If you take exercise classes, you’ve probably heard teachers say, “retract your rhomboids” and “engage your lower traps” when you’re doing weight-work. Rarely however do they prompt you to “contract your ‘serratus anterior,’” another set of muscles that are essential to good shoulder positioning. Why don’t teachers pay more attention to the serratus anterior? It’s not that students don’t need help with this set of muscles. They do! In my 24 years of teaching exercise, I’ve seen students struggle with recruiting their serratus anteriors more than they do any other hard-to-reach muscles, particularly during pushups.
One reason the serratus anterior may go missing in exercise instruction is that the darned name is simply a mouthful to say. The “Latissimus Dorsi” and the “Trapezius” abbreviate into friendly sounding nicknames: the “lats” and the “traps.” Not so for the seven-syllable, difficult-to-shorten “serratus anterior.” Then there’s the scary image conjured up by to the fact that this muscle was named after the sharp teeth of a saw!
Whatever the cause, it’s too bad! You really do need to pay attention to your serratus anterior. Without a well-functioning set of them, you will have a hard time moving your arms in certain directions, you will have an increased likelihood of neck and back pain, you could be on your way to an injury, and (if it’s relevant) you will have an abysmal right hook.
Now that I’ve got you worried (at least a little bit), I want to give you a basic rundown on where this muscle is on your body and how it works. The serratus anterior is a large muscle that wraps around the outsides of your rib cage like long-taloned claws and attaches underneath your shoulder blades at their inner rims. When your serratus anteriors are doing their job, they help your arms move in the following ways:
- They “protract” your shoulder blades. That is, they draw your shoulder blades away from each other towards the front of your ribcage and lock them there. Your arms are thereby rolled forward like a canon and locked into action mode. If your serratus anteriors fail to do this, your shoulder blades will ricochet right back into your body after you punch or push, greatly decreasing the power and effectiveness of your effort – and possibly tweaking your shoulders. This is the situation during pushups if you don’t engage these muscles!
- They work as a team with your rhomboids to keep your shoulder blades in place, one kicking in when your arms are being pulled forward and the other taking over when your arms are being pushed back. For example, when you hold weights out in front of you, your rhomboids engage to keep your shoulder blades from flying apart. When you’re pushing against something, the floor for example, your serratus anterior takes over to keep your shoulder blades from collapsing inwards. Finally, when you want to keep your shoulder blades down, the two muscles join forces, for example, during reverse pushups.
- They play a major role in your basic ability to raise your arms above shoulder height. When you want to raise your arms, your serratus anteriors on each side tilt your shoulder blades upwards at their outer edges. This maneuver effectively points your shoulder joints more upwards so that your arms can move around freely at a higher range. Your lower trapezius helps with this process as well.
If your serratus anteriors don’t turn on to perform this rotation, you will have to raise your shoulder blades towards your ears, possibly resulting in impingement and a rotator cuff tear. Dancers have fantastic serratus anteriors as evidenced by the graceful lift of their elbows and long necks when their arms rise overhead.
- The serratus anterior has many other protective features.
- It prevents “winging” of your shoulders blades, which result in a less stable shoulder.
- It protects against neck pain by enabling your arms to move in a large range without compressing your neck.
- Last but not least, the serratus anterior helps you hold good posture! “When firing properly,” says physical therapist and Bar Method teacher Kerissa Smith, “the serratus anterior anchors and stabilizes the shoulder blade/scapula, aiding in an open chest and lifted posture.”
Are there ways to fix a lazy serratus anterior? Yes! First, you can do a few simple exercises at home that can get your serratus anterior into gear.
- Do shoulder blade protractions. Lean against a wall and press the backs of your palms and your elbows against it. Then slide your shoulder blades forward (away from each other) – keep them down as well – and hold. This exercise is a great way to rev up for the added weight your serratus anterior will be dealing with during pushups.
Do scapular pushups. Assume a pushup position. Keep your arms straight and carefully slide your shoulder blades inward towards each other, then outwards away from each other. Repeat this action at least ten times. As the website “anabolic minds” explains: “Scapular push ups will isolate the serratus anterior. Make sure that your scapula just protracts, don’t let it ELEVATE.”
Stand with your back against a wall and inch your arms upward against it in stages, shoulders down. Start with your thumbs touching the wall, and graduate to your elbows pressed as far back as you can manage.
