If you haven’t, you should still read this. The latissimus dorsi (lat) is one of the broadest muscles in your upper back. It works in conjunction with the legs and core to help pull the blade through the water in order to generate a more powerful stroke. Learning how to use the lat muscle properly when paddling will help prevent shoulder and neck injuries such as rotator cuff tendonitis, shoulder impingement, and neck sprains.
From an anatomical perspective, it is helpful to see where the lats connect to the skeleton in order to understand their function. The lats connect the middle of the spine to the upper arm to pull your arm toward your trunk. In fact, it is the only muscle that connects the arms to the spine. When paddling, you should feel your lat muscle pull your bottom arm toward your body when the blade is in the water.
Wake up your Lats
So how exactly do you feel this elusive lat muscle? The easiest way is to find a piece of furniture, like a shelf, at about shoulder height. In this case we used a grill. With a straight arm (thumb up), push down while keeping your chest up and your shoulder blade down and back. You should feel a muscle mass on your back contract beneath your armpit as your shoulder blade rotates downward. You can use this same motion as a lat exercise; make sure your neck muscles are relaxed to avoid compensation from other muscle groups. Hold for about 10 seconds and repeat 10 times.
Train your Lats
One of the best ways to start strengthening your lats is to perform straight-arm pull downs (forward and sideways), as pictured. Start at shoulder height and pull an overhead pulley or resistance band down toward your hip while keeping your chest up and shoulders down and back. Again, make sure your neck muscles are relaxed to avoid compensation. Pull down 15 times facing forward, and 15 times sideways. Repeat 2-3 times on each side.
Performing these exercises will help you memorize the feeling of your lats pulling your arm toward your trunk, just as you will when paddling. When transferring your training to the boat, your trunk will be rotated as you reach forward. The bottom arm will feel the same muscle mass contracting beneath the armpit as you pull the blade through the water. As you learn to coordinate this feeling with your legs and core, you will become a force to be reckoned with!
Keep an eye out for more training tips to help keep you injury-free this season!
See you on the water!
Cat Cullison, PT, DPT Jaco Rehab