The Ultimate Guide To Relieving Tight Lats

Fitness woman working out in gym doing exercise for back. Athletic girl doing lat pulldown

Key Points

  • Your lats, or your latissimus dorsi, are the largest muscles in your back and play a big role in everyday movements.

  • There are numerous stretches to relieve stiff lats, which you may do at home. 

  • Tight lats cause neck and back pain, poor posture, and reduced arm mobility. 

Understanding Your Lats: The Basics

First things first: What are lats? The term “lats” is the short and common way to refer to your latissimus dorsi, a large sheath of triangular-shaped muscle, the biggest and strongest muscle in your back. 

Between their size and location, your lats play a major role in your everyday life — and not just when working out or moving. Your lats help with a lot of upper-body exercises and movements. They also contribute to your posture and your ability to breathe. Knowing how to keep them loose is key for comfort and mobility.

Before you learn how to stretch your lats, you should understand these large muscles and why it’s so important to keep them in tip-top shape. 

Muscular man performs lat pull-downs at gym

The Lats: A Brief Anatomy

Lats are skeletal muscles, meaning they connect to your bones and enable you to move as part of the body’s locomotor system. Being such a large sheet of muscle, your lats connect to multiple different bones at their origin and insertion points. 

A quick anatomy lesson shows how your lats help your body with everyday functions. 

Your spine is your body’s central support structure; it extends from your skull to your tailbone and divides into five sections based on location. On both sides of your spine, your lats connect to the bottom of the thoracic section, which goes from your neck to your mid back. In some people, they also connect to a portion of the lumbar and sacral vertebrae section of your spine, located at your lower back and into your hip bones.

In addition to those spinal origins, they connect to your bottom three or four ribs, part of the top of your hip bones, and a very small part of the bottom of your shoulder blades. 

Essentially, they connect to several major points across your mid and lower back and towards the outside of your body. Imagine a triangle with points above your butt cheeks and at the center of your back under your shoulder blades; those are the origin points. The third point, the insertion point, is much simpler. 

That wide spread of lat muscle all comes together on the inside of your upper arm bone, resulting in a large, triangular-shaped muscle that covers much of your mid and lower back and ends on the underside of your upper arm. 

If you hug yourself and reach your arms around your body to touch the area of your back under your shoulder blades, you’re touching your lats. 

Imagine how with so many connections to bones, the lats play an important part in your body’s movement and structure. 

Stretching Your Lats

The lats are major muscles in your body, so knowing how to properly stretch them and take care of them is important. 

Whether you have tight lats or are just taking preventative measures, here are a couple of expert-approved lat stretches that may keep you healthy or put you on the road to recovery. 

Woman performs overhead pull-downs with assistance of trainer

Hanging Lat Stretch

This is one of the simplest lat stretches but requires a bar to hang from, so it may be best done in a gym.

  1. Position yourself under a straight bar above your head (a pull-up bar is perfect for this stretch).

  2. Reach up and place both your hands on the bar above you. You’ll want an overhand grip (palms facing forward) and to position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

  3. Allow your feet to leave the ground. This may involve simply bending your legs if you can reach the bar unassisted, or it may require you to step off a box or any surface required for you to reach the bar.

  4. Hang for 30 seconds to 1 minute, breathing deeply.

Kneeling Floor Stretch

  1. Begin by kneeling on the floor on both of your knees; you may want a mat or towel beneath you for comfort. 

  2. Allow yourself to sink back so your butt is resting atop your feet.

  3. Hinging at the waist, lean forward so one forearm is on the floor in front of you. Reach out as far as possible with that arm. 

  4. Bring your other arm out to meet it, placing that hand on top of the one that’s already on the floor.

  5. You should feel the stretch on the side of your body with your hand directly on the floor, not the side of the top hand.

  6. Feel free to move your stretched arm further to the side as you stretch; lean into whatever rotation allows for the deepest stretch. 

  7. Hold this position for 10-20 seconds. 

Man uses foam roller to work back lats while lying on floor

Kneeling Bench Stretch

You may do this stretch using a bench, a chair, or even a yoga ball. 

  1. Kneel on the floor on both of your knees in front of your chosen bench or chair. The bench should be far enough in front of you so that you just barely reach it with your arms fully extended. 

  2. Place both of your hands on the bench; you may even have to swivel your hips a little to touch it. 

  3. Hinge your hips (or continue to hinge them) and lower your chest towards the floor with your arms extended straight out in front of you, holding onto the bench. 

  4. Lean back into your hips as needed. The lower you bring your chest, the deeper you’ll go in the stretch.

  5. Hold for 10-20 seconds.

To make this an active lat stretch, use a yoga ball rather than a bench or chair. Slowly roll the yoga ball further and closer to you to amplify the stretch. 

Wall Lat Stretch

  1. Stand facing a wall with your feet no wider than shoulder-length apart. You should be about two feet from the wall.

  2. Bend over at the waist and place your hands flat against the wall, creating a 90-degree angle with your body. Adjust your distance from the wall as needed.

