start by sharing with you three simple exercises to help you efficiently improve your flexibility in the lats and teres major muscles.
- Soft Tissue Mobilization
- Box Lat Stretch
- Eccentric Curl Ups
Soft Tissue Mobilization
Soft tissue mobilizations with a foam roller can be a great way to improve the flexibility of stiff lats/teres major muscles.5 Start by lying on your side with one arm raise over your head and a foam roller pinned under the outside of your armpit (this is where these two muscles run from the back and attach to the arm bone or humerus). Because these muscles are strong internal rotators of the shoulder, we want to mobilize these tissues in the position of desired change (external rotation). To accomplish this, place your palm of your extended arm upward toward the sky as you lie on the foam roller.
Move up and down this muscle until you find an area that is tender. Pause on this spot for a few seconds before moving on. You can also take this mobilization one step further by pausing on the tender area you find and then moving your arm over your head and back for a few repetitions. Make sure to move slowly on the foam roller as going quickly will have little effect on improving flexibility.
You can also perform soft tissue mobilization on these two muscles with a small ball (lacrosse or tennis ball). The smaller surface area of the ball allows you to focus your treatment on a more specific area and create more change in the underlying tissues compared to the foam roller. Stand next to a wall and trap a ball between your body and the wall. Slowly move around until you find some stiff and tender areas. From this position, you can again pin the tender area down and move your arm up and down slowly over your head.
Recommended sets/reps: 1 set of rolling for 1-2 minutes
Box Lat Stretch
Assume a kneeling position close to a box or bench. Grab a PVC pipe and position your arms in a “V” position (hands grabbing wide with elbows held close together). Face the box and place your elbows on top.
Next, sit your hips back on your heels and simultaneously round your upper back and pull your hips under your body as your arms are elevated over your head. You’ll notice this box stretch is performed slightly different than if trying to increase thoracic spine mobility.
Because the lats run the length of your spine, rounding the back as you sit your butt on your heels puts this muscle on stretch. If you’re doing this correctly, you should feel a stretch along the lateral part of your back and into the lateral armpit region (where these muscles attach to your arm). You should not feel this in your shoulder joint. Hold this end range stretch for 5 deep breaths in and out before returning to the starting position.
Recommended sets/reps: 3-5 repetitions
Eccentric Curl Ups
While a large majority of research and practical understanding of how to improve flexibility of a stiff/short muscle rests with stretching and soft tissue mobilizations, there is a growing amount of science that supports the use of eccentric exercises to help lengthen a muscle.1 In fact, some studies have shown that eccentric training can lead to significant improvements in flexibility in as little as 6 weeks.2,3
An eccentric contraction describes the action of a muscle lengthening under tension. This is the opposite of what happens when a muscle shortens as it contracts (called a concentric contraction) like when you perform a bicep curl.
A way to eccentrically lengthen stiff lat muscles is with an eccentric curl up. With an underhand grip on a pull up bar (an externally rotated position to place a stretch on the lats) jump up to the top position and slowly lower yourself back to the ground. This lower should take no less than 5 seconds to fully extended your arms.
If you do not have adequate strength to perform this exercise on the pull up bar, I recommend using a lat pull down machine. Stand next to the machine and grab the bar, holding it close to your body (as if at the top of a pull up). Keep your hold on the bar as you then sit down before slowly letting your arms raise back to an extended position over your head against the resistance of the machine. Stand back up and perform the same movement sequence again.
Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 5 reps for a 5 second slow lower
Next, let’s discuss how you can improve your flexibility of your pec muscles (major and minor) with these three exercises.
- Soft Tissue Mobilization with A Ball
- Corner Pec Stretch
- Foam Roller Pec Stretch
Soft Tissue Mobilization
To mobilize the pec muscles, start by finding a wall and grab a lacrosse or tennis ball. Trap the ball between your chest and the wall. Slowly move the ball around your muscles until you find a tender area. Pause on each of these spots for a few seconds before moving on.
You can also add in some active movement with this mobilization. Once you find a tender area, start moving your arm out to the side away from your body and back. This can increase the effectiveness of the exercise.
Recommended sets/reps: 1 set of 1-2 minutes
Corner Pec Stretch
Find a corner in the room you are in and place your arms out to the side in an “L” position. Place your hands on the walls and slowly lean into the corner. Make sure to keep your core slightly braced and back completely flat (no low back sag). This movement should bring out a good stretch in your chest if you have stiff pecs (especially the pec minor).4
Be cautions not to push too hard with this stretch as doing so can place harmful forces on your shoulder joint. You should only feel a stretch in your pec muscles, not the front side of your shoulder!
Recommended sets/reps: 3 repetitions of 10-30 seconds
Foam Roller Pec Stretch
For some the previous stretch may be too intense. For this reason, we can modify it by using a PVC pipe.
Lie on the foam roller. The foam roller should be positioned in line with the length of your spine. With a PVC pipe (or broomstick) in hand, raise your arms with elbows straight over your head as far as you can. Keep your core braced to limit your low back from arching and ribs from flaring out as your arms move.
This should bring out a light stretch in your chest as your arms reach their end position over your head. Hold this low load stretch for 30 seconds. I caution against performing this stretch with a barbell or with a heavy object in hand as it can easily place excessive force on the shoulder joints. If you are feeling tingling or numbness down your arm/fingers, you are probably stretching too aggressively. You may also be demonstrating signs of adverse neural tension (which is another topic altogether).
Recommended sets/reps: 3 repetitions of 10-30 seconds
Making It Stick!
