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The Most Neglected Muscle During Exercise: The Serratus Anterior

Bad form pushups edit flipped

Not engaging the serratus anterior

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!

Denise pushups straight arms 1 edit arrow smallWhatever 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.serratus-side-view edit small 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:

  1. 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. rhomboids and serratus anterior text 2 smallThis is the situation during pushups if you don’t engage these muscles!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    Misty Copeland's back muscles

    Misty Copeland

    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.

  4. The serratus anterior has many other protective features.
    1. It prevents “winging” of your shoulders blades, which result in a less stable shoulder.
    2. It protects against neck pain by enabling your arms to move in a large range without compressing your neck.
  5. 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.”
Anita protractions 2 July 2015 small crop

Protractions

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Serratus anterior exercises in pushup position

    Scapular 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.”

  3. Serratus anterior exercises

    Wall exercises for the serratus anterior

    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.

Burr Pi pushups 2 July 2015 edit 2 small

How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students with Shoulder Conditions

This month I’ve explained how you can safely take the Bar Method when you have issues with your joints in particular areas of your body. I started with foot and ankle issues and worked my way up to knees, hip and back problems. As you may have noticed, each of these body parts has it’s own “best practices” regarding how and how much to exercise if you’re nursing an injury to one of them.

Finally we come to shoulder conditions, which present their own set of issues due to the odd and unique history of this joint.

When our distant ancestors’ front legs evolved into arms, their shoulder joints gave up stability in order to gain more flexibility so that their arms could move in all directions. Today our shoulder is still a ball and socket joint like our hip, but while our hip socket fits snuggly around the ball of our thighbone, our shoulder socket has become so small and shallow, the better to allow our arms to swing freely, that it has become relatively ineffectual as a stabilizing force. To compensate for this lack of stability numerous ligaments and muscles developed around the joint, which now do much of the heavy work of holding it in place. The problem is that if any of these ligaments and muscles get weak, strained, sprained or just tired, the ball and socket can slip out of alignment. A number of very painful conditions can result including these common shoulder disorders as described by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

  • Instability: Sometimes, one of the shoulder joints moves or is forced out of its normal position. This condition is called instability, and can result in a dislocation of one of the joints in the shoulder. Individuals suffering from an instability problem will experience pain when raising their arm. They also may feel as if their shoulder is slipping out of place.
  • Impingement: Impingement is caused by excessive rubbing of the shoulder muscles against the top part of the shoulder blade, called the acromion. Medical care should be sought immediately for inflammation in the shoulder because it could eventually lead to a more serious injury.
  • Rotator Cuff Injuries: The rotator cuff is comprised of a group of muscles and tendons that hold the bones of the shoulder joint together. The rotator cuff muscles provide individuals with the ability to lift their arm and reach overhead. When the rotator cuff is injured, people sometimes do not recover the full shoulder function needed to properly participate in an athletic activity.

describe the imageFortunately physical therapy is highly effective at treating mis-aligned shoulders for the same reason that they are so often tweaked, namely that joint can be coaxed back into its correct position almost as easily as it can snap out of it. Here, for example, is a PT routine from a highly regarded book on sports therapy called “Peak Condition” by Dr. James Garrick. (Consult your doctor before you try doing these moves.) You can see that Garrick’s exercises involve simple repetitive motions that act to nudge the bones back into proper alignment.

Let’s say you have a shoulder condition and you’ve embarked on a course of physical therapy. Can you also do the Bar Method, and can it play a role in your recovery? Absolutely. The Bar Method’s arm exercises were designed by a physical therapist to be as safe and therapeutic for your shoulders as possible. In addition, both studio-based classes and DVD workouts offer you alternatives for doing the exercises without raising your arms higher than shoulder height, a motion that is usually painful to do if you’re nursing a shoulder injury.

Your best bet in this case is to modify the class in such a way that you avoid “bad” pain to a reasonable degree. Usually this strategy means keeping your arms as close to your sides as possible. Here are the basic modifications you would use:

  • describe the imageDuring shoulder walks, opt for raising your arms no higher than shoulder height.
  • Do push-ups against the bar and keep your elbows pointing downwards.
  • During the “fold-over” exercise (At right, top is Heather demonstrating the unmodified position; bottom is the modification) hold onto the bar with your elbows pointing downwards.
  • Use a strap to hold onto during the “under-the-bar” exercises.
  • You can place a few small mats under your back during the abdominal curl section to lessen the effort in your arms.
  • Feel free to keep your arms at or lower than shoulder height when raising the arms is simply a matter of choreography.
  • For “chair” and “water-ski seat” (exercises in studio classes only), substitute standing thigh and standing seat.

In the end you’ll be glad you stuck with exercising in spite of your condition. The strength you’ll gain will pay off in greater stability and less risk of injury going forward.

Exercise and Evolution: The Complex, Mobile and Beautiful Shoulder

A major focus of The Bar Method workout is to increase the stability of one of our most delicate joints, namely the shoulder. People injure their shoulders so much for a simple reason. The human body developed through ages when our upper bodies did a lot of heavy work, which served to develop enough muscle around the shoulder joints to stabilize them. Today our survival needs don’t include much upper-body strengthening activity so we have to add it in. The Bar Method addresses this situation by paying special attention to the shoulder muscles.

