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Chest Up, Ribs Down

Todays guest post comes from a good friend of mine who is a great Strength & Conditioning coach and on his way to becoming a great physical therapist.  We first met interning for UMass Lowell Sports Performance and continue to run into each other. Enjoy!
A Rib Flare

Having the rib cage in extension, or flared up is disadvantageous for numerous reasons. It is likely to cause excessive extension of the lumbar spine. It masks true shoulder flexion by compensating to achieve the full range of motion. The two diaphragms are not aligned, and therefore inter-abdominal pressure cannot be created as well as it could. It also puts the rectus abdominis and core musculature in a stretched state. Whether a client has an anterior pelvic tilt, back pain, tight hip flexors, a stiff t-spine or other similar issues from compensatory movements I believe it is important, and often overlooked to focus on the rib positioning first before implementing several corrective exercises.

The Problem with Cueing

While walking through most strength and conditioning facilities or gyms you’re bound to hear the cues “ribs down” and “chest up”. The issue is both of these cues cannot be used for the same exercise. Asking someone to put their ribs down and then their chest up will result in them looking very uncomfortable. Try it.

Why do we say ribs down? Many coaches are very cognizant about the rib flare and do not want their clients ribs to flare in any movement pattern. Coaches, trainers, and therapists today are becoming more and more aware of how important breathing is throughout movement as well. Whether we are incorporating diaphragmatic breathing, teaching our clients about tension and breathing or learning about PRI, we all know a rib flare signifies dysfunction. With the ribcage in extension, it is very difficult to contract the core muscles. If you stand up and exaggerate a rib flare and then try to contract your core muscles, or “get tight as if someone is going to punch you in the stomach” your rib flare will immediately disappear. Your core will now be truly braced by contracting the abdominals, the diaphragms are aligned to now incorporate proper breathing and generate inter-abdominal pressure and most importantly the spine (lumbar in particular) is in a neutral position. A rib flare and extension of the spine are the same position. One cannot be done without the other.

Rib Positioning Through a Squat and Hinge

Many coaches focus on the rib positioning when the client is standing or kneeling. For example, attention is focused here while watching people overhead press especially. When clients are hinging or squatting, suddenly the focus goes directly to how the spine looks and not the ribs. The back becomes the focus because we want our clients to protect themselves from injury. Looking at the back and making sure the spine’s not in flexion and has a “small lorodic curve” is simply not enough. Just because a client’s back looks flat, does not mean that their core can fire and brace properly to pick up a heavy load. The client can be in a good-looking hinge position, the back can be flat and the ribs can be flared. Now their spine will not have the assistance and protection from the core as they complete the deadlift. The focus should be put on having the client drive their ribs down as they exhale, that will automatically take care of putting the spine into proper alignment and then they can create tension AND contract their core to throughout the movement.

Continuing with the hip hinge and deadlift idea, what if the client still has slumped shoulders? I believe we cue our clients to have a big chest with the intention for them to retract their shoulders, the gleno- humeral joint, to take them out of that forward slumped posture. Chest up, and retracting the gleno-humeral joint are very different things. When we retract our gleno- humeral joints, we are able to keep our ribs down and fire our core all at the same time. If we instead cue “shoulders back” or “squeeze your shoulder blades” the clients traps and rhomboids will fire as they jam their scapulas together hard enough to come into spinal extension again.
Everyone knows the lats need to fire and create tension through a deadlift but I believe, and have witnessed that this has been somewhat forgotten because we are all trying to avoid flexion. The shoulder blades do not need to be squeezed together throughout a deadlift. Teaching the client to fire their lats correctly by squeezing their armpits, drawing their shoulders down, bending/breaking the bar to create tension through the lats, or squeezing their arms against the side of their body will take the client far. Firing the lats correctly will enable the client to keep their ribs down, core firing, shoulder joints retracted, take tension away from the traps, prevent spinal extension and let the scapulas sit and stabilize in their natural position through the movement. A great way to introduce a client their latissimus dorsi is to have them perform a cable row, then cue them to draw their elbow toward their hip as they row. Teach the client how to breathe, how to activate their lats properly, how to eliminate their rib flare and truly contract their core through a hip hinge and squat.

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