Palace guards march stiffly
Do these guards know they have ribs?

When was the last time you thought about your ribs? Unless you’ve had an injury or surgery in this area, you probably can’t remember.

But what if I told you that lack of movement in your ribs may cause or contribute to your neck, shoulder and/or back pain? This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. I mean, your shoulder girdle rests directly on your ribs, and your ribs (along with your spine) are your back!

The ribs are an important, yet under-appreciated part of ourselves. (Do you think these Buckingham Palace Guards know they have ribs?)

First, Some Rib Fun Facts

Test Your Rib Cage Know-How

How much do you know about your rib cage? (answers at end of this post)

  1. How many pairs of ribs do you have?
  2. How many of those pairs are “floating” (meaning they only go part way around and do not connect with your breastbone)?
  3. Which pair of ribs has the least movement? And which 2 pairs allow the most movement?
  4. How many joints are there in the entire rib cage?

Our rib cage is capable of a surprisingly wide range of movement. And this natural flexibility is essential for ease of movement of the spine and shoulders. It also facilitates better posture, fuller breathing and even a more mobile pelvis.

But a lifetime of experiences, stress, and habit result in most of us holding our chests much stiffer than need be. This leads to other parts of yourself having to work harder, including your poor neck and shoulders.

We also compensate for injuries and imbalances elsewhere. If you had a knee problem, you may have started putting more weight on the other leg. To do that, you have to shorten one side of your waist and ribs. This then changes how you carry your head and shoulders.

The good news is that you have the power to become aware of your ribs and rediscover their capacity for movement.

Here’s something to get your started.

Get Your Ribs Movin’!

Skeleton moving
Get your ribs moving with this exercise!

Note: Do these movements slowly and gently. Don’t go to your limit. Instead, just do 50% of what you’re capable of.

Sit on a chair with a firm seat and no armrests. Sit toward the front of the chair with your feet flat on the floor.

1. Lift and Lower One Arm

Lift and lower one arm overhead a few times. Observe the quality of the movement and how much effort it takes to lift the arm. Does your arm feel heavy or light? And how far can you lift it easily? 

Repeat with the other arm.

2. Bend to One Side

With your arms hanging at sides, begin to bend to one side and return to vertical. Stay facing forward as you bend side. Let your head bend too, as if you wanted to tilt your ear toward the floor. Notice your ribs come closer together on this side. What do the ribs on your other side do? 

Repeat to the other side. Do you bend more or less to the second side? How far does this hand reach toward the floor?

3. Bend to from Side to Side

Now go from side to side, bending right and left. You might imagine your ribs as a Slinky or an accordion—opening on one side while closing on the other. If you’d like, place your hands on the sides of your ribs to help clarify what’s happening.

4. Hold Your Chest Stiff as You Bend Side to Side

Hold your chest stiff a little and resume bending side to side. What’s the quality of the movement like? Can you reach as far as before? Then let your chest be soft and mobile again and feel the difference. Pause and rest.

5. Move the Bottom of Your Sternum

Place the fingers of one hand on the lowest part of your sternum (aka breastbone) and resume bending side to side. Is there any movement at the bottom of your sternum?
Now gently invite the bottom of your sternum to move in the direction opposite to your bending (i.e., when you bend right, the bottom of your sternum slides to the left, and vice versa).

6. Don’t Move the Bottom of Your Sternum

Just to feel the difference, don’t let the bottom of your sternum move as you bend. Then let your sternum move side to side again. Pause and scan yourself, noting what’s changed as a result of doing these movements. How do shoulders rest? What’s the sense of comfort in your neck?

7. Again, Lift and Lower One Arm

As you did in the beginning, lift and lower one arm a few times, then the other. What’s changed. Has anything improved—arms a little lighter or lift a little higher? Perhaps you’re more aware of how your ribs move as you lift your arm?

Were You Holding Your Ribs?

Now you can answer the question posed in the title of this article: Were you doing “this”?

If you were moving your ribs more by the end, it means you were unknowingly doing something to prevent your ribs from moving before. This doing is holding and extra work in the muscles of your chest and back (i.e., your rib cage).

As you go about the rest of your day, enjoy the new awareness and mobility you may have discovered in your ribs (or elsewhere).

Illustration of ribs
How many did you get right?

Answer Key

  1. 12 pairs (that’s a total of 24 ribs!)
  2. 2 pairs of floating ribs
  3. The first pair of ribs has practically no movement. The last 2 pairs (the floating ribs) allow the most movement.
  4. 72 joints (most ribs have 3 joints).

For more, check out this  overview of the bones and joints of your rib cage.

Man posing as superman

Want to Free Your Ribs?

Come to a Ribs to the Rescue: Surprising Ways to Relieve Your Neck & Shoulders class series.