Protecting Your “Lat Pack”


Because the lat-pack, (aka Latissimus Dorsi), featured above on Mary, is near and dear to the ladies of Crux Crush, today’s post is devoted to how to protect those beautiful lats from injury. We talked with climber and physiologist, Dr. Jessica Otis, about this topic. She shares her sage advice below:

Female Physiology: the Latissimus Dorsi

As a physiologist and an athlete I’ve always had a firm belief that sound understanding of one’s anatomy and physiology is key to reaching peak performance. That being said, I’m embarrassed to say that when I experienced intense pain in my side after pulling myself up on a hold during an easy warm up, I had no idea what I’d injured. Enter the lattissimus dorsi (or lats), which I had just pulled.

So where is the lattissimus dorsi and how does it help us move?  Lats are large back muscles that extend across the lower shoulder blade to the armpit and down to the spine at the waist. They are integral to the ability of the arm to extend away from, and return to, the body at the shoulder, and for internal rotation of the shoulder joint. The lats also aid in movement and support of the lower lumbar spine. Engaging your lats while standing gives you the upright posture your mom always told you to have.

So how does all this anatomy translate to the movements we ladies make while climbing? Think of moves that pull the shoulder down and back, like pulling up on an overhung jug. If you don’t want to end up with a pulled muscle and a week off of climbing like me, I suggest you check out the following 4 strengthening exercises. You can find out more about each stretch by clicking on the links below.

  1. Pilates Push-ups: Start standing with your arms straight above your head, fingers to the sky. Now, engage your abs and curl forward over an imaginary ball toward the ground, leading with your fingertips and the crown of your head. When your fingertips touch the ground, “walk” your hands away from your feet until you’re in a push-up position. Do three to five push-ups (or just hold the position), then walk your hands back to your toes, engage your abdominal muscles, and curlyourself back up to a standing position.
  2. Single-leg knee drops: Start in the classic push-up position, with your hands on the ground directly under your shoulders, arms straight, and back in a “plank” position with your legs straight out behind you, toes curled under on the ground. Now, drop your left knee toward the ground without moving your spine or hips. Bring the left knee back up, and drop the right knee. Alternating knees, repeat the exercise six to ten times with each leg.
  3. Overhead Lat Stretch: Put one arm overhead. Grasp elbow or wrist overhead with other hand. Pull elbow toward head and back or pull arm down toward opposite shoulder. Lean torso to side, away from direction of arm behind head. Hold stretch. Repeat with opposite arm.
  4. Wall Lat Stretch: Stand toward wall. Bend over and place palms of hands on wall, approximately shoulder width and waist height. Lower torso. Hold stretch.

I took a week off of climbing with ice and ibuprofen when I injured my lat, then eased back into climbing combined with heat, massage and light stretching. Of course if you do experience an injury be sure to consult your doctor or physical therapist for expert diagnosis and treatment!

Climb on!


Jess has a PhD in physiology, and is currently doing biomedical research focused on metabolism and gastrointestinal physiology in the Baltimore area. She has been climbing for the last 5 years and is excited to help female climbers better understand their physiology and anatomy to be able to climb their hardest. Jess is open to future physiology post requests!

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2 thoughts on “Protecting Your “Lat Pack”

  1. jeromegill says:

    What to you think about the recent thinking that stretching is actually counter productive and arguably downright bad for you?

    The first two exercises seem like a great idea as they serve to strengthen the lats and improve stability and I can see how that would prevent injury but doesn’t stretching have precisely the opposite effect? Increasing range of motion at the cost of stability?

  2. Jess says:

    You’re right, the scientific literature is mixed on whether static stretches like these weaken muscles while increasing your range of motion. It’s difficult to answer your question because I couldn’t find any studies that look specifically at the effects of static stretches on back muscle strength. However, from the review I did, and keep in mind I’m not a physical therapist, it seems that as long as you warm up prior to stretching (I use the elliptical at my climbing gym for 20 min), don’t over extend, and keep a short duration (under 60 sec), you will probably at least increase your range of motion without increasing injury risk. I personally try to keep my stretching fairly gentle.

    If you are worried about static stretches, the literature regarding dynamic stretching is fairly positive, with findings that range from beneficial to no effect on muscle strength.


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