We tend to think of the ribcage as a protective structure. (It protects the heart and lungs). In terms of movement and posture it may be more helpful to think of the ribs as lever elements.
It's because of the ribs that the obliques, intercostal muscles as well as the spinal erectors and other muscles can be used to stabilize, bend and twist the thoracic spine.
Ribcage mobility is thus a measure of how well we can use these muscles to change the shape of the ribcage as well as the thoracic spine. Ribcage stability is a measure of how well we can use these muscles against each other to stiffen the ribcage in any of these shapes.
The combination of ribcage flexibility and stability means that we can use our arms strongly through a wide range of positions so long as we vary ribcage shape and stability to match
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Us humans have a ribcage that includes a sternum. If you look at the skeleton of a snake, it has ribs but no sternum. Look at the skeleton of an ostrich or emu; it has ribs and a very large and overly developed chest plate or sternum.
Why the difference?
A snake doesn't have limbs while Ostriches and emus have large wings.
With ostriches and emus, the overly developed sternum makes their ribcage stiffer and that gives the muscles that operate those wings a stable foundation from which to work.
Because a snake doesn't have limbs, it doesn't require the same ribcage stiffness that a bird does. The snake is basically one long ribcage. It' is a very long ribcage that is both flexible and strong.
In contrast, there's a particular type of turtle that has been studied. It's been proposed that the reason this particular turtle has a shell is not for defense, but to enable it to dig more powerfully with its forelimbs.
The shell serves as an anchor and foundation for the arm muscles so that the turtle can dig more effectively.
You can read more about that here: Fossorial Origin of the Turtle Shell
A stiff foundation or a flexible (and strong) body
So the idea here is that when you have limbs, the stiffer or stronger the foundation for the muscles that work on those limbs, the more force that can be exerted via those limbs.
But by the same token, if you a body structure like that of a snake, you can have great flexibility and great strength. Rather than being applied via limbs, the strength can be applied in a flexible manner directly from control of the body.
For humans, our arms attach to the shoulder blades which in turn attach to the collar bones. The collar bones attach to our sternum.
An interesting point is that the bottom of the shoulder blades tends to lie even with the bottom of the sternum. This will shift as the shoulder blade moves relative to the ribcage; still it means that the shoulder blades (and better yet, the sternum) can be used as a reference for helping to differentiate the upper and lower ribcage
The main reason we have a sternum is to make our ribcage stiffer, giving our arm muscles a more stable foundation from which to work.
That being said, our lower ribs don't attach to the sternum. Thus our lower ribcage tends to be more flexible (and less stable) than our upper ribcage. But that doesn't mean that our upper ribcage is without a little bit of mobility.
Note that there are arm and shoulder muscles that attach to the ribs of the lower ribcage (and to the lumbar spine, cervical spine, hip bones and skull). But the sternum is there to give the upper ribcage that extra bit of stiffness it needs so that the arms can be used powerfully.
So if the upper ribcage is fairly stable, what is there to worry about?
To give the arms a more stable foundation, so that we can use them even more powerfully, it may be helpful to think about how to stabilize the lower ribcage. As noted, it may be more flexible so that we can can breathe more effectively. However, it may be that by stabilizing the lower ribs, we can use our arms with greater strength. We do so by giving the "arm" muscles that attach to the lower ribcage a stable foundation or anchor point. But before going into the details, a quick look at stability and mobility.
If you look at any camera tripod, they generally have the option of undoing a lever so that you can turn the camera in any direction. Then you can lock it once you have your subject is suitably framed.
With the ribcage and shoulders, we have the same options (if we choose to work at it.)
We can shape the ribcage appropriately to how we want to use our arms. Then, if we need to use our arms powerfully, we can then stabilize the ribcage so that our arms have a stable foundation from which to work. The point here is that stability isn't due to positioning but rather due to the action of muscles working against each other to create a stabilizing effect.
Note, depending on how much power we wish to exert and in what direction, we may also need to stabilize the neck and/or waist.
Focusing on the ribcage though, what can we do to make it more stable so that we can use our arms with less effort? In addition, what can we do to increase ribcage (and thoracic) mobility so that we can apply arm strength in various directions?
Both mobility and stability can achieved via muscle control. We can use muscles against each other (or against an opposing force) to vary the shape of the ribcage. We can also use muscles against each other to stabilize the ribcage.
The intercostal muscles are muscles that connect and work on adjacent ribs. Meanwhile, the obliques attach, mainly, between the hip bones and the lower ribs.
One idea is to use the internal and external intercostal muscles against each other. And indeed that can be useful for both shaping the ribcage and maintaining that shape despite external forces acting on it.
These pictures could have been labelled a little better.
The intercostals are the muscles between the ribs.
The obliques are positioned between the ribcage and the pelvis.
Another set of muscles that can be used to mobilize and stabilize the ribcage along with the intercostals and obliques are the spinal erectors. In particular the iliocostalis and the longissimus, both of which attach to the ribs, can also be used to help stiffen the ribcage.
To learn to feel your spinal erectors try these spinal back bending exercises.
These muscles can work against the obliques and intercostals to create ribcage stability.
The iliocostalis attach from the hip bones to the ribs while the longissimus attach from the sacrum to the ribs. And so a good tip when trying to activate these muscles is to stabilize your hip bones and sacrum (as well as the si joints!)
One way to get a feel for your ribcage is to practice mobilizing it as in these ribcage mobility exercises.
The better you get at feeling the muscles you are using to mobilize your ribcage the easier it is to control them and then also use them to stabilize your ribcage. For more on this, also check out thoracic mobility
Another idea focuses specifically on the lower ribcage.
This is the part that corresponds to the arch of the ribcage (the arch that houses the upper abdominal muscles.)
This part of the ribcage has the lower 5 ribs, the top 3 of which are false ribs, the bottom two of which are "floating" ribs. It also has the lower 5 thoracic vertebrae. These are the ribs that lack a direct connection to the sternum and so this part of the ribcage tends to be more flexible and thus requires more effort to make stable.
So what muscles can we use to stabilize this part of the ribcage (or at least a portion of it).
The Serratus Posterior Inferior muscle attaches to backs of the lower four ribs. From these ribs, the fibers (or fascicles) of this muscle angle downwards and inwards to attach to the lower two thoracic vertebrae and the upper two lumbar vertebrae.
The upper band of the Transverse Abdominis attaches to the front of these same ribs.
My own experience has shown that these two sets of muscles can work against each other to help stabilize the lower ribcage.
Note that because the serratus posterior inferior create a downwards pull on the backs of the lower ribs, it can help to first lift the ribs to give the fibers of this muscle room to contract and to give these fibers an opposing force to work against.
Another way to think of this is giving these muscles optimal length so that they can activate more effectively.
- A basic principle in muscle control is that muscles need an opposing force to work against. If they have no opposing force, then they won't turn on. That opposing force can come from opposing muscles.
- Another principle is that muscles have a range in which they function best, or optimal length range, and so for better muscle control we can lengthen and shorten muscles as required.
In some cases we can use other muscles to help lengthen a target muscle optimally.
- One other (but not the only other) basic principle is that or anchor point for effective control.
An upwards lift of the ribs may be created by use of the external intercostals (which attach between adjacent ribs) in addition to the levator costarum muscles (which reach downwards from thoracic vertebrae to attach to ribs one or two levels below).
One tip then for activating the serratus posterior inferior muscle fibers is to first lift the backs of the lower ribs and then create a downwards (and inwards) pull on these ribs, pulling them towards the upper lumbar spine.
So which "arm" muscles will stabilizing the lower ribcage affect the most?
The latissimus dorsai is generally though of as a pulling muscle while
the serratus anterior tends to be involved in pushing actions.
And so stabilizing the lower ribcage may be useful in both pushing actions (which generally require the serratus anterior) and pulling actions (which require the latissimus dorsai).
In the left picture you can see how some fibers of the latissimus dorsai attach to the lower three ribs.
In the right picture you can also see the serratus anterior muscle (unlabeled) in green.
(You can also see pectoralis minor, just above it!)
If you are into gym work, one way you can test this out, assuming you've got the ability to turn on your upper transverse abdominis and serratus posterior inferior muscles at will, is to try those muscle activations doing a bench press and while doing lat pull downs or chin ups or pull ups.
- If you are doing pull ups, or some other type of exercise that requires the lats, (climbing up a rope) creating a downward pull on the backs of the lower ribs may help you to use more fibers of the latissimus dorsai (in particular the fibers that attach to the lower three ribs) making it easier to do that exercise.
- Is you are doing bench press, then pulling the inwards (towards each other) on the ribs at either side of the costal arch may help you to utilize the lower fibers of the serratus anterior making bench pressing easier.
In either case, whether you focus on activation the serratus posterior inferior or the upper transverse abdominis, the opposing muscles will also tend to activate (since, as mentioned, muscles need an opposing force to act against.)
Even though the lower ribs don't attach directly to the sternum, the lower ribs are still closely tied to the upper ribs. Movement of the lower ribs tends to affect the upper ribs and vice versa.
The point here is that if you stabilize the lower ribs, it's probably going to have an effect on the upper ribs also. As an example, in the picture above, you can see another muscle that ties in to "arm strength", the pectoralis minor.
To anchor the pectoralis minor, you may find it helps to create a downwards pull on the front ribs. Because this creates a downwards pull on the scapula, this action may be useful when creating a downwards pull with the arms in an overhead position.
Note that since the upper fibers of the psoas muscle attaches to the uppermost lumbar vertebrae, then stabilizing this region of the ribcage and the upper lumbar spine can help to give the psoas an anchor point for more effective functioning.
Thus if you think of the psoas as a possible factor in lower back pain then being able to stablize the lower ribcage and junction of the thoracic spine and lumbar spine via the upper transverse abdominis and serratus posterior inferior muscles may help.
Note that psoas interaction is a two way street. While stabilizing the lower ribcage can be used to give the upper fibers of the psoas a fixed anchor point, psoas activation can also increase lower ribcage stability.
This again may be useful in pulling actions with the arms overhead.
Note that to get a taste of how to activate the psoas, look at better hip control via the hip crease.
To activate the psoas for overhead pulling actions, experiment with closing your hip crease.
As well as acting as a potential anchor for the arms, the ribcage (and spine) could be used to help anchor the legs. One possible route is via the psoas. Another potential route is via the obliques which attach from the ribs to the hip bones. These muscles could help anchor the hip bones from a stable ribcage and that in turn can affect the knees.
Read more about this in Knees, spine, ribcage and mood.