Did you know that if your ribcage swings forward when you raise your arms over your head, that it may indicate tightness and potential weaknesses in your shoulder? And, that that same movement pattern could indicate lack of strength in the abdominals?
In the Pilates world, we love the word “neutral.” Neutral is like the ideal zero point from which we should start our efficient movement. So, when training our clients to achieve their best form, we educate them on the concepts of a neutral spine and neutral pelvis. I’ve noticed in the growth of mind-body exercise, these concepts are more commonly used beyond Pilates now, so you might be familiar. The term can really be applied to any number of joint positions in the body. The ribcage is a major element in the torso that attaches to the spine, and it too, has an ideal neutral placement.
Using the Fundamental exercise called Ribcage Arms helps us to assess posture and habitual patterns. Practicing the Ribcage Arms exercise while holding a pole in your hands, with weights or other props helps to heighten awareness and build strength and flexibility in the shoulder girdle. As a Pilates fundamental, we use the Ribcage Arms exercise to teach how to dynamically stabilize the ribcage by virtue of the abdominals and the breath exhalation. The intention is also to explore and/or increase the range of motion of the shoulder joints.
Why is it important to have good ribcage alignment? And why is it important during arm movement?
We pretty much take for granted that our ribs are down there beneath our head in the right spot. Proper ribcage alignment helps with the important act of Breathing, and protecting our vital organs. You know that the ribs move in expansion and contraction during inhalation and exhalation. And, because they attach to the 12 thoracic vertebrae, they ideally have great mobility to move along well with the spine in side-bending and rotation. Furthermore, the back of the ribcage is the site of a “false” joint for the shoulder, where the scapula should glide on the surface.
We also want the ribcage to act in stability. When the leg moves inside the hip socket (think: bending your knee toward your chest to bring your legs into the table top position for ab curls), we look for core support to keep the pelvis and lower back stable. If the pelvis isn’t stable, you’ll feel the lumbar spine arch when you lift your leg.
Similarly, when the arms reach over your head, we’re looking for the ribcage to have that same kind of support for your arm lever. If it’s not there, the ribs “pop,” creating a mid-back arch. In effect, the same problem as the lower back arch example, and equally indicates weakness in the core, as well as muscle restrictions in the shoulder girdle. The spine is going into extension and is not well-positioned for strength, having veered out of neutral.
How can you tell if your ribcage is not in “neutral”?
In an ideal standing posture, viewed from the side, your ear, shoulder, hips, knees and ankles fall in a straight line. “Rib posture” should pretty much fall within these lines as well. Let’s take a look.
Ribcage Arms Fundamental
Lie supine, knees bent, with your arms straight and by your sides on the mat. Inhale and activate the deep core as you bring your arms straight in front of you, 90 degrees from the mat with the palms faced in.
Exhale as you reach your arms over your head.
Ideally, as you reach your arms, you’ll maintain core connection to draw the ribs together in the front and the whole ribcage remains steadily lengthened along the mat like a base.
However, if there is tightness in the chest and shoulder muscles, it’s easy for the arms to take the spine out of alignment. If you feel your mid-back come off the mat, as you reach your arms overhead, it’s likely that the ribcage is “popping” forward. This is an example of overdoing the reach.
Instead of a long steady base, the mid-back is shortening up, and shaped more like a banana. Now you wouldn’t want a banana for a foundation would you?
The ribcage has many fascial connections and can get bound up or stuck. Habitual movement patterns, shoulder restrictions from hunched posture or general tightness can be the culprits for causing this instability to occur. You can see that when the arm arrives at its point of limitation, in order to increase the reach, the body uses a strategy to recruit the spine like this example shows. Note that these examples are from a position lying down.
Imagine it now from a standing position, and if you were lifting a heavy weight. If you did that repeatedly, with enough time, your body will eventually give you a message…ouch!
That’s why we incorporate the Ribcage Arms exercise as a fundamental in Pilates. We use it to enlighten proper arm and scapular positioning, and bring awareness to a suitable working range that is healthy and safe for the shoulder girdle. Underlying this with core support fine-tunes it even further.
Ironic, in a way, that it’s called a ‘cage’ – since it has an integral role in creating freedom of movement!
See you in the studio!