The Right Way to Reach

Are you aware of your serratus muscle? It’s an important one for postpartum women and anyone suffering from forward head (that’s lots of people). The serratus anterior runs under the shoulder blades and curves around the sides of the upper rib cage, connecting to the ends of the ribs. It’s kind of like those under-their-suit-jacket shoulder holsters FBI agents wear in movies.

The serratus connects your trunk to your lower body, so it’s critical for a lot of transitional core movements. It’s very active when we reach forward and up. Or, ahem, it should be very active.

There’s a bad pattern that can take over (and note, this is a bit of a simplification here). Chronically holding the head forward decreases serratus activation when reaching. This affects the positioning of the shoulder blades. Then the pec minor (just above the armpit), along with the scalenes and upper traps, becomes the body’s go-to muscle for reaching. And we reach a lot: to the faucet to turn on the water, to pick up a child, to turn a steering wheel, to pick up a book, to type on a computer. In people who lack trunk stability, the hips will shoot forward to compensate. This puts pressure on the frontal abdominal muscles. One of the outcomes of this pattern is pain in the neck and midback.

Building a new habit of reaching using the serratus will be a positive change for your daily movement patterns. It helps to understand a little bit of anatomy as you build body awareness.

Activating the serratus isn’t tough, but it can easily be done incorrectly. You may have heard the common advice regarding posture, “pull the shoulders down and back.” Don’t just blindly follow this advice. Pushing or pulling the shoulders down can render the serratus inactive–so this advice, while not wrong in certain situations, should not be given or followed so freely.

A couple beginning tips for activating the serratus correctly:

Reach like a ballerina

When reaching, lift the crown of your head to create a long neck. Elongate the neck so it rises from the shoulders, like you’re an elegant dancer.

know your scapulae

Build awareness of your scapulae through protraction/retraction. Sit or stand up straight, but without rigidity. Lift from the crown of your head. Center your ribs over your pelvis. Gently draw your scapulae (shoulder blades) back, as if curving them around your spine. Keep your core engaged as you do so, avoiding lower back extension. Then reverse the motion, gently sliding your scapulae forward again. Doing this action slowly and mindfully will help you develop awareness of your own movement patterns, which is the first step to improving them.

is your bra a Nah?

At the end of the day, slip off your shirt, look in the mirror, and check out how your shoulders are handling your bra straps. Are the straps compressing your shoulders down? Notice if your default shoulder position is affected by tight or pulling bra straps. Remember, if your shoulders are pulling down, the serratus will be difficult to activate. Many women have heavier breasts for months or years after delivery. They may also put off getting nice new bras with springy fresh elastic in the straps because their bra size keeps changing. Just like you wouldn’t choose worn-out running shoes, do some triage on your bra drawer.

Bags are drags

Are you in the habit of carrying a heavy bag on your shoulder? Do some serious Marie Kondo on your diaper bag, purse, and/or work bag. Do you need to carry the whole pack of wipes? How about a plastic bag with a few wipes folded into it? Could you just drink some water now, and leave your water bottle at home? Try shorter outings with less stuff if it makes you anxious to be without your arsenal. Maybe you can go all minimalist and never look back. It feels really light and free to walk without a bag.

Add a Micro workout

Raise your arms over your head, one at a time, every time you switch windows on your computer. Picture the image of the serratus muscle in your head as you do so, and feel the movement you’re doing in the side of the body (next to your breast on the side you’re lifting).

There’s a lot we can do to improve posture. Reaching with correct form is just one aspect of how we hold our bodies, but it’s such a common motion that it’s a great place to start to make changes. There are tons more tiny daily changes and great therapeutic exercises we can do to stretch and build strength so you can feel relaxed, comfortable, and pain-free in your beautiful body.