The serratus anterior muscle is not as well-known as the pecs, delts, or lats.
It’s often overlooked because the serratus anterior is not as prominent as other muscles in the upper body.
But if you want optimal strength, mobility, and aesthetics, you’ll want to work this into your routine.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about the serratus anterior muscle, and the best serratus anterior exercises to add to your workouts.
Where are the Serratus Anterior Muscles?
The serratus anterior is located on the side of the chest, alongside the ribcage, nestled between the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, and external abdominal oblique. There are two serratus anterior muscles (one on each side).
The serratus anterior muscles have a fan-like, serrated appearance, which is where the name “serratus” comes from.
Why are they Called the "Boxer's Muscles"?
The serratus anterior is often referred to as the “boxer’s muscle”, due to the way it’s activated in the motion of throwing a punch.
Strong serratus anterior muscles are thus important for boxers, as the name suggests. But they’re also worth working out if you have no intention of ever stepping in the ring.
What is the Primary Function of the Serratus Anterior Muscle?
The main function of the serratus anterior is the protraction of the scapula (shoulder blade). In simpler terms, it works to extend the shoulder blade, either forward or up, as with throwing a straight punch or doing an overhead lift.
Benefits of Strong Serratus Anterior Muscles
Strong serratus anterior muscles are vital for good upper body strength and mobility.
It comes into action when pushing against resistance in front or above you, such as lifting or pushing a weight (or throwing a punch, as mentioned earlier). It works together with surrounding muscles, such as the lats and delts in these kinds of lifts.
It’s not only important for lifters, though. Many everyday movements activate the serratus anterior, such as reaching up to grab something from a high shelf.
There are also aesthetic benefits. Strong and well-defined serratus anterior muscles (along with the obliques) give you that shredded “side abs” look that many people covet.
How Do Serratus Anterior Muscles Protect the Shoulders?
The serratus anterior acts as a stabilizer muscle, which supports a range of different movements, particularly overhead lifts.
This means it takes some of the strain off of the shoulders, and in particular, the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is the most common issue with shoulder injuries, as it’s easy to be overloaded if the surrounding muscles are not strong enough.
The way the serratus anterior makes the shoulder blade function is also important. When these muscles are weak, the shoulder blades don’t have the range of motion they should, which can cause pinching of the tendons and nerves in the shoulder, leading to shoulder (or neck) pain.
What Causes Weak Serratus Anterior?
Weak serratus anteriors may simply be due to neglect. When we train the lats, delts, pecs etc in isolation, it’s easy to miss the serratus anterior, and have this muscle lag behind all the others around it.
It’s important to train compound, functional lifts, as well as exercises that specifically involve the serratus anterior, to ensure you keep this muscle strong and healthy.
That being said, in some cases, the serratus anterior may be particularly weak due to a nerve issue.
The long thoracic nerve, which is located along the side of the neck and down to the serratus, controls this muscle. If there’s an issue with this nerve, such as entrapment or pinching, the serratus may become weak, painful, or may not function altogether.
What Exercises Work the Serratus Anterior?
A lot of overhead lifts and upper body pushing movements work the serratus anterior, either directly or indirectly.
Some of the best serratus anterior exercises include:
- High bear crawl
- Ab rollouts
- Dumbbell pullovers
- Banded chest press
- Lateral raise variations (with your arms at around a 20 to 30-degree angle)
Push-ups, including variations of the basic push-up, are particularly good for working out the serratus anterior. The scapula push-up, or push-ups plus, specifically targets the serratus anterior, and is a great exercise to do if you find yours is lagging behind.
With a scapula push-up, instead of lowering your body towards the ground, as with a regular push up, you focus on retracting and protracting the shoulder blades.
Essentially, you remain in a high plank position, squeeze the shoulder blades together, and then push them outwards again.
This video shows you how to do a proper scapula push up:
This more or less isolates the serratus anterior, making it probably the best exercise with the sole purpose of strengthening the serratus.
Dumbbell pullovers and ab rollouts are also great serratus anterior exercises, with a little more intensity and all-round focus, as opposed to a narrow isolation on the serratus.
Both of these exercises involve the overhead movement that requires the shoulder blades to rise, and the serratus anterior to be called into action.
How Do You Activate the Serratus Anterior?
Like with the serratus anterior exercises mentioned previously, to activate the serratus anterior you want to perform a movement that requires you to raise your arm above your head, or push out in front of you.
Anything that generates movement from the shoulder blade will activate the serratus anterior as well.
You can feel this yourself by lying on the floor and reaching one arm out above your head. Put your other hand on the outside of your ribcage, a little below your armpit, and you’ll feel the serratus anterior working.
Of course, you can also activate this muscle by throwing a punch (or doing a punching motion). Remember that people often refer to it as the boxer’s muscle. Doing pads, a heavy bag workout, or weighted shadow boxing are all ways to activate and work out the serratus anterior.
Do Pull-Ups Strengthen the Serratus Anterior?
As an overhead lift, where your shoulder blades retract and protract, pull ups do activate the serratus anterior.
However, with the number of additional muscles worked in a pull up, particularly the lats, the serratus may not get that much attention. This is particularly true if your form is not quite correct, as these bigger muscles will take up all the slack.
You can do a variation of the pull up, known as the scapula pull up, to ensure the serratus gets enough work.
Much like scapula push ups, this involves you squeezing the shoulder blades together as you hang on the bar, instead of performing the full pull up motion. See an example here:
We ignore our core too often, focusing instead on large, glamorous muscles like the lats, pecs and shoulders. But smaller, unheralded muscles like the serratus anterior are a must for optimal performance, mobility and aesthetics.
Strong serratus anteriors can help protect your shoulders against injury, increase performance in overhead lifts and pushing movements, and help you build some sweet side abs.
Make sure your routine includes some serratus anterior exercises, such as dumbbell pullovers, ab rollouts, boxing work, or scapula push ups/pull ups. This will help you build a stronger, more well-rounded physique.