When performing an overhead press, or a core exercise, do you ever notice your rib cage poking out? If so, then you’re a culprit of “rib flaring”. This compensation pattern might make an exercise feel easier, but it’s also setting you up for potential injury.

What Is Rib Flare, and Why Is It Bad?

First, lets make one thing clear – rib flare should not be confused with pectus excavatum, which is a specific chest deformity that leads to anatomically flared ribs. When the average trainer points out you are “flaring your ribs” or tells you to “keep your ribs down”, they are usually referring to a break in your core stability.

In most cases, trainers are bringing attention to a temporary dynamic state where a person may “cheat” by flaring their ribs to help with specific movements, such as reaching overhead. This compensation pattern is surprisingly common because it makes certain exercises feel easier. It also typically occurs when people lack the range of motion to complete exercises with correct form and technique.

Anatomy of Rib Flaring

ObliqueMuscles

When you flare your ribs, you’re not only moving your spine out of neutral, you’re also turning off your abdominal muscles whose job it is to solidify and stabilize your core.

Your oblique abdominal muscles attach to your lower ribs, and when they contract together, they work to increase abdominal pressure and transfer the large forces from your legs to your upper trunk. When you allow your ribs to flare out, you simultaneously relax these abdominal muscles meaning they can no longer support your spine.

Rib Flare & Breathing

illustration

Your natural breathing mechanics should favor the use of your diaphragm muscle. When the diaphragm contracts, it creates more space in the chest cavity, which expands the lungs. And you have other muscles that help this action and work to increase the chest cavity size when exercising (or when stressed). Muscles in the neck help to lift the ribs from above, and lack of ab muscle activation (aka inhibition) allows the ribs to flare out from below. Both of these compensations may temporarily enable you to inhale more air, but when performed chronically they can lead to a host of muscular imbalances and problems.

What Does It Mean To Keep Your Ribs Down?

When you contract your abdominals, they help keep your ribs down and in place. You should be able to do this action without flexing your spine, since the spine should always be in neutral when doing strengthening exercises.

A great cue to keep in mind when you’re exercising is “chest up and ribs down”.

Chest up is a good cue by itself, but unfortunately it can lead to the overextension of the lumbar spine and rib flare. Instead, keep the chest up while engaging your core to keep your ribs down.

Importance of the Neutral Spine

Lifting with a neutral spine and a packed neck will prevent hyperextension of the spine and help maintain trunk stability. It will also place the load onto the muscles that you directly want to train and away from the muscles that can cause pain and problems (scalenes, upper trapezius, etc).

Best Exercises to Strengthen Your Core & Prevent Rib Flare

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Practice breathing with your diaphragm (belly breathing) instead of with your secondary accessory muscles (chest breathing).

You should be able to breathe in and out without activating your neck muscles. You should also be able to breathe while maintaining a braced trunk posture (a contracted core), which will help separate the control of your diaphragm from your abdominals.

Instructions: Lay on your back with neutral spine. You might find this exercise easier when your knees are bent and your feet are on the ground, rather than legs straight along the floor.

Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Focus on expanding your belly while keeping your chest and neck relaxed. To make this easier, you can place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe your belly into your hand, while keeping your chest down. Once you’ve mastered belly breathing, you can practice lightly contracting your abs and taking larger breaths while keeping your ribs still.

2. Chest Stretch

PecStretch

Some people lose the neutral spine position when they reach overhead simply because they lack adequate range of motion. To increase your flexibility, you’ll want to stretch out the two main muscles that can inhibit overhead movement: the pecs and the lats.

Instructions: Hold the pec stretch for 30 seconds on each side. Repeat 3x. Notice that when you keep your ribs down while performing this exercise, you feel a greater stretch.

3. Shoulder Stretch

shoulder-stretch

Instructions: Hold the lat stretch for 30 seconds on each side. Repeat 3x. Keep your core engaged and your ribs in place while performing this stretch.

4. Dying Bug Exercise

This classic exercise is great for low back stability, and to help you build your core control. Focus extra attention on preventing your ribs from flaring as your arms reach back by your head.

Instructions: Lay on your back with your knees bent to 90°, feet off the ground, and arms reaching up toward the ceiling. Maintain a neutral spine as you extend opposite arm and opposite leg to hover just above the ground. Return to center with control, and repeat on the other side. Perform for a total of 60 seconds, holding each side for about 5 seconds. Repeat 3x.

5. Wall Angels

Instructions: Use this exercise as a part of your warm-up. Stand with your back to the wall, arms bent to 90° against the wall (like cactus arms). Reach your arms overhead without letting your ribs flare. Feel your abdominals engage to keep your ribs and spine in neutral. Reach as far as overhead as you can without moving the ribs.

Once you can master this movement with full overhead motion and without rib flare, you’re finally ready to perform overhead strengthening exercises like the overhead shoulder press.

