Down the Nerd Hole: Ribs

I’ve fallen down a bit of a nerd hole recently, and thought I would write a post about it! But then I realized that it’s probably more like 2 or 3 posts, so buckle up for a bit of a series!

In my last blog post, I talked a bit about rib position and how it relates to hanging and core engagement. But I wanted to dig into this idea of expanding your ribs while you breathe because it’s going to help you with all sorts of things. 

I’ve mentioned that it’s really important for how you engage your core BUT it’s also going to make a huge difference for your shoulders and how much movement you get in your upper back!

First, the anatomy:

Here’s our rib cage. We have 24 ribs, 2 for each thoracic vertebrae because there are 12 of those.

“MedicalGraphics – Drawing Thoracic skeleton from anterolateral – no labels” by, license: CC BY-ND

Ribs connect to the thoracic spine, and the whole structure looks like a cage (hence the name) and has some inherent stiffness. The cage is there to protect important stuff! Like your heart and lungs, you know, the stuff we need to live. 

But because this structure is naturally limited in how much it will move, it’s easy for it to slide into rigidity.

When this happens, we start to move the whole cage as a single unit, instead of being able to move each of those 12 vertebrae, and finding movement between our 24 ribs. 

The thoracic spine (upper back) is never going to be as flexible as the lumbar spine (low back) because of that cage, but it does need to move. When it doesn’t move, the low back and neck end up picking up the slack by moving too much, and that’s Not Great.

Okay. Maybe you already know this and regularly work on your thoracic mobility. Awesome. Keep doing it! If you’re not working on your thoracic mobility, this is the perfect time to start! (It makes everything better)

But let’s talk about how some focused breath work might support your work on thoracic mobility, or the movement of your upper back.

All of those ribs have joints that connect to your thoracic vertebrae, and all of those joints should move. When we inhale, our ribs should lift up and out 3-dimensionally, creating movement at the joints at the front and the back.

Ribs expand when we breathe!

When our ribs don’t expand, we end up finding all sorts of different ways to compensate while breathing, but we’re also missing that movement where the ribs connect to the thoracic spine. 

When those joints are stuck and locked down, it kind of traps your thoracic spine causing it to become more rigid. It’s a bit of a negative feedback loop: you don’t move those joints and it makes it harder to move that part of your spine, which makes you compensate by breathing in a way that doesn’t move those joints, etc. What happened first? Who knows! The solution is the same.

Work on breathing well and moving well.

In my next post, I’m sharing some of my go-to drills for working on breathing in a way that expands the back of ribs. I KNOW you don’t want to miss that, so make sure to sign up for my mailing list so you get it right away!

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