Eric posted something on FB the other day that really stuck with me..
Engaging the Lats for Deadlifts
by Eric Troy
of Ground Up Strength
I got a message with a question about something I didn't say in my general deadlift technique article. I love this kind of question for two reasons: It is just the kind of thing I like to answer because I welcome the chance to defend my decisions, or to own up to my mistakes. And, it was an actual question, not a disguised challenge. How refreshing!
Anyway, a frequent cue in deadlifting is to "engage the lats." You'll find this to a frequent cue, period. The lats have almost mythical power in strength training. We're also told to engage out lats during the bench press.
The reason for this instruction is that engaging the lats helps to stabilize the torso because the latissimus dorsi is an important muscle in spine stabilization. Some would call it an essential muscle.
The first thing to point out is that a strong latissimus dorsi will perform this role without you actively "engaging it." Engaging the lats is a useful cue in the deadlift, but it is not an essential one. Do I recommend it? Yes. I would recommend it to you if you asked me privately but then I would give you some caveats.
Those caveats are why I decided to leave this instruction out of my general instruction. The problem is that a lifter of any level might read my article, including lifters who are already hoisting a lot of weight. Most people either don't know, or will not bother with the fact that we should always bring down the weight when working in a new technique or tweak.
In that past, when I've told more advanced people to "engage their lats" I've had some instances of discomfort around the rear deltoid and even of the deltoid in general, including some trouble with everyday reaching activities. Also this pain or discomfort would extend to the general posterior underarm area. For these lifters, when I told them to stop engaging the lats, waited a while, and then worked in the cue with an appropriate weight reduction over the course of a few weeks, the problem "went away."
What I figured is that suddenly tensioning the lats, and also the teres major (which may the real culprit here) during heavy deadlifts, when unaccustomed, puts a strain on one or both of these muscles (on the upper part of the lats) which results in this discomfort. It is ANECDOTAL. Absolutely. I can't prove it. However, given the less than essential position of actively engaging the lats for the deadlifts, I decided to leave this out of my "general" formula.
Why didn't I explain all this in the article? Because I am constantly being accused of writing about things nobody cares about! I figured I'd wait until asked