For many years, I practiced planks with little awareness of how to stabilize and support my body for optimal efficiency. Although I felt like my planks were pretty good, it wasn’t until I journeyed through the YTU Level 1 Training that I realized I needed to be more engaged and stabilized when bearing weight on my shoulders. It was during day 3 of the training when a lightbulb in my head suddenly turned on. Ah, welcome to my new found awareness of the serratus anterior and its importance in stabilization of the shoulder. It was a revelation moment!
The serratus anterior is a broad, thin muscle that lies along the posterior (back) and lateral (side) rib cage. It originates from the external (outer) surfaces of ribs 1 through 9 and inserts into the anterior (front) surface of the medial (inner) border of the scapula (shoulder blade). Most of the muscle is deep to the scapula, however the portion of the serratus below the axilla (armpit) is superficial. To simplify, serratus anterior looks something like a large nine-fingered hand. The palm of this large hand is under the shoulder blade while the fingers extend out over the ribs and then weave into the obliques.
Serratus anterior is often referred to as the “boxers muscle” or “big swing muscle”. When contracted, it protracts the scapula and appears to lengthen the arm by wrapping the shoulder blade towards the front of the body and chest. A boxers punch and reach come from the effectiveness of the scapula and serratus to protract and retract. The latter is enabled by the serratus anterior’s antagonist, the rhomboids. This free movement of the scapula is also aided by the presence of some fatty layers (“gliding planes”) which cushion the serratus anterior from the ribcage and from the subscapularis muscle.
Before we move on, let’s physically explore scapular protraction and retraction as mentioned above. One of the many things I love about Yoga Tune Up® is the process of breaking down traditional yoga poses and movement into bite size and digestible pieces. Jill explains this movement in an exercise called “Protraction/Retraction Push-ups” on her Pranamaya Yoga Link Shoulder Shape-Up DVD. Set yourself up on your mat on all 4’s, hands directly under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Draw the shoulder blades together (retraction) and then spread them apart by pushing the ground away from you (protraction), continue through these movements back and forth without bending the elbows. This movement isolates the scapula. (Check out a video demo here.) Can you feel the scapula sliding across your back? You could take this one step further and explore doing one side at a time. Practice with mindfulness and awareness; does one scapula move more freely?
Come back later this week to read my next article and get a handle on cues for practicing plank with optimal biomechanics to feel the engagement of the very important serratus anterior muscle.
The image of the nine fingered hand was really helpful for me! thank you
thanks, I love how you break down the serratus anteior – this has been a difficult muscle for me to isolate. I appreciate the clear guidance
This is a fun piece of information that a plank pose could be helpful in kick boxing! I was taught to swing with the shoulder but contracting the serratus anterior to protract the scapula.
I had a light bulb moment just now! I realized in my level 1 training how the SA works as a stabilizer but the idea of “making your arms longer” is amazing! This will help my jiu jitsu students. Thank you, Sue!
I will borrow your 9 fingered-hand in my class in the future. Improve you Punch by slide and glide is brilliant description for student to do the move. The protect and retract relationship between the agonist and antagonist of the muscles.
I love the image of a muscle like fingers hugging the rib cage and image of a boxers muscle or big swing muscle. I instantly know the location of the muscle on my body and plan to use this in my classes going forward.
I appreciate this blog because I am in need of specific methods to stabilize my core, enabling me to assume a better plank pose. The first comment to the blog adds to that, describing the muscles I am using while ignoring the serratus.
I used to box and never was taught to imagine this swing muscle, thank you for the breakdown. I also teach intro to yoga and this will help a lot with my downward dog class, so thank you!
As a Piloxing instructor, I like the image of the boxing move. Your explanation help me to have a better understanding of some Piloxing move and wich muscles should be engage. Thanks
Thank you for this terrific breakdown of the serratus anterior! I am going through my Yoga Tune Up Level 1 certification right now and your article has helped connect all the dots for me. This muscle has completely changed my planks as well!
Love the feeling of freeing up the shoulder blades with the Protraction/Retraction Push-ups and to explore how they are free to glide across the ribcage. Great awareness exercise to try it with one shoulder blade at a time.
Wow, “Improve Your ‘Punch” by Slide and Glide” by Sue Taylor is a revelation for me, good explanation for a beginner . This articule make me aware of those tiny muscle who can make a big difference in my yoga practice.
About to go into day 3 of YTU TT1 and I’m excited to tackle this muscle. Been working on bar hanging movements this year (pull-ups, Toes to bar), and trying not to let my traps take over and engage the serratus and lats have been tough for me. I often give my students the isometic cue “pull your elbows toward your feet”, but I’m sure there’s a bit I’m missing.
