As an athlete, singer, yogi and human I find inhalation to be very near and dear to my heart. I mean, it does help to keep me alive! Thankfully, I have my serratus posterior superior (SPS) to literally help with the heavy lifting.
The SPS is a fan shaped muscle in the upper back and neck that doesn’t get a lot of mention in bodywork and movement circles because it lies beneath its bigger, noisier friends, trapezius and rhomboids. But this little muscle is no less important than those two loud-mouths because its job is to elevate the ribcage during inhalation! Like I said, I like to inhale–maybe I should take better care of this baby.
SPS originates at the spinous processes of C-7 to T-3 and attaches to the posterior surface of ribs 2-5. This area can be a Bermuda Triangle of tension and pain due to overuse and bad position. (Text neck anyone…?)
In addition to the trapezius and rhomboids–which run superficial to the SPS–the upper transversospinalis muscles and erector spinae, splenius capitis and cervicis all run deep to the SPS. Levator scapula is tucked up under the medial border/superior angle of scapula.
Adhesions and trigger points in the serratus posterior superior can cause a deep ache in the upper back and behind/under the shoulder blade and can also refer pain and numbness down into the arms and hands.
Accessing the SPS can be tricky because it’s buried by muscles–trapezius, rhomboids–and bones–scapula. Never fear, Yoga Tune Up® has plenty of techniques to help you improve your breathing:
● Use Epaulet Arm Circles to warm up the upper back and shoulders.
● Raise The Chalice takes the shoulder blades into protraction and depression. Shoulder blade protraction actively lengthens the rhomboids and upper traps. That spread of the upper back and depression of shoulder blades takes the SPS along for the ride.
● Reverse Crucifix, like Raise the Chalice, lengthens traps and rhomboids. The gentle force of gravity created by the prone/arm position makes space across the back and the easy neck traction created by bringing the forehead to the floor allow all of the SPS attachments–Spinous Processes C-7 to T-3 and ribs 2 to 5–freedom to release.
Of course there are also many YTU Therapy Ball techniques that would work beautifully to access the SPS. Generally, any ball work that targets the region of the C-7 to T-3 (ball positions 1-3-ish) would work for the SPS.
● Chug/Cross fiber with balls together at the spine just below C-7 to fluff the surface layers
● Trapezius Tamer works to further tenderize the surface covering
● Hug and Lean (Fake Make Out?) and Protract/ Retract with balls on upper rhomboids –with the underside of the shoulder blade exposed– gets a little deeper and more specific to SPS attachments at ribs 2-5.
● And the pin and stretch of Snow Angel Arms with the balls in the T-1 to T-3 region helps to break up adhesions and trigger points.
The most important thing to keep in mind with ball work on the SPS is to take time and allow the tissues to surrender in order to get deep enough to actually access the targeted area.
Whatever your daily activities–running, biking, yoga-ing, texting, facebook stalking–you need to stay inspired by giving your serratus posterior superior a little well deserved attention and love.
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Thanks for the education about the SPS, and how to alleviate pain.
Lovely article about posterior serattus and link to breathing!
I am always grateful to learn of potential contributors to my tight neck and even happier to learn how to help relieve it.
Oh thank you, thank you! I suffer from “tight traps” in my neck and between my shoulder blades. The SPS could be needing some love, if not more! This article was very well laid out, information easy to digest, and the suggestions are simple enough to add into a daily routine!
This is awesome! Thanks so much for sharing this information and for leaving up with a few examples of ways to release this all important muscle. I had no idea until reading your post how linked this muscle was to breath; I’m fascinated!
thank you for the lesson on SPS relative to breath. I’ll be exploring this deeply along with the other usual suspects.
I really love Snow Angel Arms. Although it is sometimes difficult to be patient with myself. Like you said – “Adhesions and trigger points in the serratus posterior superior…can also refer pain and numbness down into the arms and hands.” it leads you the way to your body spots, which are longing for attention.
Thankyou for carefully laying out what this to me unknown muscle was doing and where it was and best yet what ball moves and Yoga Tune Up work will get it moving and happy again.
Who knew there was yet another muscle layer to my hard working upper back. I like to breath too!
Just reading your post about caring for this very important muscle of inhalation, I feel I am already breathing easier 🙂 . I really enjoyed learning more about this little muscle. I love all of the YTU techniques you recommend, and especially value your recommendation to take time in order to get deep enough to reach the targeted area. Fascinating post, Eizabeth!