Your ability to stabilize your ribs not only affects your risk of injury, but also your capacity to get stronger. When your core is stable and your body is in the correct alignment, you’re in the optimal position to achieve strength gains. Spinal alignment, core stability, and rib placement all work together to transform your body into a powerful machine. When you get everything to work together, you can take your performance to a whole new level.

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10 Comments

  1. profile avatar
    David Jul 25, 2016 - 17:49 #

    A really great article!
    And love the cue: “chest up and ribs down”.
    This is gonna keep me very safe on the military press.
    But, i have a question.Well, maybe two.
    On the yoga bridging movements, is rib flare ok?Because, it’s part of them, right?
    Also, how do you feel about dynamic bridging; meaning, going for reps and not just static?Treating it them as strength training for the spine.Are they safe and more importantly; good for you?

  2. profile avatar
    Steve Jul 27, 2016 - 04:13 #

    Very informative post. I heard about the rib flare first not so long ago and since then I’ve done a little research on it. One thing I found is that if you find it too hard to do one of those wall angels you embedded as a video, then you can try doing them while sitting in tailor seat on the floor with your back against the wall. Then try raising your hands above your shoulders while trying to keep your lower back flat against the wall. Obviously if the back arches off the wall then you’re doing it wrong. Many people recommended this sitting arm raise for those who find the standing arm raise too challenging without rib flare. Another great exercise I saw recommended is planking with posterior pelvic tilt (tucking the pelvis underneath you). Hope this helps someone. Great article!

  3. profile avatar
    Kenneth Leung, DPT Jul 27, 2016 - 19:00 #

    David, glad you find the article helpful.
    Most of the article refers to the importance of preventing rib flare when performing strengthening exercises. Movement out of neutral spine, or with back arching is ok, so if you need to do it to achieve certain yoga positions, it’s fine. Just make sure that you have adequate movement at the other joints, or else you may be getting TOO much movement in the spine.

    As for the dynamic bridge, this is another great exercise. To simplify things, I generally cue people to focus on getting the motion with only the hips. It’s safer to keep the spine straight while you active the glutes. Some people prefer to do the bridge with each segment at a time (they lift with a posterior pelvic tilt, then get one vertebral segment up at a time) which is ok to learn coordination, but not recommended when doing with heavy weights.

    Hope that helps!

    1. profile avatar
      David Jul 29, 2016 - 10:58 #

      Thank you very much, sir.

  4. profile avatar
    Nick Nov 01, 2016 - 13:26 #

    You can’t prevent it or “fix” it, but you can make it look less worse. That’s all i wanted to say.

    1. profile avatar
      Kristin Rooke, CPT Nov 01, 2016 - 19:22 #

      If you’re referring to pectus excavatum, then you’re correct – this is a skeletal deformity that you can’t prevent or fix. However, you can prevent rib flaring, which is a break in your core stability indicated by an overarching of the low back and elevation of the rib cage during exercise. This can be corrected with core stability exercises.
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  5. profile avatar
    Gabriel Ortiz Dec 19, 2016 - 13:47 #

    There seems to be a lot of information about rib flare that tends to confuse people. Some say it can be fixed, while others say it can’t. I say, it depends on what your problem is. For example, my left side rib cage has 1 rib that’s flaring out. This was not from birth, it actually came from an MMA training accident involving my right side rib cage. For some reason, my left rib ended up poking out, instead of my right. I believe it’s because of the angle of the impact. Either way, I know it can go back into place, fixing my rib flare. The problem is finding out how. I’m taking in a bunch of different information & seeing what works. So far the stretches seem to help but have not fixed.

    1. profile avatar
      Kenneth Leung, DPT Dec 20, 2016 - 13:09 #

      Rib flare is relevant to spine position for people with normal average joints. If you an injury that led to the rib flaring out from an injury to the rib itself or to the costovertebral joint or costotransverse joint (rib joints) then most likely that particular rib position will not be a good indicator for your spine position. It sounds like your misaligned rib is not impacting you functionally (no issues with breathing, flaring out should not lead to organ impact, no mention of trunk musculature weakness, etc). If you find that your rib can be put back into place with manual therapy, find a PT or a chiropractor who can perform a rib mobilization which may help.

  6. profile avatar
    Gabriel Ortiz Dec 20, 2016 - 13:42 #

    Thanks for the response Kenneth. That’s exactly my case. I am looking for a chiropractor who takes hmo at the moment. I’m also open to doing the fixing on my own regardless of pain. If anyone out there knows of any good techniques, kindly share 🙂

    1. profile avatar
      Kenneth Leung, DPT Dec 20, 2016 - 13:56 #

      Try looking for a PT as well that is familiar with rib techniques. They are much more likely to know them if they’ve been through an orthopedic residency or have their Orthopedic Certified Specialist (OCS). Good luck!

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