“You are only as flexible as your… ribs.” These soft-spoken words from the mouth of my teacher gave my brain a little jolt. Up until that moment I had only heard spine as the end of this phrase, a cliché classic in the yoga and Pilates world. Of course, all of the ribs attach to the spine, so clearly she was onto something. What’s more? Even though we didn’t do a single lower back stretch in class that day, my spine felt lighter and freer from top to bottom.

Later that week, one of my students came in for a private session complaining of some lower back pain and tightness. As I watched her walk through the studio, I noticed her hips were swaying all over the place, but her thoracic spine seemed stiff and unyielding. My suspicions were confirmed when I had her lie down on the mat and witnessed a cavern of space under her lower ribs.

Yoga Tune Up® to the rescue! After a bit of gentle proprioceptive massage of her lower ribs with the Yoga Tune Up® balls, I guided her through Yoga Tune Up® mini-vini that reminds me of the classic Pilates exercise the Saw,  (except you can be comfortably seated in a chair instead of sitting with straight legs on the floor – hint, hint office workers/computer junkies). Combining a thoracic flexion and extension with rotation helped free up her poor bound-up intercostal muscles. And freeing up movement in her thorax, balanced the movement of her spine, which calmed her lower back pain.

Watch Jill unwind her own ribs in this video of back stretches for rib and hip flexibility. Try slowing it down and taking a full breath for each position to get an even deeper feel for the natural movement of the ribs.

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Melinda Kausek

A lifelong lover of both movement and learning, Melinda has spent the last 5 years as a full-time Pilates teacher in San Francisco, CA. She teaches from a place that allows her students to have fun and workout while discovering their bodies and their true strength. Always looking for new tricks and tools, she is proud to add Yoga Tune Up® to her arsenal of skills. When she’s not teaching you might find Melinda on the dance floor or writing on her blog, which you can read here: www.firebellypilates.com.

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Colleen Flaherty

My initial reaction was, “whoa what?” when you said only as flexible as our ribs! After reading the article though, makes total sense! Ribs attach to spine, a majority of our trunk muscles connect to the spine or ribs down to pelvis so giving attention to the mobility of our ribs can influence it all! Definitely going to keep the mini vini and seated cat/cow twist in my memory bank for the next person who has lower back ache complaints! Thank you!

Alyssa

Well-worded article on an area that many people, myself included, minimally use and flex. If I work on more movement in the thoracic area, I can probably lessen the overworking in my lumbar and cervical portions of the spine.

Wendi

I would say that the majority of women work in jobs where they sit all day. I know I do! It causes havoc with my back, hips and yes, even those floating ribs! I’m anxious to try these exercises to relieve the compression that is a result of sitting and not moving enough.

Margaret

I sit all day for work and the sit st home and these chair excercises for my ribs and spine are something I can do while sitting in my chair

Heather Dawson

A great exercise for my chair yoga students, the movement feels so good in opening up the ribs – I felt the release of tension in my shoulder and neck.

Marsha Marsha Marsha L.

Haha! Catchy title! I never really feel those intercostal muscles until I’ve really worked my abdominal muscles, then I feel the soreness two days later in the front. I did the exercise that you included on Jill Miller post on YouTube “Back Stretches for Upper Back Pain & Migraine Headache Relief” and I actually really feel the stretch in my intercostals and the back side of my neck! I’ve taught a rolling out session on the upper-back, and one of the guys said that he actually felt relief in his lower back, and I was amazed. Now it’s coming together,… Read more »

Kaitrin Doll

This really resonates with me, I find that my lower ribs are particularly tight when I wake up in the morning. I have been trying to sleep more on my back to improve my shoulder health as I found lying on my side made me internally rotate my shoulders. Since sleeping on my back my shoulder health has improved but I’ve been feeling more tightness in my lower ribs. I am going to work on these exercises to see if this improves the stiffness in the lower ribs.

Gina Decker

I love this especially in a chair. I teach cat/cow in a chair but adding the rotation seems to add more movement to the thoracic spine and into the intercostal muscles. Definitely , going to use this slow , articulate technique. As I continue to read more and learn about my own body, I see how all is interrelated and where the weaknesses and strengths may cause discomfort and imbalance.

Lisa Swanson

Your only as flexible as your ribs — that is an interesting statement but as you mention in the blog, makes sense since the ribs are attached to the spine. I’m newer in the Pilates world and new to observation of my client’s body but I do notice many suffer from a tight and even lack of movement in the thoracic spine. I like the video and how Jill rotates to one side then does cat / cow poses.
Plan on trying this when I return to my studio.

Lisa

Noreen

Never hear the word flexible used as a description for ribs and such a simple exercise that can be done by anyone. We should all do this in the office as we slump over the desk. I also look forward to adopting a habit of using yoga tune up balls in my ribs also to improve flexibility. The video is perfect.

Jessie

This article goes to show you just how important it is to observe each individual student as they are that day. The author was able to appreciate and really take-in the new and surprising lesson she learned. Her student was able to benefit from her openness.

Wren

I enjoyed this article and video. My lower back is something that’s always bothered me and had no idea it could be linked to my rib cage! I also like how the video shows seated movements with the yoga tune up balls, definitely an easier alternative to the floor when you are on the go.

Nan Huson

With as much attention as I’ve given my low back, after I had an extruded L5/S1 disc at the end of 2009, from an acute and then chronic back protocol, to minimizing back bends in yoga, I really hadn’t attended to my ribs at all. They tend to jut out, and when I do Pilates and am given the cue to ‘put on my vest’ it’s always the hardest thing for me to do, and to remember later. This could be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Laurie Streff Kostman

I enjoyed this article and the reminder that the rib cage is an important part of spinal flexibility as they are indeed connected to the spine! I also can relate to the visual of seeing hips exaggerate their ‘swagger’ on a person as they compensate for a tight torso and/or back discomfort. Hip compensation is extremely common, from those who sit all day to the very active athlete. I love this example of Jill unwinding her ribs in this ‘how-to’ video especially because it can be done sitting in a chair which makes is a very accessible dynamic pose to… Read more »

Jessica Sleiman

So happy to have found this article, as I experience regular lower back pain, but never thought to address the problem by working on the ribs. This makes me think of other areas of pain that I can tackle in different ways, such as working on my shoulders and back to help reduce some of the tension in my neck. We also tend to forget to follow the correct breathing techniques sometimes, which is a crucial part of healing during stretches. This was a great reminder of how important it is breathe properly while stretching.

Marisa

I’ve always focused on my low back and not so much on my thoracic and definitely not my rib cage. In the first YTU class I attended we used the balls to massage and free the muscles in this area, I felt amazing! It brought a sense of lightness and air into my body and I felt more in alignment. It makes sense that it would align and free the rest of the spine. If one area is tight another segment will bear the burden.

Maryelen

I see people who seem frozen in that area all the time. It’s especially visible when they’re walking. Thank you for another way of relieving that. I liked the cue of, “squeeze your heart to your back”, very effective.

Santiago

I love having discovered this relationship between the ribs and the spine. I am hyper-flexible in my lower back which creates stiffness for my upper back. After reading this post, I gave myself a proprioceptive massage of the lower ribs with the Tune Up balls and totally began to feel some of my upper back tightness melt away!

monica

yes! i get this too (low pain that is ) which i think is due to thrusting my ribs forward. great article – its all connected

Kathy

Another tool in the bag for all those poor disabled office workers and computer (hackers!?) that I know. The idea that this can be adapted for use in a chair is super!