I always realized that when I tended to this area of my body on balls that I felt immediate relief and could take easier inhalations. Now that you bring to my attention this specific muscle, I am much more aware of this mysterious region of my upper back that seems to be creating much disturbance in my body with pinching, arm/hand tingling and distressed breathing. Digging in.
Thank you for breaking down ! Yoga Tune Up® really is opening up a new relationship with my body. It is surprising how less I know about my own body. Also surprising hoe little muscle like serratus posterior superior is taking such an important job for inhalation ! I will take care of them today.
Thank you for the mini-SPS lesson! I may not be much of a texter, but my SPS is particularly tight because I work with mosaic tile and literally spend 8 hours a day standing up, hunched over a work table drawing, cutting glass, assembling pieces, etc. No wonder the tune-up techniques you listed are some of my favorites! I try to vary the poses I hold at work (i.e. flexing at the hip or bending the knees to bring myself closer to my work rather than curving at the upper back and neck,) but these poses aren’t really sustainable modifications, so it’s great to have corrective exercises to manage the pain. The connection to inhalation was particularly illuminating. Would pranayama techniques also help to counter the overuse of hunched positions?
Being a trap, lavat(or), sternocleido, and scalenes-dominant breather, talker, and mover, understanding what primary neck muscles should be doing the breathing heavy lifting and which accessory muscles I should be sending on daily vacay is a constant conversation between me and my neck. Thank you for turning me on to yet another muscle that needs to join that conversation. Sassy seratus anterior posterior no more. 🙂
Even though I’m neck deep (haha) in muscles this week, I hadn’t come across this one yet. I like breathing too, so a little ball exploration is in order.
these are all fantastic tips to access the SPS. I especially appreciate the order you’re suggesting to access these muscles, and little by little and by spending more time it’s a great way to unlock the stress of sitting at a computer all day. I especially find that these muscles are sore from cycling so this is a great post-biking exercise. Thank you
This is a great read about a muscle that is hidden and tucked away so well that we don’t notice them as much. Funny enough the best takeaway I got was to lay on the balls for a bit and to let them sink in. I am usually so excited and gong ho about getting this area onto the balls everywhere all at once, that this is a great tip to slow down and let it sink in.
Thank you for the wealth of information both about this muscle, the movements, and the ball work.
After an afternoon of sitting at the computer, this is the perfect post to have come across! Thank you for including both the Yoga Tune Up poses and Therapy Ball techniques, I’m going to take a break to do some now, and take the time to allow those more superficial muscles to surrender.
I am amazed more and more by how each muscle overlaps another but plays such an effect on our total health, especially when it comes to breathing. Working with the therapy balls on my upper body I notice a huge difference in respiration before and after the exercises. I cannot wait to play with some of the exercises recommended here and see how it not only improves my breathing in a short period of time but the range of motion in my glenohumeral joint!
Thanks Elizabeth! As live so much of our lives forward, we forget about the muscles on the back. Therapy ball work and breathe exercises do amazing things to reclaim breath in this region.
Planning on using this in an upcoming class. Thanks
très belle série d’exercice.
Text neck indeed, I fear for the necks and backs of the younger generation. It’s always good to look deeper at the layers of the body to understand how to effect functions of life rather then simply improving performance.
great points! Breathing is near and dear!! This deep muscle slips past my awareness quite often… overshadowed by its more superficial neighbors in the “bermuda triangle. I DO, however, feel it. THANKS for the reminder and applicable therapeutic tools to give it just attention!!
Now I am in love with my SPS! I have always struggled with breathing in some poses also, with depressing shoulder blades in some poses. After day three of the Level 1 Certification Yoga Tune up Training my view regarding biomechanics of this SPS muscles has changed forever. I learned how to activate this muscles and all movements that come along thanks to this one. it has changed my posture but also, the way I am going to cue my students and passing along information they could use not only while doing yoga poses but in their everyday life.
Also, my breathing has improved massively, coming from a backgroung of anxiety episodes, I’ve heard so many times “breathe”, yoga has helped me a great deal to achieve it. However, working and acknowledging my new best friend the SPS, has changed that forever.
It was not until recently that I started thinking about the muscles connected to breahing. How Silly! The breath is not all lungs of course! Thanks to yoga tune up for highlighting the muscles involved so we can not only feel better in our bodies, but in our bresth too 🙂
This is an intriguing article and the SPS does seem to get short shrift. It is a interesting situation that serratus posterior superior elevates the ribs during a full inhalation, while its southern cousin serratus posterior inferior, fixes the ribs during the first part of a yogic complete breath and must then relax to allow the ribs to expand and, I gather, SPS to do its job.