Meanwhile, there are your Bar Method classes: Pushups, plank, rhomboid pulls, arm dancing and oblique punches (a curl exercise) all work your serratus anterior. Dedicate some of your mental focus during class on engaging your serratus properly — that is, keep them down and wide against your ribs — during all these exercises.
See you in pushups.
Bar Method studio owners are a special breed. They are more than a hundred strong now, and though they are from all sorts of backgrounds, they all dreamed of owning a business that changes people’s lives, and they had the determination and can-do spirit to make it happen.
To that end, they left successful professional careers, told their children they were going back to work, took out SBA loans, and made the bold leap into entrepreneurism.
Get our studio owners into one room, and you will never want more expertise – or entertainment! You will find six former lawyers, eight accountants, four high school teachers, two nurses, two physical therapists, at least 20 sales and marketing executives, several financial analysts, a few actresses, singers, dancers and comediennes, one psychiatrist and two psychologists, a neurophysiologist and two past managers of other barre fitness studios. These people love to get things done, but they also tend to be family-oriented. Thirty-five of them were already mothers of one-to-four kids when they started their studios, and 30 more of them had at least one baby after opening. Two owner partners are sisters, and three owners operate in partnership with their grown daughters.
What our franchisees have less in common is their journey towards studio ownership. The following three stories illustrate the diverse paths our franchisees have taken towards becoming studio owners.
Carrie Smith Ward, owner of the Bar Method studio in Nashville, Tennessee
Carrie took an especially adventurous route to studio ownership and was rewarded with a Hollywood-style happy ending. A native of Hastings-on-Hudson in New York, Carrie moved to San Francisco for a fundraising job and started taking The Bar Method. Soon she began to dream of opening her own studio, but where? She didn’t want to go back to New York. She loved San Francisco but had no commitments tying her down there, and the surrounding territories were taken. So Carrie looked at a map. Not the mid-west, she thought. Too cold. Then her eye gravitated to a sweet little city
where it was warm but not hot, down-home but hip, mellow but dynamic. Perfect!
One month after moving to Nashville, Carrie met John. A year and a half later, they were married, and today they have a one and a half year old son, Jack.
How does Carrie feel about the city she chose? “Nashville is such a warm, friendly city. My husband John grew up in Nashville and has an amazing group of friends who welcomed me into their lives from the start. Many of them are now clients. I have also met wonderful friends through the studio, both instructors and clients. I love having 4 seasons again, and the city just keeps growing and growing!”
Sarah Kuzniar, co-owner of The Bar Method studios in Boston Back Bay, Boston Downtown and Hingham, Massachusetts.
Sarah came by the Bar Method through a work friend and ended up partnering with her. In 2008, she and her husband were recent residents of Boston, where she worked for a large financial services company and ran marathons with her friends. One of her running mates was a work buddy named McKenzie who had started taking the Bar Method in San Francisco where she worked in a branch office. Sarah spoke with McKenzie often on business calls and scoffed at McKenzie’s new exercise regimen. How can you train to run by taking this class called The Bar Method? Then one day during business trip to Boston, McKenzie joined everyone in a marathon and left them all in the dust. Sarah was impressed and started using Bar Method DVDs. Not long after when the two friends were on the phone, McKenzie said, “Let’s open a Bar Method studio!” and agreed to move to Boston to be Sarah’s partner.
Sarah loved the idea. “With my work hours at the time and demanding travel schedule, it didn’t seem feasible to become a mom and also be able to spend time with my child. I was all in.”
Sarah, who is now pregnant with her second child, and McKenzie are now the proud owners of three Bar Method studios in the Boston area and have soon-to-be four kids between them.
Gayle Gallagher, owner of the Bar Method studio in Saint Augustine, Florida
Like many studio owners, Gayle learned about The Bar Method not by taking classes at a studio but by discovering it on her own. A physical therapist for more than 20 years in the Boston area, Gayle moved with her family to Florida to manage the family business, a funeral home. There she started taking barre fitness classes and immediately fell in love with the barre fitness concept. At the same time, her knowledge as a physical therapist cautioned her as to safety of the class she was taking. “I had reservations,” she recalled, “regarding their approach, technique, and the long term health of my back and joints.” Gayle did some research on barre classes and discovered The Bar Method. She bought some DVDs and was impressed with its challenging but safe exercises.
