Barrel Chest or Compact Ribcage? Does it Affect Your Breathing?

Sep 26, 2022

For this blog, I wanted to write about the importance of lateral breath in your rib cage. We’ve done a lot of blogs on breathing, but today I want you to check your rib cage and see if you have a barrel chest or a compact ribcage. You have to know that having either affects your breathing.

So a lot of times when male patients or my patients who have just come off a postpartum have this barrel chest kind of posture. At rest state, their ribcage is wide, and maybe their ribs are flared out like they're sticking out in the front and they're kind of expanded at all times.

You definitely see that in women after postpartum. There is not a lot of room for a baby to grow, so our ribs get kind of displaced in a way, and that widens our rib cage, and we're not able to fully bring the rib cage back in on the exhale because there's simply no room.

So, we have to retrain the brain and body to get that full range of motion again. I feel like a lot of times in the breathing blogs I've done, I've talked about getting that full expansion, that full widening so that your diaphragm is engaging and pushing down on the end of the exhale, so we are getting really wide. But then you also don't want to be just hanging out in that fully expanded wide position. You want to be able to fully come back in and come all the way narrow again and compress.

Just like with any other joint in the body, I feel like people want to know what's the best position. Should I have a ton of external rotation of my hip joint or my shoulder or whatever joint they're talking about, and you don't want to be stuck in one position in any joint or any movement. You want to be able to have full range of movement of all of your joints and your systems. It’s all about symmetry rather than stretching past your normal symmetrical way in one area.


Intercostal Expansion Breathing

So, I just posted a YouTube video on intercostal expansion breathing, and this is a nice exercise to do for both being too narrow all the time or that barrel-chested appearance where you are expanded all the time. It facilitates more of an over breathing, over inhalation kind of style of breath. So the focus is just a little bit different when we're doing the exercise.

We do it sideline, and your one side of your rib cage is obviously on the ground, your other side of your rib cage, you've got one hand on your upper side of the ribs. Now, if you're barrel-chested, you're already expanded. You're already popped out, essentially. So you're going to inhale through the nose. You feel it expand maybe a little bit more. And then, on the exhale, we're going to be bringing that rib cage in.

Sometimes, you need a little assistance from that top hand that's on the rib cage, bringing the ribs down and feeling them close together. And that activation happens of fully exhaling and getting the air out of the lungs properly.


The Proper Breathing For The Newly Postpartum Or Those Who Are Barrel-Chested

Now with that being said, if you're having pelvic floor issues, this is the tricky part for the newly postpartum. We don't want to start our exhale with initiating it with the ribs coming together. Because if you think of your torso as a tube of toothpaste, we don't want to start our squeeze so that the toothpaste is shooting out our pelvic floor. We want to shoot our toothpaste or squish it up towards our diaphragm. So if you start that exhale by initiating the narrowing of their ribcage, the pressure goes down.

So instead, it's very subtle, and it's not how you're probably used to breathing, but you want to feel a subtle lift of the pelvic floor, and then the lower abdomen is going to feel that exhalation build, then the middle of the abdomen, and then the ribs come together. So you're squeezing that toothpaste up, and it's constricting up towards the ribs. Ribs are lasting to narrow, but we want to get that draw out that exhale, get that exhale all the way out, and encourage the ribcage to narrow.

So again, if you have that barrel-chested appearance, whether it be from certain style of lifting if you're a guy or if you're newly postpartum and you just didn't have any room left in for baby, you want to inhale, get that expansion of the diaphragm, maybe inhale, widen it a little bit more, but on the exhale, lift subtly, lift the pelvic floor, and then squeeze your toothpaste by like engaging your abs slightly.

The ribs are the last thing to come out, and you feel them narrow at the end there, getting that full compaction of the ribcage.


The Proper Breathing For Those Who Have Compact Ribcages

Now on the flip side, if you wear really those, I don't know what I think they're like spanks, but shirts, spank shirts, where it's tight on your ribcage all the time, or society makes us think that we have to hold in our belly all the time or keep everything held in all the time. So our rib cage is chronically tied down and clamped down on because we think we need to have this appearance of the small waist. So our ribs are chronically narrowed so that could come from the restricted binding garments. It could come from you just holding it very tight. It could also come from wearing those very tight leggings or spanks where it's cutting you in the middle.

