July 03, 2021
The serratus anterior is one of the most overlooked muscles of the body. In fact, a lot of people don’t even know what it is or what it is responsible for doing, which as you are going to soon find out is problematic given how vital the serratus anterior is. In this article, we are going to discuss everything you need to know about the serratus anterior and we are going to teach you the best exercises to activate and develop the muscle.
The serratus anterior (aka the Big Swing Muscle or Boxer’s Muscle) is a large fan-shaped muscle that is located on each of your sides right on top of your ribs. The muscle wraps around the outside of your rib cage and attaches to the sides of your shoulder blades.
It was given the name Serratus because each part of the muscle that connects to the rib cage sort of resembles that of a serrated saw (serrare in latin is “to saw”) and Anterior because it is on the front side of the body.
THE 3 PARTS OF THE SERRATUS ANTERIOR
The serratus anterior is made up of three parts: the superior, middle and inferior parts.
Superior: The superior part of your serratus anterior originates at the first and second ribs and inserts on the side of your shoulder blade near the top.
Middle: The middle part of your serratus anterior starts at your third, fourth, and fifth ribs and inserts on the side of your shoulder blade near the bottom.
Inferior: The inferior part of your serratus anterior stems from your sixth through ninth ribs and inserts on the bottom angle of the shoulder blades.
The serratus anterior can be felt below the chest and to the sides of the lats and under the arm pit.
If someone has low body fat, the serratus anterior will be visible (when the arms are elevated), making for a sexy sculpted look.
Be that as it may, the serratus anterior is not just there to make you look good, it plays a very important role in optimizing proper movement of the shoulder...
All three parts of the serratus anterior work to pull the shoulder blades forward around the thorax (scapular protraction). This allows the arm to reach forward. The serratus anterior also assists in upward rotation of the scapula, enabling you to elevate your arms and move them overhead.
Note: Your thorax consists of the thoracic spine, rib cage, and sternum.
Because the serratus anterior acts to pull your shoulder blades forward, it is an antagonist to the rhomboids. However, the inferior and superior parts work together to keep the shoulder blades pressed against the thorax during certain movements to prevent winging, which makes these two parts of the serratus anterior synergist to the rhomboids as well.
The main job of the middle part of the serratus anterior is to protract the shoulder blades (pull the shoulder blades forward).
The inferior part is mainly responsible for the action of pulling the lower end of the shoulder blades upward and laterally (with the superior part serving as an anchor). This allows you to perform upward rotation of the scapula, thus making arm elevation possible.
This means your serratus anterior is functioning when you are lifting a weight overhead (overhead presses, baby!). This action is done in tandem with the upper and lower trapezius.
What’s more, all three parts of the serratus anterior lift the ribs when the shoulder girdle is fixed in position to help with breathing.
TLDR: Your serratus anterior allows you to reach your arm forward in front of you and also up above you.
It is called the Boxer’s Muscle or Big Swing Muscle because it is responsible for pulling your shoulder blades forward and around your rib cage, which is exactly what you do when you throw a punch. As such, a strong serratus anterior is important for both punching power as well as stability and resilience for when a punch connects.
Most boxers have very well-developed serratus anterior muscles because punching constantly activates the serratus anterior AND because they usually have low body fat.
Understanding the function of the serratus anterior will help you see why we choose the exercises we did.
The serratus anterior plays a role in improving the aesthetics of your core, helping to complete the look of a shredded, well-developed midsection. However, more importantly, it is responsible for certain movement functions. Given that the serratus anterior attaches to the shoulder blade, it plays a crucial role in stabilizing and facilitating the correct movement of your scapula any time you raise your arms up or push forward. This means the serratus anterior is functioning during pressing movements at the gym or simply when you reach forward or up to grab something.
It’s very important that you keep your serratus anterior strong because it helps protect your scapula (shoulder blades). With that, you can better avoid shoulder, back, and neck injury and pain.
What’s more, strong serratus anterior muscles allow you to move your arms through a full range of motion and be stronger in any pressing movement, which includes punching and swinging. If performance is important to you, then you need to take serratus anterior strength seriously.
To top it off, a strong serratus anterior even helps with maintaining good posture and breathing.
Unfortunately, some people neglect this muscle.
When this muscle becomes weak or fails to properly activate, it can lead to unwanted movement within the shoulder joint and shoulder blades, which creates various dysfunctions such as forward rounding of posture, scapular winging, and potential injuries like shoulder impingement and rotator cuff tears.
Let’s look at some examples of what can occur when the serratus anterior is weak:
Note: As you’ve probably figured out by now, it’s not just your serratus anterior that is important for total scapular stability. Your rhomboids, levetor scapulae, and trapezius are also major muscles in scapular stabilization.
SERRATUS ANTERIOR INJURY
If your serratus anterior is not working properly, it can lead to strain or injury to the muscle itself. With that, shoulder, neck, back pain can occur, as well as problems with the rotator cuff, arm numbness and even poor circulation to the armpit.
