We all know that we have ribs, but do we understand how important they are and what they actually do? The ribs are an integral part of our core. They assist with breathing, protect our internal organs, and aide in posture.
I have to confess, the ribs eluded me for years.
After having my kiddos, I always had “some” core strength but I felt like it petered out too fast when challenged—even after I had gotten my pelvic floor stronger, pelvis more aligned and core firing. This was a tough thing to face with loving Pilates. That changed when I became more aware of how my ribs move and their role within the core.
The missing piece was the alignment of the ribs. My ribs had a little outward flare, they were probably pushed out a little during pregnancy. With all the complications I had postpartum, they were never encouraged to knit back together. This outward flare prevented my diaphragm and pelvic floor from working together, so my core fatigued easily. This outward flare is not uncommon. Its causes can include pregnancy, working on computers, and driving.
This one malalignment was enough to prevent my core from working optimally.
The good news is that it is fixable. YAY! When correctly aligned, we can expand our ribs further to get fuller, deeper breaths. With a little focus on the area we can get the ribs moving and in alignment. Personally, I have to frequently check into my ribs. With a little attention I am able to keep myself aligned, breathe deeper, and have a better core connection.
The Rib/Core Connection
When we talk about the core, we always think about the abdominal muscles, the spine, the back, and the pelvis; but we rarely consider the ribs. The ribs protect the heart and lungs, give structure to our body, and house the diaphragm—the top of our core.
I like to think of the core as a can. For a can to function correctly it needs a top, bottom, and sides. Our internal can is made up of the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, back muscles, and pelvic floor. When properly aligned, the pelvic floor and diaphragm work in sync to aide with inhalation and exhalation. For this to happen, the ribs and pelvis must line up in parallel.
Sedentary lifestyles can lead to ribs getting stuck out of alignment, affecting this breathing partnership. Sitting with our arms forward and a rounded upper back throughout the day (the way most of us do!) further encourages this.
Misalignment of the diaphragm and pelvic floor can impair the ability to have a deep inhalation/exhalation, increase intraabdominal pressure, strain the pelvic floor, weaken core stability and increase complaints of back pain. How our ribs are aligned with our core can perpetuate or remediate all of these issues.
How to Connect & Align the Ribs
Our ribs should move every time we breathe. Let's check in and see how your ribs are moving.
Stand in front of a mirror.
Take a deep breath - where did it go? Did your stomach expand or chest rise? The goal is that the ribs and stomach expand with minimal involvement of the chest.
Place the heels of your hands on the crest of your rib cage.
Take a deep inhale into your stomach and focus on your ribs expanding into your hands.
Exhale, feeling your lower core tighten and your ribs pull inwards diagonally. I like to imagine the ribs are crisscrossing over my core and connecting to the opposite hips.
Be mindful of your pelvis: it should not be tucking during this breath. Try to keep your pelvis in neutral. (Pelvis tucking is our body’s way of cheating!)
Now that you understand how they are supposed to move, let’s get the ribs expanding to find flow with breath.
Once you get the ribs firing, a lot of things start to happen. You will begin to feel a deeper lower core connection, have better pelvic stability during lower leg exercises, and find the best connection to perform any arm exercise.
Improved rib alignment and involvement with breathing can have larger positive effects. Besides feeling a deeper abdominal connection, the core will have a longer/leaner appearance, increased low back support, improved balance, and increased lung capacity to name a few.