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The Most Neglected Muscle During Exercise: The Serratus Anterior
If you’ve taken a Bar Method class with us, you may have heard your instructor tell you to “retract your rhomboids” or “engage your lower traps” during weight work. But have you ever heard them instruct you to “contract your serratus anterior”? The answer is likely no. You may even wonder what the serratus anterior is. Although the anatomical term is less commonly known, this part of your body is crucial for your posture and upper body mobility; even if you don’t know it, your Bar Method class incorporates exercises that deliberately strengthen your serratus anterior.
What Is the Serratus Anterior?
The serratus anterior is a large muscle that wraps around the outside of your rib cage and attaches below your shoulder blades. It looks similar to long talons or claws which is how it earned its name—after the sharp teeth of a saw! The muscle group is responsible for the protraction of your scapula (shoulder blades) and helps your shoulders maintain the proper position during movement like a punch. For that reason, you might hear this muscle called the “boxer’s muscle” or “big swing muscle.”
What Does Your Serratus Anterior Do?
When your serratus anterior is activated and engaged correctly, it allows your arms to move and perform everyday tasks.
As mentioned, this muscle group helps to protract your shoulder blades, meaning it helps draw your shoulder blades apart from each other towards the front of your ribcage and locks them there. Your arms are thereby rolled forward like a canon and locked into action mode. If your serratus anterior fails to do this, your shoulder blades will ricochet back into your body after you punch or push. Not only does this decrease the power and effectiveness of your effort, but it can cause injury to your shoulders. This can happen when you do push-ups incorrectly.
Secondly, your serratus anterior works in tandem with your rhomboids to keep your shoulder blades in place. One of them kicks in when your arms are being pulled forward and the other takes over when your arms are being pushed back. For example, when you hold weights out in front of you, your rhomboids are activated so that your shoulder blades don’t spread too far apart. Alternatively, when you’re pushing against something, your serratus anterior takes over to prevent your shoulder blades from collapsing inwards. And when you want to keep your shoulder blades down, the two muscles join forces; this is the case when you’re doing reverse push-ups in class.
The muscle also plays a major role in your basic ability to raise your arms above your shoulders. When you want to raise your arms, your serratus anterior on each side tilts your shoulder blades upwards at the outer edges. This maneuver effectively points your shoulder joints upwards so that your arms can move around easily at a higher height. Last but certainly not least, your serratus anterior is a necessary muscle to maintain good posture. “When firing properly, the serratus anterior anchors and stabilizes the shoulder blade/scapula, aiding in an open chest and lifted posture,” says Bar Method Physical Therapy Consultant Kerrisa Smith.
Beyond these functional responsibilities, your serratus anterior also serves as a protective muscle. Most importantly, it prevents winged scapula, a condition that can occur when your serratus anterior muscle is weak or dysfunctional. A winged scapula, also called scapular winging, is when one of your shoulder blades sticks out; it makes performing everyday movement like picking up your child or carrying groceries difficult. A functional, strong serratus anterior also protects against neck pain because it enables your arms to move in a large range of motion without compressing your neck.
For these reasons and more, you will want to put more focus on building a strong serratus anterior. Without this well-functioning muscle, you will have difficulty moving your arms in certain directions, an increased likelihood of neck and back pain, and you could easily injure yourself.
Scapula Exercises to Strengthen Your Serratus Anterior
Are there ways to target and effectively strengthen your serratus anterior? Yes! You can even do some of these scapula exercises at home!
Shoulder blade protractions are a great exercise to prepare for the added weight your serratus anterior will meet during push-ups. To protract your shoulders, pull your shoulder blades away from your spine. If you give yourself a bear hug, you are protracting your shoulders.
Scapular push-ups are another excellent scapula exercise as they isolate this muscle group. To do this move, get into a push-up position and straighten your arms as indicated in the photo below. Carefully slide your shoulder blades inward towards each other, then outwards away from each other. Repeat this movement ten times.
You can also do a wall exercise for your serratus anterior. Take a look at the photo below to understand the positioning. First, you will stand with your back against a wall and raise your arms. Inch your arms upwards while keeping your shoulders down. If you’re just starting, keep your thumbs touching the wall and then gradually press your elbows against the wall as far back as you can manage.
And then, of course, there are your Bar Method classes! Barre exercises like push-ups, plank, rhomboid pulls, arm dancing, and oblique punches are all effective moves for your serratus anterior and you’ll meet them often in class. Ask your instructor to help you engage this underrated muscle during your next class—your arms will thank you for it! If you have shoulder pain or weakness, you’ll want to check out our post How The Bar Method Exercises Help Students With Shoulder Conditions.