Welcome back to Squat University. Today we’re going to discuss how to improve the strength and endurance of a very important muscle of your upper body, the serratus anterior. As you raise your arm overhead (whether your performing a push press, jerk or even reaching for something on a shelf) this muscle kicks on and ensures your shoulder blade moves correctly so that your shoulder joint is stabilized in a correct position.
The serratus anterior upwardly rotates the shoulder blade and protracts the shoulder blade (move it away from the midline of the body). Also, the serratus anterior assists in keeping the shoulder blade close to your rib cage and prevents it from winging out to the side.1If this muscle becomes weak or fatigued, it can lead to unwanted movement within the shoulder joint (excessive humeral elevation and anterior translation), poor mechanics and eventual injury such as an impingement or rotator cuff tear.
Traditionally, rehab specialists have prescribed exercises like the press up (or punch) and the push up plus to help improve the strength of the serratus anterior.4 However, I have found there to be two disadvantages to using these exercises.
First, both of these exercises are performed with a pressing motion away from the body. While this exercise may strengthen the serratus anterior, the pressing action also has a tendency to reinforce overactive pec muscles.4
Second, theses exercises activate the serratus anterior in a fixed position (90-degrees of arm elevation).2 Most athletes however do not show problematic shoulder mechanics until there arms are elevated past this range of motion. Therefore, strengthening this particular muscle at this height will have limited carry over for athletes who need help when their arms are overhead.
Today I want to share with you three exercises that are intended to enhance serratus anterior activation, strength and endurance through a full range of motion and in a way that won’t reinforce current overactive muscles like the pecs.
- Scapular Raises
- Floor & Wall Angel
- Wall Slide
Raising your arms in a scapular plane of motion (about 30 degrees away from the front of your body) is a great early stage rehab exercise for the serratus anterior that also recruits the commonly underactive muscles of the lower trapezius.2,4 Start by lying on the ground with your knees bent. Place your hands on your thighs with your thumbs pointed towards your head. Pull your shoulder blades towards the ground (this will depress and tip them posterior slightly).
With your elbows straight, raise your arms over your head as far as you can with a slight angle away from your body (about 30 degrees). As you lift your arms above your head, try to keep your shoulder blades pinned to the ground. This action requires your serratus anterior to kick on in order to efficiently move your shoulder blade. If this does motion does not take place, impingement of the shoulder joint can occur.
In order to guarantee you’re creating sufficient movement of shoulder blade, you must elevate your arms past shoulder height (prior to this range the scapula remains relatively stable on your back).2 Research has shown that the most amount of serratus anterior activity during this arm elevation occurs as your arm moves from your chin to your ears (roughly between 120 and 150 degrees)..3
Perform this exercise at first with the goal to reach your thumbs all the way to the floor above your head. As this gets easier to perform, tuck your thumbs into your palm and then try to reach your fist all the way to the ground. The end goal with this exercise is to reach the floor behind you with an open hand (palm to the sky) and lay your entire arm flat to the ground without your low back arching and ribs flaring out as compensation.
As this exercise becomes easier to perform, you can try it standing up with light dumbbells in hand. The ability to maintain your posture while performing these raises is of the upmost importance, so start with light weight before moving up.
Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps eventually moving to 10 reps with heavier weight.
Once you master the floor scapular raises with your palms up, you can move onto the floor angels. Start by lying on your back with your arms in a 90-degree “L” position to your side. Your entire forearm and back of the hand should be in contact with the ground (if you cannot fully achieve this position, I recommend improving your thoracic mobility and shoulder mobility before attempting floor angels).
You are then going to slide your arms above your head (as if you’re performing an overhead press exercise) without your arms popping off the ground. Actively pressing your arms into the floor will deactivate the commonly over-active anterior shoulder muscles like the pecs. In order to raise your arms completely overhead your shoulder blades will need to upwardly rotate and tip posteriorly appropriately.
Make sure the backs of your shoulders stay pinned to the ground the entire movement. It’s common to see people compensate for a lack of upward rotation of the shoulder blades by shrugging their shoulders (recruiting too much upper trap) in an attempt to elevate their arms further overhead. To avoid this, try thinking about moving your shoulder blades out and away from your body (rather than straight up) as you slide your arms over your head.
Performing this exercise while lying on your back (the supine position) allows you to hone in on technique and exposes compensations that could go unnoticed while performing in other positions such as standing by a wall. As you master this movement, you can then move on to other positions such as sitting with your back against a wall.
