What’s the serratus anterior muscle and why is it important to swimmers?

Nick Beer explains the role the oft-forgotten serratus anterior muscle plays in swimming front crawl, and how you can strengthen it

The serratus anterior muscle Credit: Getty Images

The main muscles of the upper body that we use when swimming front crawl are: latissimus dorsi, deltoids, trapezius, pectorals, biceps and triceps. These muscles work together to enable us to apply power and pull ourselves through the water.


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Most gym-based programmes focus around developing strength in these muscle groups. However, there’s one muscle that can often get ignored, but plays a pivotal role in improving stroke efficiency and power when we swim front craw – this is the serratus anterior muscle.

The serratus anterior muscle works alongside the upper, middle and lower traps in what are known as ‘force couples.’ When these relationships are working together properly, they provide stability for the shoulder and optimise scapula kinematics.

A functional serratus anterior muscle is important when swimming front crawl as it helps the shoulder stay in position, with limited movement, during the catch phase. This allows the arm to be at maximal extension with the body more streamline, creating less drag, able to catch more water and, therefore, capable of propelling forward with full contraction and greater speed. Weakness in the serratus anterior muscle can lead to a loss of efficiency, increased drag in the water and a disruption in the force couple partnerships causing the muscles to fire out of sync.

How do I strengthen my serratus anterior muscle?

Below, are several examples of exercises that will isolate and strengthen the serratus anterior muscle

1) Wall rides Stand with your back against the wall, shoulder blades touching. Start with elbows flexed at shoulder height and raise the arms slowly upwards and gently extend the elbows. The aim is to keep your shoulder blades on the wall during the up and down movement of the arms. Take it slow and controlled and work within your comfortable range.

2) Scapula press-ups + wall press These presses are with straight arms and the aim is to squeeze your shoulders together and then to push them apart without bending the elbows.

3) Horizontal banded flys (band or towel) Stand holding a resistance band with your arms out stretched in front on you. Without bending your elbows, pull the band into your chest with straight arms. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping the band at nipple height.

4) On your hands and knees; single arm hold Supporting your weight on one arm, raise the opposite arm out in front of you. Try not to let your shoulder collapse. Maintain scapula integrity (don’t sink into your shoulder blade) while holding the arm out in front of you.

When performing these exercises it’s important that you feel the serratus anterior muscle working. Focus on feeling the muscle coming forward around on to your chest, as if it’s giving you a hug. Be aware that you don’t rely on your upper trapezius to do the work. This muscle can easily switch on as soon as the serratus anterior muscle fatigues and become overactive.

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  If you have any health concerns at all or are worried about injuries always consult a doctor, pharmacist or chartered physiotherapist