Neutral spine is a common term in the fitness community, with everyone paying attention to anterior or posterior pelvic tilts. This is important. But one area that might be overlooked is ribcage position. If your ribs tilt up, based on what I learned from PRI, your zone of apposition changes and your breathing mechanics change. If your breathing mechanics change, you can set yourself up for: sympathetic nervous system dominance (“flight-or-fight”), diaphragm bracing for weak abdominals/obliques, mid-to-low back pain, difficulty exhaling, and difficulty bracing your middle. I alluded to this a bit in my 3 Fixes for the Hip Hinge post when I said, “Notice how her ribs flare up in photo “B”, as well. Kinda hard to get an ab workout when you force one of its attachments way up like that.”
Check out the psoas’ connection with the diaphragm. You think your rib position and breathing aren’t going to affect your low back? Could your tight hip flexors have an underlying issue with how you breath and your rib position? Could the relationship between your diaphragm and pelvic floor be influencing incontinence?
Like all movement patterns, we need to demonstrate that we can move through certain ranges-of-motion, but that doesn’t mean we need to live in those positions. Just like internal rotation at the hips, external rotation at the ribs are no exception. This can be a tough habit to break, especially someone with a strong weightlifting background. Weightlifters (including myself) tend to live in thoracic extension during their workouts to keep their chest up and back flat during many of the movements they perform regularly. Gray Cook touches on this, too.
I’ve taken some of the tools PRI has taught me to help some of the clients draw their ribs down, but this has also helped them understand what “bracing their core” means. Just as an aside, I hate the word “core”. Core work is deadlifts, squats, and press, not playing on a Swiss ball or spending a half-an-hour doing 10 different planks. I usually call it your middle or your trunk, which is a different trunk than the one that holds all the beautiful junk (I’m an ass man, myself). The tool I’m talking about is a straw (a balloon works, too). Yep, something you can buy hundreds of for a couple bucks. I use the straw to practice forceful exhaling so that clients can develop two things: 1) show them what it’s like to brace, and 2) practice their exhale because of how short it can be compared to their inhale. Without a forceful exhale (or straw), try breathing in through your nose for 4 seconds, but exhale out of your mouth for 8 seconds. Harder than you expected, wasn’t it? With that, you can see how a forced exhale might end up being quite short.
Where does the straw come in? It’s a tool to be used to feel your core brace. If your core is braced during your heavy lifts, your trunk will get stronger. I explain the exhale with a visual in this video. Hopefully you can forcefully exhale without the straw, but you want it to be forceful. You can always test it out with a straw to feel the difference:
You don’t need to be 100% engaged for every lift, but it’s a great tool to help clients understand how to brace their core. Since exhaling is unusual for weightlifters because they’re used to inhaling before their lift, here’s a quick video to give you an idea of how to keep your ribs down while inhaling: How to Breath Before a Lift. If you can inhale while maintaining your brace, you’ll keep great stabilization of your middle during multi-joint movements, such as the squat and deadlift. You don’t necessarily need barbell exercises to benefit from core strengthening using a brace, but as the weight goes up on a bar, the stronger you’ll become all around.
Now that you have a grasp on what to do to brace your middle, try this out: forcefully exhale to brace your trunk before using an ab wheel. You’re welcome.