Serratus Anterior, which is also known as the “Big Swing Muscle” or “Boxer’s muscle” due to it’s effectiveness of protracting the scapula. Not only does this muscle have a cool name, it is needed for a plethora of arm movements; weather open chain (punching/grabbing something out of cabinet) or closed chain (pushups, planks, downward dogs, or handstands). Due to it’s large role in stabilizing the scapula, inadequate strength here is often the culprit of Scapula Winging. This article will demonstrate a few exercises to improve activation and control of this Scapula Stabilizer in open kinetic chain.
The Serratus Anterior runs from the lateral surface of the ribs to the medial border of the scapula. Due to it’s large role in stabilizing the scapula, when weakness is present it often manifests with scapula winging or poor scapular control.
When performing any exercise, make sure that it is in line with your intent! People often compensate when performing wall slides with excessive scapular elevation. If strengthening the scapular elevators – upper trapezius and levator scapula – is the goal such as in patients with TOS (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome), then performing the wall slide with scapular elevation is not a problem. That being said, the wall slide shown here is designed to target the serratus anterior by maximizing scapular upward rotation, NOT elevation!
Excessive activation of the deltoid and upper trapezius muscles could be counterproductive for scapulohumeral rhythm during shoulder elevation (Ellenbecker et al 2016).
Increased upper trapezius and anterior deltoid muscle activity can cause reduced strength and coordination in the force couple between the lower trapezius and serratus anterior. Excessive upper trapezius and anterior deltoid muscle activity have also been linked to sub-acromial impingement. In order to achieve full overhead motion, you need to ensure that you have adequate mobility at the glenohumeral joint, scapulothoracic joint, and thoracic spine. For many of those who lack shoulder mobility, it often isn’t the actual glenohumeral joint that is limited. Rather, it’s lack of full scapular upward rotation or full thoracic spine extension that is to blame.
Check This Article on “How to Improve Overhead Mobility”
In this video of a Wall Slide the black blob here represents the scapula:
1️⃣Place pressure into the wall to ensure you are engaging your scapula, which will make it easier to avoid excessive elevation of your shoulder girdle.
2️⃣There is roughly a 2:1 ration of glenohumeral joint to scapulothoracic joint motion. With 180 degrees of total shoulder flexion, will ideally have about 60 degrees of scapular upward rotation.
3️⃣You have the option of externally rotating your shoulder as you elevate, this will help inhibit the pecs which often take over during shoulder elevation.
4️⃣A progression of this exercise is shown with a resistance band + a Wall life (which emphasizes the lower trapezius)
3 Serratus Anterior Exercises
These 3 exercises will help to improve upward rotation of the scapula during shoulder elevation. These movements allow you to find the serratus anterior muscle, which often does not fire appropriately.
1️⃣Elbow to Ceiling: Anchor the resistance band around your back. I use a CLX TheraBand in the video.
-Place the band over your elbow and trace it down your forearm to your hand.
-Begin by pushing your elbow up towards the ceiling while focusing on protraction of the scapula.
Option: Elevate the shoulder to 120 degrees of shoulder flexion and 30 degrees of horizontal abduction to maximize activation of the serratus anterior.
2️⃣Serratus Anterior Uppercut: Using the pectoral muscles is a common compensation when performing an uppercut. If your intent of this exercise is to target the serratus anterior here is a quick tip: externally rotate your shoulder as you elevate your arm. Your pectoralis major is an Internal rotator at the shoulder. External rotation will reciprocally INHIBIT the larger pectoralis musculature!
3️⃣Ball in Pillow Case Swings: As crazy as this exercise seems, it is a great way to get the scapular muscles firing. Really exaggerate the scapular motion during these movements:
-Frontal Plane Circles
-Figure 8 Swings
-Sagittal Plane Circles
Supine Serratus Anterior Overhead Reach
-Lay on your back with a thera-band wrapped around your back
-Keeping your elbows straight and reach overhead, focus on the extra scapula pushout when you are overhead, this will help with Serratus Anterior Activation!
-Notice how the theraband is pulling across, this will help with rotator cuff and serratus anterior activation, and minimize the Pec muscles from doing the work.
-Focus on a hip hinge while you are standing.
-Raise your arms overhead.
-Notice how I rotate my shoulder EXTERNALLY, but pointing my thumbs towards the ceiling? This is very subtle but can make all the difference in recruiting 👆Serratus Anterior and 👇Pec
📝 With both of these exercise do NOT arch the low back. One can make this more functional by elevating the shoulders in the scapular plane of movement, by horizontally abducting your shoulders 30 degrees.
Serratus Anterior Bear Hug
1️⃣ Anchor resistance bands BELOW shoulder height to promote upward rotation/elevation
2️⃣ Crisscross the bands behind your back and have the bands between your body and your arm to promote ABDuction/protraction
3️⃣ Get into a split stance position and punch your arms forward above shoulder height to promote upward rotation/elevation
4️⃣ Rotate your hands/thumbs OUT ↔️ in efforts to bias the pecs less
Used here in this exercise is a Cross Over Symmetry Unit
When perform an uppercut, often times one will overcompensate with the Pectorial muscles! If your intent of this exercise is to target the Serratus Anterior here is a quick tip: Externally rotate your shoulder as you elevate your arm. Your Pectoralis Major is an Internal rotator at the shoulder; external rotation will be reciprocally INHIBITING these larger pectoralis musculature! Make sure to keep the elbow medial to your wrist during this exercise, this will ensure external rotation at the shoulder.
Banded Wall Slide
This video depicts a great way to strengthen the Serratus Anterior; when performing this focus on the upward rotation of the scapula in a controlled manner. A progression is using the resistance band, which will increase the demand of the rotator cuff, which is essential for overhead athletes.
Serratus Anterior weakness has been shown to cause scapula winging. Does scapula winging cause pain? Click here for more. This muscle is often implimented in Prehab and Rehab routines. This article is intended to demonstrate a few different open kinetic chain variations of improving activation and strength of the Serratus Anterior.
Anderson, CH, Zebis ME, Saervoll, CH, et al. Scapular Muscle Activity from Selected Strengthening Exercises Performed at Low and High Intensities: Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. September 2012: 2408-2416.