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The Ribcage

Improving ribcage stability and mobility for better arm strength in a wider variety of positions
Published: 2019 04 03
Updated: 2020 10 28

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The ribcage

Serratus Posterior Inferior, viewed from the side.. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

We tend to think of the ribcage as a protective structure. (It protects the heart and lungs). In terms of movement and posture it may be more helpful to think of the ribs as lever elements.

It's because of the ribs that the obliques, intercostal muscles as well as the spinal erectors and other muscles can be used to stabilize, bend and twist the thoracic spine.

Ribcage mobility is thus a measure of how well we can use these muscles to change the shape of the ribcage as well as the thoracic spine. Ribcage stability is a measure of how well we can use these muscles against each other to stiffen the ribcage in any of these shapes.

The combination of ribcage flexibility and stability means that we can use our arms strongly through a wide range of positions so long as we vary ribcage shape and stability to match

Snakes Don't Have a Sternum

Looking at the ribcage with a little bit more detail, what's the purpose of the sternum?

If you look at the skeleton of a snake, it has ribs but no sternum.

Look at the skeleton of an ostrich or emu and it has ribs and a very large and overly developed chest plate or sternum.

Why the difference?

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A snake doesn't have limbs.

An ostrich or emu (I'm not sure which of the two I saw the skeleton of) has big wings. The sternum gives the muscles that operate those wings a stable foundation from which to work. Because a snake doesn't have limbs, it doesn't require the same ribcage stiffness that a bird does.

Why Do Turtles Have Shells?

In the same vein, a particular type of turtle was studied and it was realized that the reason for its shell wasn't defense, but to enable it to dig more powerfully with its forelimbs.

Fossorial Origin of the Turtle Shell

So what's the takeaway for us humans?

Why Do Humans Have a Sternum?

The arms attach to the sternum via the shoulder blades which attach to the collar bones which in turn attach to the top of the sternum. An interesting point is that the bottom of the shoulder blades tends to lie even with the bottom of the sternum. This will shift as the shoulder blade moves relative to the ribcage; still it means that the shoulder blades (and better yet, the sternum) can be used as a reference for helping to differentiate the upper and lower ribcage.

The main reason we have a sternum may be to give the arms a more stable foundation. And the reason the lower ribs don't attach to it is to give the lower ribcage a little bit more flexibility. (Going back to the turtle shell article linked to above, that may be in part so that we have better breathing capacity.)

Note that there are arm and shoulder muscles that attach to the ribs of the lower ribcage (and to the lumbar spine, cervical spine, hip bones and skull). But the sternum is there to give the upper ribcage that extra bit of stiffness it needs so that the arms can be used powerfully.

So if the upper ribcage is fairly stable, what is there to worry about?

Why Is the Lower Ribcage More Flexible?

To give the arms a more stable foundation, so that we can use them even more powerfully, it may be helpful to think about how to stabilize the lower ribcage. As noted, it may be more flexible so that we can can breathe more effectively. However, it may be that by stabilizing the lower ribs, we can use our arms with greater strength. We do so by giving the "arm" muscles that attach to the lower ribcage a stable foundation or anchor point. But before going into the details, a quick look at stability and mobility.

Balancing Stability and Mobility

If you look at any camera tripod, they generally have the option of undoing a lever so that you can turn the camera in any direction. Then you can lock it once you have your subject is suitably framed.

With the ribcage and shoulders, we have the same options (if we choose to work at it.)

We can shape the ribcage appropriately to how we want to use our arms. Then, if we need to use our arms powerfully, we can then stabilize the ribcage so that our arms have a stable foundation from which to work. The point here is that stability isn't due to positioning but rather due to the action of muscles working against each other to create a stabilizing effect.

Note, depending on how much power we wish to exert and in what direction, we may also need to stabilize the neck and/or waist.

Focusing on the ribcage though, what can we do to make it more stable so that we can use our arms with less effort? In addition, what can we do to increase ribcage (and thoracic) mobility so that we can apply arm strength in various directions?

