Do tight shoulders limit your backbends? When you reach your arms high overhead, do your lower ribs stick out in front? Do you feel a pinching sensation on top of your shoulders when you practice Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)? If you answered yes to any of those questions, the problem might be tight latissimus dorsi muscles.
These muscles connect your upper arms to your lower back. When you raise your arms overhead, the “lats” stretch, so tight lats make it difficult to reach up. Stretching them is not hard, but the best way to do it effectively is not always obvious. Learning how to loosen your lats is worthwhile, though, because it will improve your range of motion in every yoga pose that requires you to lift one or both arms above your head. What’s more, looser lats can make it easier to do everyday activities such as changing a light bulb or getting things off a high shelf, and can even help protect you from rotator cuff injuries.
To find out how tight or loose your latissimus dorsi muscles are, try this test (if you have a shoulder injury, do not do the exercises in this article unless you are under qualified supervision). Lie on your back on the floor with your arms by your sides. Feel where the back of your rib cage touches the floor, taking special note of the point of contact that lies closest to your waist. Turn your palms up, then lift your arms up and overhead to the floor, or as close to the floor as they will go without you bending your elbows or separating your arms wider than your shoulders. For most people, this movement will make the lower ribs lift off the floor in back and jut out in front. Now return your arms to your sides and repeat the same actions, but this time, as you reach overhead, press the lower rib cage—the point closest to your waist—firmly into the floor to prevent it from lifting up at all. This will probably create a sensation of stretch on the outer sides of your armpits and make it harder to reach the floor. The stronger the stretch and the greater the restriction of movement, the tighter your lats are (although other tight muscles may increase the limitation).