The serratus anterior is a fascinating muscle. I first learned about it while doing push-ups side by side with my boyfriend. He had these cool-looking finger-like muscles that attached to each rib… and I didn’t. (I mean, I do, but they are much less pronounced.) I’ve found while trying the Protraction/Retraction Push-ups, that my right side glides so much more easily than my left. Fascinating! I’m wondering now if it’s the muscle or the fatty layers that are meant to help the sliding. I will continue to explore this, especially as recruitment of this muscle is imperative in arm balance postures such as crow.
Reading the blog posts outlining relevant muscles that include anatomical reference and their function/importance is such a nice review! “Sacpular push-ups” are something I often send people I treat in my physical therapy practice home with to work on and improve activation for overall shoulder function/health.
Since my rotator cuff tear, turning my focus to the other supporting muscles such as the serratus anterior has helped a lot. Still can’t do a full push up, but even simply practicing protraction/retraction of the scapula helps with my shoulder stability
Great article! I’ve done scapular protraction/retraction drills on all four’s. But I’ve never focused on isolating scapula in plank pose or pushups. This would be awesome to increase the load and increase the sensory feedback. I will definitely try this and share it with my students. Thank you!
interesting read I will try to pay better attention when in plank and plank like poses making sure I’m using my should muscles as well as the ones in my back for support
Well this is an interesting movement to me. I attempted it and had a difficult time. I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right despite not bending my shoulders. I wish the demo video gave verbal directions but this just made me curious to find other videos that may help me with this movement.
Yeah! Welcome to Pilates movements for the shoulder girdle. Try the pro/retract on unstable props to test your connection. Good stuff.
Great article. I’m currently in YTU TT Level 1 and yesterday we body surfed and I was like stuck in the mud. Not going anywhere. Then a compassionate assistant gave me a push and I was off –we’ll sort of. That sleepy Searratus Anterior needs my attention for sure.
I’m in YTU level 1 TT as we speak. We just did body surfing yesterday and I could not get myself across the room but there was a very kind assistant who gave me a nice push to get me off and running. I’d say my sleepy serratus anterior needs my attention. It was fun to try. Laughed a lot. This TT training is awesome and I’m only on day 2.
Yes, the Serratus Anterior! I talked about it for my Level 1 presentation prepping the class for Downward facing dog. I also teach that retract/protract in table top or plank in my classes. What I love about that plank variation is that it gives the students information on what is happening within their upper back muscles, and the Serratus Anterior by how much range of motion they have in their scapula area.
I have been doing these serratus push-ups for a few years, but never tried isolating one side at a time. I found that very challenging, and plan to continue to practice this. I love becoming more aware of these subtleties in my body!
I never knew the serratus anterior was so important in combat sports. Very interesting.
Great introduction to the importance of the serratus anterior. Thanks for the video link, too.
I was introduced to the serratus anterior muscles a few years ago when doing plank in Pilates. It was among the muscles of the torso and back that I had very little understanding of how to activate. This article further helps to find and communicate to others how to find / activate the serratus.
I just learned about the serratus anterior in day 3 of MY YTU level 1 training! While I have been protracting in plank ever since my original yoga 200hr training, I never understood what muscle did this. Great video, very informative!
Hello! Thank you for that very helpful video! So clear! You also helped me to understand the “effectiveness of the scapula and serratus to protract and retract. The latter is enabled by the serratus anterior’s antagonist, the rhomboids.” This is a new picture for me and I’ll continue to delve into it!
Thanks for this great blog – I think a lot of people find serratus anterior activation really challenging, but you explain beautifully how to get there. And it was a surprise to see a “non-Jill” video with a blog, but it really clearly shows from above the push up the scapula gliding through protraction and retraction.
Now that I know to protract my scapula, I can see that the weakness I was perceiving was simply poor biomechanics and weak muscles.
Thank you for breaking it down with a simple starting point. Sometimes the most difficult part of self healing is first detecting where a muscle is and understanding how it moves and impacts other parts of the body.
I am a ‘winger’ Sue, and I have always loved the anterior serratus since anatomy class in college! It literally gives you ability to deliver a strong ‘one-two-punch’ and supports better posture. Thanks for anatomy reminder…it always helps to picture the real thing.
I had the same ah ha moment in teacher training about the serratus anterior muscle. For years in plank I had been told to “melt my heart” (translation retract my shoulder blades). When I allowed my shoulders to protract and kept my tubular core all of a sudden new muscles began participating in my plank. Hello serratus anterior! Thanks for a great article.