Using Muscles to Stabilize the Ribcage and Mobilize it

Both mobility and stability can achieved via muscle control. We can use muscles against each other (or against an opposing force) to vary the shape of the ribcage. We can also use muscles against each other to stabilize the ribcage.

The intercostal muscles are muscles that connect and work on adjacent ribs. Meanwhile, the obliques attach, mainly, between the hip bones and the lower ribs.

One idea is to use the internal and external intercostal muscles against each other. And indeed that can be useful for both shaping the ribcage and maintaining that shape despite external forces acting on it.

Side view torso and ribcage showing internal obliques and internal intercostals and their fiber angle, rearwards and downwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Side view torso and ribcage showing external obliques and external intercostals as well as their fiber angle, forwards and downwards.  Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

These pictures could have been labelled a little better.
The intercostals are the muscles between the ribs.
The obliques are positioned between the ribcage and the pelvis.

Another set of muscles that can be used to mobilize and stabilize the ribcage along with the intercostals and obliques are the spinal erectors. In particular the iliocostalis and the longissimus, both of which attach to the ribs, can also be used to help stiffen the ribcage.

The iliocostalis and longissimus portions of the spinal erectors attach from the sacrum and hip bone to the backs of the ribs. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

These muscles can work against the obliques and intercostals to create ribcage stability.

The iliocostalis attach from the hip bones to the ribs while the longissimus attach from the sacrum to the ribs. And so a good tip when trying to activate these muscles is to stabilize your hip bones and sacrum (as well as the si joints!)

Practicing ribcage mobility to improve ribcage stability

One way to get a feel for your ribcage is to practice mobilizing it as in these ribcage mobility exercises.

The better you get at feeling the muscles you are using to mobilize your ribcage the easier it is to control them and then also use them to stabilize your ribcage. For more on this, also check out thoracic mobility

The Lower Half of the Ribcage

Another idea focuses specifically on the lower ribcage.
This is the part that corresponds to the arch of the ribcage (the arch that houses the upper abdominal muscles.)

This part of the ribcage has the lower 5 ribs, the top 3 of which are false ribs, the bottom two of which are "floating" ribs. It also has the lower 5 thoracic vertebrae. These are the ribs that lack a direct connection to the sternum and so this part of the ribcage tends to be more flexible and thus requires more effort to make stable.

So what muscles can we use to stabilize this part of the ribcage (or at least a portion of it).

Muscles We can Use to Stabilize the Bottom Half of the Ribcage

The Serratus Posterior Inferior muscle attaches to backs of the lower four ribs. From these ribs, the fibers (or fascicles) of this muscle angle downwards and inwards to attach to the lower two thoracic vertebrae and the upper two lumbar vertebrae.

The upper band of the Transverse Abdominis attaches to the front of these same ribs.

Serratus Posterior Inferior, viewed from the back along with quadratus lumborum and latissimus dorsai. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
STransverse Abominis muscle, viewed from side. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

My own experience has shown that these two sets of muscles can work against each other to help stabilize the lower ribcage.

Some Basic Principles for Muscle Control

Note that because the serratus posterior inferior create a downwards pull on the backs of the lower ribs, it can help to first lift the ribs to give the fibers of this muscle room to contract and to give these fibers an opposing force to work against.

Another way to think of this is giving these muscles optimal length so that they can activate more effectively.

  • A basic principle in muscle control is that muscles need an opposing force to work against. If they have no opposing force, then they won't turn on. That opposing force can come from opposing muscles.
  • Another principle is that muscles have a range in which they function best, or optimal length range, and so for better muscle control we can lengthen and shorten muscles as required.
    In some cases we can use other muscles to help lengthen a target muscle optimally.
  • One other (but not the only other) basic principle is that or anchor point for effective control.

An upwards lift of the ribs may be created by use of the external intercostals (which attach between adjacent ribs) in addition to the levator costarum muscles (which reach downwards from thoracic vertebrae to attach to ribs one or two levels below).

