Growing Your Wings: The Serratus Anterior muscle
More movement teachers mention ‘serratus anterior’ in classes - this is the ‘bat wing’ muscle often seen in swimmers and boxers with developed shoulder muscles. In evolutionary terms, this muscle helped ‘keep danger at arms distance’ whether it helped us take flight into the air as a bird or swing through trees as a monkey. As a human it still has an important function worthy of discussion.
Health issues relating to the Serratus Anterior
The Serratus anterior muscle seemingly does few movements as it controls the shoulder blades (scapulae) on the ribcage in two movements – moving forwards under the armpit (protraction), pushes the scapula downwards (depression) and spreading upwards with the arms as they lift to the sky (upward rotation). It lifts the ribcage in heavy breathing as an ‘accessory muscle’ to breath. It impacts body, mind and energy.
Physical misalignment presents as ‘winging’ of the scapula. This can produce pain:
between the shoulder blades in the mid-back,
in the ribs or arm of affected side,
chest pain and occasionally radiating pain to the little finger of the affected side.
Further, if contracted too short the serratus anterior is part of pulling the head forward of alignment. This results in:
restricted head and neck movements,
bruxism (jaw clenching), and
restricted breathing as the ribcage collapses inwards.
Due to its location near the armpit if the serratus anterior is not working correctly the lymph in the armpits may not be flowing properly and can lead to lymph related health issues.
Lastly, if the scapula becomes locked in a position it will fail to move and create space for the arm to move – this is called subacromial impingement or frozen shoulder.
For yogis this is an important muscle for all the inversions in classes like downward facing dog, dolphin, handstands, wheel, forearm balances straight-armed crow.
As an accessory muscle to breathing it can impact breath which direct affects emotions such as anxiety. If the lateral ribcage is not expanded into for breath, allowing the serratus anterior to provide pressure onto the ribcage then the breath can become shallow in the top of the ribcage. This may lead to:
Poor cardiovascular function,
Circulatory issues often have impact on feeling vibrant and passion for life,
Suppressing emotions or feeling closed from yourself and others,
Breathing related problems connect to an inability to honestly express and communicate with yourself and others.
Focused on the heart and lungs this is the energy of life – the connection to unconditional love of yourself and all else in the universe. Misalignment of the serratus anterior can affect the ability to manage boundaries of love leading to overly giving or being jealous. The thymus gland sits in the centre of these wings and without proper alignment it may not have the energy to build strong immunity or the strength to spread your wings into shining your best self.
Anatomy of the Serratus Anterior
There are two serratus anterior in the body – one for each scapula. Each muscle looks like a fan under the armpits that originates from the top of the first 8 – 9 ribs and inserts into the front-border of each scapula. This is important because it helps move and stabilise the scapulae with 5 other muscles, because the scapulae have few bony attachments so inherently lack stability during arm movements. The entire muscle impacts reaching forward, the arm across the body and lifting the arm where it moves the scapula out of the way to make space for the humerus to move and lift the arm high.
Further movements to note are that the top of the serratus anterior (inferior) depresses the scapula to stop them rising into the ears, but the inferior of the muscle (lower portion) supports the opposing movement of lifting the scapula when the arm is lifted. This opposition is important in spinal extension to ensure correct shoulder placement for the fullest thoracic extension possible.
The long thoracic nerve from C5-7 innervates the serratus anterior muscle which means that movement is affected by placement of the lower neck position. Improper head position will affect nerve function and therefore, neuromuscular function of muscle activation. This creates a cyclical impact of
The brachial aspect affects all of the upper limb meaning that damage to the nerve impacts sensation of the entire arm and its ability to lift the arm overhead.
The key fascia line for the serratus anterior is the Spiral Line that shows the strong connection with the rhomboids that perform the opposite muscle function on scapulae (retraction). These two muscles effectively form a sling that holds the shoulder blade against the ribcage.
Above the muscle the Spiral Line starts at the side of the skull near the occiput bone and goes down into the splenius capitis muscle and then the splenius cervicis by C6, it crosses over the shoulder complex via the rhomboids into the serratus anterior. The fascia connection reinforces the nerve connection of forward head posture and poor upper body posture with serratus anterior issues. FORWARD HEAD POSTURE – think of a racerback top with cross over straps that go into the base of the skull rather than over the shoulders.
Below the serratus anterior the fascia connects into the obliques complex in particular the external obliques on the same ribs as the serratus anterior before the line draws across the front torso and over opposing Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (frontal hip bone). This draws everything to the centre like an hour-glass. Issues in fascia lines can refer further down the chain and the ASIS is central to function in the pelvis in lower body movement. Therefore, an imbalance in the serratus anterior can easily show up as a pain or issue with the opposite hip or lower limbs, where the fascia has referred the pain further along the lines.
The seemingly obvious connection to the arms is the Arm Lines where the serratus anterior interacts with the pectoralis minor that shortens the chest and rounds the thoracic spine forwards. The role is stabilisation and freedom in arm movements.