Wow that little tied bit of movement is so informative! I probably would not have thought to do one side at a time so I’m glad You suggested it because it really made me aware of the differences in my two shoulders. I hope my right one catches up to the left soon somehow. I also found this an easier way to feel if my spine was flexing or extending than when I retract and protract in tadasana. Thanks!
Great post! Understanding the role of serratus anterior in scapular movement was a game changer for me, and I utilize the Protraction/Retraction Push-ups all the time in classes to help my students become aware of proper shoulder placement.
Serratus anterior, tucked away yet so functional. I was focusing on engaging in a yoga practise earlier in the week and it made such a difference to stability in so many poses, even crow
Its day 3 of the Level 1 training for me and I had a similar realization that my plank was much improved when I consciously engaged the serratus. Another blind spot to work on 🙂
Thanks Sue! Great article. I became acquainted with my serratus anterior at a retreat that included yoga tune up techniques last Summer. I was amazed at how sourcing out the serratus muscle’s proper engagement allowed me to hold forearm stand with new steadiness & ease. Amazing when you access something that feels brand new in your body, even when it was obviously there all along.
Serratus anterior awareness has dramatically changed my personal practice and how I teach. Every immersion I have taken has helped deepen this awareness and I can’t wait to take Level 1 later this month and get even more acquainted with these awesome muscles.
Great article Sue!! Stability in this area is largely overlooked and people rely on the strength of their trapezius on most occasions. The protraction/retraction pushups are great and can be modified for all strength levels. I have programmed beginners to use the wall with their arms bent so they can get the feel of protracting and pushing.
I also experienced aha moment during my level one training. I realized that I was sinking into internal rotation instead of protracting my scapula. It’s completely changed my approach to plank.
My biggest haha moment in the YTU course was discovering how to engage the Serratus anterior and realising it impact on maintaining tadasana sine in plank and down-dog. Made executing these posture in correct alignment, so much easier .
I also experienced the same realization during my anatomy yoga tune up session. During this training, we actually practiced your suggested techniques exactly by getting on all 4’s and retracting and protracting our shoulder blades. From this position, we put a block horizontally in between our hands, shoulder width apart. Our forearms were faced up, thumbs lateral from the midline (away from block). Our pinky fingers were holding the block in place and from there we externally rotated our shoulders, trying to get our thumbs to touch the floor while at the same tie protracting out scapula. This exercise was a great prep for downward-dog, and also for me specifically because I am also a boxer. I find that plank pose has always been the hardest for me around my core, and by using this exercise I have no choice but to engage all core muscles and the stratus anterior muscle! By engaging these muscles it also took a lot of pressure and discomfort out of my lower back! Try it out and let me know what you think!
I can completely understand your revelation, as I had the same!! I was doing planks wrong for years and now that I comprehend the reason behind the serratus activation I cannot even imagine doing them any other way!
As a power yoga teacher (and student) I do and see A LOT of planks and chatarungas. I’ve begun to Q these poses differently in order for my students to engage their serratus anterior muscles. Just as your article points out, in order to fire the SA when we perform plank, we must protract, and depress the shoulders. Throwing chatarunga into the mix, I advise my students to actively push their hands into the mat while bending the elbows slowly. This keeps the SA contracted and avoids putting undue stress on the trapezius. Thank you for breaking down the location and function of this muscle – great post!
I completely agree that planks take a lot of attention to the body as a whole since you are carrying your weight on your shoulders. Your idea of “Protraction/ Retraction Pushups” was extremely helpful to understand the bodies movement when protracting or retracting. How is the scapula “slide” across your body? Is it attached to anything? What exactly are the gliding planes (fatty layers) that cushion the serratus anterior from the ribcage ? What does it mean when you say the latter is enabled by the rhomboids?
I will now be so much more aware of my positioning for planks and supporting the scapula!
Sue, Thank you for posting the article. I relate to practicing planks with little awareness of the musculature needed to support the scapula. I appreciate the helpful image of a boxer’s punch to describe the Anterior Serratus muscle’s action.
Brilliant blog post. I’ve taught yoga for 4 years, and am now immersed in the YTU Level 1 training. Prior to the YTU training, and during my time as a teacher, I became aware of the serratus anterior muscle, but it has only been very recently that I’ve been directing my students (and directing myself) to fire it up (especially in plank to chatarunga). I have noticed that when I don’t concentrate on the serratus anterior, I rely solely on my trapezius and deltoids to do the work in plank/chatarunga. When I engage my serratus anterior muscles, I relieve so much tension in my neck! I love your blog as it breaks down the where and what of the serratus anterior. The simple description of a boxer throwing a punch is a great way to introduce this (often overlooked) muscle to my students. Thank you!