With pool, beach, and wedding season right around the corner, most of us are thinking about the implications of showing some skin. For others, our thoughts may rest completely on the thought of keeping our body healthy and pain-free. For nearly all of us, there is one muscle group that’s often ignore which can keep our backs looking good and shoulders strong. And that muscle is….
The Serratus Anterior
The serratus anterior (SA), AKA boxer’s muscle does a lot. When it’s strong, the SA holds scapula (shoulder blade) against the thoracic wall (the rib cage) and rotation of the scapula. But when the SA is weak, it can lead to a forward head posture, winging scapula, subacromial impingement, rotator cuff tears, glenohumeral inferior instability, sternoclavicular joint pain, acromioclavicular joint pain, glenohumeral osteoarthritis, frozen shoulder syndrome, scoliosis, lateral epicondylalgia, kyphosis, thoracic outlet syndrome, headaches, neck pain, and upper crossed syndrome (1,2). Aesthetically, scapular winging can lead some to avoid open back dresses or leaving the shirt on at the pool.
For most people, I recommend some basic thoracic spine mobility drills. If you’re in a rush, some simple thoracic spine foam rolling for about 30 seconds will do in a pinch. As for exercises, the easiest thing you can do is incorporate pushups into your workout routine! Pushups are great for building SA strength when done correctly (3). And while I could write a book on the mistakes that can be made while doing pushups, let’s focus in on how to do them correctly. Keep your hands directly under your shoulders, brace the abdomen, keep your head and neck in neutral alignment with your spine (don’t look at your toes), and emphasize the last little bit of pushing at the end of each repetition. If you are already a proficient pushup pro, there are always fun ways to spice it up a bit like using a stability ball under your feet, BOSU ball under your hands, and performing pushups on an uneven surface.
Another great exercise is the dynamic hug. In this exercise, you use a resistance band wrapped around your back to increase the resistance of moving your arms forward for a hug. When done correctly, it should look the same as when my wife hugs me after I workout and stink like an old gym sock. Of course, there are dozens of exercises that work wonders for strengthening the SA, but these two exercises are safe, easily modified, and are very effective.
At the end of the day, most of us exercise for our health and/or to look good in our birthday suits. Hitting the serratus anterior on a regular basis is a great way to accomplish both at the same time. So the next time you’re in the gym if you hear a trainer say “drop down and give me 20” you know it’s for a good reason.
1. 4Fayad, F., Roby-Brami, A., Yazbeck, C., Hanneton, S., Lefevre-Colau, M., Gautheron, V.. . Revel, M. (2008). Three-dimensional scapular kinematics and scapulohumeral rhythm in patients with glenohumeral osteoarthritis or frozen shoulder. Journal of Biomechanics, 41(2), 326-332. doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2007.09.004
2. Nagai, K., Tateuchi, H., Takashima, S., Miyasaka, J., Hasegawa, S., Arai, R.. . Ichihashi, N. (2013). Effects of trunk rotation on scapular kinematics and muscle activity during humeral elevation. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology : Official Journal of the International Society of Electrophysiological Kinesiology, 23(3), 679-687. doi:10.1016/j.jelekin.2013.01.012
3. Decker, M. J., Hintermeister, R. A., Faber, K. J., & Hawkins, R. J. (1999). Serratus anterior muscle activity during selected rehabilitation exercises. The American journal of sports medicine, 27(6), 784-791.