Once you’ve performed the prior exercise (whether it was to improve the flexibility of the lats/teres major, pec muscles, or both), it’s now time to learn how to control this new range of motion you have just created. Two ways you can accomplish this:
- Wall Hand Stands
Start by lying on your stomach with your hands positioned by your shoulders and palms facing down. Next, push your hands above your head as far as you can (this will mimic the motion of a standing barbell press). Once your arms are fully extended, rotate your arms so that your palms are now facing upward towards the sky.
From this position, raise both arms off the ground as far as you can (making sure your elbows remain straight). After holding for 3 seconds, lower your arm back down before rotating it to the original palms-down position and then returning back to the starting position.
Previously your stiff muscles would have limited how much you could roll your palms upward toward the sky when your arms were elevated over your head (the motions of external rotation and flexion). After performing a few of these you should feel a good amount of fatigue in the posterior shoulder muscles indicating you’re doing them correctly.
Recommended sets/reps: 2 sets of 5-10 reps.
Wall Hand Stands
Performing a handstand is a great way to work the same muscle groups that are used during lifts such as barbell push press and jerks. Handstands will change your core stability, shoulder proprioception, shoulder endurance and highlight any faults you have from the wrists down to your hips. The wrists will be extended with your arms locked out and stacked directly in line with the shoulder blades and torso. The big difference between a handstand and the end position of a barbell press or jerk (other than being upside down or not) is whether the resistance being supported by your shoulder complex is your own body weight or that of a barbell.
Now that you have improved your mobility to move your arms into a more efficient position over your head with the prior exercises, we can use the hand stand to teach your body how to create the stability and strength needed to maintain this capability and “lock it in.” However, because the balance needed to perform an unassisted hand stand on our own is something most of us lack, we can use a wall to help modify the movement and still get the same great benefits.
Find a wall and walk your feet up it as you push yourself into an inverted position. The goal is to walk your hands as close to the wall as possible in order to bring your body into a fairly vertical position (mimicking the unassisted hand stand). In the end position you should be able to ideally draw a straight line from your wrists through your upper body. You can perform this exercise with your body completely extended or with your hips and knees flexed against the wall (as if you’re mirroring what a deep overhead squat would look like).
Recommended sets/reps: 3 reps of 20-30 seconds
It’s no wonder that gymnasts are able to make a smooth transition to Olympic lifting. Gymnasts usually have the prerequisite shoulder stability, core strength and overhead mobility to achieve ideal technique with lifts like snatches, clean & jerks and push presses.
Training Program Considerations
If the flexibility restrictions you have developed are severe and have lead to shoulder pain, consider modifying your training program. Over working certain muscle groups (like the lats and teres major with a ton of pulling exercises or your pecs with a lot of benching) can create imbalances that further mobility restrictions and worsen pain. Removing or decreasing the volume and intensity of the following exercise while you work on overhead mobility/stability is a great way to hit the reset button. Once you have the new found overhead mobility and your shoulder stability improves, you can slowly re-introduce these exercises back into your program.
- Snatch & Clean Deadlift or Pulls
- Pull Ups
- Rope Climbs
- Bench Press or Push Ups
- Ring Dips
- Push Press
Obviously the above exercises are crucial for weightlifters, powerlifters and CrossFitters. They should not be performed at the expense of shoulder mobility and you should not be pushing through sharp intense pain. Once exercises have been removed or modified they should then be replaced with those that will help support the improvements in flexibility.
You can perform these at initially with a suspension trainer or set of gymnastics rings. If you’ve never performed these before, a good teaching cue is to start the exercise from the end “row” position.
While grabbing the rings or grips of the suspension trainer, squeeze your shoulder blades together and start walking your feet forward as you lower your body towards the ground (creating a more difficult angle of pull). Stop when you find a position that is challenging to hold yourself up but not too hard to maintain your posture (you should be able to draw a straight line from your feet to your head).
From this position, lower yourself down until your arms are completely extended. Make sure your core stays braced and your body in a straight line during this movement (no low back or hip sag!).
To increase the difficulty of this exercise, continue to lower your body towards the ground until you are close to parallel. If you don’t have a suspension trainer or set of gymnastic rings you can perform the inverted row with a barbell positioned in a rack. You can also place your feet on a bench or box to increase difficulty.
Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 10 reps for a 3 second hold at the top “row” position.
As you can see, improving flexibility of your upper body muscles isn’t only about what exercises you perform, but also what exercises you avoid or modify. Improvements in flexibility will not happen overnight. Being consistent with these mobility drills and by modifying your training program, you should start to notice progress in shoulder mobility and improvement in pain (if you have any). Sometimes when we run into a wall, it’s smart to take a step back and hit the reset button.
I recommend performing the wall screen from this prior blog every few days to check your progress and ensure you’re on the right path.
Until next time,
- O’Sullivan K, McAuliffe S, Deburca N. The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2012;46(12):838-45
- Mahieu NN, McNair P, Cools A, et al. Effect of eccentric training on the plantar flexor muscle-tendon tissue properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40:117-23
- Nelson RT, Brandy WD. Eccentric training and static stretching improve hamstring flexibility of high school males. J Athl Train. 2004;39:254-8
- Borstad JD & Ludewig PM. Comparison of three stretches for the pectoralis minor muscle. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2006 May-Jun;15(3):324-30
- Beardsley C, Škarabot J. Effects of self-myofascial release: a systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015;19(4):747-58
- Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, & Lee M. The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massager on joint range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: a systematic review. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827-838