In a seated position place your head, upper back and hips in contact with a wall (your low back should be in a neutral slightly arched position and not flattened completely against the wall). As you perform the angel movement in this position, make sure to focus on keeping the low back from arching and your ribs from flaring outward. Those who have stiff lats should perform their flexibility exercises prior to doing this exercise as restrictions in flexibility can lead to compensations (low back arch for example) as the arms move overhead.
Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 10 reps
The Wall Slide has been cited in research as one of the best exercises at activating the serratus anterior.1-4 What makes it so much better than the punch or push up plus is that it can help strengthen this muscle with the arm in an elevated position over shoulder height. Most athletes report shoulder pain when the arm is in an overhead position and less pain (or no pain) when the arm is below shoulder level.
To perform this exercise, raise your arms to shoulder height with your elbows bent and place your forearms against a wall. Your arms should be just outside of shoulder width. Next, lean your body forward as you slide your forearms up the wall as far as you can. A cue that helps many to achieve the desired movement of the shoulder blades (upwards rotation and posterior tilt) is to “bring your shoulder blades out and around as you slide up the wall.”1 At the end position your arms will appear in a “V” shape when viewed from behind.
Make sure to keep your core slightly braced during this motion as it is common for many to let their low back arch excessively as their arms slide up the wall. Staggering your feet (one in front of the other) and shifting your bodyweight from the back foot to the front may allow you to complete the appropriate weight shift while keeping your back in a neutral flat position.
As the arms elevate over your head, it is normal to see a small amount of upper trap activation. This is actually expected and desirable as the upper trapezius muscle works hand in hand with the serratus anterior to rotate the scapula upwards. We however want to discourage any over exaggerated use of the upper traps (seen with shrugging of the shoulders) as that will excessively elevate the scapula and possibly recreate impingement symptoms if you are currently dealing with shoulder pain. This upper trap compensation is normal to see especially in weightlifters and CrossFitters who perform the Olympic lifts.
The traditional wall slide exercise has two small limitations. The first is that you can only raise your arms so high above your head before your forearms pop off the wall. This limits the ability to work on serratus anterior strength at the end ranges of arm elevation (which is where many barbell athletes truly need it in order to perform a snatch, press or jerk). Also, actively pulling your arm back down against the friction of the wall can reinforce an overactive pec (especially the pec minor).
For these reasons, try this same exercise but with a small twist (this is a progression I first saw from Dr. Brent Brookbush of www.brentbrookbush.com). Assume the same starting position but now with your hands on top of a foam roller against the wall (make sure the roller is held just above eye level so you don’t run out of room during the next step). Again, brace your core slightly and tighten your glutes as you lean forward and slide your arms up the wall. The foam roller allows you to easily slide your arms back to the start position, you don’t have to worry about reinforcing an overactive pec minor.
Another muscle that can commonly become over active in the presence of a weak serratus anterior is the subscapularis (one of your rotator cuff muscles that lies on the anterior or front side of your shoulder blade). In order to reciprocally inhibit or “turn off” this muscle during this exercise, you can simply place a small resistance band across your arms. By creating external rotation torque (an action performed by the posterior rotator cuff muscles) while you slide your arms up the wall, you allow yourself to hone in and focus on the serratus anterior in the most optimal manner. This resistance band does not need to be super strong (a light band works just great).
To progress this exercise, you can start slowly backing your feet away from the wall. A greater lean will increase the challenge for your body to maintain all of the prior cues. Again, staggering your feet during this exercise can help ensure you don’t end up dragging your arms down from the elevated position (to limit over recruiting your pec minor).
Recommended sets/reps: 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps
The few exercises described here don’t appear at first glance as difficult to perform. In fact, if you just go through them lackadaisically they may seem extremely easy! With the right attention to detail, these exercises will work for you.
By strengthening your serratus anterior in the ways shown today, you may start to notice improved stability and/or less shoulder pain with overhead lifts.
Until next time,
- Hardwick DH, Beebe JA, McDonnell MK, & Lang CE. A comparison of serratus anterior muscle activation during a wall slide exercise and other traditional exercises.
- Ekstrom RA, Donatelli RA, Soderberg GL. Surface electromyographic analysis of exercises for the trapezius and serratus anterior muscles.
- Mosely JB, Jr., Jobe FW, Pink M, Perry J, Tibone J. EMG analysis of the scapular muscles during shoulder rehabilitation program. Am J Sports Med. 1992;20(2):128-134
- Decker MJ, Hintermeister RA, Faber KJ & Hawkins RJ. Serratus anterior muscle activity during selected rehabilitation exercises.