Do your ribs protrude out 1-2 inches in front of the rest of your body?
Do you experience any type of musculoskeletal pain on a regular basis?
If so, this article is for you! If you’re wondering, “what the heck is a rib flare anyway?” then this article is also for you. Rib flare is one of the most common dysfunctions I see, yet so few people talk about it.
Many coaches and physical therapists discuss, at length, the importance of “proper posture”.
They cite phrases like “hyperextension,” “lordosis,” “kyphosis,” “forward head posture,” “slouching,” and dozens of other buzzwords that incite concern within the client. Many of these phrases effectively mean the same thing, or they go hand-in-hand.
While it is valuable to note the position of the lower back and of the neck, I’ve had much success with addressing the rib position first.
How Do I Know if My Ribs Flare?
Joint centration and alignment is important for optimal gait mechanics and efficiency of the human body as a whole.
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Now, any engineer or physicist could tell you (in much more depth) that the farther a load moves from its center of mass, the greater the pressure put on its structural system. Consider a building like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and how much work had to be done on the foundation of the building to keep it safe for tourists to visit.
For each inch that the head juts forward of its resting posture, the neck muscles have to support an additional 10 pounds of load! Now, if both the head and the ribs deviate from one’s center of gravity, just imagine how much work the muscles in your hips have to do to combat that! As a result of this structural change, we see tons of inefficiencies and imbalances throughout the kinetic chain.
Ideally, everything from the earlobes to the ankles should form a nice straight line. This means that your earlobes should be in line with your acromion (the pointy bone on the sides of your shoulders), the bottom of your ribcage should line up perfectly with your pelvis, and your ilium (the top of your pelvis) should be in line with your fibular head and your outer ankle bone (lateral malleolus).
Any deviations from this resting posture equate to compensations galore.
What Causes Rib Flaring?
Now, I most often see this compensation in women, as they tend to have more ligament and tendon laxity, but it certainly plagues men as well. Flared ribs go hand-in-hand with a hyperextended lower back.
Underneath the ribcage, we have the diaphragm. This muscle is primarily responsible for respiration, but it also helps us to increase intra-abdominal pressure (when bracing for exercise or taking care of other bodily functions). As we inhale, the diaphragm contracts, and of course relaxes as we exhale.
For clients with this forward rib posture, they are stuck in contraction of the diaphragm, meaning it is facilitated or overactive. These individuals tend to be more chest and neck-dominant breathers, taking shallow, incomplete breaths.
For people who live in a constant state of stress (whether that is emotional or physical), it is common to see that they rely mostly on the accessory muscles of the neck and chest (like the sternocleidomastoids, scalenes, pecs, and upper traps). These individuals also gravitate towards breathing through their mouths rather than through their noses.
So How Can I Fix It?
Now that you know you (or your client) has a rib-flaring problem, the next step is to figure out an action plan. With my clients, I take a three-pronged approach:
- Address breathing
- Focus on alignment
- Strengthen the core musculature
Improving breathing mechanics, in my opinion, takes precedence over any other type of corrective or postural exercise with a client (regardless of their individual issue). The system cannot function properly if the breath, and thus, the central nervous system, is out of whack. I want to get my clients to return to the parasympathetic nervous system after a bout of intense exercise, and using diaphragmatic breathing is the best way to do that.
To maximize diaphragm engagement and oxygen uptake, it’s ideal to inhale through the nose rather than through the mouth, and maintain the tongue on the roof of the mouth.
My absolute favorite drill to help my client’s heart rate come back down after a tough workout and reinforce proper breathing mechanics is called crocodile breathing. As you’ll see in the video, the client inhales through the nose, focusing on pushing the belly into the floor.
Focus on Alignment
As I mentioned before, in order for the body to function optimally, we want to think about head-to-toe alignment. We want the ribs to be stacked directly over the pelvis. Initially, it is typically quite difficult for a client to understand how to properly do this. Over time, their thoracic awareness will improve with proper strengthening and breathing.
One test I usually do with my athletes is the “wall slide.” In this exercise, I’m looking to see what happens in the abdomen as they try to press their forearms against the wall. They may be able to maintain a neutral rib position while standing still, but once they’re in a more dynamic position, the wheels come off the tracks.
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If you notice that your client cannot maintain their braced rib position during this drill, then you know that they lack proper recruitment strategies.
Strengthen the Core Musculature
The last step, once you’ve assessed your own or your client’s weaknesses, is to address them with appropriate exercises. I prefer to use isometric core exercises as opposed to flexion-type movements (like sit-ups), as we are teaching the person to maintain the proper position for an extended period of time. Some of my favorite exercises for this include the dumbbell pull-over, the barbell roll-out, and the hollow hold.
For the dumbbell pull-over, you might notice that your natural inclination is to lift your ribs up as you reach back overhead, but the goal is to stay rigid in the torso. Really ensure that you get the full stretch in the lats as you lower the weight down.
Next, the hollow hold is a foundational gymnastics movement that encourages total body tension. The goal is to feel stiffness from your fingertips down to your toes. The shoulders should be off of the ground, and the inner thighs are squeezed together tightly.
The barbell roll-out is a progression of this position, in which the client has to remain in a hollow position even as he or she rolls the bar forward. It is important that they only come out as far as they can maintain the proper position. If at any point they lose that, then they should decrease the range of motion of the exercise.
These three movements allow you to “feel” the sensation of pulling the ribs down towards the hips. It is important that you do not hold your breath while doing these exercises, as that will defeat the purpose—make sure the breath remains relaxed the entire time.
Putting it All Together…
No lasting changes in the body will happen unless the body feels safe. This is why the breathing drills are so important—you want to get the central nervous system into a relaxed state first.
In the early stages of addressing flaring ribs, you will want to do this protocol as often as possible (3-4 times per week, perhaps even twice per day!). As you build strength and motor awareness, you can decrease the frequency. Remember, consistency is key to create lasting changes.
After addressing these dysfunctions, you will find that you and your clients are much more stable in other exercises (whether that’s a squat, a sprint, or an overhead press), as you will be able to better generate force from the core to the extremities. Sometimes, going back to basics and addressing static posture is the best way to overcome a nagging injury or even a strength plateau!