I appreciate your suggestions for using YTU moves and massage techniques to give it some attention.
Great information, Elizabeth! My shoulders and upper back – and my breath! – have NEVER felt as free as they did after Day 3 of the YTU Level 1 training. I definitely need to work the SPS today, though, and plan to use the YTU balls and the Yoga Tune Up poses you suggest above in my practice tomorrow. After a long drive home from Kripalu yesterday, I really need these tools! Thank you for the article and for all the support and wisdom you shared this week. Your help with modifications for my elbow helped me so much.
I have been working away diligently on these upper back muscles. It is amazing to me how deep the layers of tension feel After years of being in an almost panic state as a professional dancer i have deep memory of my shoulders being so high and tense. I would get anxiety attacks because of the lack of breath in my body. I still feel I have a long road ahead but the positive things is that I feel like I am beginning to soften and that I am breather my more true and authentic breath because of this work.
Since I’ve discovered these Yoga Tune Up® balls, no joke at day 2 of my YTU Training Level 1! I’ve never felt so free in my body, and I’m on day 4. Reading this blog made me aware of all the breathing muscles that I’ve been unaware about that is restricting my lung capacity. I’ve been doing yoga for years, teaching breath, practicing breath and always wondering why i feel like my rib cage is stuck and can’t expand anymore, feeling like i always need to fit in one more breath. Practicing these exercises makes me breathe easy 🙂 I’m excited to and hopeful to see the lengths my body can go to 🙂 Thank you for all your wisdom and cheering us on Elizabeth <3
I think this is the muscle I am always going after!!! Thank you for introducing me to the SPS, I thought I was purely dealing with the trapezius and rhomboids, this gives me a better map. Thank you!
Thank you , you make it so easy to understand and clear to follow. As a childhood asthmatic I find this muscle is definitely over worked and under paid, your insights are very relieving( literally !) making them extremely valuable for me, I shall pass it on:-)
Loved the “bermuda triangle of tension” and agree that serratus is undervalued. Thank you for giving effective ball exercises to bring the love there. I am definitely going to try to spend some time to show the love since I like breathing as well – lol.
An Unsung Breath Hero! How have I overlooked this muscle. The Serratus Anterior is all the rage right now in movement circles – but this guy – Wow! It’s not everyday that I have the opportunity to get exctied about a new muscle. Thank you for sheding some light on this deep breathing muscle.
The Serratus Posterior is a forgotten muscle, when we think of shoulder tension we think that the trapezious muscle are always responsible. I like your advice in the use of the ball to access and get to know those muscles that resides just below C7. This is also part of the “Bag Pack” syndrome; the overuse of this group of muscles on a daily basis. The YTU ball are the self care needed to unroll that tension of the upper back.
More Please!! Really enjoyed the writing style and information on one of the neglected champions of respiration, and the sequence to help release and relieve tension in this area.
Thank you for this article. I often find myself feeling quite tense in this area and while the traps always get the attention, I learned something new here today about a new set of muscles that I too now hold near and dear to my heart. As a singer as well, my breath is my greatest teacher, and now I have a new muscle to pay attention and give thanks to in more ways than one.
Are there any video tutorials for the reverse crucifix? I’m not familiar with this one.
THanks for introducing me to this little known muscle – the lifter of the rib cage during inhalation. I too get some tingling in my right arm upon waking and it even wakes me up sometimes. I will investigate the poses you mention, and do the ball work and see what happens to my inhalation and also to my arm. I love learning these more subtle muscles. After reading the Yoga Tune up Manual, I was sort of amazed to read that the lungs actually have no muscle and need to rely on the skeletal muscles to function. Learning about any muscle that helps with breathing and how to nuture it is another arrow in my quiver for myself and my students.
This is great information about a trouble spot of mine, and it explains why some of the techniques you mentioned bring me a lot of relief. Raise the Chalice is one I wasn’t familiar with, so I will be sure to try it out.
Wow, I wonder if this is the muscle that gains so much relief when I massage my upper back with the Roll Model balls. I always assumed it was my trapezius. But it was such a deep ache! I could also feel it while taking a deep breath now that I give it more thought. Note to self, keep rolling so you forget the ache!
After paying closer attention to learning where my serratus is and how to activate it, I also realized I have neglected my serratus posterior superior. Well no longer with the help of your description with where it is and how to give it some attention and love. This helps so much.
