The serratus muscle spans over the top of your eight or nine upper ribs — it looks like a serrated knife, hence the name — and while it’s usually thought of as the cherry on top of a chiseled bodybuilding physique, it has a lot of use for strength athletes, too.
It’s often called the boxer’s muscle because it helps with forward arm movement and adds a little reach to your punches, but while it really can help with horizontal pushing motions, it adds a lot to the safety and strength of your overhead press as well.
More than anything else, it’s an integral part of an athlete’s shoulder health, contributing to shoulder strength, stability, and mobility. In particular it helps with scapular health and mobility and it works with the lower and upper traps to rotate the shoulder blades upward during shoulder flexion. By helping the scaps push away, the serratus stabilizes them against the rib cage and helps open the chest and correct posture.
They also look really cool. Here are a few exercises that are worth weaving in to your workouts.
1) The Pullover
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 a nice, jagged-looking serratus as well.
2) Ab Wheel
Ever noticed how the ab wheel rollout looks like an upside down dumbbell pullover? A piece of exercise equipment that tends to get lumped in with infomercial products like the Shake Weight, the ab wheel is actually a brutally effective core workout that can help just about any strength athlete jack up their core strength. (Check out gigantic strongman Brian Shaw using it above.) Bonus: it’ll build your serratus along with your six-pack. Concentrate on the stretch at the end and keep your back tight.
3) Scapular Plane Shoulder Raises
“These are my favorite exercises because of the EMG activity they bring while limiting possible impingement,” says Steve Horney, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist based in New York City. “Doing the raises on a single leg increases proprioception input to the brain, which assists with appropriate pain processing, so it’s great bang for your buck.”
4) Dip Shrug
Next time you’re doing dips, add a little shrug at the top to hit your serratus and add some more mass to the upper back.
5) Bear Crawls
Bear crawls are a dynamite way to warm up for any upper body workout. They strengthen and increase endurance in the arms, shoulders, and chest; they challenge your core and functional stability; they improve mobility and coordination; and if you try to do them with straight arms you’ll also hit up your serratus. Try to crawl for 50 to 100 total yards at a slow and controlled pace.
6) Scap Push-Ups
Also called the push-up plus, this is simply a push-up that keeps pushing. At the top of the movement, push further into the ground while keeping the arm itself immobile. The body will rise further into the air by virtue of your trusty serratus.
7) Serratus Cable Crunch
This is your secret weapon — maybe the best weighted exercise for the serratus. Stand by a high cable with a D-handle and if you’re pulling down with your left arm, place your right hand on the serratus to help you better target it. Shoot for 6 to 12 reps to add real size and strength to the serratus.
We’re not saying you need to do every one of these exercises — the scap push-up and the dip shrug are going to feel pretty similar, for instance. But if none of these exercises currently have a place in your regimen and shoulder health is a priority, find a way to sneak in some specialty serratus time. You’ll be glad you did.
Featured image via @noah_risch on Instagram.