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 diagonal muscles seen just under Atlas’ armpit are his serratus anterior.

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.

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Najla Said

Najla Said was born with a lot of energy. Constantly searching for a place to channel it, she tried every sport/dance/activity that was made available to her as a young child, only to discover early on that the ones she enjoyed the most and seemed to excel at (dance, gymnastics, yoga, and running) were destroying her extremely hypermobile body. While studying acting in New York City in 1996, she was advised by her teachers to try Pilates, Alexander Technique and martial arts in order to build the strength and stamina she would need for a career on stage. After 8 years of private sessions and countless classes, she was certified to teach Classical Pilates in 2004 and has been constantly teaching and learning since. Having attempted to return to yoga safely with her Pilates knowledge in the past few years, she found she wanted to know more, and naturally gravitated toward Yoga Tune Up®, in which she was certified in 2012. Her memoir, "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in An Arab-American Family" will be published by Riverhead Books (a division of Penguin) on August 1, 2013.

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natalie

than you for the visual of Atlas holding up the world- a great visual tool to offer students when working to strengthen and awaken this key stabilizer muscle

E B

Thank you, Najla, for this powerful image and ode to a wonderful muscle. I really like your use of Atlas. I’ve heard that serratus anterior and external obliques “hold hands” but I particularly love your hammock image in getting a felt sense of this muscle. I love to read more from you.

Natalie K.

I love the visual of a hammock underneath the shoulder blades that helps to create the action of serratus anterior. thank you!

Lyson

Article très intéressant qui aide à comprendre le rôle et l’importance du dentelé antérieur. Avant l’immersion sur les abdominaux profonds, la commande: activez votre dentelé antérieur était pour moi assez nébuleuse. Apprendre à fermer la fenêtre a contribué à réveiller ces muscles et me donne maintenant un meilleur contrôle lors de l’activation du corset tubulaire. merci

Rena

Thanks for highlighting this muscle.
I deal with alot of back pain, so any advice or technique I can try I’m in.
Will definitely think about this while in yoga.

Sue Paterson

This is the visual that finally got me to ‘get’ the serratus. Your great description of how it connects to the obliques also helps me to put megaplank with active serratus together. Knowing where muscles are and being able to propriocept them is such an amazing journey. Thanks for helping me with this. Your ‘hammock’ and hugging visual also gives me another cue for protraction. Maybe now I will be able to recruit those rhomboids successfully, too!

Alexandra L

Thank you! I am a rib thruster as well and using the cue to engage the serratus definitely helps to pull it all in. I enjoyed the insight into the connection between the shoulders and core and find it very helpful in visualizing.

Kate

Thanks for this article that highlights the physical connection between the abdominal muscles and the shoulder. I love megaplank with active serratus as the directions of movement are really targeted to the shoulder depression and protraction, as well as the tubular core. It’s the serratus that is constantly working to keep the trunk in a balanced position.

Michelle Corbeil

Thank you for the highlight on Serratus anterior, I have undervalued the importance of this muscle and now that I am working to activate there is so much difference and strength in poses that felt like I was in them but not present for them. I like the visual of the helping hands.!!!

Nancy

My first real exposure to Serratus Anterior, actually feeling it in my body was during YTU Level 1 Teacher training: Thank you Mega Plank ! Your description Najla has given me a further visual of its power and strength. Atlas was no Shrug and neither are we when we activate our S. A. Namaste

Carley Beck

I loved the technical aspect of this article and really being able to get a detailed mental diagram of where this muscle holds so much influence. I always think of Bruce Lee’s beautiful definition of his Serratus Anterior, but I loved the photo of Atlas. I really appreciate knowing that the Serratus has so much impact on posture through the support and “hugging” of the scapulae. Also knowing that it connects to the obliques and is a powerful stabilizing muscle is a powerful tool when helping myself and others build core strength. The importance the Serratus Anterior has in neck… Read more »

Gina Decker

The end of last year, I started some private pilates lessons and I also was introduced to my serratus anterior. I like using my shoulders and neck which keep my trapezius extremely tight. Well, my pilates instructor kept instructing to keep my shoulders down and finally introduced me to the muscles that would help, enter serratus anterior. The arm pit technique works best for me. I am still working on it and have to be reminded every now and then, but my shoulders and neck feel so much better.