I like all the poses and exercises that you are highlighting – and I wonder if it is because they give me so much comfort afterwards. I have been doing CrossFit for a little over a year and also sometimes feel tingling in my hands (as you describe in your other blog), especially right after waking up, but as it always goes away fast, I have not paid that much attention to it up to now. I definitely will from now on! As I am CrossFit and Yoga teacher (at a CrossFit box) as well and am just taking the YTU Level 1 course, I would love to connect and get to know more of your experience with this combination. Can I contact you by email?
I really liked this. I think we often talk about the rhomboids and the traps and most humans are familiar with those tissues. I think as we all know though the problem usually is not where you think that it is. This is a good reminder to look deeper into the body and remember that there’s more than just the superficial tissue.
Great information and thank you for bringing some attention to the SPS. Like most who have commented I don’t often have this muscle on my radar – but I definitely should, especially considering its role in respiration. I will look to target the SPS next time I practice these poses.
It is so important to be aware of all the muscles inside of your body- and what better way than to focus your breath on that area. Breathing into your serratus posterior superior seems like a great way to aerate the back!
This excites me, as I love to think about the physiology of the breath! I admit I rarely think about this muscle…but I will now! Connecting yoga to ease of movement is something that is familiar to students, but I like to connect the movement to the breath in their minds (and of course, their bodies). This will help — thank you, Elizabeth!
Thank you for this article – I had no idea what the SPS did for me on a daily basis, and quite honestly thought the tension in my cervical joints and upper thoracic stemmed solely from those big bad boys you mentioned – Traps & Rhomboids. It’s nice to mentally peel back the layers so when I take time and relax onto my YTU Therapy Balls up there, I’ll know what I’m getting to.
I’m amazed that with my background in kinesiology I had forgotten this bad boy existed! I suspect because we get too carried away talking about the superficial muscles, we forget about this deeper one. Thank you for taking the time to clearly identify the location of the balls in the ball work for trigger point release. I will be sure to add it to my routine, especially before my pranayama practice.
Thanks Elizabeth – your so right, SPS is the neglected child of the upper back and works so hard, and as you so beautifully clarified. where would we be without breathing? Makes me want to go roll mine out right now and do the fake make out.
Thanks Elizabeth for this great info on the SPS and for reinforcing all of the great therapy ball work you can do to release it. It was a great review for me of what we did yesterday in class. I have a few male students who complain of tightness in the shoulders so I can teach them about the SPS and the neighboring muscles to educate them and inspire them to take on their own self-care with the YTU therapy balls. I think practicing the therapy ball techniques you mention here will be helpful to me with my spondilolysthesis to release any tightness and enable me to safely attain more thoracic extension.
This is great information for me, as a singer and bodyworker myself i definatly need to take care of my SPS and help support my clients. There is often a lot of tension in upper back area and I don’t often pay attention to anything other than the big beefy muscles in this area. I am looking forward to learning more techniques this week to release and strengthen the SPS. Thank you for this information!!
Since taking the YTU Training I have become fascinated by the back muscles. This post about the Serratus Posterior Superior is so educational as complemented with the YTU poses and YTU Ball Therapy. Particularly during a cold/flu season, where bronchials are impacted, remembering that the SPS elevates the rib cage during inhalation is especially helpful to do to keep up deep breathing and muscles relaxation. Here’s to Raising the Chalice to get into those deeper muscles.
This is like finding big money in the couch cushions! I can feel new breath in the back body as I’m reading and typing. I vaguely knew there was another seratus and now that it’s pinpointed, can explore it’s relationship to it’s more famous front cousin. Breathing into that upper portion of the back, I can also feel the lower front ribs relaxing by drawing awareness to this new-to-me area. Wonderfully precise and useful article – thank you so much!
Yes, a very precise look at how breath is so contingent on alignment! Love this, thanks!
An uncommon look at a commonly tight area – thank you! This article is an excellent teaching tool for waking up the deeper muscles of the upper back and, as you beautifully describe, respiration… something that can’t be overlooked. I’m off to roll out my SPS right now!
Thanks for this enlightening and highly instructive article, Elizabeth. I do have the issue of numbness in arms and hands and will try the sequences you’ve suggested to see if it helps.
Thank you for this piece! Yes, breathe and this muscle unite! I have trouble with holding my tension here and all these reminders conitue to settle in and als so helpful to pass on to my students….share, share! Thank you/1
I find that this muscle is super tight in most it my office worker patients. It is really nice to get some active breathing while I am compressing or stripping out the muscle fibers. It also works with the yoga tune up balls. I find this to be an overlooked muscle and am so glad you wrote this piece.
This reminds me of a lesson I learned from Leslie Kaminoff: if a student complains of neck and shoulder pain, look at their breathing and postural patterns.
