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Breathing and Use of the Ribcage

Lilian Jarvis
Family Practice
March 1994


Beginning with birth and in many instances throughout life, breathing deeply is an imperative. It is essential in physical exertion of any kind and it is, as well, a means of releasing tension and quelling nervousness or fear. But while this natural process is available to all, many people are unable to utilize it to best advantage. The reason for this is that full inflation of the lungs is impossible when the housing that contains them, the ribcage, is itself restricted in movement.

In fact, two areas of the body are used for breathing, the abdomen and the ribcage. Each has a specific purpose.

Abdominal breathing is the most restful way to breathe, since it takes less energy to expand the soft tissue of the abdomen than the heavier bones of the ribcage. Breathing with the abdomen should therefore predominate when one is asleep, lying down, or when sitting relaxed, the chest having minimal noticeable movement. This is the way babies and animals breathe like this, their relaxed abdomens expanding and contracting in response to the natural in and out flow of air.

“Ribcage” breathing should be used at all times that the body is upright and when seated at work or other activity. This is for two reasons. One is that, when standing or actively seated, the abdominal muscles must hold the pelvis in a straightened position, so they can’t relax and expand. The other reason is that a properly expanded ribcage helps to support the weight of the upper body, thus minimizing pressure on parts below.

The operative words here are “properly expanded.” Many people expand only their chest, which lifts the frontal ribs and causes the dorsal ribs to pull forward, arching the back. This not only throws the pelvis out of alignment, but it inhibits the full inflation of the lungs.

For the lungs to inflate fully, the ribcage must expand around its girth, that is, not only in front, but also outward to both sides and to the back. (A collapsible wire basket is a good comparison.) With the ribs thus expanded, the lungs are not squeezed in at back but have spacious room in which to inflate. And, in actively holding the ribs “open,” the intercostal and other pertinent muscles give support to the upper body.

While reasons for expanding the ribcage are easily explained, it is not as easily done. When the back has been arched — or rounded — over a period of many years, the muscles controlling the ribcage become shortened and lose their elasticity, making movement of the ribs difficult. The ability to expand the ribs depends therefore on stretching out these tight muscles to make them more flexible so the ribs can move. While this may take time, the following exercise, done with some regularity, produces excellent results.

Sit on a chair, feet and legs spaced comfortably apart. Place your hands at both sides of the ribcage (above the floating ribs), fingers in front and thumbs at the back. Relax your back, so it’s rounded, with the shoulders tipped slightly forward. (This allows the sides and back of the ribs to expand while leaving the chest relatively relaxed.)

Take a deep breath and hold it. (At the end of the air intake, the throat should be closed off with the epiglottis and the shoulders lowered so as not to bring pressure into the head in the action that follows.) Draw the abdominal muscles in to the waist strongly to force the diaphragm up. (This creates pressure on the inflated lungs and pushes the ribs outward against the hands. The feeling is one of trying to break through a tight band.) Maintain the pressure as long as the breath can be comfortably held. Then, as the breath is released, feel the ribs “close.”

Hyperventilation is possible if this exercise is done too many times continuously, so normal breathing should be resumed after 3 or 4 deep breaths before repeating.

Once the ribs are able to expand in their circumference, the last restriction on the lungs, the weight of the shoulders, must be removed to produce a breath that is complete and “satisfying.” This is done — with the hands placed as before — by lifting the shoulders as high as possible while drawing in the maximum amount of air, then letting it out as the shoulders settle. Because the diaphragm must now drop to accommodate the total infilling of the lungs, the abdominals are not drawn in here. As well, the throat remains open to allow for the final intake of air to fill the top portion of the lungs. (This  “complete” breath can also be done with the arms down as long as the shoulders are lifted.)

While this procedure may seem somewhat complicated at first, persistence holds many benefits. With the chest open, but relaxed, and the lower portion of the ribcage held in a slight expansion (yet not rigidly held, but moving subtly like the gills of a fish), normal breathing will be vastly improved and oxygen intake in-creased. As well, the difficulty of breathing comfortably when the abdomen is drawn in, which many people experience, will no longer be a problem. Posture will improve and muscle fatigue greatly diminish, and with more available oxygen, activities will benefit from greater staying power. Not to be overlooked is the psychological effect that is inseparable from the physical: an empowered sense of stature and confidence.