Bev Hotchkiss

I am just starting my Level 1 teacher training and one of my weakest areas is remember, identifying and understanding our muscular structure. Your article and imagery for the serratus anterior I think will be etched into my mind. The idea of a hammock or two interior hands hugging my shoulder blade into the ribcage is a stellar descriptor. thanks 🙂

Jackie

That’s some great imagery for that muscle! The cues to open the chest and drop the shoulders are often inadequate because a lot of people are unaware of the muscles required to do that. One of the things I like about YTU is learning what muscles these actions require.

Gennifer Morris

I love your description of the serratus anterior and thinking of it as a hug around your ribs. I am working on not being a rub thruster and I believe thinking about it like this may help visualize it for me. I was astonished the first time I did a Megaplank with Jill’s video how I never activated this muscle!

Julie Brown

I have found that engaging the serratus muscle in plank, has cobra improved my stability and strength. It changes the form, range and empowerment of my poses. Once I found the serratus, I never went back. It is a practice changer.

Peggy Sue Honeyman-Scott

Awareness and practice are key to learning to engage the Serratus Anterior, along with remembering to breath! I notice most people stop breathing when asked to engage this muscle.

Lauren

Serratus is such an important muscle to get acquainted with. In Plank and chaturanga it is essential that these are on. Otherwise the humerus will be destabilized by all the sliding and gliding of the scaps. Great article.

Morgan Ward

Keeping my ribcage in is something that I most definitely need to work on. Being a dancer, I never had attention brought to my ribs. In fact, my best dance teacher would always comment on how far her ribs would stick out, and would attribute it to the fact that we were always guided to suck our bellies in. It’s been such a challenge for me to learn to bring my rib cage in–one that I’ll constantly be thinking of and working on until I get it right!

Melissa

Integrating the Serratus Anterior is incredibly difficult – this is what I am trying to work on for the last couple months. I can find and engage my serratus, but the rest of my shoulders (esp. Pect Minor and subclavis) are so tight it rolls me into a spinal flexion, and it is so difficult to keep a straight back! Any suggestions on that? Just roll out/strengthen/lengthen the anterior chest muscles? Great article!

Barbara Treves

I am also a Pilates instructor who has often heard the same frustrations from clients that Najla has expressed. In order to help them find the connection between the serratus anterior and their external obliques, I’ll have them extend one arm out laterally while the hand of the other arm palpates the SA of the extended arm. Keeping the extended arm reaching out straight, I’ll ask the client to pull it in and down and at the same time imagine their whole abdominal area has just been shrink wrapped. This causes them to engage their core muscles and at the… Read more »

Joanne Smith

Just recently, I have been painfully aware of just how much the Serratus Anterior has been underutilized in my own personal pilates practice. I have since been working on deepening my own understanding of the proper way in which to access this important stabilizer for myself and I have experienced dramatic changes as a result! Thank you for a wonderful visual that I will be able to reference as I continue with this work!

Kristine Tom

Thanks for providing such great cues for us to body map our serratus anterior. I echo what others have said that it was particularly helpful when you drew the connection between this muscles and the obliques. Would love more details about how an active serratus can thwart neck pain specifically.

Jane

I will hold the picture of Atlas in my head whenever I activate my Serratus Anterior…it’s the perfect visual! I loved learning about this muscle particularly in terms of abdominal core work and stabilization. I need help keeping my shoulders down too, so this gives me a personal course of action. I feel empathy for Atlas…that world looks heavy; but am certainly envious of his S.A.!

Jiin Liang

Thank you very much for this wonderful illumination on Serratus Anterior. In the past I have blamed my dificulty in doing roll up on my scoliosis and my abdominal surgery that might have weakened my lower abdominal muscle. I will try to recruit Serratus next time when I roll up! And I will carry my grocery with Serratus, and probably not the whole universe!?

Yi-Hsueh Lu

As I was reading this, I thought of how the muscles are like two hands that are holding the rib cage. Just like how you would lift up a kid!

Kevyn

I love how you pull the shoulder’s and obliques together as one. I never thought about it in this context and will definitely be realigning my own posture as well as my classroom cues. Great visual with Atlas as well!

Melinda Kausek

Great post! As a fellow Pilates teacher, I am always trying to get my students to activate their serratus anterior muscles. This image of Atlas is a great one and I love that you make your students look him up as a homework assignment – I might have to start doing that myself.

