The Stoked Guide to Lat Engagement During Deadlifts

October 13, 2017

The Stoked Guide to Lat Engagement During Deadlifts

The deadlift is easily my favorite of the three lifts. As many have stated in the past, it's just the most primitive and rewarding feeling - this shit was on the ground, you wanted to pick it up, and you did.

You can deadlift with me anytime, I-Lift-Things-Up Guy.
You can lift with me anytime, I-Lift-Things-Up Guy.

However, just because a lift is primitive, doesn't mean we can't analyze it. So today, we'll be taking a look at the lats, as well as some cues, tricks, and exercises to help strengthen them and make our deadlifts crispier than ever.

To start, let's take a look at the roles the lats play in our body.

Role of the Lats

The lats (formally known as the latissimus dorsi) have a few roles, including adduction and extension of the shoulder, and working with the lumbar spine to flex and extend.

For us, this means it is in charge of keep the bar tight to us during the deadlift, and it can help influence our lower back not to arch or round while pulling. That is, however, if it is properly engaged. If not, we run into some issues.


Rounded Back a.k.a Cat Back

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The ever-so controversial rounded back in the deadlift;
Is it helpful? Should we be worried? Listen, if you have followed me for some time now, you know I believe everything is a tool to be utilized - including a cat back. The question becomes why, when, for who, etc.

If you see your favorite elite lifter rounding their back in the deadlift during training, I’d wager that it’s not because they don’t have control. They are using it to create a shorter range of motion in the lift while controlling the amount of flexion they’re in. This is an advanced technique that comes after years of training. If you’re a novice or even intermediate lifter, I’d urge you to take the time to learn how to create the tension we’re looking for with a neutral spine.

So if we aren’t an advanced lifter who is meaning for it to happen, how do we avoid it? We come back to that word - tension. If we don’t have any tension in our back, we fall victim to getting ‘elongated’ and flexed over. Not only is this going to make the lift insanely hard to finish/pass in competition (because of how difficult it will be to lock the shoulders and avoid a hitch) but you will be increasing your risk of injury as well.


Again, because we don’t have tension, we don’t have control. If something goes wrong, we don’t have the tools to manage it.

As mentioned, our lats are responsible for keeping our arms by our sides during the lift. When both lats aren’t able to do that, the bar will drift away from us, causing us to misgroove. The further it gets, the more stress will be placed on our lower back.

However, what happens if one side does stay tight, but the other doesn't? The result is called a “helicopter." One end of the bar will begin to move from you, and your body will act as a pivot point. Once again, the lift is much harder to complete, and the likelihood of injury increases.

Hook Grip vs. Mixed Grip

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While it may not be an issue if you have your chosen grip solidified, it’s still a question I get often, and will influence your lat engagement to an extent.

In general, one is not better than the other. If you like hook grip and can crush it, then dope. If you like mixed grip and feel like you have great engagement, then rock mixed grip.

However, it’s important to note the differences. With hook grip, you are at the mercy of your ability to pin your thumb against the bar with your index finger, middle finger, and for some, your ring finger. You are NOT at the mercy at your grip strength. For some, the pain of their thumb being pressed is too much, and in that case, mixed grip is the go to.

With mixed grip, you don’t have to deal with any issues regarding your thumb. However, you will only be able to lift what you can actively grip. Also, for a very select few, bicep tendonitis/a bicep tear can result. A tear is VERY rare, however, it may benefit you to ask yourself if you feel your supinated side (hand facing the crowd) if more tension is coming from your back, or your bicep. If that latter, it may be an issue.

Technical Cues

Reset and Take Your Time

90% of the time a client has a hard time getting their lats engaged, it’s because they rush their set up and don’t have time to practice the following points. Slow it down, and treat each rep like it’s your only rep.

Grip Harder!

Again, you may see your favorite lifter preaching a loose grip to decrease the range of motion for their lift - and I agree that it can be huge benefit - but ONLY if you’ve mastered the rest of the lift. If you can’t learn to engage your lats, then cutting an inch from your ROM won’t mean shit.

Getting our grip tighter doesn’t only help us keep the bar in our hand, it’s a signal to our brain to recruit more muscle fibers. This is called Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation and essentially means that when a muscle works harder, it will recruit nearby muscles. If the nearby muscles are already at work, then they work harder.

Face Your Elbow Ditches Forward

Moving up the chain from the hands, we have our elbows. An easy cue to make sure our elbows are locked is to face the elbow ditches forward.By rotating it forward, we are creating tension throughout our tricep from our elbow to our scapula.

Orange Juice

Finally, our lats. With all the tension we just created, we should have no problem getting your back engaged - however, if you still have some trouble with that, give this cue from Tony Gentilcore a go - “Pretend you’re squeezing an orange in your armpits and trying to make orange juice.” Silly? A bit. Effective? A whole lot.

Deadlift Variations

Accessories are where we build our main lifts. Most of the time, we're using less weight, which allows us to get a lot more reps in. The more reps we get in, the more a pattern is reinforced.

Banded Romanian Deadlifts

I love these as a teaching tool. Why? Because of the bands, the bar wants to pull towards the rack. Without even having to cue anything, you'll know to pull that bar close to your legs, using your lats. Keep these on the lighter side for sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Snatch Grip Romanian Deadlifts

Remember, the two roles of the lats are to adduct and extend our shoulders. By widening our grip, were putting a greater demand on those two functions. These can be a little heavier than the Banded RDLs, but you may be surprised by how hard they are! I like to keep these in the 8 to 10 rep range.

Contrast Deadlifts

Contrast deadlifts are when we combine a set of paused deadlifts (pausing right off the floor) and normal deadlifts. Matt and I will normally keep it to a set of 4 (2 paused, 2 normal) or a set of 5 (3 paused, 2 normal). You can play with how many reps you do/how you split them, just make sure the volume is aligned with your goal!

Think of contrast sets as the closest way to work on our lat engagement with heavy weight besides actually deadlifting. With the first few reps, we are practicing the cues from before to make sure we're tight - if we aren't, those pauses will feel like trash (if they do, adjust form and/or weight on the bar). After a few practice reps, we're putting it all together for the real thing. Practice, practice, execute, execute.

Non-Deadlift Exercises

Non-Deadlift Exercises will be the ultimate way to fine tune the little things. With more reps coming from a variety of exercises, we have more time and ways to work on the little things. And getting really good at the little things makes getting really good at the big things even easier.

A few of my favorite accessories are Chin-Ups, Single Arm Dumbbell Rows, and Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns. I'm not telling you to do those, however. Instead, I just want you to note the differences between them.

Take a look at each of the exercises. There's some compound movements, and an isolation movement. Two are two arm movements, and a one is a one arm movement. Some you pull from above, and one you pull from in front. They're pretty different, but require the same things. A strong grip, and an engaged lat.

By playing with the factors at hand and focusing on the cues from before, we're teaching our brain to engage our lats while pulling no matter what's going on. Again, working on getting really good at the little things.

Putting It All Together

There you have it. The Stoked Guide to Lat Engagement During Deadlifts.To sum it up:

  • Recognize the movements that the muscle is in charge of
    (Keeping the bar tight to the body)

  • Understand how little things can optimize those movements
    (Grip harder, elbows forward, and squeeeeeze)

  • Take into account how you go about your pull
    (Mixed grip or hook grip)

  • Work on the little things during deadlift variations, and work on them during accessories.

Practice, practice, and practice some more. Don't get upset if change doesn't come overnight, because it rarely ever does. See the bigger picture, and train your way to some huge PRs on the platform!

As always, feel free to reach out to me at or on Instagram at @thestokedbrogi. I look forward to hearing form you!


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