According to the Postural Restoration Institute, good posture isn’t just ‘standing up straight’. It is “a reflection of the ‘position’ of many systems that are regulated, determined and created through limited functional patterns. These patterns reflect our ability and inability to breathe, rotate and rest symmetrically.” (1) Flared ribs is one of the many problems that can affect posture.
Translation: posture is a reflection of what is happening inside and to your body, and has a direct impact on how well you breathe, move, and rest/recover. Bad posture isn’t always caused by poor habits (such as slouching). Posture can also be affected by inadequate or asymmetrical muscle strength, poor flexibility, or staying in one position for too long (desk jobs, anyone?).
What is a Rib Flare?
Flared ribs is one side effect of poor posture. For those unfamiliar with rib flaring, it’s easy to spot. People who have the condition have ribs that stick outward instead of tapering inwards at the bottom of the rib cage. Imagine a permanent “Superman pose” that occurs when you breathe into your chest (2).
For some people there is a genetic component, meaning it is an inherited trait no different than broad shoulders or long legs. Their ribs stick out naturally. For those not born with congenitally flared ribs, the appearance of them indicates a problem with their posture (3).
Your ribs are bones connected to each other like any other in your body. And just as your spine or joints can dislocate or become misaligned, your ribs are no different.
There are a few different causes of rib flaring. One of the most common is the inability to breathe completely through the diaphragm. Imagine taking a deep, deep breath that causes your stomach to stick out just as much as your ribs. If you take a breath and only your chest moves, then you are not engaging your diaphragm.
Over time, this will lead to rib flaring and the unpleasant side effects that come with it. In some cases, flared ribs aren’t symmetrical, leading to an uneven rib cage.
Other causes of rib flares include sitting and/or remaining hunched over for long periods of time, weak core abdominal muscles, pregnancy, anterior pelvic tilt or weakness in the back and shoulder muscles (4).On the other hand, symptoms of rib flare include:
- Lower back pain
- Inability to inhale and exhale
- Difficulty catching your breath during cardiovascular exercise
- Upper back and shoulder pain
- Loss of range of motion
- Rib pain
9 Best Exercises for Flared Ribs
Now for the good news: rib flaring is correctable, to an extent. The exercises below are proven methods to correct rib flaring and help prevent it from happening again. If your flared ribs is the result of your genetics, then there may only be so much correction you can get without surgery. Even so, these exercises can help reduce or even eliminate rib flare – or, at the very least, prevent it from getting worse.
1. Thoracic Mobilization with Band
For these moves, you’ll need a large and strong resistance band.
First, make sure to anchor the band on something sturdy, preferably a door frame. Loop the band around your back at rib cage level and face the anchor. Place feet hip-width apart and get into a squatting position, taking care to keep your spine straight, core muscles flexed, and pelvis aligned under your shoulders and back. Complete the following moves for two sets of 30 seconds each.
- Perform alternating one-armed row movements moving from front-to-back. Make sure to squeeze your shoulder blades and back while completing the motions.
- Adjust your door anchor to place it at the top middle of the doorframe. Hold your arms straight in front of you, parallel to the floor. Grab the band and lower your arms to down to your sides. Bring your arms back to starting position, and repeat.
- Kneel on one knee to increase the resistance in your band. Raise your arms straight above your head and in line with your back. Begin squeezing your lats and lower trapezoid muscles, pulling your elbows down until your arms make the shape of a W.
- Return to starting position and repeat.
2. Foam Roller Thoracic Spine and Rib Mobilization
You’ll need a sturdy foam roller for this movement.
- Place foam roller underneath you at your mid-back. You should bend your knees and make sure your feet are planted flat on the ground. Place your hands behind your head and bring your elbows close together in front of your face.
- Arch your upper back over the foam roller, then come back up as if you’re doing a sit-up.
- Complete this motion 20 times.
3. Sotts Press
The Sotts Press is a popular warm-up movement for Olympic lifters and CrossFit athletes. You’ll need a light weight bar or tube (like a PVC pipe).
- Stand with your feet between hip-width apart.
- Grip the bar with your hands as far apart as comfortable (wider than shoulder-width), arms straight, while holding the bar directly above your head.
