If you take exercise classes, you’ve probably heard teachers say, “retract your rhomboids” and “engage your lower traps” when you’re doing weight-work. Rarely however do they prompt you to “contract your ‘serratus anterior,’” another set of muscles that are essential to good shoulder positioning. Why don’t teachers pay more attention to the serratus anterior? It’s not that students don’t need help with this set of muscles. They do! In my 24 years of teaching exercise, I’ve seen students struggle with recruiting their serratus anteriors more than they do any other hard-to-reach muscles, particularly during pushups.
One reason the serratus anterior may go missing in exercise instruction is that the darned name is simply a mouthful to say. The “Latissimus Dorsi” and the “Trapezius” abbreviate into friendly sounding nicknames: the “lats” and the “traps.” Not so for the seven-syllable, difficult-to-shorten “serratus anterior.” Then there’s the scary image conjured up by to the fact that this muscle was named after the sharp teeth of a saw!
Whatever the cause, it’s too bad! You really do need to pay attention to your serratus anterior. Without a well-functioning set of them, you will have a hard time moving your arms in certain directions, you will have an increased likelihood of neck and back pain, you could be on your way to an injury, and (if it’s relevant) you will have an abysmal right hook.
Now that I’ve got you worried (at least a little bit), I want to give you a basic rundown on where this muscle is on your body and how it works. The serratus anterior is a large muscle that wraps around the outsides of your rib cage like long-taloned claws and attaches underneath your shoulder blades at their inner rims. When your serratus anteriors are doing their job, they help your arms move in the following ways:
- They “protract” your shoulder blades. That is, they draw your shoulder blades away from each other towards the front of your ribcage and lock them there. Your arms are thereby rolled forward like a canon and locked into action mode. If your serratus anteriors fail to do this, your shoulder blades will ricochet right back into your body after you punch or push, greatly decreasing the power and effectiveness of your effort – and possibly tweaking your shoulders. This is the situation during pushups if you don’t engage these muscles!
- They work as a team with your rhomboids to keep your shoulder blades in place, one kicking in when your arms are being pulled forward and the other taking over when your arms are being pushed back. For example, when you hold weights out in front of you, your rhomboids engage to keep your shoulder blades from flying apart. When you’re pushing against something, the floor for example, your serratus anterior takes over to keep your shoulder blades from collapsing inwards. Finally, when you want to keep your shoulder blades down, the two muscles join forces, for example, during reverse pushups.
- They play a major role in your basic ability to raise your arms above shoulder height. When you want to raise your arms, your serratus anteriors on each side tilt your shoulder blades upwards at their outer edges. This maneuver effectively points your shoulder joints more upwards so that your arms can move around freely at a higher range. Your lower trapezius helps with this process as well.
If your serratus anteriors don’t turn on to perform this rotation, you will have to raise your shoulder blades towards your ears, possibly resulting in impingement and a rotator cuff tear. Dancers have fantastic serratus anteriors as evidenced by the graceful lift of their elbows and long necks when their arms rise overhead.
- The serratus anterior has many other protective features.
- It prevents “winging” of your shoulders blades, which result in a less stable shoulder.
- It protects against neck pain by enabling your arms to move in a large range without compressing your neck.
- Last but not least, the serratus anterior helps you hold good posture! “When firing properly,” says physical therapist and Bar Method teacher Kerissa Smith, “the serratus anterior anchors and stabilizes the shoulder blade/scapula, aiding in an open chest and lifted posture.”
Are there ways to fix a lazy serratus anterior? Yes! First, you can do a few simple exercises at home that can get your serratus anterior into gear.
- Do shoulder blade protractions. Lean against a wall and press the backs of your palms and your elbows against it. Then slide your shoulder blades forward (away from each other) – keep them down as well – and hold. This exercise is a great way to rev up for the added weight your serratus anterior will be dealing with during pushups.
Do scapular pushups. Assume a pushup position. Keep your arms straight and carefully slide your shoulder blades inward towards each other, then outwards away from each other. Repeat this action at least ten times. As the website “anabolic minds” explains: “Scapular push ups will isolate the serratus anterior. Make sure that your scapula just protracts, don’t let it ELEVATE.”
Stand with your back against a wall and inch your arms upward against it in stages, shoulders down. Start with your thumbs touching the wall, and graduate to your elbows pressed as far back as you can manage.
Meanwhile, there are your Bar Method classes: Pushups, plank, rhomboid pulls, arm dancing and oblique punches (a curl exercise) all work your serratus anterior. Dedicate some of your mental focus during class on engaging your serratus properly — that is, keep them down and wide against your ribs — during all these exercises.
See you in pushups.