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Ask the Lab: Serratus Anterior

PLEASE NOTE: The medical opinions in USTA.com's Ask the Lab are responses intended for the average player. Please consult with your primary physician before beginning any new exercise program.

From: Mike A., Charlotte, N.C.: I have been playing for 6 months now and I'm finding new muscles that I didn't know I had. I have pulled the rib cage muscle that is called the Serratus Anterior which is used to lift the arm and expand the rib cage when breathing. My questions are: 1. Is one, is this a common injury? and 2. How do you work this muscle?

Cori Thompson: Mike thanks for the great question! You are correct in stating that the serratus anterior muscle assists in both shoulder flexion (lifting the arm forward) and rib cage expansion when breathing.

The serratus anterior originates on the top border of the upper nine ribs and extends through to the inside border of the scapula, also known as the shoulder blade. Since this muscle attaches on the rib cage and the scapula, its main function is to support or ‘anchor’ the shoulder blade to the rib cage (thoracic cage). This is important to note because it allows an overhead athlete such as yourself to have posterior (backside) shoulder stability during various movements. This includes supporting the shoulder blade when lifting the arm forward or out to the side and assisting in rib cage expansion during forced inspiration (or breathing in heavy).

In your case, I am not absolutely sure what stage of the healing process you are in. It is best to check with your physician prior to beginning exercises if you have not otherwise been cleared to begin strengthening. Before strengthening can occur it is important to have decreased inflammation, minimal to no pain, and full range of motion (flexibility). If you have completed each of these goals and are ready to begin strengthening, I recommend that you start with these exercises to help strengthen the serratus anterior and back side of your shoulder:

• Scapular Punches
• Push Up Stabilization Holds
• Shoulder Blade Squeezes
• Rows (High, Middle, and Low)

Other exercises involving supporting muscles include:

• Reverse Fly
• Latissimus Pull Down
• Single Arm Dumbbell Row

Thanks and best of luck!

Click here for demonstrations of strengthening exercises

About the Author:
Cori Thompson, MS, ATC, PES, joined the USTA Sport Science staff in June 2007 as a Strength and Conditioning Coach/ Athletic Trainer. Based in Boca Raton, Cori is responsible for providing strength and conditioning as well as medical support to High Performance players and prospects. She works closely with the Sport Science and Coaching Education staff to provide education, testing, and training to players, coaches and parents.

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