The Little-Known Purpose of Karate’s Supreme Muscle of Madness: Latissimus Dorsi

Let’s talk about muscles.

We all have them.

Some have bigger ones, some have smaller ones. According to my top secret sources, there are approximately 640 muscles within the typical human being, give or take. That much is understood.

But what are they really useful for?

Seriously.

I mean, apart from making some of us *ahem* look good (at least when they’re pumped up to a certain degree), muscles only seem to be… trouble. That’s right. People complain about aching backs, bad knees, stiff shoulders and sore muscles all the time. Each day I hear a new complaint about this whole “muscle” thingy. In fact, sometimes it seems like we would be better off without muscles! Clearly, they do more harm than good! Also, the spelling is totally messed up, too.

Okay, joke over. Enuff.

I can’t keep it up anymore. Forget what I just wrote. Because… you know what?

Muscles rock.

I <3 MUSCLES.

Why? I’ll tell you why. Because muscles give you the ability to actually perform an absolutely amazing thing. A thing so utterly incredible that we all want to do it all the time:

Action.

You know, the thing that movie stars do in action movies.

Muscles are what make us move to the groove.

Muscles provide us with action.

And, today, I thought we would dig ourselves a bit deeper into one muscle in particular. One muscle that rules them all. One muscle that stands above all others when it comes to the groove of traditional Karate.

“What muscle is he talking about?”, you ask?

“The latissimus dorsi”, I reply.

Which is fancy ol’ language for ‘broadest muscle of the back’.

Because that’s what it is, simple and plain. The latissimus dorsi, better known as ‘latissimus’ or simply ‘lats’ (as we iron men call them) are the two biggest muscles of your back. They stretch to your sides too, however, but the majority of the muscle area is situated on your back. Left side and right side.

Here’s a quick pic for you reading-challenged dudes and dudettes:

And another shot from the side:

 

So what’s the deelio?

Why am I so enamored with this particular piece of meat?

Well, it’s pretty simple. The latissimus dorsi is what connects our lower body to our upper body when generating power and strength which is crucial when it comes to stuff like executing real, raw, nasty Karate moves. You know, that kind of Karate where you actually hit real stuff and need some mass + stability behind your attack. And I know, I know, it’s becoming increasingly rarer these days, but some people still practise this kind of Karate now and then.

I believe they call themselves Karate Nerds…

The thing is, when you hit something; Newtons Third Law (“to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction”) tells us that we are hit back with an equal amount of force. So my logical question to you is then; how are you going to handle that force? That re-action?

Huh?

Moreover, have you ever questioned why your sensei always tells you to keep your shoulders down when you’re punching? Or why he/she keeps poking at your ribs, trying to see if your lats are tense? Or keeps yelling “tuck your elbows in!” as you are getting sloppy with your technique? Or maybe your sensei is a traditional Okinawan/Japanese master, who punches and kicks you when you perform either Naihanchin (Tekki) or Sanchin kata (and all you can think is “why?!”)?

(Here’s two examples of that last part:)

My friend, here’s the kicker: There’s a reason for all of the above.

There’s an answer to all of your questions.

*drum roll please…*

It’s called “your lats”.

Thus, if you ask me, a basic understanding of the anatomy and kinesiology of the latissimus dorsi and its surrounding structures is über important to any serious Karate-ka no matter what style, branch or dojo you subscribe to (it also makes questions like the above much less intimidating).

Basically, the latissimus muscle has two main actions on your arm:

  1. It functions in adduction (pulling the arms to the sides of the body from an out-to-the-side position).
  2. And it functions in extension (pulling the arms down from a horizontal position straight out in front of the body).

So, what happens is the following: When the lats are properly contracted (through neat tricks like keeping your shoulders down, elbows in, armpits closed etc.) you are effectively tightening the link between your hips/legs (lower body half) and torso/arms (upper body half), meaning that the maximum amount of power/energy generated in your technique (punch or whatever) through your lower body is successfully transferred (minimum leakage) to your upper body and finally out through your fist into your target.

“BOOM!”

(Enemy’s brain explodes to pieces as you slam your fist through his nose bone.)