Ben Lavictoire

I appreciate the information provided in this blog, as I have been having trouble keeping my ribcage neutral with my shoulders flexed and hands extended above my head. I will use the hammock under the scapula cue in order to achieve this from now on as it seems to have worked for me. Thanks Najla

Elissar Hanna

@Alison, thank you for the image of protracting the tips of the shoulder blades; I felt serratus anterior with that image..and it helps me understand how serratus is antagonist to the rhomboids! And Najla, thank you for this post. I also love feeling into serratus anterior as deep to the scapula, latissimus dorsi, and pectoralis major. Having a visual and exploring the more “hidden” muscles creates a new sense of freedom, understanding and ability within. Thanks again. Peace.

Cat

Have only taken note of the serratus recently in the Tune-up Level 1….great description and visual images to show the serratus connecting the shoulder girdle and abdominal core. Thanks for the post.

Vincent Budac

Great post Najla! That’s a brilliant technique to teach your students to find and use their serratus anterior to get their shoulders into a stable position rather than trying to identify what a stable position is. Thanks!

Pamela Forth

This has been my favourite muscle of all time once I discovered it. I spent 3 months trying to fire my SA back when I was studying Pilates with Dianne Miller in Vancouver. Once you find this muscle your life will change forever. It is the coolest muscle of all time as it will support your upper rotation of your scapula in so many poses and save your shoulder from many common problems. I can’t wait to share more…

Lori Gunnell

Wow, great piece about the Serratus Anterior–a muscle which (until recently) I neglected terribly, with lots of neck an shoulder pain to show for it. Your point about the muscle’s impact on the rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles is a big “Ah ha” floodlight in my body awareness. Thanks for sharing.

Aida

I learned just how weak these muscles are on my body when I attempted to slide my body weight across the floor while laying down on a blanket! But at least I woke them up enough to realize that I need to activate them properly in Mega Plank, Tubular Core, and other poses where the other stronger muscle will tend to take up the slack and overwork. Thank you for the visual, it helps to imprint this in my mind!

Tracy L

I’m really fascinated by this muscle, as I’m just learning about it and how to engage it. I have winged scapula, and finding how to engage my serratus anterior has been so helpful and important for me and great to share with others. The serratus anterior muscle attaches and normally anchor the scapula against the rib cage, and I never knew this and how important it also was in core stabilization.When the serratus anterior contracts, upward rotation, abduction, and weak elevation of the scapula occurs, allowing the arm to be raised above the head. Thanks for the awesome visual!

Katie Fornika

Yes, yes and yes I had been asking those questions myself. That is until I felt my first mega plank and discovered how much more integrated the pose felt. Now I also use serratus to connect my shoulders to my core when doing things like carrying a heavy backpack for long periods. I no longer get the same shoulder and back pain with the help of these little powerhouses. It is so interesting to look at not only individual muscles but to then look at their relationships and functional connections within our bodies. I was blown away when I started… Read more »

Judy Swens

Love how you pointed out exactly how the serratus anterior connects to the external oblique. We often forget everything is connected and knowing more of where and how our muscles connect definitely helps in targeting such muscles to truly strengthen and stretch these specific area making our bodies more balanced! Thanks!

Celeste L.

Thank you for this brilliant description of this muscle and the deep importance it is to an effective use of our shoulder girdle.

I am delighted to know of how this muscle acts like a stabilizing bridge between our scapula, across the ribs and then into our obliques, as I will be able to better assist my students in their path in both Yoga and Pilates.

Much appreciated!

Alison Lloyd-Nijjar

I have become fascinated with the serratus muscles since practicing Jill’s Core Yoga Link. I had never even thought of the upper sides of the rib cage as having any connection to the core (well at the time my limited understanding of core was abs). The serratus muscles have changed my practice! I studied Anusara and we would learn and instruct to elevate arm bones, retract shoulder blades but not much in terms of completing the shoulder action that connects the shoulders to the core. Discovering my serratus muscles has helped me to balance retraction by depressing and then protracting… Read more »

Kristen B.

activation of SA needs as much language and visual exploration as it can possibly get. thank you for describing the connection between SA and the abdominal core.

Helen McAvoy

thank you for this! it is definitely an important area that needs understanding and visual description for students to facilitate and master the movement. I know for myself it initially was very challenging.. I love the pic of Atlas! This will be helpful as I move forward with my teaching YTU classes!