What’s Your Ribs Got To Do With It?

Do I have anyone singing ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?‘ by Tina Turner?



I’m dating myself aren’t I?

Either way check out the fabulous ’80s music video.

Now onto more serious matters…..

from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrasternal_angle

Today, I’d like to talk about your ribcage–most specifically your Infrasternal Angle, (ISA). This is the angle that your lower ribs create as they attach to the sternum and measured from just below the xiphoid process. The size of your infrasternal angle is influenced by your breathing. And, as you know, how you breathe is tied to your diaphragm function (or dysfunction).

You may be thinking what do my ribcage and my ISA have to do with my circus or fitness training? Well, everything.

First, since the ISA is directly affected by how your diaphragm is moving during breathing and breathing is needed for life and you have to breathe while you are training, so it’s important in that way.

Also your diaphragm is the top of your core, I’ve discussed this before (herehereherehere) and so if your infrasternal angle is not optimal (usually too wide, but it can also be too narrow), then means your diaphragm ends up not working at its best (since your diaphragm is basically attached to your bottom ribs). Sadly, diaphragm dysfunction also means core dysfunction.

So, for you circus artist-athlete folks, your ISA affects your core engagement and your hollow body (the rib cage portion of the hollow).

A normal ISA is 90º. If yours is wider or narrower than 90º, then your diaphragm is no longer in an optimal position for breathing. And, depending on whether your ISA is greater than or less than 90º, certain abdominal muscles will have been put into a position where they can’t be accessed very well or they may become hyperactive.

Suboptimal ISA Angles

When the ISA is wider than 90º–about 100º-110º or greater–the diaphragm is more flattened because the ribs cage is wider at its base. With this wider base of the ribs, all the abdominal muscles–your transverse abs (TS), internal and external obliques and your rectus abs–are lengthened (AKA stretched) because their attachment points on the base of the rib cage are farther apart. This lengthening in the abdominals makes them less effective at generating a contraction and generally means that the TA and the internal obliques are less able to contract and support the spine.

When the ISA is narrower than 90 degrees, this puts the diaphragm into a position where it can no longer move through its normal range of motion (ROM) during the breath cycle. You might think that a narrow ISA might be good for closing the ribs into depression for fitness and circus exercises, but this is a case where more isn’t really better. In a narrow ISA, the external obliques end up hypertonic (AKA hyperactive)  and have pulled the ribs too close together.

There is a third presentation that people can have for an ISA and it’s wide on the right and narrow on the left. This is mostly due to the nature of the human body being asymmetrical–your heart is on the left and your liver is on the right. But all presentations: wide, narrow and asymmetrical are due to dysfunctional breathing.

If you are curious what your ISA angle is feel free to take a look in the mirror: place your thumbs below your ribs and eyeball lines back up to just above your xiphoid process. This will, of course, be a  big guesstimate, unless you happen to have a goniometer. I would recommend finding a knowledgable professional to assess your breathing and your ISA.

Now What

Because going into exercises for each ISA presentation is a bit beyond the scope of this post, I want to talk about what I see most often with my students and my clients: an ISA wider than 90º.

Since learning about breathing mechanics and dysfunction a few years ago and having incorporated a visual assessment of my students and most specifically of my private training clients, I almost always see people have a wide ISA and breathing dysfunction. This is not to say that yours will be wide, but to say what my experience has been so far.

I highly recommend looking for someone in your area and working with someone who is either PRI trained or has some other breathing assessment training. I have also worked with some really great PRI practitioners, I know a few really good ones locally, Meaghan Harwood at BSM and Michael Mullin in Maine.

Breathing is the basis of so much and when it’s dysfunctional–and for many of us it is–it throws so many things out of whack: muscle tension, posture, shoulder mobility, sleeping, immune system.. even the shape of your face–looking at your mouth breathers.

With that being said, I will provide some corrective exercise info for a wide ISA and if when you looked in the mirror, it looked like you could park a small car inside your ribcage, then most likely this is for you.

The Exercise

A wide ISA needs to find abdominal tension to draw in and close the angle. This is done by using the external obliques via a forceful exhalation. This activation of the external obliques draws the base of the ribcage back in, helping to shift the wide ISA back towards 90º and helping the flattened diaphragm back into its normal dome-like position for optimal breathing function.

Here is a breathing exercise you can do to assist with activating your external obliques.

This activation of your external obliques is not a ‘sucking in‘ of your belly: it’s a depression at the ribcage. This can take some time to find.

Remember to purse your lips as if blowing out through a straw. A cue that is helpful for people is think of blowing out all of your birthday candles and your cake is on the ceiling. Since none of us are five years old, we need to make this a long and strong exhale to ensure we blow out all the candles.

Once you feel confident with the external oblique activation on the exhale, perform this breathing exercise with your arms raised over your head. Raising the arms overhead usually lifts the ribs and stretches our abdominals a bit. Working from this position creates the necessity to contract the external obliques more and helps them shift the ribs towards 90º.

This is an exercise that you will need to practice daily to really make a change because change will take time. This exercise isn’t however, a forever corrective exercise. With continued practice your diaphragm should reposition itself to optimal placement (see photo) for optimal breathing function. But when? That really is something that is best assessed by a professional. Again, I can’t stress this enough.

Because breathing effects so many aspects of our bodies and our ability to train effectively, and because so many of us have breathing dysfunctions, it is why I have breathing exercises programmed into every single one of my clients’ programs.

If you have questions about any of the content or want some guidance on who might be a good person to work with in your area, please feel free to reach out.

Happy Training, Theresa