by Eric Cressey
It’s been a while since I posted a new “Exercise of the Week” feature, but to atone for the wait, I’ve got a great one for you. I actually came up with this one myself while brainstorming a bit during my own warm-up a few weeks ago.
Serratus anterior is an incredibly important muscle for shoulder health, as it is really the big player in making sure there is a “rotation” component to scapular upward rotation (watch this video first if you need more information on that). Long story short, as you can tell from the picture below that depicts its positioning and line of pull, serratus anterior is hugely important for healthy shoulder function. This is particularly true in movement patterns involving reaching, whether it’s out in front or overhead.
Loss of serratus anterior function is incredibly common in those with shoulder pathology, but we also see it really commonly in those who are pain-free but don’t move well. To that end, we like to include specific serratus anterior targeted drills in our warm-ups and as low-key “fillers” between heavier compound lifts during our training sessions.
The research has demonstrated that serratus anterior recruitment is highest when you have more than 90 degrees of shoulder flexion, and this assertion really recognizes that this muscle does far more than just protract the shoulder blade; it is a key upward rotator. As such, we train it to assist that function:
1. Make sure the athlete is not in a heavily extended (arched lower back) posture, and don’t allow forward head posture.
2. If range of motion allows, reach behind the back with the opposite hand to monitor the position of the inferomedial (inside/bottom) border of the scapula. It should stay “snug” to the rib cage, not wing off.
3. Think of “wrapping” the scapula to the armpit as the arm goes up. I’ll usually manually guide the shoulder blade with my hands as I’m first instructing this. You can usually see if the movement is sufficient through an athlete’s shirt.
4. Actively push the medicine ball into the wall the entire time. In addition to training the protraction function of serratus anterior, you’ll also likely get some reflexive rotator cuff recruitment. This is a 4-pound med ball, but you can really work anywhere from one pound to six pounds.
5. The athlete should only feel this along the scapula near arm pit (reference the anatomy picture above for a frame of reference). There should be no anterior shoulder discomfort. If there is, it’s a sign of one of two things:
- a. Pectoralis minor taking over to protract with anterior scapular tilt
- b. Excessive movement of the humerus (upper arm) without sufficient scapular movement
5. Don’t force upward range of motion. The arm really shouldn’t get above 140-150 degrees, and most people don’t even need to go this far. Note that the medicine ball doesn’t say in the hand the entire time; it rolls to the elbow. This is a great ROM “check” that tells you how far up you should go.
6. Control things down slowly; don’t yank to the bottom.
7. For added benefit, you can add a full exhale at the top of each rep to help solidify the pattern.
I’ll generally program this for sets of 6-8 reps on each side.
If you’re looking for some more serratus anterior programming options and detailed coaching cues, check out this video: