Rib flare is not a term you hear often, but it is more common than you might realize. It is evidenced by your rib cage protruding out more than the rest of your body (usually 1-2 inches).
Perhaps you’ve noticed this on yourself when you are standing? It may look as if your chest is puffed out and your rib cage along with it. You may even see your ribs pop out from under your shirt.
If the answer is ‘yes’ you most likely have flared ribs.
The interesting thing about flared ribs is that the problem is not the ribs themselves but most likely caused by bad posture which forces your rib cage to protrude more than it should.
Most notably, it can be a sign that your lower back muscles are tight which causes the curve of your lower back to become extended. Weak core muscles also contribute to rib flare and it is also a side-effect of poor posture and mobility limitations.
You’ll want to be sure that you correct any incidence of rib flare as if it is not addressed it can cause lower back pain, neck and shoulder pain and it may also affect your breathing.
Not to mention that some individuals may not like the look of having their ribs protruding out from under their clothes!
Thankfully, the condition can be corrected by addressing the muscle imbalances that can cause your ribs to flare.
This will likely involve improving core strength, some breathing exercises, stretches, massages and other techniques which we will all cover in this post.
In addition, we’ll delve deeper into understanding the causes of flared ribs, the symptoms to look out for and share some corrective tips you can employ.
What Are Flared Ribs?
Flared ribs, also called rib flare, occurs when your lower ribs protrude out and forward more than the rest of your body. This condition is often associated with an over-extended or increased arch of the lower back.
As stated before, it is unlikely that there is a problem with the ribs themselves, but instead attributed to muscle imbalances that have been caused by bad posture.
Rib flare caused by muscle imbalances is the main focus of this post.
Possible Symptoms of Rib Flare
So we understand what rib flare looks like, it’s time to figure out the warning signs. We’ve listed the most common signs and symptoms of rib flare below:
Flared ribs affect the diaphragm’s ability to properly function due to the incorrect position of the rib cage. This creates a challenge when trying to breathe properly because your body cannot get into the ‘rest and digest’ state.
You’ll notice yourself taking shallow breaths, and you may find it difficult to fully breathe in or exhale as you normally would.
To explain further, your diaphragm is the muscle responsible for your respiratory functions. It contracts when you inhale and relaxes when you exhale. The diaphragm, which is located below your rib cage, is often overactive in persons with flared ribs.
Stress on the Diaphragm
Since your diaphragm is attached to your ribs, when the ribs start to flare it can overstretch the diaphragm and affect its ability to correctly function.
Furthermore, if the diaphragm is unable to function as it should, this puts extra stress on the muscles that are located between your ribs, known as the intercostals. Remember that your diaphragm plays an integral role in breathing.
Believe it or not, your sudden bout of anxiety and panic attacks can be as a result of rib flare—stemming from breathing complications mentioned above.
This is because when you’re stuck in the flared rib cage position, it becomes hard for you to fully exhale stale air from your body.
When you maintain this flared rib position overtime it causes shallow breathing which can reportedly send you into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
This is why it is recommended that you breathe fully when you are stretching. It sends the body into a relaxed state.
Lower Back Pain
Flared ribs can cause your pelvis to go into an anterior pelvic tilt, and it also pulls your lumbar spine forward into an extreme extension.
This causes a host of problems; your hamstrings, glutes and abdominals become weakened while your back extensors and hip flexors start to tighten. This can lead to extreme lower back pain.
Neck and Shoulder pain
Your rib cage plays an integral role in the stability of your spine. Flared ribs can cause the thoracic spine to move into further extension, which affects the alignment of your body.
When this occurs it affects the range of motion in your shoulders, and puts pressure on the muscles in your neck and shoulders which can be quite painful.
In the next section, we’ll look at some of the causes of rib flare.
What Causes Rib Flare?
The main scope of this article looks to address rib flare caused by muscle imbalances which we will discuss in the next section. But before that, we’ll discuss some other factors that can cause this condition.
Genetics, Rib Deformities and Injuries
In the same way that you can inherit your parents’ bow legs, spaced teeth or thick hair, unfortunately, rib flare can also be passed down via genetics.
