Rib Cage Placement: Find Muscles You Didn’t Know You Had!

neutral rib cage in a supine positionIt’s possible that you didn’t think a lot about rib cage placement before today. I know that I didn’t before I started studying Pilates. In my studies of STOTT Pilates, I learned that there are Five Basic Principles that are very important to everything you do. They are:  breathing, pelvic placement, rib cage placement, scapula placement, and head placement. We have already covered breathing and pelvic placement. In the article on pelvic placement, we used the exercise Imprint to differentiate between a neutral and tilted pelvis.

If you missed those articles or have forgotten what they said, please go back and refresh your memory. The Five Basic Principles serve as a foundation upon which all of our Pilates moves will be based. (It’s worth noting that, for those of you who are reading the Pilates and yoga posts, yoga has its own guidelines for alignment which are most often addressed on an individual basis.) In a Pilates warm up, you should find neutral positioning and move from there.

Why is rib cage placement important?

rib cage poppingImagine your torso is a cylinder. Your rib cage is obviously pretty sturdy and so is your pelvis, but what about that whole center section? As far as bony structure in between the ribs and pelvis, all you have is your spine. That leaves the window open for your body to create a dumping scenario, like it is dumping your organs out of your body cavity. The rib cage flares open, the lumbar spine curves, and the pelvis tilts, allowing your whole belly to fall forward. To the left is a picture of what this would look like if you were on your back with your rib cage opening.

This sounds pretty horrible, but it’s really common. It’s also a frequent cause of low back pain. So, what can you do to align your ribs and pelvis to make a more stable cylinder?

Let’s consider that all four of your abdominals run between your ribs and your pelvis. In order of deepest to most superficial, your abdominals are the:  transversus, internal oblique, external oblique, and rectus abdominis. (Check back tomorrow for a whole article on your abs!) That means that when the abdominals are engaged and doing their job, they will naturally hold your rib cage and pelvis in neutral. If they do not hold you in neutral, they are experiencing some disfunction and can be trained to be corrected. One way you would correct a splaying rib cage (rib cage that opens forward) is with arm reaches.

How to do Arm Reaches

  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent, your heels in line with your SITs bones.
  2. As alignment is crucial, let’s take a moment to check where we are. We have already covered how to check for a neutral pelvis. To check if your rib cage is opened, place your hands along your bottom ribs. Your thumb and pinkie finger should be in the same plane if your hands are flat. If you find that your rib cage is opened to the front, gently engage the abdominal muscles to bring the ribs down. This should not be particularly taxing (take it easy, Type A folks!), but it might feel like a challenge because you are becoming aware of your abdominals in this area for the first time.
  3. Reach your arms straight up to the ceiling with your palms facing each other, shoulder blades touching the floor. Lengthen the back of the neck to make sure the chin is not lifted up higher than the forehead.
  4. rib cage neutral with arms reachingArm reaches:  Both arms hinge at the shoulders to reach toward your head and then come back to starting position. How far your arms go depends upon your ability to engage your abdominals to hold your rib cage in place. Do not let your arms go too far and pop open your ribs! Play around with where you inhale and where you exhale. It will feel different when you switch your breathing.
  5. Always be mindful of what you are doing! Think about what muscles are supposed to be working, and always keep tabs on where your rib cage is placed.

How to do Arm Scissors and Arm Circles 

  1. Arm scissors:  Begin in our step 3 starting position. One arm hinges up toward your head, while the other arm lowers by your side. Both arms return to center. Switch sides. At no point in time should your arms rest on the floor.
  2. Arm circles:  Begin in our step 3 starting position. Hinge both arms as if you are doing arm reaches. As you get to your deepest point, rotate from your shoulders to open your palms to the ceiling. (Did you guys see that I put that in bold? Yeah, it’s that important.) Bring your arms with the palms facing the ceiling by your sides. Rotate your palms to face your thighs and bring your arms back to starting position. At no point in time should your arms be sliding on the ground. Once you have done a few this direction, switch directions.
  3. Always be mindful of what you are doing! Think about what muscles are supposed to be working, and always keep tabs on where your rib cage is placed.

Here is a video to show you more.

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How about those muscles along the bottom of your rib cage? Did you even know they were there before today? Let me know in the comments below!

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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