To make matters worse, if left untreated, it can cause winging of the scapula (if you’ve seen Joaquin Phoenex’s back in the Joker movie then you can picture what it looks like).
Winged scapula can happen from injury or even just the muscle being weak. This is definitely something you want to avoid as it causes issues, again, in your back, shoulders, and neck and it makes every day movements with your arms difficult. And while injuries to the serratus anterior are not exactly common, it is possible so we had to make note of it.
Note: Scapular winging can be caused by injury to the long thoracic nerve as well. This is actually one of the most common causes of serratus anterior weakness.
The are various ways that the serratus anterior can become weak or dysfunctional. Here are some of the more common ways...
Not using it properly OR its dysfunctional, which can be caused by things like:
All in all, assuming you are not dealing with any kind of muscle or nerve injury, then the most common cause of weakness is inactivity of the muscle. To fix this, consider the points above and continue reading on as we have some great exercises to strengthen the serratus anterior.
Some easy ways to tell if your serratus anterior is weak are shakiness or weakness during pressing motions like overhead presses and clicking or clunkiness in your shoulders as your reach in front and overhead.
HOW DO YOU TEST THE SERRATUS ANTERIOR?
The simplest test involves bringing your arms up to 90˚ flexion and do a push up on a wall. If the serratus anterior is weak, there will be some winging of the scapula. If the scapula stays in place, that’s a good sign of a healthy serratus anterior.
If you don’t have any scapular winging when doing the test above, or when performing exercises like pushing or punching, OR you just generally feel like your serratus anterior is up to par, you don’t necessarily need to specifically focus on your serratus anterior. Most compound movements that you are probably already doing do a good enough job of strengthening the serratus anterior.
However, if you feel your serratus anterior needs help and/or you want to improve your serratus anterior for aesthetics, then there are exercises that you can do to hone in on the muscle...albeit, a lot of it comes down to body fat percentage.
We will first go over “isolation” exercises for the serratus anterior then we will cover the more compound (and common) exercises that will work your serratus anterior along with other muscles.
You can’t completely isolate the serratus anterior but you can do exercises that do a good job of really honing in on the muscle.
Serratus anterior exercises will involve movements that focus on its main job - protraction and upward rotation of the scapula.
ARE ISOLATION EXERCISES NECESSARY?
Most people don’t need to do direct work on the serratus anterior because it is involved as a secondary muscle for a lot of movements. However, it can be good to throw in a few serratus anterior focused exercises each week to ensure your serratus is well-developed and healthy.
It should be noted that it is not very easy to feel your serratus anterior working during exercises as it is not a muscle that contracts/lengthens and moves a joint through a large range of motion. So, when doing the exercises, do your best to focus on good form.
Here are several exercises that are about as isolated as it gets for the serratus anterior. Together, they will work your serratus anterior from all angles.
This is a great exercise for the serratus anterior because the pressing motion involves the greatest possible range of motion.
It is essentially like a resisted punch (the punching motion is shown to best activate the serratus anterior muscle).
For this exercise, get in a staggered stance and anchor the band a little lower so you can press forward and slightly up. This will allow you to activate the serratus anterior via both protraction and upward rotation of the scapula. The picture above has the band anchored high, so disregard that and anchor it a little lower (about mid to lower back height) for more serratus anterior activation.
Another important technique cue for the greatest activation of the serratus is to press forward in your staggered stance until your arms are fully extended, and then continue drawing your shoulder blades around your rib cage, which will cause you to rotate forward and extended even further. So, it’s not just like a standard press, you are exaggerating the press by fully protracting the shoulder blade on the working side.
Do this exercise 2-3 times per week for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps each side
Note: You can also do this serratus anterior exercise with a light dumbbell.
Boxers have strong serratus anterior muscles because, as EMG studies show, the punching motion provides the highest activation of the serratus anterior. When boxing, you are constantly protracting your shoulder blades both for defensive stances and striking movements.
Even if you aren’t a boxer, you can do shadow boxing or hit the bag to build that boxer strength in your serratus anterior.
Be sure to throw punches with a full range and do all different kinds of punches like jabs, straight rights, upper cuts, and from different angles (i.e. hit the body and hit the head).
Ideally, you will also want to switch your stance, with your right foot in front half the time and your left foot in front half the time (most boxers keep the same stance as that’s how they are strongest, but for the purpose of training your serratus anterior, it’s good to mix it up).
Note: Another great thing about shadow boxing and hitting the bag is it’s a fantastic cardio workout. It will help you burn a ton of calories and get lean, which will help with the aesthetics of your serratus anterior.
Do this 2-3 times per week for 5-10 minutes each time.
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A scapular push up will put you in a push up position but it will involve no movement at the elbow, just the scapula. You will be simply retracting and protracting your scapula fully. So, you retract with your arms straight, then protract as far as your can and continue this movement at the scapula for the duration of the exercise.
There are also regression and progressions for scapula push ups. You can do this exercise from a four point stance (on your knees) or you can do it from a low plank (on your elbows/forearms). If you want something more advanced, you can do one arm scapular push ups.
