By Coach E

5 Serratus Anterior Exercises for Healthy Shoulders

Keep Your Shoulders Healthy by Training this
Under-Appreciated Muscle

Working these serratus anterior exercises will keep your shoulders mobile and strong, helping you avoid injury and live your active life.

You may not know if you’ve got serratus anterior problems. There’s a chance you may not even know what a serratus anterior is (we’ll get into that in a minute).

But I bet you have an idea of how strong your shoulders are.

serratus-anterior-exercises-anatomy

You know how hard you can throw a punch, your max on military
press, or how strong and stable your shoulders feel during push-ups…

If your shoulders have been feeling a little more on the weak or achy side lately, your serratus anterior might be the culprit.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

chapter 1 - what is the serratus anterior muscle image

CHAPTER 1

What is the Serratus Anterior?


chapter 2 - What does the Serratus Anterior do

CHAPTER 2

What does the Serratus
Anterior do?

chapter 3 - serratus anterior dysfunction causes

CHAPTER 3

What can cause dysfunction of the Serratus Anterior?

chapter 04 - problems associated with serratus anterior dysfunction

CHAPTER 4

Common problems associated with Serratus Anterior dysfunction

chapter 5 - how to restore proper serratus anterior function

CHAPTER 5

How to restore proper serratus anterior function?

CHAPTER 1: 

What is the Serratus Anterior?


The serratus anterior is most recognized by its serrated-looking appearance along the side of your body.

Depending on your body type and how shredded (or not) you are, it may or may not be partially visible underneath your armpit during certain motions.

chapter 1 - what is the serratus anterior muscle image

Your serratus anterior typically originates on your first 8 ribs [1], but it lies deep to your pectoral muscles, so you won’t be able to see all of these “serrations” – even on a super lean body.

From the ribs, your serratus anterior wraps around your side and back, where it runs underneath the scapulae (or shoulder blades) and attaches there, to the medial border of the underside of your scaps.

serratus anterior muscle anatomy

From the ribs, your serratus anterior wraps around your side and back, where it runs underneath the scapulae (or shoulder blades) and attaches there, to the medial border of the underside of your scaps.

CHAPTER 2:

What does the Serratus Anterior do?


chapter 2 - What does the Serratus Anterior do

This connection to the medial undersurface of your scapulae makes the serratus anterior perfectly positioned to perform certain movements of the shoulder blades, but also makes it key for scapular stability.

Your serratus anterior’s most basic function is to protract your scapulae (wrapping forward around your ribcage) which contributes to pushing movements of your arms like in a Pushup [2].

It's easy to visualize this muscle contracting and pulling your shoulder blades forward just based on its origin on your ribs and insertion underneath the scapulae.

Because your serratus anterior helps forward arm movements and provides a few more inches of reach to your punches, the muscle is sometimes called the boxer’s muscle.

serratus anterior shoulder blades
serratus anterior exercises boxer

This muscle also works in coordination with the lower and upper trapezius to rotate the scapulae upwards during shoulder flexion.

Scapulohumeral rhythm, or this coordinated movement between your scap and your upper arm bone is crucial for movements like overhead and horizontal pushing and pulling.

serratus anterior exercises scapulohumeral rythm

But perhaps one of the most important functions of your serratus anterior is to maintain scapular stability during movement at your glenohumeral, or shoulder joint.

It achieves this important function in part by posteriorly tilting your scapulae.

Posterior tilt of the scapulae is important for healthy shoulders because it helps maintain the subacromial space between the acromion process of the scapulae and head of the humerus. Reduced space in this area can lead to a painful issue called shoulder impingement.

Furthermore, if your serratus anterior is not stabilizing properly, you can develop something called winged scapula. When this happens, the medial border of the scapula starts to flare up, protrude, or wing outwards.

We’ll get more into issues like shoulder impingement and winging and how you can avoid them by keeping your serratus anterior strong and firing in a bit.

CHAPTER 3:

What can cause dysfunction of the Serratus Anterior?


A variety of factors can cause dysfunction of the serratus anterior and eventually lead to some of those tricky issues like impingement and scapular winging.

One such issue is damage to the long thoracic nerve, which runs from your neck down the side of your torso to innervate your serratus anterior. If the nerve isn’t able to properly send signals to tell your serratus anterior to contract, the muscle will become weak and dysfunctional. 

chapter 3 - serratus anterior dysfunction causes

Long thoracic nerve injuries can occur if there is excess stretch or compression on the nerve between its origin in your neck and its path through your torso [3]. This might happen during sports like archery or tennis, or after carrying heavy bags over your shoulder for an extended time.

serratus anterior exercises golf

Another issue that can cause dysfunction of the serratus anterior are contracted, rigid, or overactive muscles – specifically your shoulder internal rotators and pec minor.

Your shoulder internal rotators, including subscapularis and pectoralis major, fire to rotate your arm in towards the midline. If these muscles are overactive, they can pull the shoulder into excessive internal rotation, causing the midline of the scapula to wing out and preventing the serratus anterior from functioning properly.

The same goes for your pectoralis minor muscle, which runs from your upper ribs to a point on your anterior scapula called the coracoid process. This muscle works to stabilize your scapulae [4] and should work with your serratus anterior [5].

But if your pec minor is overactive, it can prevent the serratus anterior from functioning properly to move your scapula during key motions like taking your arm overhead.

serratus anterior pectoralis minor

There’s one more thing I want to touch on that can lead to serratus anterior dysfunction – and it’s a big one.

You may have been told somewhere along the way to always try to keep your shoulder blades “down and back.”

If you really took this advice to heart and you’re always reminding yourself to keep those scaps down and back, you’re just teaching your body to program the serratus anterior right out of the movement.

Say you’re doing an overhead press, or swimming laps, or throwing a punch. If you keep telling yourself “down and back,” you aren’t allowing the serratus to do what it needs to (aka rotate the scap up or protract it forward) to help you lift your arm overhead or punch that arm powerfully.

CHAPTER 4:

What are some common problems associated with
Serratus Anterior dysfunction?


chapter 04 - problems associated with serratus anterior dysfunction

Weakness in your serratus anterior can contribute to improper positioning and movement of the scapulae, called scapular dyskinesis. This can happen in a couple of different ways.

The scapulae may start to tilt forward if that serratus anterior weakness is paired with tight pecs and a tight deltoid. As this happens, the shoulders can start to round forward and excessive kyphosis of the thoracic spine (aka a hunchback in the mid-to-upper back) starts to develop. Not a good look.

If serratus anterior weakness is paired instead with additional weakness in the lower traps, the medial border of the scapula starts to flare up and you develop the scapular winging we touched on earlier.

When this happens, you can sometimes visibly see that medial border of the scapulae protruding up from the back, like wings.

Sometimes winging might not cause any symptoms [6], and sometimes it can cause pain or weakness. But regardless, scapular winging is a clear sign that there are issues and imbalances in the shoulder joint that need to be addressed.

serratus anterior weakness posture
winged scapula serratus anterior weakness

And as I mentioned above, serratus anterior weakness can also contribute to shoulder impingement [7].

serratus anterior weakness impingement

If your serratus anterior fails to properly control your scapulae, the amount of space in the shoulder joint itself can be reduced, leading to the “catching” of muscles and ligaments that characterize impingement.

Without sufficient room in the subacromial space, any movement that has your arms at shoulder level or above may cause shoulder impingement and a painful pinching sensation. Over time, this impingement can cause irritation of the bursa or rotator cuff tendon.

With enough time and enough irritation, bursitis or tendonitis can occur. And potentially it all started with a weak serratus anterior!

CHAPTER 5:

How to restore proper Serratus Anterior
function and build strength


So if your serratus anterior is acting up, how do you go about addressing it? This is where my 4-Step Process to eliminate pain, improve mobility, and build strength comes in.

  • Step 1: is to Address Structural Limitations
  • Step 2: is called “Dissociate to Activate.”
  • Step 3: End Range Expansion
  • Step 4: Functional Integration
chapter 5 - how to restore proper serratus anterior function

Step 1 is to Address Structural Limitations. Structural limitations are movement restrictions that will limit your flexibility.

If you don’t have flexibility to passively achieve a range, you definitely won’t have the mobility to actively enter that range! This is why we have to address structural limitations causing flexibility limitations FIRST.

​Active Self-Myofascial Release (ASMR) techniques are a great method for eliminating structural limitations in the form of tissue adhesions between/within muscle and fascia.

ASMR involves an active contraction of the muscles that are opposite (antagonists) to those being rolled or massaged (agonists).

By actively contracting the antagonists, we’re eliciting a neuromuscular reflex called reciprocal inhibition. Reciprocal inhibition is a phenomenon where the muscle group opposite to the one being contracted reflexively relaxes.

Step 2 is called “Dissociate to Activate.” This step requires the disrupting commonly associated Movement and/or Activation Patterns (M/Aps).

Commonly associated M/APs exist where one movement or activation pattern automatically leads to another.

​Disrupting dysfunctional M/Aps can help correct habitual issues, activate inhibited muscles, and encourage eccentric contractions, which have been shown to be effective for building strength.

Next comes Step 3: End Range Expansion. This step requires performing exercises using a specific protocol designed to help you expand your range of motion AND your ability to generate STRENGTH within that range.

First you’ll actively enter the end range, then you’ll build tension in the muscles that brought you there and hold. Next, you release the muscles but maintain the joint position before generating tension in the muscles that will help you exit the range.

End Range Expansion sequences are important for building strength in new ranges after eliminating structural limitations and dissociating faulty movement patterns.

Last but not least is Step 4: Functional Integration. This last step helps you transfer your gains to the gym, life and sport – which is really what it’s all about, huh?

But what makes an exercise “functional”?

The truth it, it depends on you and how you need to or want to function in your life. Function is a concept that is relative to your individual goals.

The truth it, it depends on you and how you need to or want to function in your life. Function is a concept that is relative to your individual goals.

Because I want the exercises in Step 4 to be functional for you, whether you like to hit the gym, golf course, dojo, pool, or wherever, I’ve made these exercises highly transferable to any activity.

The techniques I offer for Functional Integration typically involve more than one joint and lean more toward closed chain versus open chain movements. The exercises will help you integrate newly gained ranges and strength, and activate a muscle group in different patterns.

Serratus Anterior Exercises for Healthy Shoulders

Serratus Anterior Exercise #1: 
ASMR Pec (Active Self-Myosfacial Release)

The first technique is an Active Self-Myofascial Release (ASMR) technique that helps improve shoulder flexibility by releasing structural and/or neurological blocks that limit its extensibility.

serratus anterior exercise 1 - asmr
  • Relax your left arm and cross it over your body and use your right fingers to press into the muscle just below the collar bone
  • Lift your left arm and externally rotate it to reach behind you with the palm up as you sit up tall
  • As you’re lifting your left arm, use your right fingers to run down the length of your pec muscles, until you reach your sternum
  • Do this for 1-2 min per side. With every rep, move your fingers to a slightly different spot on your pec

Serratus Anterior Exercise #2: 
Shoulder Rotation Robot

This drill is great for training reciprocal movement at the shoulder joint – creating a nice rhythm and give and take for the joint.

Your scapulohumeral rhythm will get a reset and your scapular control will be challenged.

serratus anterior exercise 2 - shoulder rotation robot
  • Stand with your back against a wall, fingers pointing down toward the ground and elbows slightly bent
  • Keeping your upper arm and elbow pressing into the wall, start to lift your right fingers and forearm away from the wall as you rotate them up
  • Let the back of your hand reach the wall, fingers pointed up, and pause, pressing both hands into the wall
  • As you rotate your right arm back down to the starting position, lift your left arm up, swapping positions
  • Continue to move, taking one hand up as the other moves down and pausing in between

Serratus Anterior Exercise #3: 
Scap Pushups

I'm sure you've trained pushups before and this is similar, except we're focusing on pure scapular movement without movement at the glenohumeral joint or elbow. The Scap Pushup is a simple dynamic exercise to activate the serratus anterior.

4 Point Scapular Pushup

serratus anterior exercise 3 scapular pushups
  • Come into a quadruped position on the ground
  • Tuck the chin and start with a neutral spine
  • Keep the elbows locked as you retract the scapulae and hold for 1-2 seconds
  • Protract the scapulae and hold
  • Complete 12 reps

Scapular Pushup on Toes

serratus anterior exercise 3 scapular pushups on toes
  • Come into a regular pushup position on your toes
  • Slowly go through the full range of motion with control as you maintain straight elbows
  • Retract scapulae and hold, then protract and hold
  • Complete 12 reps

Serratus Anterior Exercise #4: 
Scap Step-Up

Use this move to train asymmetrical scapular motion – one scap will be protracting while the other is retracting.

serratus anterior exercise 4 - scapular stepup
  • Find a step or something level 3-4 inches off the ground and come to a push-up position with your hands on the step
  • Take your feet slightly wider than a normal push-up stance and keep your elbows straight
  • Keep both elbows straight as you retract your scapula and slowly lower one arm off the step and onto the ground
  • Protract your scapula to bring that arm back up to the step with control and repeat on the other side

Serratus Anterior Exercise #5: 
Overhead Wall Rollout

Use this rollout to focus on upward rotation of the scapula during shoulder flexion (arms moving overhead). Keep your core active and breathe throughout the motion so you're training proper breathing pattern (not holding your breath) with a stable core and shoulder movement.

