3 Top Exercises to Activate and Strengthen Your Serratus Anterior

Learn How to Strengthen a Weak Serratus Anterior for Shoulder Strength and Stability

By Coach E

activate and strengthen serratus anterior

If your serratus anterior isn’t functioning properly, you could suffer from problems like shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tendinitis and tears, bursitis, and even poor posture.

We will show you how to strengthen the serratus anterior. That way, you can avoid (and even address) the wear and tear injuries listed above. 

First, we will go through the anatomy of the serratus anterior. Then we’ll focus on serratus anterior activation and the top exercises to strengthen it. 

We have a great YouTube video where Coach E explains everything and demonstrates the exercises for you if you want to follow along. 

Serratus Anterior Weakness

The serratus anterior keeps your shoulders healthy. Serratus anterior weakness leads to wear and tear pains like impingement, tendonitis, and bursitis. 

We will focus on overall good function and shoulder strength by getting these muscles firing properly. 

The serratus anterior runs from the medial border of the scapula (aka the shoulder blade) and inserts into the upper nine ribs. You can see it if you’re fairly lean. It sits just between the pecs and the lats. 

serratus anterior muscle anatomy

What does the serratus anterior do? 

Most people know about its main function of protraction. Protraction happens when the scapula moves forward and wraps around the ribcage. 

The serratus anterior also controls upward rotation. When the arm moves up, the scapula rotates its bottom edge forward along your ribcage. 

The rotation is important because if the scapula doesn’t rotate properly, then you can pinch structures in between the head of the humerus (the upper arm bone) and the scapula. 

woman lifting overhead

Imagine doing an overhead press. When you lift your arms overhead, and the scapula sticks in place, you pinch the bursa or the tendon in your rotator cuff. When your scapula moves properly, you don’t pinch the tissues, which prevents inflammation, pain, and damage. 

The third function may be the most important of the serratus anterior. It controls posterior tilt. 

Imagine there is a cup of water on your shoulder. Posterior tilt of the shoulder blade pushes the bottom tip into your back. The cup of water will spill backward onto your posterior. 

scapula posterior tilt

Anterior tilt would dump the water down your front. 

Scroll down to the next section to dive straight into the top 3 serratus anterior exercises. 

A Recent Study on the Importance of Posterior Tilt

Some recent, fascinating research documents the importance of posterior tilt. The study is called “Effects of Intended Scapular Posterior Tilt Motion on Trapezius Muscle Electromyography Activity,” which is a fairly short name as far as medical studies go. [1]

This study investigated the effects of the intended scapular posterior tilt on the EMG activity of trapezius muscles during the prone shoulder horizontal abduction exercise (PSHA). 

In this exercise, you would lay prone (face down) on a table or an exercise ball. Then you lift your arms up in a T motion. 

prone shoulder horizontal abduction exercise

The researchers found increased lower trap muscle activity with the intended scapular posterior tilt during the exercise. The scapular posterior tilt angle was higher by 15% when applying the intended scapular posterior tilt. 

This is an important point from the paper. 

Previous studies applied the intended neutral scapular position and scapular adduction and depression motion (down and back) to increase lower trapezius muscle activation during PSHA, but they also found that the lower trap muscle activity did not significantly increase.

Therefore, we presume that the intended scapular motion used in the previous studies was insufficient to facilitate greater lower trap muscle activation. 

This is a key point because it clearly illustrates how you think about and do an exercise makes a difference. 

That’s why we are so exact when it comes to teaching exercises – hence the name Precision Movement. 

3 Top Exercises to Wake Up SERRATUS ANTERIOR (PLUS Anatomy Explained)

The study also discussed how increased upper trap and lower trap ratios are found in people with shoulder injuries. They note that higher upper trap muscle activity produces excessive scapular anterior tilt with elevation of the clavicles (collar bones), leading to scapular dyskinesia. That can, in turn, relate to shoulder injuries. 

The authors conclude that “our findings indicate that the intended scapular posterior tilt motion enhances lower trap muscle activity while reducing the upper trap/lower trap ratio during the exercise.”

So there you have another example of how important it is to do an exercise properly and how important the lower trap muscle is to healthy shoulders. 

The researchers didn’t study the activity of the serratus anterior muscle. We assume because it’s hard to get the EMG electrodes on there and get an accurate reading. But we do know for sure that when you’re doing posterior tilt of the scapula, the serratus anterior is firing, and this is a cue that we teach all the time in so many of the shoulder exercises that we have on YouTube and in the ROM Coach app. 

How to Strengthen the Serratus Anterior (Top 3 Exercises)

Let’s move on to Coach E’s three favorite exercises to strengthen the serratus anterior.

