If you’ve ever seen a shredded set of abs, then you’ve probably noticed a serrated muscle that sits under the ribs and flows around the obliques. This muscle is called the serratus — named that for its serrated knife-like appearance — and other than making you look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, it actually plays a huge role in shoulder health.
The best serratus exercises — which we outline below — are movements you regularly perform but with a twist (literally). A Scapular push-up may sound easy, but wait until you do it. In addition to outlining the best serratus exercises, we dive deep into the benefits of training the serratus and how the muscle functions.
Best Serratus Exercises
- Ab Rollout
- High Bear Crawl
- Scapular Push-Up
- Unilateral Band Chest Press
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Scapular Plane Lateral Raise
- Dumbbell Rotational Punches
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The ab rollout has you either grip a barbell loaded with plates, an ab wheel, or an exercise ball to extend your torso towards the ground. The ab rollout strengthens the serratus via protraction and upward rotation of the scapula in the lengthened position, targeting your eccentric (or lowering) strength. Getting stronger in an extended position improves core stability and recruits muscle fibers that would otherwise be untouched. Because of this, you’ll get stronger.
Benefits of the Ab Rollout
- Increased muscle development of the serratus as the ab rollout challenges you during both the eccentric and concentric phases.
- More abdominal muscle (or hypertrophy) control and stability.
- More strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position is essential for a good overhead press.
How to Do the Ab Rollout
Get on your knees and grip your equipment of choice with hands shoulder-width apart. Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground without overarching your lower back. The longer range of motion, the harder the exercise, so shorten your ROM if you’re new to the exercise. Squeeze the lat muscles and pull yourself back to the starting position.
Bear crawls are a great way to warm up for any workout. They strengthen and increase endurance in the arms, shoulders, and chest; they challenge your core and stability; they improve mobility and coördination; and when you do high bear crawls, which force you to protract your scapula, the serratus gets some serious time under tension,
Benefits of the High Bear Crawl
- The serratus anterior gets some serious time under tension to help with hypertrophy.
- Bear crawls help to improve total body coördination.
- Helps improve cardiovascular capacity.
How to Do the High Bear Crawl
Start on all fours with your knees and arms straight while keeping your eyes up and spine in neutral. Move one hand and the opposite foot forward an equal distance while keeping your back straight and repeat this with the opposite side in a continuous fashion, alternating sides for every rep.
This is a push-up variation, which has you perform the move by only moving your shoulder blades. Because your shoulder blades primarily activate the serratus, this is about as close as you get to an isolation move for the muscle. At the top of the movement, you push further into the ground while keeping the arm straight while rounding the upper back. This will fully activate your serratus and make your entire core work harder.
Benefits of the Scapular Push-Up
- Scapular push-ups have serious amounts of muscle-building benefits for beginners and advanced lifters due to the extra range of motion.
- It helps to improve lockout strength for the barbell bench press.
- More time under tension for your anterior core and chest.
How to Do the Scapular Push-Up
Get on your hand and knees, placing your hands slightly wider than your shoulder width. Straighten your arms and legs so you’re on your toes and hands, and engage your glutes to support a neutral spine. Keeping your arms straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together so that your chest sinks toward the floor. You should only move an inch or so. Once your chest can’t travel any farther, spread the shoulder blades apart to rise back up.
Most presses will work your serratus, as they all require some scapular protraction and retraction. But band chest presses create a horizontal force vector that forces you to reach further, which activates the serratus considerably. These are performed standing from a parallel or split stance and are made harder by moving further away from the anchor point or make it easier by moving closer.
Benefits of the Unilateral Band Chest Press with Reach
- Engages the serratus anterior more than some other pressing variations, as you’re able to reach forward more fully.
- It helps to strengthen pressing imbalances between sides.
- Trains the anti-rotational muscles of the internal and external obliques as you fight to keep your torso straight during the exercise.
How to Do the Unilateral Band Chest Press with Reach
Anchor a resistance band just below shoulder height, grab it with your right hand and walk forward until you have tension. Step forward with one leg to assume a staggered stance. Press the band until you reach lockout, then reach forward and pause. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
The old-school bodybuilding classic (that really needs to make a comeback), the pullover can be performed with one or two dumbbells, a barbell, or a cable. The beauty of this movement is that it works the chest and back simultaneously, helping to build the lats and chest while carving nice, jagged-looking serratus due to the upward and protraction movement from the scapula.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- Puts the serratus anterior through a long range of motion for increased hypertrophy potential.
- Builds the muscles of your chest and back simultaneously.
- It improves full-body stability as you need to brace your glutes and core to do the pullover.
How to Do the Dumbbell Pullover
Lay face up on a flat bench, with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Maintain a slight arch in your lower back. Either bridge up to engage the chest more or keep your glutes down and chest up to engage your lats more.
