In our Boulder Physical Therapy clinic we are often asked what is the most important muscle to work on with exercise if you’re training or looking to train handstands. When it comes to muscles in the shoulder, there’s one that seems to be more important than the rest for handstands. A study by Kinoshita et al. (2022) assessed muscle activity progressing through several positions with the final being a handstand. While the activity of many shoulder muscles increases in the full handstand position, the serratus anterior increases the most (Kinoshita et al. 2022). Therefore, if you are thinking about working on handstands or if you are struggling with your progress, addressing the strength of your serratus anterior appears to be a good target.
What are the best ways to work on serratus strength?
While there are hundreds of exercises that can target serratus anterior, does research show that any are superior to the rest? Based on available research there are a few things to consider. A study by Patselas et al. (2021) assessed serratus anterior activity by comparing different push up variations with traditional open chain exercises where the hand is moving in space. The study found that all push variations were superior at recruiting serratus anterior than the open chain exercises (Patselas et al. 2021).
So, what kind of push ups are best? Another study found that performing a push up on a stable surface led to higher serratus anterior recruitment than a push up on an unstable surface (Pirauá et al. 2014). However, other studies have had mixed findings when researching recruitment of serratus anterior during a push up on stable versus unstable surfaces (Patselas et al. 2021). Therefore, there is not a clear advantage to utilizing and unstable surface based on current understanding.
What about shoulder position in a push up? Patselas et al. (2021) found that there were no significant differences for shoulder position when comparing different push up variations.
So, what’s the main takeaway? Serratus anterior is an important muscle for the handstand. A solid way to strengthen your serratus anterior is by doing push ups. You might try two push up variations from Patselas et al. (2021) below:
Kinoshita K, Hoshino Y, Yokota N, Hashimoto M, Nishizawa Y, Kida N. Stepwise increase of upper limb muscle activity induced by progressive 4 positions of a handstand training. Isokinetics and Exercise Science. 2022; 30:127-133.
Patselas T, Karanasios S, Sakellari V, Fysekis I, Patselas MI, Gioftsos G. EMG activity of the serratus anterior and trapezius muscles during elevation and PUSH UP exercises. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies. 2021; 27:247-255.
Pirauá ATL, Pitangui ACR, Silva JP, dos Passos MHP, de Oliveira VMA, Batista LSP, de Araújo RC. Electromyographic analysis of the serratus anterior and trapezius muscles during push-ups on stable and unstable bases in subjects with scapular dyskinesis. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 2014; 24:675-681.