Exercise 1: Shoulder Extension / Anterior Scapular Tilt

The first exercise is one of our unique dissociation techniques designed to activate the serratus anterior.

Start off by rounding your shoulders and retracting the scapula. When you retract the scapula, think of posterior tilt sucking that bottom third of the shoulder blade into your ribcage. 

Do that a few times to warm up. 

Next, maintain a neutral spine, and then we’re going to posteriorly tilt the scapula as we reach our arms back into shoulder extension. 

The key focus on this, and every exercise is posteriorly tilting the scapula. Hold it at the end range. Keep trying to lift the arms up. 

This is going to wake up that serratus anterior muscle. Hold it for 5-10 seconds. Breath naturally and then release. 

Again, posteriorly tilt the scapula as you extend the shoulders and reach those hands back. Maintain a neutral spine. Don’t go into hyperextension of the spine. 

When you finish, relax.

dis shoulder extension anterior scapular tilt - serratus anteriorWarm up: 

  • Round shoulders forward with neutral spine
  • Pull scapula down and back bringing your shoulders back
  • Repeat a handful of times to warm up your shoulders

Part 2:

  • Reach arms back to shoulder extension while posteriorly tilting scapula
  • Hold 5 – 10 seconds at end range
  • Relax

Perform 1 or 2 sets of 3-5 reps holding for 5-10 seconds. 

Exercise 2: Shoulder Rotation Robot

Next, we’re going to go through the shoulder rotation robot. 

For this technique, you’re going to be on the wall. But when you’re there, ensure posterior tilt of the scapula and slight retraction and depression—just a little bit. 

Focus on (you guessed it) posterior tilt. 

You’re going to abduct your shoulders to about 30 degrees – one arm up, one arm down. Then you’ll make a fist and drive your arms into the wall, one arm up and one arm down. 

Make sure you’re doing this under control. Don’t let the arm fall down. 

Switch positions. Keep trying to drive the hands toward the wall activating those rotator muscles while maintaining a stable scapula with the posterior tilt. 

Breathe when you’re holding. Keep trying to drive the fist to the wall. 

Your shoulders shouldn’t raise or lower while performing the robot, and we’re activating the rotators and keeping the scapula stable, and working the serratus anterior. 

Shoulder Rotation Robot - serratus anterior exercise

  • Put your back against the wall with posterior scapular tilt
  • Abduct shoulders so your upper arms are roughly 30 degrees away from your body
  • Make fists
  • One fist will point up, the other down
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds
  • Switch
  • Hold for another 5-10 seconds

Perform the robot for 2-3 sets, 4-6 reps, holding 5-10 seconds. 

Exercise 3: Serratus Floor Press

The serratus floor press works posterior tilt with upward rotation and protraction. 

We’re getting all the functions of the serratus interior working. 

Start off in the four-point position. Walk your hands about 6-8 inches in front of your body. Lift your knees up off the ground and then press up from the shoulders and your scapula so your spine is flexed. Hold it and keep activating for about 5 seconds. Breathe.

Then bring it back down. Shoulders are down and back, and retracted spine is extended. 

Then press up and away from the floor. The spine flexes, and you keep activating the scapula to rotate it upward. 

Keep protracting the scapula and bring it back down again, pressing up and away from the floor. 

The knees shouldn’t move much. Your spine is flexed, activating the scapula muscles to upwardly rotate. Posteriorly tilt and protract the scapula. 

Serratus Floor Press exercise

  • Get in the four-point position, hands and knees on the floor
  • Move your hands 6-8 inches forward from under your shoulders
  • Lift your knees off the ground
  • Press up from your shoulders (w/ posterior scapular tilt) until your spine is flexed (rounded)
  • Hold for 5 seconds while breathing
  • Lower back to neutral position, keeping knees off the floor

Do this for 2-3 sets, 4-6 reps, holding for 5 seconds. 

Final Thoughts

Now you know what the serratus anterior is all about – its anatomy, functions, and three exercises to strengthen it. 

This knowledge will help keep your shoulders healthy for the long term so you can do the active things you love. Combining it with a few more exercises from our complete guide to the serratus anterior will give you a little extra boost. 

If these exercises feel great, we have the full videos in our free ROM Coach app (plus a few more). When you download the app go to Routines and start the Awaken the Serratus. 

Check out ROM Coach FREE.

For further shoulder pain, lack of range, or to prevent wear and tear damage, check out our Shoulder Pain Solution

It addresses the root causes of shoulder pain and builds up your resilience so you can keep as active as you want while staying pain-free.

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About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.

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