I must admit, a muscle I was not introduced to during my Anatomy studies and not sure why?
As I inhale, I feel the front of my ribs move or fill / lift up. Is this muscle lifting the the ribcage on the
Back end of the body. And how would someone know if this muscle is weak or too tight?
How true- I never think about this muscle but there’s so much going on in that area it really screams for attention from me on a daily basis. Need to do more Raise the Chalice! The fact that it was such a shocking experience for me today really clarifies how much it is needed!
Thank you for this post! I immediately got on my balls to try to find this often overlooked muscle! Voila! Whenever I roll out my upper back I breathe better! Thank you Serratus posterior superior!
Thank you for introducing the SPS to me. Of the 5 years I have taken YTU I have never heard of this muscle and a very important one indeed.
this was great to read! Especially after day one of training! I understood what you wrote!!! I loved the ball work on this! I feel like most of my pain is exactly what you said in this article.
Nice article. I don’t know that I have the SPS muscle. I’m straining it right now as I lean over my tiny computer screen to write this. The next time I roll I can be more consious about all the layers that I’m rollling on. Thanks
Elizabeth – Thanks for uncovering one of the little known muscles of inspiration! The more we breath, the more we feel (physically & emotionally), the better we live … a motto of mine. I watch many people not breathing properly or fully. Good body mechanics and posture are two of the foundations to being able to breath fully and completely. Thanks for the anatomy lesson and many ways on how to improve respiration.
Well this is certainly an under appreciated and overlooked muscle. I hear so much about the serratus anterior. It’s about time I payed attention to this one! Not only did you give a great explanation of it but I love the recommendations for massaging it with the tune up balls and the exercises too. Thanks!
Thanks Elizabeth! I’m learning so much in this class! Never knew the muscles under the scapula need love to help and expand the breath!
Definitely a problem area for many humans and a large percentage of athletes. Great information and reminders to pay closer attention & show love to the little guys. I can’t wait to get my ytu balls in there and let go. 😉
great article with such good detailed information.
I found this article very informative. Like you mentioned i was very aware of the louder muscles like trapezius and rhomboids. But after lifting my upper rib cage to inhale– i wondered how did i not notice SPS before! Of course theres a very important muscle that help lift the upper ribs to help me inhale. And the descriptions on how to roll on your SPS is very useful, thank you!
This is a great anatomy lesson. As a teacher I am also guilty of just giving attention to the more “popular” players. As a human:) I specifically have had some occasional issues in C&-T3 area…. hmmm. I honestly don’t think I have named this muscle since anatomy class in college too many years ago… thank you for great info!!
I’m always humbled when I learn about a muscle that I didn’t even know existed, but upon learning about it, feel rather foolish that I didn’t know it/cheated that it wasn’t emphasized in any of my courses. It’s like finding the missing puzzle piece. I love the YTU blog for encouraging/forcing us 😉 to dig a little deeper with how we approach our anatomy lessons for ourselves and our students. Thanks for your post!
Thanks for posting. I haven’t heard much about this muscle until I started doing YTU. I will implement these exercises in my teaching especially with the athletes.
Great info on the serratus posterior superior! Much more detailed that your other article, “Trigger Your Breath” but the 2 reads compliment one another very well. I enjoy your writing as well; crisp and smart, with a dash of humor. And your explanations of the YTU poses along with the rolling techniques for the SPS are spot on! Thanks!
I have overlooked the SPS and have talked about the other muscles and tissues in this area. When you mentioned “Text Neck” I was mainly thinking of the upper traps involvement. Thanks for the visual along with the nice description of “how too’s” with YTU exercises and ball tune ups. I can sense really sense the SPS.
I have totally over looked this muscle. Thanks for bringing it to light. I need to get my balls in there and start embodying that baby more! Thanks for the informative read.
Really like this post – and I agree with Lynda that I have never referred to the SPS when activating the upper back tissues.
I look forward to your upcoming articles.
SPS is definitely an oft-overlooked unsung hero! I’m very glad you’ve chosen to spotlight and describe it so beautifully here. I really dig your opening to this blog post and I am already looking forward to reading more of your work! xoxo
Great article! And I must admit that I am guilty of focusing on, and mentioning all of the muscles you have referred to – (trapezius, rhomboids, erectors, multifidi, rotatores, levator scapula..) when rolling out the upper back and neck, or getting into any number of YTU shoulder techniques – but never once have I mentioned the Serratus Posterior Superior . Thanks for shining the light on a muscle that I have overlooked! (and after sitting here over my computer – think I’ll give it a little squeeze right now) 🙂