Another condition that can affect the rib is Pectus Excavatum, which is evidenced by the chest bone being sunken into the chest. Other symptoms include flared shoulder blades and ribs, along with a hunched posture.
The cause of Pectus Excavatum is currently unknown, but it is predicted to be an inherited condition.
The Mayo Clinic purports that this is more serious than rib flare. In severe cases, it can push the heart out of place or even compress the lungs.
Unlike flared ribs— which can be rectified with exercises and other techniques— Pectus Excavatum is corrected with either a specialised surgical brace or via surgery (as mentioned in the video above).
Another similar condition is Pectus Carinatum, which causes a protruding breastbone due to the rapid growth of cartilage.
The focus of this article is not on any of these two conditions, however, we thought it important to outline the differences. We are only looking at rib flare caused by mobility issues, muscular issues, posture and incorrect breathing.
However, if you think that you may have such a condition the video included above is worth a watch. Also, it would be well worth seeing a physical therapist or medical professional.
Incorrect breathing habits
When you take a very deep breath, your stomach should stick out as much as your ribs, but in some cases you’ll notice that only your chest moves when you breathe in. If this happens it means your diaphragm is not being engaged when you breathe.
Incorrect breathing can lead to panic attacks, insomnia, dizzy spells, rib flare and other conditions.
During pregnancy there is an increased demand for oxygen, so the diaphragm has to work harder than usual. This can cause the diaphragm muscles to become fatigued.
Furthermore, as the baby grows it presses on the ribs and chest causing the uterus to ascend. This can force the diaphragm upwards which pushes the ribcage forward and sideways, causing flared ribs. This tends to occur during the third trimester.
Another culprit of rib flare is mobility— or rather lack thereof.
If there is hindered mobility in your shoulders when reaching for things overhead, you may have to arch your lower back and flare out your ribs to accommodate the position.
For example, if someone with flared ribs is reaching for something overhead, rather than raise their arms up vertically, they may only be able to raise their arms part way and have to arch their back to achieve the intended angle.
Improving your shoulder flexion and mobility can prevent your ribs from flaring in such situations.
Rib Flare Caused by Bad Posture
The most likely cause of rib flare is bad posture.
If you imagine looking at someone with rib flare from the side, they will have two noticeable traits.
- Arched and shortened lower back
- An apparent longer abdomen – An apparent longer length between the rib cage and the front of the pelvis causing the chest to point up and the front of the pelvis down which results in a slight pelvic tilt.
These two traits are caused by muscle imbalances and these are what need to be addressed to fix rib flare.
Muscle imbalances are caused when you position your body in a certain way and hold onto those positions, whether good or bad, for long periods of time. Over time, your muscles will adapt to those positions. If it’s a less than optimal position, muscles will usually become either too tight or too weak.
Here is how to fix each muscle imbalance.
- Arched Lower Back – This is a signal that your low back is too tight. The muscles are so tight that it prevents you from lengthening out your lower back. As a result, your ribs flare out. To address the issue of a tight lower back you will need to use massage and stretching techniques to create more length in your lower back and latissimus dorsi (lats) to restore its natural length. This is also known as hyper lumbar lordosis.
- Longer lower abdomen – This apparent length is due to long and weak core muscles. By strengthening the core you can tighten up the muscles and reduce the length thus pulling both the front of the rib cage down and the front of the pelvis up which closes the gap.
In the next section, we’ll look at techniques and corrective exercises to fix these muscle imbalances.
How to Fix Rib Flare: Correction Exercises to Fix the Muscle Imbalances
Rib flare and its associated indicators can be corrected with stretching techniques and various exercises aimed at strengthening weak muscles.
Specifically, the process is first massaging the tight muscles using self-massage release techniques to loosen them up and release any trigger points, followed by stretching.
The next step is to strengthen the weak muscles which in the case of rib flare is going to be the core.
We feel these are the most important steps to fixing rib flare caused by muscle imbalances.
If you feel that your rib flare is also caused by poor shoulder mobility we have included an exercise that may help.
