When we think of the word “chicken” in the gym, we naturally think of the term “chicken legs;” but how often do you think about your “chicken wings?”
By this I mean the muscles that promote good posture, the muscles that help to stabilize the shoulder girdle; and help to assist with breathing. Many of these important muscles, are often small, neglected and overlooked when discussing corrective exercise prescription. These muscles are the Serratus Anterior and Serratus Posterior groups.
Lets look at their basic anatomy and function.
Anatomy Breakdown of the Serratus Anterior:
The Serratus Anterior is a muscle that originates on the surface of the 1st to 8th ribs at the side of the chest cavity and inserts along the entire anterior length of the medial border of the scapula. Apart from the shoulder blade it also attaches to the thoracic segment of the spine. It’s main function is to act as a scapular stabilizer; in other words, when we do shoulder movements, particularly reaching over head, the scapula must get locked into place against the t-cage, allowing unimpeded movement, yet many people find this significantly challenging.
When this particular muscle becomes hypertonic it can cause the scapula to wing out, rolling the shoulders forward and can further cause unnecessary stress to the thoracic spine.
Anatomy Breakdown of the Serratus Posterior:
The Serratus Posterior superior muscle connects the bottom two neck vertebrae and the top two upper back vertebrae to the 2nd – 5th ribs and helps to raise the 2nd – 5th ribs to assist in inhalation. It’s primary function is to help in breathing mechanics, especially when we are forced to inspire (breathing hard).
Like all muscles, the attachment sites of Serratus Posterior Inferior determine its function. Its serrated strips connect from the spinous processes (the jagged topography of your spine felt through the skin of your back) of vertebrae T11-L2, and reach upward and outward to ribs #9-#12. It’s function is to anchor ribs #9-#12 downward toward its attachment on the spinous processes; to ensure that the ribs don’t elevate during the first phase of a complete inhalation.
When this particular muscle becomes hypertonic it can promote forward head carriage and rounded shoulders. It can also cause our breath to weaken in overall capacity. It is often a trigger point for hands on treatment.
Corrective Exercise Rx:
Most of us only use 25% of our lung capacity, and many have apical breathing (chest breathing); which weakens the diaphragm from its reflexive nature. A complete inhalation takes place in two phases to maximize lung capacity. Phase one secures the rib cage (enter Serratus Posterior Inferior). As the belly swells until the lungs are about 75% full. In phase two, we can “top up” the breath lifting the rib cage to upward, filling the lungs the remaining 25% of the way.
This is often taught in Yoga classes and in aiding to correct breathing dysfunctions. This rib expansion is also assisted by the diaphragm’s attachments to the ribs and thus allows you to expand the intercostals of the ribcage horizontally and laterally.
It is here we can see the importance of the Serratus Posterior Inferior and it’s role in bracing the ribcage to encourage a deeper release of the diaphragm.
Improve Your Posture:
They help us move our arms multi-dimensionally and with great speed. We may not necessarily rely on them for bipedal locomotion, but they help us move forward by increasing our arm’s distance from danger, keeping predators at an arm’s length away or drawing an imaginary boundary.
They also are a crucial scapular stabilizer in almost every inversion and arm balance and can help to reduce tension and stiffness in the neck and upper back by re aligning the relationship between the scapula to thoracic region of the upper quadrant.
The exercise I like to use is a floor press, or a wall press. I teach this exercise prior to a push up or a scapular pushups, because it reinforces the idea of the shoulder blades packing down into the back pockets. For those clients with neck or shoulder pain, it can be difficult to hold a push up position without additional stress on the neck; therefore a floor press is a great place to start.
The actual movement is called protraction of the shoulders, which is the exact opposite of retraction (pulling the shoulders back).
Stand facing a wall, arm distance length, with palms shoulder height on wall. Lean forward with your torso toward the wall, without bending your arms, feeling the shoulder blades come closer together at the spine. Ensure that your pelvis is slightly tucked to encourage the core to also engage.
Progression 1: Dandasana: start with legs extended out with both sit bones on the floor. Place hands beside the hips on the floor. Create positive tension in the legs by squeezing them together, big toes touching, flexed up. Then press into the floor, as if creating space between your hips and the floor. Hold for a count of 4.
Cue: Think about placing your shoulder blades into your back pockets, and keep head neutral over the spine.
Progression 2: Cross Legged Floor Press: Sit on the floor, legs crossed. Place your palms on the floor by your hips, with arms straight. Press you body away from the floor, till you can feel space between your hips and floor. Hold here for a count of four and gently release. For those who have limited flexion in the spine and being seated on the floor is difficult, you can also use a set of kettlebells or a bench. This offers you more space to work with. Much like the start position for a trice dip, you either hold the horns of the bells or the edge of the bench, directly beside your hips, and then press down, ensure your “get tall” through the spine. Keep knees bent and in line with the hips, feet rooted to the ground. Hold for a count of 4.
Cues: Think about placing your shoulder blades into the back pocket, and ensure you keep your head AND hips in line with the spine. Your hips should “dangle” off the floor. if this is too challenging, using a blocks under each hand can offer your spine the space to stay long.
This will help encourage better posture, reduce stiffness and tone in the neck and mid back, as well as strengthen the stabilizers of your shoulder girdle.