*bows gracefully to a puddle of meat*

As a trainer, if you have not already had to face these issues, it is merely a matter of time before you do. Understanding the lats, and how/why they function the way they do, is an important key to unlocking the treasure chest of awesome Karate.

Look… I don’t want to bore you any more than necessary, but you’ve probably seen it all the time: People at kata tournaments who seem to do all of their moves with their chest, elbows pointing to the sides as they punch, shoulders bouncing up and down like crazy. And you wonder “Omigosh, has nobody taught them that they have no actual power behind such a punch? That their body is not really connected to their fist? That they don’t have any significant amount of body mass behind their attack? That they would cry the second somebody put a real target in front of them?”

Well, the sad truth is… nothing of that really matters.

Because speed is of paramount importance, power isn’t, when it comes to looking good as opposed to being good (which lately is what any kata competition has come down to) and it is a fact that the fastest punch will always be the one that doesn’t need you to recruit every fibre of your very being (like, you know, for knocking somebody out ikken hissatsu-style).

So, when it comes to kata competitions, you can just throw an arm out there.

The ‘motor’ is your shoulder and tricep.

The power, then (or rather the illusion of power) is simply added on top as an aggressive hissing sound effect side dish, made deep down in the throat.

So, anyway, now you know both the reason for the emphasis on speed, the sound effects as well as the questionable effectiveness of techniques in most kata competitions/competitors.

But, as always, I digress.

Going back to Real Karate™ for the remainder of this post, let’s look at how the lats are trained. Because surely there’s more to it than just reading an awesome blog post, looking at videos of guys beating each other and giggling at people in Karate tournaments. Right?

Right.

You could, for instance, do some chin-ups. Great training for the lats. Or get a rowing machine and row away. Works those lats like nothing else! Or just position yourself under a bar and do some pulldowns. This will surely get you lats like Bruce Lee in no time (yup, there’s actually a reason he had those massive lats… he knew what they were used for…)

Or, you could do it the best way.

The way that people like Bruce Lee probably did it.

By training martial arts.

See, just like when it comes to many other muscles used in Karate, it is not so much about pure size or strength as it is knowing your body. Learning, and feeling, where and how to tense the correct muscles whether it’s your lats, traps or gluts for maximum effect in conjuction with a technique is the secret to eventually being able to successfully recruit your lats in any movement you wish. And the more you do it, the more you practise activating your lats in different situations, the stronger your lats will become even though you’re not lifting any actual weights!

Que?

Through the process of ‘synaptic facilitation’.

For those of you who are not neurogeeks, synaptic facilitllilialilintanation basically means that repetitive (kihon…) and quite intense (sweaty…) stimulation of a motoneuron increases the strength of its synaptic connections and may even form new synapses. Translated into English it means that multiple repetitions of a certain technique, where certain muscles are contracted, will ‘grease up’ this technique’s groove. More ‘juice’ will thus reach the muscle the more your body gets accustomed to the way its supposed to behave.

“So, eventually, the muscle will contract harder and faster?”

Bingo.

And that’s why we keep hearing tales about these old Karate masters who are said to be “immovable” or in some other way superhumanly strong, although they may look very ordinary (or even frail).

Because the power is on the inside.

Sure, some people call it “chi” or “ki” power.

(You know what I think about that.)

I just call it what it is.

Decades of steadily greasing the grove.

But, of course, mysterious powers acquired from a secret Zen monk living on a mountain in the jungle of Tibet is always easier to explain to the layman than “years of neuromuscular facilitation and motor neuron stimulation through highly repetitious Karate training.”

Anyhoo, whatever you choose to call it, your latissimus dorsi are there to help you through thick and thin.

Punches, blocks, throws, blows, locks, strikes… whatever.

Count on them. They’ll be there for you.

As long as you never forget them.

Lats last longest.

Now go train them!

17 Comments

  • Boban Alempijevic
    So that is why my back ( in the lats area) are hurting after a trainign session where I have managed to push my self hard as a demon through be it Kata or kumit or Kihon or all of em together. Coool, then I have to train even harder and more often, maybe I will get thoose glide flying squirell looking lats like Bruce Lee had :D
  • Diego Romero
    +1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1!also: http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/LatissimusDorsi.htmlMASSIVE (and boring) NERDAGE ALERT (jesse already knows this, however, so it's more for the general public):if you don't mind my intrusion, however, i would like to point out that while the lats are the biggest of the shoulder movers, essentially (unless you spend all day worshipping the bench press and do no back exercise :p), they are only one part of the puzzle, and all are equally important (however the latissimus is often the least developed, hence my emphatic agreement with this article).to keep it simple (actually no), addressing mostly the motion of the shoulder joints, what the lats do is pull them backwards and down. obviously if you were to contract only your lats and not the other relevant shoulder movers while punching something, you would not have very good structure, as your shoulder would de-align, since it is not going in the direction in which you move your bodyweight.in order for the shoulder to assist the movement by aligning itself properly with the rest of the body (in nerd: kinetically linking the elbow and the core/hara/dantien), it must move FORWARDS and down. there are two main muscles that act with the lats here to create that shoulder action (although the entire musculature affecting the shoulder is very complex, so it should be clear that this is oversimplified): the pectoralis major (the "pecs"), and the serratus anterior, both of which are visible in jesse's chosen images. for further reference:http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/PectoralisClavicular.html http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/PectoralisSternal.html http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/SerratusAnterior.htmlif you notice the images, you'll note that the pectoralis pulls mostly forwards (sternal head), and a bit upwards (clavicular head), whereas the serratus anterior mostly pulls the bottom of the shoulder-blade forwards (which, if you note the way the shoulder-joint is constructed, you'll see makes the shoulder flex a small amount, ie raises the arm forwards).now, the latissimus attaches to the front of the shoulder joint, therefore it acts as shoulder extensor (ie moves the elbow towards your back), provides a counter to the rotational shoulder flexion action of the serratus as it contracts. without major rotation, we end up with a downwards and backwards pull, and a forwards pull, which results in a final vector that moves the shoulder downwards. this is good, since it firmly anchors the shoulder against the torso, and tightens the back muscles to transmit power through the spine, which is vital for correct medium-range striking (as far as i know, shotokan lets the shoulder go a bit further forwards to hit at a longer range, but the difference is minimal and the principles are essentially the same when both are developed correctly*. other martial arts employ different shoulder positions, some higher, like boxing, some further forwards, like northern shaolin and choy lee fut, but always in a way that assists the movement).this finally leaves the pectoral muscles to give that little bit of extra juice to move the shoulder forwards, making it assist the punching motion. the role of the pectorals however is more one of stabilization and force redirection, namely harnessing the powerful combined pull of the serratus and latissimus. if you notice the image of bruce lee that jesse posted, the video of terauchi sensei receiving sanchin shime, or this image of hirokazu kanazawa as a young man: http://lh4.ggpht.com/-vOxmm8WC-EE/TLV4p8VfWeI/AAAAAAAADds/0usYS00FrvY/0BW_KANAZAWA_Hirokazu_tsuki_musculatura.jpg (note the horizontal clavicles showing that his shoulders are firmly pulled down, and the "shoulder forwards" tsuki typical of shotokan), you'll notice that neither of the three has significant pectoral mass in the sense of the classic "western" big chest, although they are still well-developed. they have simply not trained it much in a way that builds mass, because the role of the pectorals is not that of a main mover in karate techniques. on the other hand, it's very noticeable that all three have significant muscle development in the musculature of their back, sides and core, these being more relevant muscles for strong structure in arm techniques.now, all three muscles must act in concert, in a single coordinated contraction, which is what is sought via the repetition of movements focusing on correct movement patterns (remember the synaptic facilitation? well yeah, that). there's a very simple way to find the correct motion, and that is to flex the elbow completely, and then try to move it in a straight line horizontally forwards. you won't get much movement before it rises, but if you do it right, the shoulder should descend by itself and all three relevant muscles should contract simultaneously. that same motion, perhaps with minor variations depending on the direction you issue force, is one that should happen on most karate techniques, as long as you require a solid, cohesive structure from core to hand.*http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvB-RUP6_u8
    • "When keepin' it simple goes wrong..." :) But seriously though, great comment as always, Diego-san!
      • Diego Romero
        simple is good, but i prefer complicated over SIMPLISTIC, and karate is anything BUT simplistic, even when it gets simple :Dcheers!
  • Pablo
    that's a good neurophysiological point,but if you think mechanically, the Lats have a big insertion point at the sacroiliac joint, and that´s a event often forgotten. If the SI joint is out of position (thing that happens regularly) this take down your lats tone and decrease your tsuki speed. In my dojo we have note that when,after we make a lot of unilateral geri technique the gyaku tsuki is "slower", we make an articulary manipulation of the SI joint and this have improve the speed.I hope not having bored xD
    • Interesting! How is the manipulation of the SI joint done in practise?
    • Szilard
      You mean you do pushups?
      • Boban Alempijevic
        +1
  • Pablo
    http://vimeo.com/12713021 that is the test to evaluate sacroiliac joint, simple and very usefuland this is a high velocity low amplitude technique ( is not the technique that i use) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhwECwj3LDI&feature=related
  • herrle 58
    Oh my god, i thought glutaeus maximus rules... ;-)
  • Randy
    The lats are highly useful and necessary in a variety of movements and techniques, but when they are over active (hypertonic) they actually degrade the speed that one might generate with a strike and encourage inward rotation of the humerus and anterior translation ("forward" roll) of the shoulder. Strengthening them has it's place in a good MA conditioning program, but that needs to be balanced with stretching and reducing tension (via self myofascial release). It's also useful to keep in mind that things like kicking and knee strikes can also lead to lat dominance, since they require the lats to act as a sling system which assists in hip elevation and stabilization.Punching in particular is vulnerable to antagonism when the lats are hypertonic (too active/short and tight). The more one's elbow is kept in and down on a punch, the more one's lats are actively recruited to counter the movements of the muscles which produce punching motions (antagonism and altered reciprocal inhibition, wherein a tight muscle reduces it's opposite muscle's ability to contract). A look at the insertion of the lat on the humerus, and the line of pull of the muscle will illustrate how this happens. Higher velocities can be generated if the elbow is allowed to come some, and the glenoid shoulder capsule is not placed in a position that encourages rotator cuff impingement. A dominant lat on one side can also reduce the forward rotation ability of the opposite side.A rule of thumb in our conditioning programs is that if you do things that target the lats, also focus on the middle trapezius, external shoulder rotators (teres minor and infraspinatus) and rhomboids. This counters some of the dominance and encourages better scapular movement, protecting shoulder health and enhancing technique delivery. There is some good EBP information on the topic here:http://fightsciencesresearchinstitute.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/applying-sports-science-to-the-fighting-arts-an-interview-with-tkris-robert-miller/and here:http://fightsciencesresearchinstitute.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/back-brief/
  • Connor
    You're so right! In my weight training class in college I've been working on my lats non-stop. I gained 4 1/2 inches on my chest line in 6 months, and I've seen serious improvement to the speed, power, and..."controlability" of my punches/blocks/etc.All the same...Thanks Jesse! -Connor H.
  • yeah homes
    i train ma lats a lot in a week and my power not even in punchin also in wrestlin with people improved siriosly but u dont have to forget bruce also trained his forearmns more than his lats because of more punching power and i train them evrey day too. now i own the most poeple in wrestlin with em or in havin more strength then they have. if u saw much pictures of bruce lee u will see good forearms but the right forearm with incredible mass of muslce and u will see big fat lats and all the other muscle parts of his body is definied not trained on mass because this man wanted to stay fast so he just trained his lats and forearms on mass thats it!!! i tried to train this way too and it were worth but i ve seen that to get forearm mass it takes the most time because its very strong muscle and believe me i train them every single day....!!
  • Dina
    Okay .. But Do I Get A Big Muscles From Trainin' Karate ? .. I Wanna Be Sytong But Without Destroyin' My Body '' My Fitness '' .. Help ?
    • Dina
      Srry .. *Strong
  • Alexander
    Once again great information. Now for an observation.I've noticed a few shorter yet wider people (stocky) with big Latissimus Dorsi (skiiers and rowers) with hikite position elbows jutting out. Not tucked in. It makes the final hikite position look wrong and it effects the initiation of the punch. There punches are effective but don't conform to the normal look. Is this the norm for people with this body type? I can see them try to tuck in that elbow but their body doesn't allow it.Cheers, Ally

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