In addition, Healthline also suggests a range of breathing exercises to improve your posture which we will also cover briefly if you feel this is a problem area also.
Before we get into these physical activities, remember that if your condition is as a result of pregnancy, trauma or congenital issues we do not suggest engaging in these exercises— unless otherwise permitted by your doctor.
1. Release Techniques
Certain massage tools can prove helpful in treating the symptoms of flared ribs as they allow you to loosen up chronic tightness in the muscles and remove any trigger points
You can perform these release techniques using basic myofascial release tools such as a massage ball or foam roller.
Need a foam roller? – Read: Best foam rollers
Release the Lats
The first step is to release the lats using a foam roller. The lats are large muscles on your back which run from the top of your back all the way down. Make sure to roll out both sides.
Watch the video above to learn how to do this effectively.
Lower Back Release
This video shows you how to foam roll out your entire back, however, you want to focus on the techniques which are aimed at foam rolling the lower back.
You may still find it helpful to foam roll the upper back too as you may once again hit the lat area.
If you find a foam roller is too big and ineffective, you may find a peanut massage ball to be more effective.
This section focuses on performing stretches on the same groups of muscles that were just released to help stretch and create length in those muscles.
For best results perform these stretches daily.
Included in the video above are two standing lat stretches that you can do from anywhere.
If you find these stretches ineffective or troublesome to hold, the stretch included in the video below may be the one for you.
To do this stretch you would you will need a desk or bench of some kind.
If you want to go a little more on how the lats work and therefore how to stretch them in the most effective way, the video above is well recommended.
Lower Back Stretches
Once the lats are stretched out you can now focus on the lower back. Executing a Child’s pose with proper form is a great way to stretch out the back.
In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at specific exercises you can try.
3. Strengthening Exercises
This section includes exercises aimed at strengthening the core.
You’ll hear it again and again that a plank is the best exercise to strengthen your core, and that is certainly true. However, good form is crucial if you are to reap any benefits of planking exercises.
The video below shows you how to do a plank with correct form.
Get into a normal plank position, making sure that your pelvis and shoulders are at the same level.
Tuck the pelvis underneath, and ensure you are not rounding your upper back. If you suffer from rib flare it is imperative that you do not allow your lower back to arch during a plank as this is the position you should be trying to avoid.
Hold this move for about 30 seconds, and complete 5 sets.
Planking can help to improve balance and posture, and it also helps to reduce back pain by strengthening your core.
Dead Bug Exercise
Another simple core strengthening exercise is the dead bug.
Start by lying flat on your back with both feet, and both hands in the air —replicating the posture of a dead bug.
Your knees should be bent to 90°.
Reach your right arm back behind your head, while extending your left foot out and lowered to the floor.
Your foot should not actually touch the floor; it should hover above the floor.
Hold the position for 5 seconds.
As you bring the right arm and left leg back to the centre, repeat the move on the other side, this time bringing your left arm behind your head while lowering your right foot to the ground. Hold for 5 seconds.
Ensure that your spine remains neutral during extension of the arm and opposite legs.
Perform this move for 60 seconds, and repeat 3 times.
Ensure that as you reach your arms behind your head that you pay close attention to your ribs to prevent them from flaring.
4. Breathing Techniques
Another solution for your rib flare condition is to practice proper breathing techniques. This means engaging your diaphragm when you breathe, by ensuring that you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
In general, take slow deep breaths; when you properly breathe in, your stomach should start to rise or puff out and then your chest will do the same.
Then, pretend as if you are slowly blowing out a candle when you exhale.
Exercise for Better Breathing
This is the ideal exercise to perfect your breathing technique.
Stand with your knees slightly bent and your feet shoulder -width apart.
Then form a fist with both hands and place one hand on each side of your lower back.
With your shoulder blades pinched together, lean backwards slightly and open your mouth as wide as you can.
Take a very deep breath, filling your lungs with air.
This will be uncomfortable at first, but with practice, you should notice improvement with your breathing.
Diaphragm Breathing Core Activation
Making sure that your core is activated is key if you are to get any benefit from performing core strengthening exercises. The video below shows how you can use breathing to help activate your core.
