Fortify the Lats, Shoulder Girdle, and Core
A great all-around exercise should make people stronger, promote better posture, and if possible, enhance flexibility.
Consider that our back muscles tend to get super weak while our chest and shoulders get super stiff. This is largely due to the nature of the muscles (tonic vs. phasic) and the demands (or non-demands) of normal daily life, such as prolonged sitting in chairs.
Enter the Shank lever and the zombie press, two movements that will fortify your lats, shoulder girdle, and core and give you everything you're looking for in an exercise.
Originally I came up with this idea as a way to progress to front levers for people who didn't quite have the mechanics or strength dialed in yet. Once I started implementing the Shank lever, I realized it had several other benefits.
First, it hammers (and activates) the lats in a big way. Second, it enhances your deadlift by helping you "own" that position. It also improves your posture by improving the mechanics of your bent-over rows.
Lastly, it addresses a movement -- shoulder extension -- that is very weak and inflexible in most people.
There are several ways to do it, and each offers unique benefits.
The barbell variation will have less ROM (range of motion), but allows you to use more weight than the dumbbell version.
- Set up as you would for a behind-the-back deadlift.
- Stand up with the bar until it's touching the back of the calves.
- Press up and back with straight arms and hold for a 1-5 second count.
- Set up with a pair of dumbbells in the bottom position of a deadlift -- torso parallel to floor with dumbbells hovering off the ground.
- Set the shoulder blades back toward the back pockets and use the lats to push the dumbbells up and back with straight arms.
- Hold for a 1-5 second count.
This is my favorite version, even though it looks like a triceps kickback on steroids.
- Start in the top position (fully contracted) of a bent-over row.
- Straighten the arms backwards as you continue flexing the lats. The dumbbells will tend to get closer to the ground, but strive to keep them as high as possible throughout the movement.
- Return to the top position of the row. Hold for a 1-5 second count.
The beauty of all of these movements is that the vectors match that of an actual front lever, front lever pull, or ice cream maker (in the case of Shank lever rows).
You can also do the movements face down on a bench. However, this variation will take away the need to stabilize in the bottom deadlift position and you won't be able to get the same ROM unless you elevate the bench.
All of these variations benefit the lifter by teaching him to take the upper traps out of the row equation and to learn how to set the back and shoulders for maximum efficiency in the deadlift.
First we need to dial in a couple of things, namely thoracic mobility and shoulder extension. The Shank lever won't do you any good if you let your shoulders roll forward and collapse as you try to bring the weights upward, so we need to address that issue first.
Open up the T-spine and shoulders first by doing some thoracic bridges or skin the cat on the rings.
After you've done the bridges, pair up the Shank lever with a lower body pushing movement such as a squat, lunge, or sled push. Don't pair it up with bench pressing or dips unless you want your triceps to hate you.
Other ways to work it into your training:
- Superset the Shank lever with farmer's walks for a mega posture beatdown at the end of your session. Do 3 rounds of 5 Shank levers or Shank lever rows followed immediately by a farmer's carry.
- Superset the Shank lever with dumbbell Romanian deadlifts (RDL) for another posture beat down, with the added benefit of developing some lat and back stabilization awareness for the deadlift:
- 1 rep, Shank lever or Shank lever row
- 1 rep, Romanian deadlift
- Repeat without setting dumbbells down for 10 reps (5 Shank levers and 5 RDLs)
Keep in mind that control is key when you're performing these and you're much better off starting nice and light. It can be tempting to grab a pair of 75's because you can do 20 rows with them, but grab the 30's first and see what happens.
Doing these for even a few weeks will make you stronger just by helping to teach you to use the big muscles during your major lifts.
The next badass drill for your lats and core is a marriage between an ab wheel rollout and a press to handstand. It's called the zombie press.
One cool aspect of these is that you don't need any equipment other than a pair of socks or some furniture sliders and a smooth floor.
Besides the obvious badassness of the movement, there are a ton of benefits that include strengthening the lats, triceps, shoulders, core, and serratus, while at the same time improving your intermuscular coordination and enhancing your overall ability to move your body.
Here's how to do it:
- Start out with your body flat on the floor with arms stretched forward.
- Press into the floor with your palms to lift your body up off the floor (like a superman push-up) and start pulling your arms straight down toward your waist.
- Once you reach a position with your hips over your hands and your toes nearly touching your hands, press up into a handstand and then reverse positions slowly through the previous steps.
If you can't quite do it yet, there are a few ways to make it easier:
- Initiate the first part from the knees as you slide forward, instead of from the feet.
- Bend the elbows as much as needed to get to a good position.
- Move into either a headstand or a frogstand instead of pressing all the way up.
Once you do a couple reps, you're really going to feel your abs and lats.