After a brief warm up of leg lifts, the first exercise in a Bar Method
class is for the shoulders. Called “shoulder walks,” we do it off the beat of the music and it serves as a quiet, nearly meditative start to class allowing students to turn inward and click on their “mind-body connection.” From there, the class continues with biceps and triceps exercises, push ups and reverse push-ups focusing on pecs, triceps, and deltoids. Upper body muscles continue to play a major but supporting role in all the exercises for the rest of the hour up until the last cool down glutes work before final stretch.

shoulder joingIn last week’s blog, EVOLUTION, WORK AND WORKING OUT OR WHY PEOPLE NEED MUSCLES, I talked about how the human evolutionary journey from four legged to upright creatures caused certain vulnerabilities in our bodies, especially in the shoulders, knees and backs. Man’s ability to rotate his arm 360 degrees enabling him to climb, throw, and carry require the most complex and delicate combination of coordinated muscles in our bodies. According to Dr. Lev Kalika of Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization, “The anatomy of the shoulder joint is in fact the highlight of human evolution. The versatility and mechanics of the motion of the shoulder is far more complex than of any existing precision machine.”

SHOULDER MUSCLESThe shoulder joint is often compared to a golf ball sitting on a tee. There is no snug, safe socket enclosing the end of our arm bone. This is what makes the shoulder so vulnerable. Instead, it relies on a complex system of muscles called the rotator cuff to girdle the shoulder joint in place. In addition to the rotator cuff, which is not visible, the deltoids and triceps, as shown in the picture to the right, are visible and, along with other nearby muscles, contribute to the workings of the shoulder.

Here’s a letter that a grateful Bar Method student wrote to Summit, New Jersey Bar Method studio owners Jen Hedrick and Angie Comiteau:

I want to let you both know how thrilled I am to have found Bar
shoulder health
 Method! It really has changed my life. I have belonged to gyms, played organized sports, dabbled in road races, had stints with personal trainers…you name it…for as long as I can remember.  
 
About a year and a half ago I started having severe shoulder/rotator cuff problems. Normal everyday activities such as lifting the kids or even a carton of milk out of the fridge became excruciating. At times the pain prevented me from sleeping. I saw doctors and physical therapists and was very discouraged. Eventually I turned to The Bar after hearing how great it was….I have a lot to learn as far as technique and positioning are concerned, but I thoroughly enjoy and learn in each and every class and constantly feel challenged, energized, and overall, simply healthier. Most importantly, my shoulder pain is totally gone! It’s nothing short of miraculous. I’ve got my life back and no longer feel incapable.  
 
Thanks guys…I appreciate all that you do…Elizabeth

Shoulder exercises, however, are not only good for you; they look good on you. Sculpted arms and shoulders are perhaps the hottest red carpet trend in physical fitness today.  Harper’s Bizarre says, “Arms are the New Face”  Michelle Obama’s gorgeous upper body created an uproar as people gossiped about her sleeveless wardrobe. Self Magazine talks about “A-List Sculpted Arms.”

shoulder musclesJust as Bar Method creates a distinctive looking butt with a lifted base and a slimmed down side punctuated by a dimple, so does it create a distinctive arm and shoulder.  The deltoid is augmented making it more prominent and it tapers off in a triangular point like the end of a heart on the top of the upper arm. The neck muscles or trapezius above it is lengthened and unbulky. The biceps are shapely but not too big. There is a small tear drop shape right below the collar bone that is formed where the deltoid and pecs meet. Firm triceps and defined pecs make up the rest of the look.

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Fitness TIps on Maintaining Healthy Shoulders

Raise your arm.  Does your shoulder lift significantly upwards towards your ear at the same time?  Now raise both of your arms together.  Do your shoulders tend to round forward? If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, one of your upper back muscles – the “trapezius” to be specific” – isn’t working as it should. A lazy trapezius can cause your shoulders to tense over time so much that your neck begins to look shorter.

healthy sholdersLet me describe how your “trap” is supposed to work.  The trapezius moves your shoulders-blades up, in and down.  The lower part of your trap – the part that moves your shoulders down – is supposed to contact when you raise your arm, stabilizing your shoulder joint. The problem is, a lot of people’s lower traps don’t do this or, worse, their upper traps fire instead. These people seem to be lifting their arms and shoulders-blades as if they were one joint. This habit not only makes people look awkward. According to an intriguing study done in 2003, it can also injure their shoulders.

That year, a Belgian physical therapist named Ann Cools gathered together 69 athletes, both men and women, whose sports involved a lot of arm raising. These “overhand” athletes played volleyball, racquet ball, tennis or other ball sports or were swimmers. Thirty-nine of her subjects suffered from shoulder impingements, a painful condition that results in weakness and loss of range of motion. Shoulder impingement is the most common upper-back injury among athletes. Cools’ other thirty athletes were injury-free.

Cools attached electrodes around the shoulders of these athletes, then told them to move their arms in different directions. Sometimes she used weight machines to add resistance to her subjects’ arm movements. She was careful to avoid any further injury to her subjects by instructing them to stop moving as soon as they felt any pain.

Cools’ findings were unequivocal. There was a significant difference in how the two groups of athletes used their traps. When the healthy athletes raised their arms, their inner and lower “trap” muscles contracted almost immediately to keep their shoulders-blades in place. When the injured athletes raised their arms, their “traps” fired much later, too late to prevent the shoulder-blades from sliding out of place.

In the Bar Method classes I teach, roughly about half of my students lift their shoulders and arms together. As often as possible I remind them to lower their shoulders, and when I can I give them a gentle tap on the tops of their shoulders. My students usually smile back at me when I remind them of their shoulder stance, aware that they look much better with a relaxed looking neck. Cools’ study shows that my efforts with these students also saves their shoulders from possible future injury.

If you are a Bar Method student and find that your shoulders tend to go up during arm raises, you can apply the tips from last week’s blog THE MIND BODY CONNECTION, BEAUTY AND THE BAR METHOD on relaxing the lower back to rewire your mind/body connection to your shoulders.  Using your shoulder muscles correctly and gracefully will make a big difference in the way you look and feel.

fitness tips

Find Bar Method Exercise Classes near you.

Sample and buy Bar Method Exercise DVDs.