Slightly bend your elbows and press the weight over your chest. Lower your arms back, maintaining a slight bend in your elbows. Keep lowering the weight until you feel a stretch in your chest muscles and lats. Then pull the dumbbell over your chest, pause and slowly lower back to the starting position, and repeat.
This lateral raise variation will work in the scapular plane about 20 to 30 degrees in front of your torso. Angling your arms out this way also open up your shoulder blades a bit more so that your serratus are under a bit more tension. The arms are at a slight angle when you are raising the weight, which will still work the lateral deltoid and serratus anterior while slightly reducing the strain on your rotator cuff tendons. If you have beat up shoulders, this is the exercise for you.
Benefits of the Scapular Plane Lateral Raise
- Training your shoulders in line with your scapula reduces your chances of shoulder impingement.
- Rotation of the arms while performing the lateral raise engages the serratus anterior a little more.
- It helps build larger deltoids.
How to Do the Scapular Plane Lateral Raise
Hold a pair of light dumbbells with palms facing each other and the dumbbells resting to the side of your hips. Raise the dumbbells to shoulder height with a slight bend in your elbows and pause. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Fighters typically have well-developed serratus (and abs in general) because they’re consistently extending their arms (and so protracting and rectracting their shoulder blades) and rotating to punch. The good news for you is that you don’t need to step into the cage to achieve the same results. Just pick up a pair of light dumbbells, and, with control, rotate and punch. You’ll improve your conditioning and activate your abs and serratus.
Benefits of Dumbbell Rotational Punches
- Trains the serratus, upper back mobility, and core stability simultaneously.
- Strengthens the shoulders in a different plane of motion.
- Improves rotational power.
How to D0 Dumbbell Rotational Punches
Stand and hold a light pair of dumbbells in each hand (about five pounds) with palms facing each other with elbows bent at 90 degrees. Pivot with your feet and rotate at the hips, not lower back, and throw a punch with one armb by extending your elbow fully. Then pivot back, bringing your extended arm back in to your side, and repeat with the other arm.
All About the Serratus
The serratus anterior wraps around the ribcage and stabilizes the scapula by holding it against the back of the rib cage. When performing exercises in the horizontal plane like chest presses or push-ups, the serratus anterior main job is to protract/retract the shoulder blades.
If the Serratus did not do its job correctly, then the scapula would not move around the ribcage properly, leading to muscular imbalances and mobility issues.
The Serratus also plays a vital role in scapulohumeral rhythm as an outward rotator of the scapula that allows your arms to get into an overhead position. This is vital for lifting weights overhead or reaching for anything above your head or in front of you.
If the serratus is inhibited, the body will still perform the overhead movement — but rely on other muscles (the upper back, traps, and neck) to help. Over time, this may lead to undue pain and poor lifting form. By strengthening the Serratu, you’ll take the onus off of the other muscles and achieve an better range of motion.
Anatomy of the Serratus Anterior
The serratus anterior is a small fan-shaped muscle that is on the lateral wall of the thoracic area. Most of the muscle lies under the scapula and the pectoral muscles, with the serrated part visible to the naked eye. The serratus anterior muscle originates from the first to 10th rib and inserts at the scapula’s anterior surface.
The Benefits of Training Your Serratus Anterior
The serratus plays an important role in scapula function. It keeps the scapula attached and moving across the ribcage. When the serratus is not engaged properly, it results in scapula winging (which is when the scapula separates from the rib cage).
It’s responsible for scapular protraction, shoulder abduction, and upward rotation of the scapula. Most pressing movements, horizontal and vertical, involve the serratus anterior. Here are a few other benefits of training this muscle.
Training the serratus combined with a low body fat gives you a serrated look underneath your chest and above your abs.
Better Shoulder Mobility
A strong serratus allows the shoulder blades to move across your ribcage as intended, in a fuller range of motion. If you don’t use it, you lose it, and shoulder mobility may become restricted over time.
Improved Shoulder Stability
The shoulder is a shallow ball and socket joint with the incredible ability to move in multiple directions. The serratus plays an important part in keeping the scapula against the rib cage to allow this mobility to happen.
How to Warm-up Your Serratus Anterior Before Training
Activating the serratus before training will help shoulder mobility and ensure proper shoulder movement before hitting the weights. Two exercises to consider as part of the warmup are the scapular push-up (shown above) and wall slides. Do the push-up for eight to 12 reps and then eight reps of wall slides each side. Complete those two movements twice — along with the rest of your warm-up — and you should be good to go.
More Shoulder Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best exercises to strengthen your serratus anterior, you can also check out these other helpful shoulder training articles on improving shoulder mobility and strength.
- 4 Mini Band Exercises to Improve Your Shoulder Mobility
- 3 Great Ways to Improve Your Shoulder Mobility (Not Stability)
Featured image: Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock