Muscle of the month: Serratus Anterior
It's April… my favorite month of the year, and it can feature no less than one of my favorite muscles in the human body. The one that many years ago allowed me to fall in love with planks, do push ups, find peace in my shoulders and neck.
Meet your shoulder's best friend in planks, push ups and life.
"My abs were ready to hold,
but my shoulders and wrists just couldn't bear the load"
Most of us have (at least at some point in our fitness journeys) gone through a moment like this. Without the strength of the star of this month, weight bearing through the arms and even simple daily tasks such as handwriting and typing can be stressful on the shoulders (or even on seemingly uninvolved places such as the elbows and wrists).
If you’ve been able to put these days of unwanted tension in the past through practice, good for you!
If you are still working on it, read on…
Often referred to as the superhero muscle by educational and anatomy books, this muscle is deep and powerful. It's so deep it's usually only seen on the surface in superhero suits. The Serratus Anterior spams horizontally from the front of the first 8 or 9 ribs all the way to the scapula's border that is closest to the spine. Its most prominent action is to bring the shoulder blades forward (protraction) which is the opposite of squeezing them together (retraction).
But shouldn’t we squeeze our shoulder blades together?
Yes, but you should also reach them forward and keep them wide on your back at the same rate that you squeeze them together. In other words, you want to keep your blades neutral and stable on your back, forming a perfect balance between protraction and retraction for proper posture and for joint support during any weight bearing exercise, such as holding a plank or doing a push up.
Due to our lives sitting in front of a computer and constantly rounding our shoulders forward, squeezing the shoulder blades together became a simple way to help people stand taller and strengthen important postural muscles such as the Rhomboids and the Mid and Low Trapezius. But overworking these muscles and especially without the support from the Serratus Anterior will cause muscle imbalances that may lead to shoulder malfunction, neck problems, rotator cuff issues, incorrect posture, and even numbness down the arm.
I didn't know this muscle existed until Pilates
Unfortunately we don't use it enough. But in the rare times that you consciously reach your arms far out beyond your reach to grab something and you get that extra quarter inch, you’re engaging your Serratus Anterior. With so much technology around us, we are rarely going beyond our reach for anything, leaving this muscle underused and unknown.
So when Pilates instructors say reach those arms and through your finger tips, all we are asking is that you engage this powerful shoulder stabilizer and mobilizer.
What a Strong Serratus Anterior will do for your body
The serratus anterior also acts as a breathing accessory muscle by helping the ribs expand back and sideways, which means deeper and lower breaths into the lungs instead of short breaths that expand the chest forward. During strenuous exercise, the body needs to process energy and oxygen more quickly, so breathing more efficiently will help keep your large, moving muscles working more effectively. Breathing lower into the lungs without expanding the chest forward will also help release neck tension and stress signals associated with shallow chest breathing.
Proper shoulder function
Proper shoulder function is important to keep you away from common shoulder injuries such as tears, impingement and frozen shoulder. The superhero muscle makes justice to its nickname as a strong shoulder stabilizer and mobilizer. It can take a lot of the load off the neck and Rotator Cuff muscles in weight bearing exercises (stability) and during arm movements (mobility).
Freedom from neck tension
When the Serratus Anterior is weak our neck muscles do a lot of the work they aren't great at, causing these muscles to become shortened and weakened, eventually leading to a forward head position and compression of the cervical spine. When the body stands, sits and moves with proper mechanics, a lot of the load commonly carried by our neck muscles is released allowing the body to live in balance and free of unnecessary tension.
More range of motion
As a mobilizer, a strong Serratus Anterior working together with other shoulder muscles will provide proper shoulder and arm function, allowing the arm to articulate freely and happily in the shoulder sockets. This means better mobility, a longer reach and the largest range of motion the anatomy of your shoulder sockets allow.
There is a direct connection between your Serratus Anterior, your Lats and your Obliques. The Serratus provides support beyond it's primary function on the shoulder. At the top of the sideline of your trunk, it provides support to your Lats and Obliques in exercises such as pull ups, sit ups, push ups, lat pulls and any motion involving your core. Neck strain will be a thing of the past during your sit ups, roll ups and teasers.
In other words, a better Tennis serve, golf swing, boxing jab, cycling posture, swimming stroke, you name it. Whatever it is you do with your arms and shoulders whether it be type all day in the computer or perform any specific activity, a strong Serratus Anterior will help you do it better, more effortlessly and with more endurance and power.
Find Your Serratus Anterior with these basic exercises
Seated Pilates Breathing
Seated in an upright position, place your hands around your ring cage with the thumbs forward and the fingers on the back of the ribs. Take an inhale and expand the ribcage sideways as if you were expanding your wings for flight (feel your palms expand). Exhale as you pull your abs in, maintaining the expansion of the ribs.
Stand facing a wall, at full arm's distance and palms shoulder height on a wall. Lean forward with your torso toward the wall as if you were in a standing wall plank. Without bending your arms, drop your chest toward the wall feeling the shoulder blades retract (come together) on your back, then push the wall away from you feeling the shoulder blades go wide apart (protraction).
Test and build your Serratus Strength
Hold the plank position for 90 seconds or more, maintaining hips, ribs, and head in one long line. Maintain a sense of pushing the floor away from you as you hold to make sure your serratus is engaged.
In plank position, lower your your body towards the floor bending your elbows while maintaining plank form. Push the floor away from you as you extend your elbows to return to the plank position.
Maintain neutral balance: During these exercises, the shoulder blades shouldn't wing out nor should your shoulders round forward.
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