- Position yourself into a very low squat. Take care to keep your knees from tracking inwards or too far forward (they should be in line with your ankles), pelvis tucked under your abdomen, chest up, and glute and abdominal muscles engaged.
- Exhale forcefully to make sure your ab muscles are engaged. Bring the bar down to your shoulders, squeezing your shoulder blades down and back. You should feel like your hands are trying to move further apart. Do not stick your chest out or arch your back.
- Press the bar back up. Repeat 20 times. Rest and complete two more sets.
4. Thoracic Side Bend
For this movement, you’ll need a sturdy foam roller. You can find foam rollers at your local gym or purchase one at a sports goods store.
- Roll to your side and place the foam roller along your ribs. Move up and down on the foam roller until you land on a tender or sore spot.
- Raise your upper arm up and over your head for a side-bend motion.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat for a total of 20 reps.
5. Kneeling Cable Pullovers
For this exercise, you’ll need a cable machine with a straight bar or rope attachment.
- Kneel in front of the cable machine (use a mat under your knees for comfort if desired).
- Grasp the bar and lean slightly forward at the hips, keeping your head and neck in a neutral position.
- Keeping your arms straight, pull the bar down from above your head towards your knees. Make sure to keep your back straight and keep your ribs from flaring outwards while performing the movement.
- Perform 3 sets of 10-15 reps with a challenging weight resistance.
- Once you’re comfortable, try them standing up.
6. Supine Pullovers
No special equipment is needed for this movement, but you may want to use a towel at first, then a dumbbell as you become stronger.
- Lay on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your feet off the ground.
- Bring your arms above your head, laying them flat on the ground as if reaching behind you. Keeping your arms straight and hands no further than shoulder-width apart, bring them up until they are perpendicular to the floor. You may wish to grasp a towel between your hands, keeping some tension.
- Bring arms back to the starting position. Complete 3 sets of 15-20.
- Once comfortable, grip a dumbbell or kettlebell for the exercise to increase strength.
7. Bench T-Spine Extension Mobilization
For this exercise, you’ll need a workout bench and a straight bar.
- Kneel 12-24 inches from the bench, depending on your height.
- Place your elbows on the bench in front of you, with your arms perpendicular to your body. Adjust the placement of your knees so that your hips are at a 45-degree angle with elbows on the bench.
- Hold bar or PVC pipe in hands as if you are mid-curl. Your elbows should remain at a 90-degree angle throughout the exercise.
- Keeping your spine straight and core engaged, sit back towards your heels until you feel a stretch in your lats (which cover the back and sides of your ribs).
- Exhale completely from the diaphragm and hold for 3-5 seconds.
- Inhale and return to the starting position. Repeat up to 20 times.
8. Swiss Ball Rollout
Also known as an exercise ball rollout or stability ball rollout. You will need an exercise ball appropriate to your height.
- Kneel in front of the exercise ball with your forearms and fists resting on the ball.
- Keeping your core, glutes, and shoulders engaged, slowly roll the ball forward until your arms are straight and your body is extended as far as possible without falling. Keep your core engaged throughout.
- Using your core, roll your body back to the starting position.
- Complete 3 sets of 8-10 rollouts.
9. Deadbugs with Medicine Ball
You’ll need a medicine ball of challenging weight for this exercise. Use a floor mat as desired for comfort.
- Lay flat on your back with your knees pulled up at a 90-degree angle or straight towards the ceiling. Hold the medicine ball out directly above your body with arms straight.
- Keeping your arms straight and your core engaged, bring the medicine ball above your head towards the floor, while simultaneously extending one leg towards the floor until straightened. Do not rest your leg or foot on the floor.
- After a brief pause, bring the medicine ball and leg back to the starting position. Repeat motion with the other leg. This is one rep.
- Complete 10-20 reps, depending on individual core strength.
Try to complete all of these exercises – or as many as possible depending on your access to equipment and/or safe ingenuity – at least once a week. Over time, you’ll notice your core strength will improve dramatically and your flared ribs will naturally return to their ideal position.
Correcting flared ribs will result in not only better posture and fewer aches and pain but also an increase in lung capacity. In extreme cases, your doctor may suggest surgery to correct rib flares if physical therapy isn’t working.