The most important thing is to choose the variation that is challenging for you but also allows you to have good form.
If you don’t want to spend time specifically on Scapular Push Ups, you can just do regular push ups with full extension, meaning you do a regular push up but at the top you fully protract your shoulder blades (so you don’t stop once your arms are extended, you continue to protract as far as you can each rep).
Be sure to push through the heel of hands for best activation of the serratus anterior.
Do one of these exercises 2-3 times per week for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps. If you start with the easy one, then work your way to harder variations over time.
This is a great resistance band exercise for your serratus anterior and your scapula because it mimics real life movements. A lot of times your arms will be moving in different directions, so this will train you to receive force from various angles and to have your scapula function smoothly when both arms are moving in different directions.
To do this exercise, grab the band at the ends with your hands, raise your hands to shoulder height, and keep your arms straight. They will be straight out in front of you. Diagonally pull the band apart so that your top arm is straight up at a slight angle away from your body and your bottom arm is down to your side at a slight angle away from your body. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
With this exercise, your shoulder blades will move along the ribcage as the humerus raises and lowers, so it is going to target your serratus anterior with the right resistance thanks to the band.
Do this serratus anterior focused exercise 2-3 times per week for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
This exercise may seem very easy but research shows that this is one of the best for activating the serratus anterior. It is especially effective because it involves arm elevation. This helps strengthen the serratus anterior in the overhead position, which will translate to improvements in the performance of your overhead lifts. It will also help combat shoulder pain when the arm is in an overhead position.
To do this exercise, place a long foam roller against the wall at about eye level. Get into a staggered stance in front of the wall and place the sides of your hands on the foam roller slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
Before you slide up, protract your shoulder blades by lightly pushing away from the wall and slightly rounding your upper back.
Then, slowly slide your arms up overhead into a Y position and then back down while keeping your core tight and your shoulder blades in the protracted position.
A helpful cue is to think about bringing your shoulder blades out and around you as you slide up the wall. This will help you keep the shoulder blades protracted throughout the exercise.
With each rep you should feel a progressively stronger contraction of the serratus anterior as your arms move up. The serratus anterior will have the highest activation towards the top of the movement.
Be sure to avoid shrugging your traps. Don’t let the upper traps take over or you will hinder the activation of your serratus anterior.
As you get stronger, you can stand further out from the wall and lean into the foam roller more. This will provide an even greater challenge for the serratus anterior to maintain the cues we discussed above.
Note: You can also do this exercise without a foam roller by simply sliding your hands up the wall, but a foam roller will be more effective. You can also do this with or without a mini loop band. The mini loop resistance band is good because it helps you maximize tension and maintain good form.
Do this exercise 2-3 times per week for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps/
If your serratus anterior is weak, you will want to create a progression plan.
From there, you can choose 3 exercise to do each week for 2-3 sets until you feel your serratus anterior is very stronger and healthy.
There are many other exercises that work your serratus anterior as a secondary muscle. These exercises will be effective enough for strengthening most people’s serratus anterior that they won’t need to do isolation exercises.
Exercises that involve pressing forward and overhead without a bench for back support are best for the serratus anterior. Below, we will go over some of the best exercises (many of which you might already be doing) for strengthening and developing the serratus anterior.
The best way to ensure your serratus anterior is being worked sufficiently with your regular workouts is to do exercises that don’t support the upper back. For example, standing overhead presses rather than only seated overhead presses AND push ups rather than just bench press.
From there, you can do things like myofascial release for your pecs and delts before working out to ensure that the serratus anterior is more activated during exercises. This really only applies to people with overactive synergist muscles to the serratus anterior (i.e. pec minor)
All in all, if you are performing exercises that move your scapular through protraction (push ups) and upward rotation (overhead presses), then your serratus should be fine. The only additional thing you can really do is add in some of the “isolated” serratus anterior exercises above to further develop the muscle.
How do I get my serratus anterior to show?
The serratus anterior is not a muscle with much growth potential, but it can increase in size a little. To get your serratus anterior to show, you need to lower your body fat percentage. That's really what it comes down to. Someone who is muscular with low body fat percentage will have very prominent serratus anterior when their arms are elevated.
Do push ups build serratus anterior?
Yes, push ups build the serratus anterior because they involve scapular protraction. To make push ups even more effective for the serratus anterior, use a full range of motion. Don't stop at the top when your shoulder blades are in a neutral position, continue pushing up and really exaggerate the protraction of your shoulder blades.
How do you get rid of serratus anterior pain?
Strengthening your serratus anterior with simple scapular protraction exercises will usually cure serratus anterior pain.
How to stretch the serratus anterior?
The crescent stretch and doorway stretch are good stretches for the serratus anterior.
It's important that you work all the muscles that move and stabilize the scapula equally. This will ensure your scapula and shoulders are functioning healthily. Check out our article on the Best Scapular Stabilization Exercises, as this has everything you need to know about maintaining healthy shoulder blades.
Exercises with bands that are great for activating the serratus anterior:
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