Most people only think of the ribs as a house for the lungs. But good rib movement (yes, they move) is an integral part of making it through a tough workout and engaging your core. When it's functioning properly, the ribcage expands and contracts to allow for efficient breathing while you're working out, provides stability to the shoulders and arms via the shoulder blade, and it helps keep your pelvis aligned via its connection with the abdominals and low back muscles.
The ribs move in three ways: Like a bucket handle (flaring up and down), a pump handle (straight up and down), and calipers (opening side to side). Issues arise when the ribs are stuck and can't move through their full range of motion. This causes a domino effect, limiting motion through your whole body. Here are the two of the most common examples of rib misalignment, and how to fix them.
1) Thoracic Kyphosis
A rounded upper back (thoracic kyphosis) is a prime example of the cascading effect caused by limited motion in your ribs. When you have excessive thoracic kyphosis, your ribs and thoracic spine (the section connected to your ribs) are curved excessively forward. This prevents your shoulder blades from depressing and downwardly rotating. This, in turn, limits the ability of your lower traps and lats to fire and shorten, leading to excess lengthening of your posterior chain muscles. All of this contributes to an anterior tilt of the pelvis and excess stress at your hamstrings. In short, your posterior side is excessively lengthened and the anterior (front) chain is shortened. This can lead to increased incidents of overuse injuries — low back pain, mid back pain, cervical pain, TMJ, and tight hip flexors, to name a few — during your workouts.
2) Rib Flare
Another common misalignment is a rib flare (some refer to this as being barrel chested). The rib flare is actually a symptom of weak abs and occurs when you are not using your abdominal muscles enough to hold your ribs down. Instead of using abdominals you are overusing your hip flexors, which causes an anterior (forward) tilt of your pelvis. This then further shortens your low back musculature. This limits your lumbar (lower) spine from moving, forcing you to try to gain movement from the path of least resistance, yep, your ribs. Another unhappy side effect when the ribs are flared is that there is less ability for them to expand and take in oxygen. This can limit performance for cardiovascular activities.
What's more, your diaphragm also attaches to your ribs, so when they flare, your diaphragm can become overstretched and lose some ability to function. Because your diaphragm can't do its job, there is an increased stress on the intercostals (muscles between the ribs) and the accessory muscles that support breathing. In addition to reduced oxygen intake, this leads to neck pain, as many of those accessory muscles attach at the neck.
What to Do
The following at-home exercises address both thoracic kyphosis and rib flare. Performing them will ensure the ribs are able to move properly, which, in turn, helps your whole body move better.
Thoracic Mobilization With Band
Anchor a large, thick resistance band, then loop it around your ribcage and lean your weight back into it (face your anchor). With feet hip-distance apart, lower yourself into a squat making sure your knees are tracking over your toes. For the three moves below, keep your pelvis tucked under and your abs tight, and try to keep a tall spine. Do the moves twice through, for 30 seconds apiece.
- Move your arms forward and backward, like you're doing alternating single-arm rows. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back every time you row back. Exaggerate your trunk movements in order to get the full effects of the mid-back mobilization.
- Hold your arms straight out in front of you. Raise both arms overhead, and then lower out to the side and back down. This movement helps with maintaining good posture and facilitates thoracic extension.
- Raise your arms up into field goal position, and then engage lats and low traps to squeeze your shoulder blades to drive elbows down to a W-shape, like a lat-pull. Return to starting position.
Foam Roller Thoracic and Rib Mobilization
These mobilizations improve your posture and increase your lat and ab activation.
- Lying on your back, place the foam roller under your mid-back. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the ground to support your low back. Place your hands behind your head, keeping your elbows close together.
- Arch your upper back up and over the foam roll to mobilize your spine and ribs and return to your start position. That's one rep. Repeat for 20 reps.
Thoracic Side Bend
- Lying on your side, place the foam roller along your ribs, and move up and down until you find a sore spot to work.
- Reach your arm up and over your head to facilitate a side-bending motion, then return to the start position. That's one rep. Repeat for 20 reps.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, gripping a lightweight bar overhead with hands wider than shoulder width, arms straight, and bar directly overhead.
- Squat, keeping knees tracking over toes, with pelvis tucked under, glutes and abs engaged and torso tall.
- From the bottom of your squat, forcefully expel air (like you're blowing out candles) to ensure the transverse abdominis is engaged. Then press the bar up and down for 20 reps. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back while simultaneously trying to pull your hands apart. Don't arch your back or stick your chest out. Rest and repeat for a total of three sets.