This January, Gayle opened her beautiful studio in the seaside town of Saint Augustine with her daughter Kaitlin, a former ballet dancer, as her fellow teacher and partner. “It has been wonderful to share this experience with my daughter,” Gayle says. I have been pushed way out of my comfort zone which has helped me grow in many ways. It has been important for my kids, especially, my daughters, to see that at any age you can achieve what you want if you are willing to put in the work.”
As for Gayle’s favorite part of being a studio owner, she says, “I love getting to know our clients. I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they reach even the smallest milestones. It makes all the hard work worth it :)”
The allure of “extreme” exercise workouts like “Insanity,” P90X, Cross Fit and Core Fusion Extreme CFX makes sense. Today more than ever, people long for the chance to achieve extraordinary feats and to feel special. What better way to transcend being a cog in the crowded and pushy global gabfest we live in than to have a shot at being exceptional? Extreme workouts offer a straightforward chance to stand out, experience self-discovery, choose a new, excitingly noble community, and be rewarded with recognition, not to mention the possibility of an action hero’s body.
The issue with extreme workouts is, are they good for you? Greg Glassman, Founder and CEO of Cross Fit, says yes. His punishing exercise routines, he believes, enable students to reach their “genetic potential.” The hulk-like female winner of his Cross Fit Games, he says, “was meant to look like that or she would have been eaten.” If you think about Glassman’s statement however, it will occur to you that he has his facts backwards. It was gorillas that got the Cross Fit bodies. Humans evolved to be agile, quick and resilient. The truth is, Glassman’s stiff, slab-like, top-heavy, injured cavewomen is more likely to have made an easy meal for swifter Stone Age predators.
Evidence is growing that our bodies were not meant to endure the heavy pounding of extreme workouts. One study (from The Journal of Strength & Conditioning) found that for every 100 Cross Fit students, 73.5 of them are injured, a 73.5% injury rate! The military has been especially impacted. Enlisted personnel have sustained so many injuries from Cross Fit and P90X, including some deaths, that the Pentagon has convened a panel to issue restrictions on these workouts. To make matters worse, damage to bones and tissues isn’t the only adverse result of these brutalizing workouts. There are dangerous metabolic consequences as well. “Rhabdomyolsis” is a serious condition that can cause kidney failure, permanent disability and even death. It has become so common among Cross Fit and P90X students that it has a nickname, “rhabdo.” Glassman does not seem to be concerned by this problem. Last week on “60 Minutes,” he gleefully boasted that he employs “80 lawyers” to combat the hundreds of lawsuits against Cross Fit.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end with extreme workouts. A similar trend has ridden in on its coattails in the form of after-hours strength contests such as squatting and “planking” held in mainstream gyms and exercise studios. These competitions might not cause “rhabdo,” but they are injuring unsuspecting students.
One casualty was Lisa Brinkworth. Lisa is a resident of Buckinghamshire, England and the mother of three small sons. Last year, she started taking Pilates at a local studio and was inspired by a fellow student to sign up for a twice weekly “planking” competition. Initially she was excited by the planking event and did her best to hold the pose longer and longer.
Around Christmas, Lisa began suffering what she describes as an “excruciating pain in the left side of my chest.” The pain was so bad that she feared she was having a heart attack or had developed breast cancer. Doctors finally diagnosed her condition as “costochondritis,” an inflammation of the cartilage that joins the ribs to the breastbone. “How many of us,” she wondered, “are putting ourselves at risk of such a painful unnecessary injury?”
The answer is lots of us, including men who considered themselves plenty fit to jump right in. Two years ago, Matt Lombardi, a young, athletic web entrepreneur, landed in the hospital for five days with rhabdo after taking his first P90X class.
The foolhardiness of this injury pileup is that extreme workouts don’t provide students with many basic components of fitness including posture, flexibility, agility, and balance (This last ability could possibly lend itself to some competitive challenges that would be fun and safe).
The appeal of these ultra-tough, he-man workouts and contests is that they promise instant results and a super-hero’s physique. Actually, they are destructive to the human body. The best way to transform your body remains training under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher and committing yourself to regular, focused practice.