Want to punch harder? Slam the tennis ball with strength and accuracy? Drive the golf ball further? Then you need to turn on your "secret weapon" muscle... serratus anterior.
Note: I will be using the terms serratus and serratus anterior interchangeably. Yes, there is also a serratus posterior so don't be confused by the two. I am only referring to serratus anterior in this post.
PS - If you just want the exercises, skip to the bottom where the videos are posted ;-)
The serratus anterior, often referred to as the "big swing muscle" or "boxer's muscle," is responsible for protraction and upward rotation of the scapula. It pulls the scapula forward and around the rib cage when you throw a punch and rotates the shoulder blade upward when lifting your arm overhead.
If your serratus anterior is weak, it sometimes causes your shoulder blades to not lay flat to your back, referred to as scapular winging. Sometimes, when this muscle is weak, your upper traps and pec minor like to take over instead. This can be especially true if you spend a lot of time hunched over a computer; your shoulders will tend to roll inward, your pec minor will tighten up and your serratus anterior will shut down.
Taking a weak and underutilized serratus anterior into a group exercise class (say... body combat or body pump) could have disastrous results.
When it comes time to throw those punches, protracting your shoulder, your serratus may not want to do the work. It will delegate all the work to your upper traps which will get sore and tire quickly trying to perform a job they were not meant to do.
Further problems can arise when your trap (instead of your serratus) tries to upwardly rotate your shoulder. Upward rotation of the scapula is required in order to lift your arm above the height of your shoulder (think - overhead press or any reach above your head.) Your serratus is needed to anchor your shoulder down onto your thorax and provide stability. Without this stabilization, you may find your shoulder feels pinched (subacromial impingement syndrome or subacromial bursitis,) your rotator cuff gets overused and worn out leading to tendonitis or worse, a rotator cuff tear.
Ok, pause with me for just a second... think about how many punches you may be throwing in a typical one hour boxing class. How many pushups will you be doing? Pushups will require the same protraction. Think about your body pump (or similar) class; how many times are you pressing overhead? With the rep count where it is in most group exercise classes, you can't use poor form for long before it will catch up with you.
So, what can you do to get your serratus anterior working for you?
Your serratus is just below your armpits. Because this muscle is not necessarily easy to see (unless you have very low body fat levels,) you will need to spend some time "finding" it and activating it. Check out the video below for a quick serratus activation exercise. As my arms raise up and over my head, you can see my serratus pulling my shoulder blade through.
Another slightly more challenging way to activate your serratus is featured below. For both of these exercises, you must keep your back flat and ribs down. Tuck your chin and keep your shoulders away from your ears.
If and when these feel easy, its time to move into standing serratus activation. This will naturally be a little tougher as you won't have the floor supporting you and will be working against gravity.
I saved the best for last. Make sure you really press your forearms into the roller as you roll it up the wall. Try to angle your arms so your hands are closer to the wall than your elbows. The further you place your feet from the wall, the tougher it will be. Make sure you maintain your core connection (no arching your back!)
You are working on creating a new pattern of movement and that will take time. These are activation exercises only; they won't cause a lot of muscular stress, you can do them daily for faster progress. They are great to do as a quick mobility warmup before your main workout and will get your serratus loosened up and moving correctly. You should not feel your back or your neck working while you do these exercises.
Once the new pattern is formed, then its time to move onto movements that will be more challenging to build your serratus...