Confession. I love push-ups, but there was a time when I did them frequently (and unbeknownst to me poorly) and it resulted in some really nasty wrist and shoulder problems.
And here’s the rub.
Before I started to get nagging wrist pain, I thought I was pretty good at them, because I could do high number of reps pretty easily. What I didn’t realize was that even though I had the muscular strength to do them, I didn’t have the shoulder stability to support the load. This meant I was loading my shoulders with not so fabulous alignment and my end result was (you guessed it) pain.
In retrospect, my injuries could have been avoided if I’d slowed down and taken some time to work on my shoulder alignment, before doing dozens of push-ups (or any loaded exercise for that matter). And push-ups are hard as it is, but they’re extra hard (and a literal pain in the neck) if you lack the stability to keep your shoulders in good alignment.
Today, I’m going to give you a quick tutorial on what it means to have shoulder stability and show you some serratus anterior exercises that you can do to make your push-ups (and your posture!) better, while decreasing your risk of injury.
What does it mean to have stable shoulders?
First, stable does not = immobile.
Your shoulders need to move. In fact, wherever your arms go, your shoulders should follow. So if you’re arms go overhead, then your shoulders should upwardly rotate (move up and away). Likewise, when you lower your arms, your shoulders should downwardly rotate. If this doesn’t happen, then it becomes really hard to move your arm overhead and things go owe.
Along the same vein, when your upper arm bones are still (like in a plank or push-up), then your shoulders should sit flat across your back (sometimes call neutral) with minimal movement. They shouldn’t squeeze together (often called winging) or push way apart (protraction), which would place excess stress on the wrists, shoulders and neck.
There are lots of muscles that help the shoulder blades move and stabilize during exercise, but one of the primary helpers/stabilizers is the serratus anterior and for many of us it’s quite weak, because most of us use our arms for typing and driving and less so for actually…moving.
What is the serratus anterior?
The serratus anterior is a shoulder stabilizer that is located underneath the shoulder blades and along the sides of the rib wall.
With the help of a few other muscles that I’m not going to discuss for simplicity’s sake, it helps hold your shoulders stable during exercises like planks or push-ups, which is why if you’re weak there, your shoulder blades will squeeze together or your head will drop below your spine.
Additionally, the serratus anterior helps upwardly rotate the shoulder blade. Upward rotation is sort of a big deal, because if it doesn’t happen you get impingement and it becomes really hard to bring your arms overhead without pain. It’s also the cause of that no-super-attractive hunched shoulder posture and neck pain.
Here’s the good news.
The serratus anterior is a muscle, which means that if you do serratus anterior exercises, it’ll get stronger and in turn you’ll find all your upper body exercises get easier and your neck, shoulders and wrists will probably be a lot happier.
Personally, when I started doing these (along with a whole lotta rotator cuff) my push-ups got way better and my upper body tension decreased significantly.
Start sprinkling these moves into your warm-up and see if you feel a difference!
3 serratus anterior exercises for shoulders
- Start on hands and knees keeping your spine long from tail to head.
- Maintaining the length in your spine, drop your chest between your shoulder blades.
- Push through your arms and feel the muscles on the sides of your shoulder blades activate as you return to your starting position.
- Perform 8 to 10 times.
8-10 overhead reach with band
- Double knot a loop at end of your theraband and place the loop around your right foot.
- Hold onto the band with your right hand and reach your arm up towards the ceiling.
- Set your shoulder by finding width in the collarbones and feeling your upper arm bone sink towards the floor.
- Slowly reach your arm overhead while allowing the shoulder blade to glide up and away following the same direction as your arm.
- Return to starting position.
- Do 10 to 12 reps on each side.
8-10 wall slides
- Stand about a foot away from the wall with your elbows bend and your pinkie fingers on the wall and your palms facing towards one another.
- Slowly slide your pinkies up the wall, feeling your shoulder blades follow the same direction of your hands. Check that your keep your collarbones wide and you should feel a gentle activation of the muscles surrounding your shoulder blades.
- Return to the starting position.
- Perform 10 to 12 reps.