As a teacher, have you ever walked around your class when everyone is in Plank pose and noticed that about half the class or more has their ‘wings’ sticking up? Then you cue Chatturanga and WOW do those ‘wings’ really start to pop up! It looks like a fleet of fighter pilots readying for take off! Those ‘wings’ are the inside edges of the scapula, commonly called the shoulder blades, lifting away from the ribcage. Until recently I didn’t understand why that happened. I knew it was important to cue students to “seal your shoulder blades onto your upper back” during Plank and Chatturanga, but I didn’t know how or why they should do it. That is, until I took the Yoga Tune Up® Level 1 Teacher Training! Along with many such revelatory moments, learning about the serratus anterior was a real eye opener. Understanding the why and how of activating serratus anterior in poses like Plank and Chatturanga is invaluable to both student and teacher.
First, it’s a good idea to know where this muscle is located. Serratus anterior originates on the surface of the upper eight or nine ribs and attaches at the anterior surface (the inner surface) of the medial border (the inside edge) of the scapula. It looks something like a large eight- or nine-fingered hand. The palm of this large hand is under the shoulder blade while the fingers extend out over the ribs. Aside from elevating the ribs during inhalation, serratus anterior is also one of the muscles that comprise the support system of the shoulder girdle – along with the trapezius, levator scapulae, rhomboid major & minor and pectoralis minor – so you can imagine how important it is in poses like Plank, Chatturanga and many others that require shoulder flexion with the arms bearing weight.
A great way to learn to engage the serratus anterior is the Yoga Tune Up® pose Mega Plank. This pose looks much like a regular Plank pose, but you are on your forearms rather than your hands. Make sure to joint stack your shoulders over your elbows, find a bit of posterior tilt in the pelvis so the lumbar spine doesn’t get compressed and activate your abdominals so the spine is supported. Now, to find that serratus anterior just push the floor away with your forearms and you will feel the shoulder blades moving away from each other – this is called protraction – and your upper back will round a bit. Keep the shoulder blades protracted and then pull backwards with your hands until you feel the tips of your shoulder blades moving towards your hips and voila! You should feel the serratus anterior muscle turn on – you will feel the big hand and fingers hugging into your back and ribs and the shoulder blades suction cupping into your upper back. Keep practicing Mega Plank to learn how this muscle works and also to strengthen it. You can also practice two other Yoga Tune Up® poses that require an active serratus anterior – Dolphin Supinate and Raise the Chalice. Then, start to practice contracting the serratus when you are in Plank and Chatturanga and see if you can keep it active so those shoulder blades stay snuggled up into your back.
Activating and exercising the serratus anterior stabilizes the shoulders and, along with the other muscles that support the shoulder girdle, gives you a more compact feeling overall in the shoulders and upper back. Aside from improving the quality, safety and stability in Plank and Chatturanga, strengthening your serratus anterior will also improve your Down Dog, Handstand and Forearm Balance poses. And, for those that are not yogis, strengthening the serratus anterior muscle can improve the safety and stability of the shoulders in a number of overhead sports and regular daily activities such as throwing a baseball, any overhead stroke while swimming, serving while playing tennis, striking a volleyball, chopping wood with an axe, and holding an active baby in one arm.