All too often when we are focused on improving our shoulder health to prevent aches and pains, we focus on strengthening our rotator cuff.
We may also do some foam rolling or release for our pecs and lats as well knowing they can inhibit proper shoulder mobility.
But we can’t only focus directly on our shoulders if we have shoulder and even neck pain…
We have to realize that our shoulder health is dramatically impacted by both our spinal and scapular mobility and stability as well.
And one muscle in particular is often overlooked when we are suffering from neck and shoulder pain – a muscle that can impact our scapular stability and even be impacted by our thoracic mobility…
This muscle is the Serratus Anterior!
Before I share 3 key moves to include to help activate your Serratus Anterior, and a bonus move to improve your thoracic extension, it’s key we understand why and how our Serratus Anterior can impact our shoulder health, even contributing to scapular winging, shoulder impingement, bursitis, thoracic outlet syndrome, and even neck aches and pains!
What Does The Serratus Anterior Do?
You can find and feel your Serratus Anterior by putting your hand on your ribs just below your armpit.
This muscle protracts or pulls the shoulder blade forward around the rib cage and upwardly rotates and posteriorly tilts the shoulder blade which helps you press overhead safely without shoulder or neck issues, or overload to those smaller muscles like your rotator cuff.
The Serratus Anterior also holds the shoulder blade against the rib cage by posteriorly tipping and externally rotating the scapula. This is the opposite of the scapular winging issue we often seen.
Because of how the Serratus Anterior stablizes and moves the shoulder blade you can see how it would create scapular dysfunction such as scapular winging and poor scapular control leading to shoulder and neck issues.
That’s why it’s key we address weakness of this muscle, even potentially strengthening it on one side!
So what are 3 Key Moves To Activate The Serratus Anterior?
#1: Roller Serratus Anterior Activation
To keep our shoulders healthy, we want to strengthen all of the joint actions controlled by the Serratus Anterior, which means not only working on the protraction that so many Serratus Anterior moves address, but also that upward rotation and posterior tipping.
That’s why a move that works as you press overhead can be key.
Especially if you find you struggle with controlling the overhead press or shoulder and neck pain during that move, try including this move in your warm up activation series.
To do Roller Serratus Anterior Shoulder Extensions, place a small roller, or even sliders, against a wall pinned about at your wrist with your palms facing in toward each other.
The roller should be at about eye height to start. Your arms should be about shoulder-width or just slightly wider apart.
Walk your feet back so you just are angled into the wall and resting a bit of your weight against the roller. You don’t want to fall forward or be dependent on your arms because as you slide up you will lean more into the roller.
You can stagger your feet if that feels more comfortable. Brace your abs as you face the wall and then begin to roll your arms up, extending from your shoulder overhead.
Lean into the wall as you extend. Do not arch your lower back as you extended up. Think of pulling your shoulder blades “out and around” as you slide up.
Then slide back down. You may feel your upper traps slightly but do NOT allow them to compensate.
If you feel your lower back taking over, stagger your feet to help maintain a neutral spine. And if you want to progress this movement, walk further back from the wall to lean more into the roller.
#2: Serratus Anterior Press
The push up plus is a super common Serratus Anterior activation move, but also one that is far more challenging than we give it credit for.
And when we are trying to really isolate and activate a muscle, sometimes it is best to regress a movement so we can really focus on what we feel working.
That’s why I love Wall Protractions. They are a great way to really focus in on simply learning to control scapular protraction. You can even make them unilateral by doing one side at a time.
To do Wall Protractions, stand facing a wall with your hands made into fists. Place your knuckles against the wall with your palms facing in toward each other and your arms extended out at shoulder height. Stand tall and brace your abs.
Then without bending your arms or moving your feet or body, push the wall away with your knuckles.
Feel like you are trying to spread your shoulder blades as far apart as you can without just rounding your back or tucking your hips. It may be a very small movement, especially to start.
Pause then relax out before again pushing the wall away.
Do not arch your lower back to try to make the move bigger or tuck your chin.
If you feel in control of this movement and aren’t trying to make it seem bigger by bending your arms or rounding, you can then move to an incline or even a plank position off the ground.
And if you do have an imbalance, try one side at a time off the wall.
#3: Wall Protractions:
If you do have an imbalance or issue on one side, you want to include unilateral activation, even only doing strength work on that one side.
That’s why the Serratus Anterior Press can be a great move to include. The unilateral focus will allow you to target each side independently.
To do the Serratus Anterior Press, start in a staggered stance with the opposite foot forward from the hand holding the band in at your chest. Move out from the band so there is tension even while your hand is up at your chest. You want to start light with this move as you want to really focus on feeling around your ribs working over your pec muscles working.
Standing tall, press the band out from your chest and slightly up at an incline. Feel yourself pulling your shoulder blade forward around your ribs as you reach out. You aren’t just doing a unilateral chest press.
You may press slightly across the midline of your body as you reach out to protract the shoulder blade, but you aren’t just twisting through your spine.
Then slowly bring your hand back in toward your chest. Do not rotate toward the anchor point.
You want to focus on the movement being felt around your ribs as you protract your shoulder blade or pull it away from your spine.
If you’re struggling to activate your Serratus Anterior and limited in your thoracic extension, using this foam rolling move prior to your activation work can be key – The Peanut Thoracic Extension.
This move can help you relax tight muscles and work on that thoracic extension.
To do this move, you can use a peanut, which can easily be made by taping two balls together or tying them in a sock. Lie on your back placing the peanut in your mid-back with a ball on either side of your spine.
Place your hands behind your head, pulling your elbows open as you relax over the peanut.
Breathe and hold for a second, then crunch up and relax back down. Do a few of the crunches, extending back over, before moving the peanut up your spine.
We have to remember that everything is connected. And if we lack mobility and stability in one area, it could lead to overload and injury in another. That is why addressing weakness of our Serratus Anterior can be so key if we’ve been struggling with scapular winging or shoulder and neck aches and pains.
And then remember, you can NEVER stop doing what makes you feel better. That prehab work is key!
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