Functional training has emerged as one of the best ways to workout, especially given the overall performance boost it can give you. It is also very good for your muscles and joints. But there is no reason why you shouldn’t mix it up with isolation exercises that focuses on growing and strengthening one particular muscle or muscle group at a time. Now, while some muscles are easy to isolate—like the biceps or the quads or the core—some others are not. The latter is especially true for one of the large groups of muscles that tend to accommodate smaller muscles.
The largest muscle in the body is the latissimus dorsi, usually just referred to as ‘lats’. These are muscles that run mostly over the mid-back, and affect most lumbar movements. Healthy strong lats will lead to better shoulder use and a peaceful life. But like most large muscles, it is difficult to always isolate them during an exercise.
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“Rows, horizontal pulls and deadlifts don’t train the lats through nearly their full range of motion (ROM). Vertical pulling is better, but at the very top there’s still no tension on the lats, as the lats are no longer working against the vertical angle of the resistance. That leaves pull-overs, but those are often impractical to load heavily, they’re quite injurious for the shoulder and they still don’t train the lats through their full ROM,” writes Menno Henselmans on his website in an article titled Lat Prayers: The Perfect Exercise For The Lats. Henselmans is an academic, writer, and trainer deeply involved in fitness science.
Lat Prayers: Most intermediate to advanced gym-goers will already be doing some form of this exercise, which is called the straight-arm cable pullover. And just a slight change to the body mechanics of this conventional standing exercise will work wonders to isolate the lats. You can do this with the small bar attachment to the cable machine, a large bar, or even ropes.
The first step is the starting point. You are on your knees while performing a lat prayer, which is probably where it gets its name from. Your hands are extended up on the attachment of your choice while the body is leaning down. Now pull the weight down while leaning back up into a position where you are just sitting on your knees, while the arms are now pulled only and as far back as their natural position alongside your torso (without forcing them further behind). This is a rhythmic exercise, which means the body will have to move along with the movement of the weights. The video below is a great tutorial.
Kneeling single-arm pulldown: There is the lat-focussed row that we could add to this list as well, but adding a single-arm exercise can help you feel the muscle activation better. Another plus point is that you can do this at home or even in a gym with no cable machine. So bring out the resistance bands and attach it to a position that will feel as if you are pulling it down towards you from about a 45 degree arm angle while you’re in a lunge position.
“Brace your abs, keep a neutral spine, and then drive the elbow down to your side. As you pull, [similar to the lat-focused row], you’ll want to keep your elbow as close as possible to your torso. You don't want them flared out. Think about driving the elbow down and then in towards your spine at the bottom position,” states a builtwithscience.com article titled 2 'Must-Do' Lats Exercises For A Wider Back.
There is also a suggestion to add the tiniest bend to the pulling side of the torso at the end of the exercise for more contraction. The pulling angle of the cable attachment or the band should be in line with the forearm at the starting position. Remember to release the weight in a controlled fashion for the eccentric benefits.
The reason these exercises work is that lats need a full range of motion to be isolated. But this range can only be offered by shoulder extension. “There was a significant correlation between exercise condition and muscle branch in the isolation data. Shoulder extension and adduction and internal rotation increased isolation of the medial latissimus dorsi more than shoulder depression. [It] is effective for activating the latissimus dorsi regardless of the intramuscular branch,” says a research titled Differential Activation Of Parts Of The Latissimus Dorsi With Various Isometric Shoulder Exercises.
So add these two exercises to your back day and see the difference it makes. Mixing up functional and isolation work for large muscles is an excellent way to train them.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.
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