Lay flat on your back with both arms at your side. Pull in your belly so that your core muscles are engaged.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, then breathe out slowly through the mouth—pushing all the air from your lungs.
Lower your rib cage and ensure that your lower back is completely flat.
Maintain this position, then breathe in towards your abdomen, then breathe out slowly while engaging the abdominal muscles.
Ensure that your neck and chest are completely relaxed during this exercise.
5. Improve Shoulder Mobility
This section is designed to help you increase your shoulder overhead mobility which may be lacking if you have flared ribs.
This move will help with your extension and mobility issues while trying to lift your arm overhead.
Sit cross-legged with your back against a wall and your abs squeezed tightly.
Then raise your arms up overhead and touch the wall behind you, keeping your core tight while doing so.
Do 5 sets of 10.
If this move is too easy, you can also try this exercise in a standing position as shown in the video above.
Tips for Preventing Flared Ribs
Since we always say ‘prevention is better than cure,’ we can’t leave without sharing some great tips for preventing this condition.
Check out these essential tips below:
Practice Good Posture
Proper posture is your ability to sit, stand, lie down, drive, etc. in a position that does not put strain on your ligaments or muscles.
When you sit, your feet should be on a flat surface, your back should be flat against the chair and the weight of your hips should be evenly distributed.
If your work requires you to sit for several hours on end, you should invest in a chair with lumbar support or consider getting a kneeling chair or stability ball chair which can help to take pressure off your lumbar spine. You could also consider working at a standing desk.
When you stand, pay close attention to your posture as well. Even when you exercise, your form, if incorrect, can cause you to flare your ribs without even realising it.
It is important to consider your posture when you stand, bend and even when you’re lying down.
Incorrect posture puts stress and strain on your ligaments and muscles, and can lead to a host of health problems. Furthermore, it impacts how much air your lungs can take in when you breathe.
Practice Proper Breathing
Another very important element in preventing rib flare is proper breathing. Make sure to take deep breaths and engage your diaphragm.
It’s also important to breathe through your nose and exhale through the mouth. Take control of your breathing; the action should be slow, not rushed.
Also, your body should be upright when you breathe in and out.
Pay close attention to these tips and practice them daily until good posture and proper breathing becomes as easy as …well, breathing!
Other Things Worth Looking Into
Rib flare conditions related to muscular or breathing issues can be addressed with the exercises and breathing techniques we mentioned today.
Stretching can loosen up tense muscles that keep your back in an arched position, if they are done consistently and correctly over a lengthy period of time.
If you work out, it’s important that you stretch the muscles (warm them up) before and after rigorous activity.
Even if you don’t hit the gym daily, you should still perform daily stretches. Since you suffer from rib flare your main focus should be on the lower back and lats.
An excessive arch in your lower back can also bring about lower back pain.
For neck tension, back pain and increased thoracic mobility, a peanut massage ball might come in handy. These peanut shaped balls are designed to cradle your spine and relieve tension in the adjacent muscles.
Massage balls and foam rollers are also great tools for alleviating musculoskeletal pain, restoring flexibility to joints and ligaments, and they can also prove effective in releasing constricted muscles. If you don’t have these tools it’s highly recommended you consider getting either one or both.
Need a foam roller? – Read: Best foam rollers
Another thing worth looking into is fixing the tilt of your pelvis which usually is present alongside flared ribs. Strengthening your glutes and hamstrings, while also stretching our your hip flexors and quads will help fix this. For more information, take a look at our page on how to fix an anterior pelvic tilt.
However, if you suffer from rib flare as a result of trauma (such as a car accident, etc.) pregnancy, or bone deformity we cannot recommend employing these methods.
You must consult a medical professional in these situations, as they will be better able to guide you about the proper corrective measures to employ.
If none of these issues apply, and you are comfortable doing these exercises, remember that consistency is integral.
Try to be realistic with your expectations, and understand that you won’t see results overnight.
However with time, your rib flare will show much improvement and hopefully soon it will be a thing of the past.