I have been doing Pilates for over 15 years, and I have been teaching for almost 10, and the questions and proclamations I hear most frequently (“How do I keep my ribs in?” “I have trouble keeping my shoulders down,” “Why cant I roll up?” “How come I don’t feel my lower abs?”) can all be answered with two simple words: Serratus Anterior.
This magical muscle lives just under your arm, right near the scapula. It originates on first 9 ribs, and inserts into the inner border of the scapula. It is responsible for protracting and depressing the scapulae (widening and dropping the shoulder blades) by pulling them sideways and for keeping them locked into the thoracic wall. It is from this stable base that the shoulder muscles can work most effectively. Consequently, the rhomboids won’t overwork, the rotator cuff muscles won’t work incorrectly, and a lot of shoulder, neck and back pain is thwarted.
The lower portion of the serratus interlocks with the origin of the external oblique. This anatomical detail helps people begin to understand just how important it is in terms of abdominal core work and stabilization. Simply visualizing the serratus anterior muscle can change your practice since it unites the shoulder girdle and abdominal core. Because many people think of only the “six pack,” (the superficial layer of abdominal muscles) when they envision their core, and were told to “pull their shoulders back and down” for good posture, the classic Pilates commands (“keep your ribs in/shoulders down/ chest open”) can seem impossible, vague, and counterintuitive. I find it simpler to forgo these commands and begin by educating my clients about their Serratus Anterior.
One of my favorite ways to get them to visualize it is to have them imagine that there is a little hammock just below their shoulder blade that lifts and pulls the blades into a stable,”hug” position on their ribcage. To me, it almost looks like two helping hands underneath the scapulae. I always send them away with the homework of finding an image of Atlas holding up the world. In virtually all artistic depictions of him, even if his neck is in a most unfortunate position, his Serratus is carefully etched into his torso, illustrating perfectly how crucial and mighty it is.