My manfriend accompanied me on my recent trip to New York City for the YTU Integrated Embodied Anatomy training.
We were both excited – you see, we hail from small town, Canada and we had big plans for our trip to the big city. However, on the plane ride, my partner, who was on the mend from a long bout with a cold, had a coughing fit and tore an intercostal (one of the small muscles between the ribs). This proved to be completely debilitating. Our plans came to a screeching halt. The injury prevented him from laughing, stretching, coughing, breathing deeply, and even lying down to sleep. He described the pain as “like being stabbed in the ribs”. Ouch!
The timing was perfect for exploring the question … Is there something that can be done to strengthen and fortify the intercostals against future injury? I was, after all, in New York to study the practical applications of Anatomy! Could I use my new knowledge for the benefit of another human being?
I put on my thinking cap and got to work. First learning about what the intercostals do.
There are two kinds of intercostals: internal and external. The internal intercostals assist with exhalation by drawing the ribs downward and decreasing the space of the thoracic cavity. The external intercostals draw the ribs upward, increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity.
The intercostals are easy to access but sensitive to touch – but you can find them by sliding a finger into the space between your ribs. Then take several slow, deep breaths and any expansion or collapse in the spaces between the ribs.
It is not uncommon for extended runs of sneezing and coughing (hello allergy season!) to result in torn or strained intercostals. But there are things you can do to make these muscles more supple and strong. Yoga Tune Up® to the rescue!
Try the following YTU exercises for strengthening and stretching these small, but important muscles. If you currently have an intercostal injury, wait until the injury is healed before beginning a strengthening and stretching program – and be sure to move gently and mindfully.
To stretch and strengthen the intercostals:
Tadasana with end of exhalation contraction
Tadasana with end of inhalation contraction
Jathara Parivartanasana with end of exhalation contraction
Read about exercises for core strength.
Read more about your diaphragm.
Learn about Yoga Tune Up at home.
One of my students fractured a rib on a bike. Rehabilitation: Nothing. Expect.
Result: loss of mobility and possible atropy of theses muscles. These exercises would surely be genial to propose for the resumption of the activities. Isn’t it?
We haven’t covered these particular muscles yet in our YTU training, and I somehow still have room in my brain to take this information in! lol
Especially with such a clear story of how it has impacted someone close. I can absolutely relate to these sensations and feelings the last time I had a cold, and now I know how to strengthen them. Thanks Amanda!
I can see how these breathing techniques and poses could be beneficial in those last lingering days of a cold when the rib region feels achy and tight due to coughing. I’ll try this practice next time I’m getting over a cold or as preventative maintenance in between.
Thank you, this was super helpful!
Thanks Amanda, I now know more about our intercostal muslcles!
Thanks Amanda. I am interested in this topic as both a movement teacher and as a music teacher. I work with wind players in their 20s and they tend to have shockingly limited mobility and strength in the rib cage. I appreciate this refresher on the function of these muscles (I always get the internals and externals mixed up).
Thank you for the article Amanda, this time of year there is always someone coming into class complaining or knows of someone that has injured their intercostal muscles from coughing. I’m definitely going to add some more breathing exercises into my classes.
Great article! More and more, I am interested in the anatomy of breath, so always delighted to read a blog that includes a little refresher course on the intercostals and their role. In the list of yoga postures at the end, do I understand correctly that “end of exhale contraction” would be to brace the transversus abdominis? I’m not sure how to do perform an “end of inhale contraction.” Would you spread your ribs while holding the breath– kind of like uddiyana? Thanks!
I enjoyed reading this article and learnimg more about the intercostal muscles. I never gave them credit till my ribs became the biggest part of my body almost. What the heck happened? I started to watch and listen. No breath ever, retention and stress. No love for the intercostals and they revolted. Im learning to love them more and more each day and look forward to trying your suggested poses and glad you can look at ones “misfortune” , learn about it, turn it into gold and help others with it.
Nice article! Having a cough right now and going through Level 1, your tips helped. I also think that the Tubular core breathing would help and the boomerang against the wall to stretch the intercostal muscles. Will give your sequence a try!
I overstretched some of my intercostals when I had an intestinal bug (yes, vomiting) – it was incredibly painful and uncomfortable for over 6 months! I love stretching my sidewaist (love parighasana) but probably hadn’t been strengthening it enough. I’m incorporating a lot of sidewinder these days and savasana with side bend to try to balance the stretchiness in my sidewaist muscles with strength! I am allowing myself an occasional parighasana but always follow it up with strengthening poses, too. Thanks for your post!
Thanks Amanda. I’ve recently been working with the corgeous ball over the ribs and it works wonders for creating space in the intercostals and for breathing better.
Thanks for sharing Amanda! I never realized how sensitive the intercostal muscles were. I am nervous to cough and sneeze now. I have bad allergies!
Thank you for offering exercises to prevent future injury to the intercostals. So happy that I have done the YTU Level 1 ! I
I’m curious, how did you know that it was a torn or strained intercostal that your friend had? Was that obvious?
Very important yet largely neglected our little intercostals are! We can also access some stretch in them doing triangle in parallel, I love that pose too 🙂
So important, the intercostals! Thanks for sharing the exercises that emphasize how important the breath is for building strength as well.
I injured intercostals years ago from coughing and it was not fun. Thank you for teaching about strengthening and stretching these forgotten muscles.
Nice article. I have Systemic Lupus, and often struggle with inflammation of the intercostals–not fun, and a very different problem from that of weak muscles. YTU balls are great for working these muscles, but I think it’s great for yoga teachers to recognize that there’s folks out there like me, with inflammatory diseases who may have aggravation occur. A wise teacher recently told me, “See what tomorrow brings” and make adjustments from there as to how much pressure you’d apply with the therapy balls, or if it’s a day that you should simply skip it. Thanks for the blog!
Great article! I was recently introduced to the intercostals during a Rolfing session. In addition to strengthening the intercostals, the myofascia that weaves in and around the ribcage also needs to maintain its elasticity as well. Until I developed a more diaphragmatic breath (it’s a work in progress…), I would imagine I had a pretty good amount of adhesion between the ribs. Liberating that adhesion through Rolfing and then exercising those structures with deep and mindful breath probably does a world of good for my physiology!
An often forgotten muscle that we never really give a second thought about until we are incapacitated and can’t breathe properly, laugh or even enjoy life!! Thanks for the reminder that we need to be strengthening and stretching all muscles in the body to continue to reaffirm health and vitality and to keep our physical bodies moving from a space of integrity.
I’m curious… you only listed one pose for stretching – does Parighasana offer something to the intercostals that other side bends don’t?
Thank you Amanda for this article on the intercostals which often get overlooked! I have been working on breathing abdomino-thoracically in all directions the past year or so, and appreciate the suggested exercises to go along with this.
The intercostals are often forgotten and taken for granted even though they are working hard for us every day, every breath. They sure do find a way to get our attention when they are injured. Good advice for some TLC for these hard workers.
I imagine Boomerang would be a pose that would benefit intercostals.
Thanks for the knowledge! I’m loving your Level 1 this week!
I’ve known for years that I have a tight rib cage, but never really put much thought into how to stretch and strengthen the intercostal muscles. Thank you for the information and inspiration!
Thanks for the intercostal refresher! In addition to parighasana, another great YTU pose to stretch the intercostals is boomerang pose.
YAY YAY I love this suggestions I will try right away thank you!!
I have been a runner/jogger/shuffler for 30 years and I am very aware of intercostals when they cramp up and make the jog even more challenging. It it good to know that by adding few different variations to movements and breathing techniques I am already doing may help strengthen and lengthen these pesky little muscles.
So naturally as the lovely Amanda Tripp is my teacher, I was drawn to read her blogs 😛 As I was reading this I remebered having this convo at YBS and her telling this story to me. Thought it funny that this was the FIRST of my readings! thanks for the great info on how to strengthen those intercostals Amanda!
Interesting to learn that there are two types of intercostals! I had sore intercostals off and on for years after getting hit by a car and it was so tough to ease the tension. My PT used to press her fingers into them to release, but now I use a YTU ball to help. Thanks for the breathing exercises; I’ll try them out.
I never would have given these muscles much thought Amanda- thanks for pointing out the relevance of the intercostals! I’m sure injuring these muscles are more common than we think. It’s great to have another reason to focus on our breathing!
I remember injuring the intercostals while I was pregnant and walked my two 120 lbs Alaskan Malamutes. The next day my sides were sore and breathing and moving was painful. I have also been sick and was sore from all the coughing. We are using these muscles repetitively all day without thinking about until they become sore. I like the title, very cute 🙂