A Tip for Activating Serratus Posterior Inferior

One tip then for activating the serratus posterior inferior muscle fibers is to first lift the backs of the lower ribs and then create a downwards (and inwards) pull on these ribs, pulling them towards the upper lumbar spine.

So which "arm" muscles will stabilizing the lower ribcage affect the most?

What Arm Muscles Can be Affected by Stabilizing the Lower Ribcage?

Arm and shoulder muscles that have fibers that attach to the lower ribs include the serratus anterior and the latissimus dorsai.

The latissimus dorsai is generally though of as a pulling muscle while
the serratus anterior tends to be involved in pushing actions.

And so stabilizing the lower ribcage may be useful in both pushing actions (which generally require the serratus anterior) and pulling actions (which require the latissimus dorsai).

Yoga anatomy rear view of torso showing: serratus posterior inferior, latissimus dorsai with attachments to lower three ribs and oppostie gluteus maximus muscle. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
Yoga anatomy side view of torso showing latissimus dorsai and serratus anterior (unlabeled) as well as pectoralis minor.  Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

In the left picture you can see how some fibers of the latissimus dorsai attach to the lower three ribs.
In the right picture you can also see the serratus anterior muscle (unlabeled) in green.
(You can also see pectoralis minor, just above it!)

Experiment: try stabilizing the ribcage when doing pushing or pulling actions with the arms

If you are into gym work, one way you can test this out, assuming you've got the ability to turn on your upper transverse abdominis and serratus posterior inferior muscles at will, is to try those muscle activations doing a bench press and while doing lat pull downs or chin ups or pull ups.

  • If you are doing pull ups, or some other type of exercise that requires the lats, (climbing up a rope) creating a downward pull on the backs of the lower ribs may help you to use more fibers of the latissimus dorsai (in particular the fibers that attach to the lower three ribs) making it easier to do that exercise.
  • Is you are doing bench press, then pulling the inwards (towards each other) on the ribs at either side of the costal arch may help you to utilize the lower fibers of the serratus anterior making bench pressing easier.

In either case, whether you focus on activation the serratus posterior inferior or the upper transverse abdominis, the opposing muscles will also tend to activate (since, as mentioned, muscles need an opposing force to act against.)

Affect on the Upper Ribcage

Even though the lower ribs don't attach directly to the sternum, the lower ribs are still closely tied to the upper ribs. Movement of the lower ribs tends to affect the upper ribs and vice versa.

The point here is that if you stabilize the lower ribs, it's probably going to have an effect on the upper ribs also. As an example, in the picture above, you can see another muscle that ties in to "arm strength", the pectoralis minor.

To anchor the pectoralis minor, you may find it helps to create a downwards pull on the front ribs. Because this creates a downwards pull on the scapula, this action may be useful when creating a downwards pull with the arms in an overhead position.

Low back pain, anchoring the psoas via the ribcage

Note that since the upper fibers of the psoas muscle attaches to the uppermost lumbar vertebrae, then stabilizing this region of the ribcage and the upper lumbar spine can help to give the psoas an anchor point for more effective functioning.

Thus if you think of the psoas as a possible factor in lower back pain then being able to stablize the lower ribcage and junction of the thoracic spine and lumbar spine via the upper transverse abdominis and serratus posterior inferior muscles may help.

Activating the psoas to anchor the ribcage

Note that psoas interaction is a two way street. While stabilizing the lower ribcage can be used to give the upper fibers of the psoas a fixed anchor point, psoas activation can also increase lower ribcage stability.

This again may be useful in pulling actions with the arms overhead.

Note that to get a taste of how to activate the psoas, look at better hip control via the hip crease.

To activate the psoas for overhead pulling actions, experiment with closing your hip crease.

Anchoring the legs with the ribcage

As well as acting as a potential anchor for the arms, the ribcage (and spine) could be used to help anchor the legs. One possible route is via the psoas. Another potential route is via the obliques which attach from the ribs to the hip bones. These muscles could help anchor the hip bones from a stable ribcage and that in turn can affect the knees.

Read more about this in Knees, spine, ribcage and mood.

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