Energetics of the Serratus Anterior
The serratus anterior muscle crosses over the heart chakra or anahata. However, the nerve originating in the cervical spine and fascia lines show that it has a strong impact on neck position, and thus affects the throat chakra (visuddhi).
Boundaries come up a lot with serratus anterior – whether allowing others to control or you control others – and this can knock into the perception of being a victim without the courage to access your dreams and bring them to life.
Visuddhi imbalances are about expression and truth. Emotional imbalances may arise in being overactive or suppressed behaviours from being overly talkative, proud, critical and stubbornness to a fear of public speaking, being timid, creative blocks or behaving dependently. Physical issues relate to the lungs, vocal chords, tongue, bruxism, neck tension, speech issues, thyroid, saliva including overindulging with food or drink. Nose and throat issues including headaches can be a sign of blocking the throat chakra.
Anahata is the bridge of body and mind, or material and divine. Emotional imbalances are a lack of peacefulness that may display jealousy, blaming others, overly giving, feeling unloved, trust issues, unforgiving, uncertainty and self-pity. Physical issues manifest heart, lung and circulation issues, but also in the thymus glad that produces T-cells for a healthy immune system. Immune issues are a heart chakra disorder as are breast and lung cancer, and lung diseases all signs of heart imbalances.
Consciously connecting to your Serratus Anterior
The serratus anterior connects the feeling of freedom to be honest and expansive into who you are. Be mindful of a soft engagement of the muscles under the armpits when to hold the heart case soft yet stable, so that the arms can spread like wings to fly freely.
Boundary setting is the ability to say ‘no’ is controlling what you let into your life to ensure that it is aligned to you and your needs. Holding the space around your heart with soft control like healthy fascia sling between the opposing muscles of the serratus anterior and rhomboids that support your heart and chest.
Overcorrection of shoulder placement can lead to over-retraction of the rhomboids and poor engagement of the serratus anterior. The Tai Chi or Qi Gong approach for a soft breastbone balanced with space under the armpits permits a balanced engagement of rhomboids and serratus anterior, so you can know how to allow the arms to be held by the shoulder girdle that rests on the torso with support. Focus on a full breath into the armpits to create this balanced space in all movements.
Consider the serratus anterior a muscle that is a part of the body’s ‘bridge’ for energy flow between the inner and external worlds. The hands and arms interact with the world that brings it into the heart and spreads through the body in all directions. Balanced control of the serratus anterior gives sufficient inner space to have healthy connections and expression of all your energy, from a deeply connected and spiritual place.
Ball Breathing exercise
Take a scan of how your shoulders, armpits, chest and upper back feel.
Relax your arm over a mini-stability ball with the ball nestled in your armpit. Let the arm hang easy and sit in a neutral spine.
For 3 minutes focus breathe into that side ribcage feeling the resistance of the ball on the inhale and softening on the exhale.
Repeat the scan and feel the difference between the two sides. Repeat on the other side.
Notice the space under the armpits that creates a softness of the armpit.
Forward head position
1. The 6 mobilisation movements of the scapula are in the video. We suggest doing them with light weights, like cans of coconut milk.
Weight bearing and Inversions
The goal is to feel the wings flat against the rib cage and the shoulder blades flat across the ribcage i.e. not winging. In weight bearing this is often encouraged as ‘dome’ the midback towards the sky to stop them winging.
1. Correct engagement is pectoralis minor deactivation exercise.
2. A great pose is the serratus push up in a plank position.
3. Challenging but great is downward facing dog to dolphin dips maintaining the upward rotation of the arms.
4. Yoga inversion poses such as forearm and handstand practices will build strength, stability and flexibility in the for a balanced connection. Use of the superior serratus anterior supported latissimus dorsi prevents the shoulders creeping into the ears.
In movement practice this begins in backbends as you open your heart to surrender with strength and support, whilst breathing fully with an open diaphragm. Backbends are about surrendering to love through forgiveness whilst cultivating gratitude. In the body this is the ‘heart loop’ of a thoracic extension or upper back bend.
‘Heart loop’ for all backbends the practice requires scapula depression with superior serratus anterior supporting this action. Visualise the scapulae tipping in a V in and upward towards the heart centre of the chest, pushing the heart forwards through the breastbone. This provides activation of the serratus anterior in thoracic extension which will then be strengthened by extended the arms overhead.
Eventually this leads to wheel pose in yoga or Urdhva Dhanurasana where the arms are extended overhead and weight-bearing during the back bend. This requires flexibility, strength and stability of the overhead arm position used in a basic reach to the sky.
Practice backbends focusing on creating the heart loop through the thoracic spine.
Build strength with the arms overhead during the inversion practices.
Practice combining the arms overhead in bridge (setu bandha sarvangasana) but do not lift the body off the ground, just placing the hands on the floor and pressing into them whilst drawing the heart loop in bridge.