It’s one of the latest buzzwords, it reinforces an imbalance throughout the entire spine, and correcting it is a critical piece of the puzzle in the quest for pain reduction and a posturally strong position. So what is rib flare? Basically, it means that the front of the rib cage pokes upwards (below, see the image on the left).
I think of the spine like a few pieces of curling ribbon, or a series of snap-back bracelets. Neither of those can produce their circular, round movements from only one end. It’s the same thing with our spinal columns. Pity the poor t-spine (i.e. the mid back), stuck in between the two curlicues (lumbar and cervical curves). As I see it, that’s why it takes such a hit and gets so stuck — and a stuck t-spine means that a rib encircling it that can’t move properly, thus inhibiting the ability to breathe well.
Similarly, Gray Cook, in his seminal book Movement, put forth the idea of “paranoid” movement systems, which affect mobility, and “clueless” ones, which affect stability. The thoracic spine, according to Cook and Mike Boyle’s joint-by-joint approach, seeks mobility. This means its dysfunction will tend toward “paranoia.” Again, I think of the ribbon, going, “which way do I turn? Eek!” And just staying put to be on the safe side.
The Big Fix
Learning to use the diaphragm better is crucial. It not only helps reduce rib flare, it usually produces a major positive impact both up and downstream of the t-spine.
In fact, the connection between breathing and performance is huge. For a targeted overview, I would highly recommend reading Brett Jones’ masterful article at least once.
Diaphragm breathing is most easily practised either face down, with a completely neutral spine and neck in particule (the FMS “crocodile breathing”), or face up with shins supported in what’s called the 90/90 position. (See below for pictures, and note the weightlifting belt as per the practical cue below.)
When there is movement dysfunction or pain, often we need to pay attention not only to filling out the back portion of the lungs as well as the front, but toward aiming to fill out each side of the lungs equally.
The Air Goes In, The Air Goes Out
Ideally, we like to think of breathing as air coming in when the diaphragm contracts as we inhale, thereby creating space for the air to rush in. It’s similar to how a blacksmith’s bellows work.
For athletes such as boxers, a forced exhale using the abdominals instead creates that same space but keeps the core on effectively.
In practice, though, we live in a world of continual stress, and many people get stuck in a fight-or-flight pattern. This keeps certain muscles that are normally considered to be accessory muscles permanently “on.” We often see that the pec minor, for example, and certain neck muscles are extremely tight in upper chest breathers.
To control rib flare specifically, there must be a concurrent emphasis on the abdominal muscles maintaining neutral spine. It’s tricky, because we’re used to hearing “chest up” to avoid overly rounding the mid back. To that cue, we should add, “ribs down,” and that will round out the picture and keep the front and back lines more balanced, helping reduce the risk of low back hyperextension.
One image that may help is of bringing the sternum and pelvis toward each other, as if the spine were flexing, but without actually moving the spine.
A more metaphorical image is that of a trash compactor, which squishes the material inside to become more denser but which also keeps the top and and bottom ends at equal distances from each other.
A Practical Cue
Working with Shawn Adair, owner of The Bar gym, has helped me realized that my neutral spine wasn’t actually quite as neutral as I had previously thought. My flexion-intolerant spine was going into more hyperextension (lordosis) than I was aware of. While I’m still not (yet?) ready to wear a belt for actually lifting, he’s given me a practical cue to use one for my breathing practice. That way, I can make sure my diaphragmatic breathing is truly 360 degrees. That means that my abdominal brace is also 360 degrees, instead of relying so heavily on the erector spinae muscles. It’s extremely useful!
When I’m able to achieve a full 360-degree diaphragm breath, along with full hip extension, dropping the front rib, a cue I had learned years ago from a postural exchange with a physiotherapist, is almost effortless to get to.
Top Down vs Bottom Up: Does it Even Matter?
A top-down problem can occur when breathing problems freeze up the upper portion of the spine, with low back problems coming along as part of the unhappy result.
My experience over the years, though, is that 95% of the time, if people’s hips aren’t in place, the shoulders can’t get in place properly either. Extrapolating from that, I reason that the hips/pelvis must usually be set first for the thoracic spine (mid back) and therefore ribs to come into place properly.
What Really Does Matter
We could spend a lot of time discussing cause vs. effect, chicken vs. egg, but really, it’s all “potay-to, potah-to.” In the end, upper chest breathing and a stuck t-spine are inextricably linked. What holds true, in my experience, is that any techniques to open the thoracic area — or to advance athletically in any way, shape or form, for that matter — will never actually stick if breathing patterns aren’t improved.
The Anti Rib Flare Final Checklist
And so, to position the mid spine better, for low-load, daily postural stabilization:
- Set the diaphragm breath,
- Set hips in place,
- And then it’s infinitely easier to gain length up the back of the spine
For high-load work such a heavy deadlift or squat:
- Do your preparatory dynamic mobility work, focusing first on the hips
- Set the diaphragm breath
- “Compact” the torso without moving the spine
- Set your hip hinge, and lift away!