Overhead Wall Rollout - Use this rollout to focus on upward rotation of the scapula during shoulder flexion (arms moving overhead). Keep your core active and breathe throughout the motion so you're training proper breathing pattern (not holding your breath) with a stable core and shoulder movement.
  • Outstretching your arms, place ab wheel on wall and step back a few inches so that you’re leaning forward into the wall
  • Protract the scapulae slightly to activate your serratus anterior
  • Slowly roll up the wall, shrugging your shoulders to elevate your scaps as you do
  • Go as far up as you can, then roll back down with control
  • Complete 8-12 reps

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) holds an Honours Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He’s been a trainer since 2004 and spent many years training professional combat athletes including 3 UFC fighters, so he’s had much experience dealing with injuries. He’s the founder of Precision Movement and has dedicated himself to helping active people eliminate pain, heal & prevent injuries and improve mobility so they can get back to and keep doing the things they love.

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.

  • David Dorenfeld says:

    Eric,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve spent a lot of time gathering information on this, and you summed it up and explained it the best!!!

    Great info and so kind of you to share. Now I can share your wisdom as well 🙂

    David

  • Sadi S says:

    Hey Coach E,

    Thank you very much for all the resources. I’m a ride-share driver and drummer (african hand drums). Have always been hyper-flexible and also kinda sedentary. Have seen Chiropractors for repeated adjustments over the years to no avail. Your videos about AC Joint Dysfunctions are very helpful. However, I fear I may have damage past the point of these exercises helping me. As when I try to do most basic scap pushups, (it takes a lot of effort to avoid anterior tilt of ac joint) if I try to do it with control, there is a lot of shaking and instability. Am I beyond help, as I won’t be able to afford PT let alone surgery in this state of health care. Thanks for what you’re doing and making so much education available.

    Sadi

    • David Dorenfeld says:

      Try laying down on your back, extend your arms up to the sky, and keeping them straight, extend your shoulders up off them ground, allowing them to protract (round at the top of the movement).

      This way your only resistance will be gravity.

  • Rubén Cortés says:

    Great Material. I had looked at other websites and videos for exercises to strengthen the Serratus Anterior and this is by far the best I have found. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Lori says:

    Really appreciate your excellent information and exercises for serratus! As a PT , this is spot on and will help others !

  • hey Eric,
    Your videos and info are excellant!
    Thank you,
    Laurie Jacobs-Personal Trainer

    • Coach E says:

      Thanks for the good words Laurie.

  • Eelbrood says:

    Videos are truncated, too short. Horrible editing and total disregard for the viewer.

    • Coach E says:

      Are you referring to the animated GIFs? Because those aren’t videos and they’re not meant to be – the videos are much longer – there’s a total of just under 20 minutes of video. Look for YouTube’s red play button.

  • Dan says:

    How many days a week can this routine be done? Also, just one set for each? Thanks!

    • Coach E says:

      Hey Dan, this isn’t a routine per se, but 5 exercises.

      That being said, I’d start with the Scap Pushup and Activator exercises 3 days/week for 2-3 sets each to make sure you can activate serratus for 2 weeks on their own.

      After that, try adding the others in 1 at a time, starting with Horizontal Band Fly, then Overhead Wall Rollout then Scap Step-up (hardest), doing them twice a week for 2-4 sets each for 2-3 weeks at a time.

      That right there is a solid progression. 🙂

      Oh and if your serratus really isn’t firing well and you’ve got shoulder pain, there’s likely more to it then just getting serratus on, in which case I recommend you follow the Shoulder Control course: http://www.precisionmovement.coach/shoulder-control/

  • Dr. Sean Diamond says:

    Good morning Eric. My name is Dr. Sean Diamond. I was reading one of your articles on strengthening your serratus anterior muscle. I have upper crossed syndrome. Probably from adjusting my patients for the last 21 years. I know that I have weak Rhomboids, lower traps and serratus anterior muscles. I used to body build so my pecs and upper traps are more developed so they are usually. I am looking for some kind of routine I can do in the gym. I will pay you for your service if you are available to do thru email and phone. Let me know what you think.

    Thanks
    Dr. Sean Diamond

    (comment was edited to exclude phone number)

    • Coach E says:

      Hey Dr. Diamond, I’ll shoot you a private message and we can chat.

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