  3. With your hands flat against the wall, lower your torso further but without arching your back; this places the emphasis of the stretch on your lats rather than your lower back. 

  4. Hold this position for 10-20 seconds.

Woman performers overhead stretch while standing

Doorway Lat Stretch (1)

There are several ways to use a doorway to stretch your lats; this is the first of two common methods. 

  1. Stand facing an open doorway. You should be about an arm’s length away. If you’re stretching your right lat, stand towards the right side of the doorway so that when you reach your right arm straight, you may grab the inside of the frame. 

  2. Reach that right arm straight out with your thumb up. Rotate your arm 180 degrees so your thumb is down and your palm is facing out towards the door frame. Grab the door frame. You should now be standing straight with your arm straight out and gripping the door frame.

  3. Hinge your hips back slowly. You should feel the stretch begin in your shoulder and extend along the side of your body under your armpit. You may also feel it in your shoulder blades and parts of your back. 

Doorway Lat Stretch (2)

  1. For this doorway lat stretch, you’ll stand in the middle of the open doorway and face one side of the door frame, rather than standing outside of it as if you’re about to walk through. You should be standing sideways with your feet close together.

  2. Take a small step to the right or left so the door frame isn’t centered directly in front of you.

  3. Reach both of your arms up above your head and move them to the side so that they’re grasping the door frame that is now positioned slightly to one side of you. As you do so, keep your legs straight, but allow your hips to push out slightly. If you’re reaching to the left, your hip should move slightly right; your body should be in the shape of an open parenthesis. 

  4. Hold this position for 10-20 seconds. You should feel the stretch along your side and into your back. 

Rolling Out

While it’s not exactly a “stretch,” rolling out is another common method of recovery from sore or tight muscles. 

Rolling out is the act of using your body weight and a foam roller or a small, hard ball to massage your soft muscle tissue and alleviate discomfort, pain, or tightness. Most gyms have foam rollers, or purchase one online or at a sports store. You can also use a field hockey ball, a lacrosse ball, a baseball, or a softball to get the job done.

To roll out your lats, lay on the ground on one side and extend that arm up above your head. Put the foam roller or ball under your armpit and use your legs and your other arm to slowly move your body back and forth over the ball, effectively rolling it down the side of your body between your armpit and the widest part of your rib cage. 

When rolling out, try to focus on rolling out over the muscle, not the bone. If you’re rolling over your rib cage, you’ve likely gone too far. 

Rolling out isn’t always comfortable, but that’s part of its magic. It helps you massage out knots or just particularly tight or tender areas of muscle on your body. Use your free arm to help control the amount of weight you put on the foam roller or ball, and pay attention to any particularly sensitive spots. 

Man performs lat stretch using resistance bands

Signs of Tight Lats

How do you know when you need to stretch your lats? Anne Asher, CPT, explains, “If your lats are tight or short, it will be hard to take your arm up in front of you, or out to the side.”

In addition to affecting your arm mobility, tight lats also affect your posture, curving your shoulders down and forward. 

Some examples of exercises and activities that might cause tight lats are:

Tight lats may cause pain in your back, shoulders, neck, and on the side of your body under your armpits. There are a couple of ways to test your lat tightness to see if it’s the cause of discomfort, or just to see if it’s affecting your range of motion. 

Method 1: Standing Wall Touch

  1. Stand straight with your back against a wall and your arms to your side.

  2. Tighten your abs and flatten your back; be sure not to arch your back. 

  3. Slowly lift your arms above your head. If your lats are tight, you’ll feel them straining or feel stiffness as you bring your arms up to touch the wall above you. You may not even be able to touch the wall above you with tight lats. 

Man performs rows on gym machine

Method 2: Lying Floor Touch

This method is very similar to the standing wall touch, but you do it lying down instead.

  1. Lie down on the floor on your back with your arms at your side.

  2. With your palms facing up, raise your arms up and over your head, attempting to touch the floor above your head with your arms outstretched. 

  3. As with the standing wall touch, if you feel stiffness, you likely have tight lats.

Method 3: Squat Test

  1. Start by standing up straight with your arms overhead.

  2. Slowly bend down into a squatting position, stopping with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Keep your arms up as you lower yourself down.

  3. Note whether your arms drop forward or it becomes a struggle to keep your arms above your head while you squat. If so, you probably have tight lats. 

The Bottom Line

Tight lats limit your mobility, cause bad posture, and even cause discomfort in simple daily activities like holding a steering wheel. If your lats are tight or sore, use the stretches above daily (in the morning and at night, if you have time) to help remedy discomfort. 

If they’re not tight or sore? Stretch them anyway. Your lats are very large muscles, so be sure to take care of them. 

For more on how to tend to your muscles, or for a killer lat workout that’ll have you running straight to the foam roller, subscribe to FitnessCorner.

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