This article will focus on one of the shoulder blade stabilizer muscles called the serratus anterior (SA), and why these muscles may not be getting sufficient attention in a conditioning program.
What is the purpose of the serratus anterior?
The SA helps provide stability to the shoulder blade and helps move the shoulder blade forward (protract) and rotate it upward. These actions are important for the shoulder to function optimally. Relative weakness of this muscle is associated with shoulder conditions such as impingement.1
Is this muscle being addressed in your conditioning program?
Most resistance trainers are familiar with exercises such as the bench press, and its variations and shrugs. These exercises focus on muscles that can be visualized in the mirror, such as the chest, upper trapezius “traps,” and anterior deltoids. These exercises are effective, and although they are useful in many training programs, they may be over-used at the expense of training smaller muscles, such as the SA.
Issues that may be encountered with this type of training.
Issue 1. When performing a bench press or its variations, the weight trainer is typically taught to pull the shoulder blades down and in. This is how the most proficient bench pressers I know perform the exercise. Remember, the SA brings the shoulder blade forward and upwardly rotates. When doing the bench press we are consciously doing the exact opposite by pulling the shoulder blades down and in while driving the upper back against the bench. This creates an “unnaturally” fixed position and leaves the SA without much work to do. With this style of pressing we miss out on really working the SA.
Issue 2. The upper trapezius is worked extensively during shoulder shrugs and exercises such as the deadlift. The serratus anterior and upper trapezius are important stabilizers of the shoulder blades but decreased serratus activity and increased upper trapezius activity can be associated with shoulder injury.1 Proportionately more upper trap work has the potential to lead to relative weakness of the SA in comparison with the upper trapezius.
To offset this type of training it makes sense to do some type of focused work on the SA. Improving the strength of the SA compared to the upper trapezius and other scapular stabilizers may also help decrease the possibility of shoulder injury.
The following video demonstrates the free weight version of the serratus punch.2 Lying on a bench with the arm extended at shoulder level punch arm toward the ceiling. This can be treated like any other exercise, but I recommend initially starting with lighter weight and higher repetitions.
Weakness of the SA is associated with shoulder issues. Your strength and conditioning program may not be adequately addressing this muscle. The serratus punch is an effective exercise to help ensure this muscle gets addressed.
1. Ludewig, PM and Cook, TM. Alterations in shoulder kinematics and associated muscle activity in people with symptoms of shoulder impingement. Phys Ther 80: 276-291, 2000.
2. Decker MJ, Hintermeister RA, Faber KJ, et al: Serratus anterior muscle activity during selected rehabilitation exercises. Am J Sports Med 27: 784–791, 1999