It’s not allowing that full expansion of the rib cage. So when you're doing the intercostal expansion breathing, your goal here is you're already narrowed. What you really want to focus on for that part of the breathing is on the inhale. You're going to think widening the rib cage, and as you're inhaling and you're feeling the rib cage expand, you're going to feel it pressing up into the hand. That's on the top side of the ribs and down towards the floor.

If you have a small torso, you can always fold up a towel and put it on that side or if you have a coregeous ball, we use those all the time in the office, it's a squishy air-filled Pilates ball. You can make it super flat like a quarter or a third of the way full, and put it on the underside of the rib cage, so you can feel that lateral expansion. So for that on the top of the inhale, I like to hold. You’ve inhaled all the breaths you can get in, and you hold it there, and you try to widen the ribcage even a little more so that you're working those intercostal muscles between the ribs to really stretch it open because you're not used to it. You are coming from a place of chronically locking down your ribs and holding on tight.


Not Being Stuck In Being Barrel-Chested Or Having A Compact Ribcage

So some people for the vanity reasons lock down their ribs and keep that really narrow. And some people will pop their ribs way out and expand it and try to suck in their stomach. So they're both to appear smaller. One is locking down and holding the tummy tights, and that closes up their ribcage, and the other is kind of like hollowing out their belly, so they present different problems. Both have the same goal and you can do this one exercise. You're just focusing on it a little bit different because full expansion of your ribcage is great, but we do not want to be stuck in one of the two camps.

There is not a superior camp. The superior camp is being able to fully expand and fully contract the ribcage under your own will. So having that body awareness and body control of it, and you're probably going to find that maybe one side is harder to do than the other one side is going to be able to feel like I can either fully expand or contract better than the other side and pay attention to that. Pay attention to what you're doing throughout the day. Are you carrying kids on one side? Are you crossing your legs one way the whole time? Are you sitting funky in your driver's seat? Sometimes I notice I'll like lean onto my car door, and it shortens up my obliques on my right side, stretches out my obliques on my left side, and it creates asymmetry, and it gives you problems.

Try to be aware of that kind of things that you might do habitually throughout your day that will give you that asymmetry that could then lead into a problem further down the road.


One Way To Know If You Have A Rib Flare Or Narrowing Of The Rib Cage

Another good way to know if you are having rib flare or the narrowing of the rib cage would be if you took a marker and drew the border of your ribs in the front. So from the edges up to the sternum, up to the breast bone, it should be about 90 degrees. So if it's wider than 90 degrees, you're leaning towards more barrel tested. And if you are less than 90 degrees, you are probably locking down in some of your obliques.


Asymmetry Of The Rib Cage

The other thing to notice is if you have one side of your rib cage flared and not the other, so that's going to tell us there's some asymmetry there. And we do have a YouTube video about with these pendulums that I give people when they have asymmetries of their ribs like that. Because again, symmetry is kind of what we're striving for throughout the body just to keep everything super healthy. So, picking out those things is helpful when you're going through that stuff.



So just a more in-depth way to look at that YouTube exercise I put out there last week on the intercostal breathing. It's good for both parties, whether you are stuck out or stuck outwards or restricted inwards, and both ways are going to help you to get better activation of the diaphragm. And we know that activating the diaphragm is super important for stabilizing our spine.

One of the keystones of our core and using our core engagement and also pumping our lymph system, keeping that pool filter going of our lymph system and helping it decrease inflammation and also stimulating the Vagus nerves and getting them to help relax your nervous system a little bit.

So if you have any questions on that breathing mentality, I would be happy to answer them. And I hope that gives you a little more insight in why you would want to do that intercostal expansion. You could always look at some of our release work to do before it because warming up the ribcage, especially if you're pretty stiff and do a lot of sitting or computer work. We tend to get very rigid in our ribcage, and it's nice to kind of warm it up before you expect it to be able to fully expand and contract.

If you have any questions, you can drop it in the comment section or you can send me a message through Facebook or Instagram. I’d be happy to do another blog about your questions. Also, if you want me to talk about something specific, let me know!

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