The Serratus Anterior: Function or Fashion?

I flew in late last night on a 7-hour flight from London to New York. After spending a weekend lecturing at King’s Gym in Croydon (amazing gym by the way), and lifting with IFBB Pro James Hollingshead and his training partner Louis Moylan. I tried to count how many times over the weekend I made reference to the serratus anterior muscle, and attempted to hammer home it’s importance to athletes of all disciplines.

Fast forward one day later, after my first day in New York, I had the privilege of podcasting with elitefts alumnus and strength coach oracle Joe Defranco, and then, by happenstance running into IFBB Shaun Clarida when training in the evening. Again, the topic of conversation kept turning to the serratus.

It’s at this point it started to dawn on me that the serratus anterior muscle has become somewhat of a middle child when it comes to weight training. All together forgotten.

This will require a deep dive in articles to come, but for the purpose of this blog post, I want you to consider a very fundamental concept when it comes to the serratus. Which, at the very least will shine some light on the fact that you’ve been making this muscle sleep in the cupboard under the stairs and showing it no love in the entirety of your training career.

So here’s the long and short of it...

There’s a phenomenon in the body called “reciprocal inhibition”, which basically states that muscles that work in opposite directions to one another cant simultaneously and exact their movement at their respective joints. Makes sense right? You don’t need a Ph.D. in biomechanics to realize that a triceps can’t extend the elbow while the bicep wants to flex the elbow.

However, this principle becomes much less obvious when we start talking about muscles that act on the scapula. The elbow is a fairly easy to conceptualize joint because it essentially just hinges through one axis. The shoulder blade is a bit more dynamic.

As best I can tell the serratus anterior muscles function is to stabilize the scapula, but its action (the movement that occurs when you shorten the muscle from insertion to origin) is protraction of the scapula.

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a gym, more than likely you’ve been cued with the phrase “squeeze your shoulder blades together” more than a handful of times. Its drilled into the brains of lifters from a very young age. But let us consider this, “squeezing your shoulder blades together” aka scapular retraction is an action of the rhomboids, and is in direct opposition of scapular protraction which is the action of the serratus anterior. So every time someone tells you to squeeze your shoulder blades together try and translate that to “utilize reciprocal inhibition to inhibit the action of the serratus by calling upon the action of the rhomboids.

If you can grasp that relationship then you’re on your way to better execution, exercise selection, programming, and ultimately shoulder performance with a decreased likelihood of injury long term.

This is a bit of rant, a bit of skim of the surface, but stay tuned. In weeks to come, I’ll go over some drills and exercises to better cue the serratus and maintain stability and function in the shoulder.

Until next time,

Stay Strong.

Dr. Jordan Shallow D.C


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