What is rib flare?
Rib flare is a posture in which the lower ribs flare upwards, stretching the abdominal muscles and arching the low back. It is commonly caused by chronic poor posture, weak core muscles, poor breathing mechanics, or a combination. Societal pressure, especially for females to "suck the stomach in" and keep the chest tall can also play a role.
Why is rib flare detrimental?
Rib flare has several negative implications. First, rib flare can negatively affect the core muscles, making them weaker and less efficient at stabilizing the spine. Because flaring of the ribs put the abdominal muscles at a stretch and compresses the low back muscles, none of core muscles are functioning at their optimal length. Muscles have to work harder to maintain proper alignment and stabilization when they are not properly balanced.
Second, when the ribs flare, the diaphragm is no longer positioned for proper breathing patterns. When the diaphragm does not fully descend into the abdomen on inhalation, breathing becomes shallow and inefficient, leading to more of a "chest breathing" pattern. When a person performs "chest breathing" rather than the optimal "belly breathing", the abdominal cavity does not pressurize. There are no muscles in the front of the spine; abdominal pressure due to breathing is essential for anterior spine support. Therefore, rib flare negatively impacting diaphragm function further destabilizes the core.
Why does rib flare occur?
The short answer for why rib flare occurs is poor posture. Our bodies were not designed to live in 2023. Sitting at a desk, driving, sitting on the couch, being on cell phones, even riding horses-- none of these are activities that our bodies evolved to perform. The vast majority of people spend too much time in the day with the shoulders rolled forward, head jutted in anterior head carriage, and having little to no movement through the thoracic spine, shoulders, and rib cage.
Then we stand up or, in the case of riders, sit on the horse. We want to have good posture! Our trainer tells us to "put our shoulders back". We stick our chest out to show off our great position. The only problem: we do not have the mobility through our shoulders or thoracic spine to flatten the upper back, drop the shoulder blades, and keep our head in good alignment without the rib cage coming with it. So, the ribs come up too. Now, our lower ribs point upwards, our diaphragm is slanted up instead of parallel with our pelvic floor, and our low back arches. Technically, we have our "shoulders back, chest out". But at what cost?
Why does it matter as a rider?
Core stabilization is absolutely essential as a rider. In order to be effective and give consistent aids to our horse, we must maintain our own position and posture while moving with the spine of the horse in motion. Our seat and extremities all work off of the core, and therefore having a flexible but controlled core is of the essence.
Rib flare is the antithesis to a stable core: flared ribs make the muscles of the core less effective and impedes proper pressurization of the abdominal cavity. This makes the entire trunk less stable, less controllable, and more predisposed to injury. Even a person with very strong core muscles will not have proper core balance if the alignment of the diaphragm, which connects to the bottom of the ribs, is poor. Therefore, rib flare is something that riders should take into consideration with everyday posture, riding posture, and when doing out-of-the-saddle strengthening.
Here's an example of excellent rib stacking in the saddle!
How can rib flare be corrected?
Fixing rib flare is not a quick-fix. It is an engrained pattern developed over months and years. The first step is awareness.
The simplest cue for fixing the position of the ribcage is "down and back" with the lower rib cage Bring the lower ribs closer to the pelvis and then translate the ribcage backwards until the ribcage is stacked directly over the pelvis. From here, practice taking a few breaths into the belly without the ribs flaring up. If you can't tell if you are breathing into the belly, put one hand on the chest and one on the abdomen. The hand on the abdomen should move out on the inhale, not the hand on the chest.
Throughout the day, check on this alignment. Set a reminder on your phone for every 15 minutes to check your posture until it becomes more second-nature. Practice bringing your shoulders and head back while maintaining this rib cage alignment. This might feel difficult at first. It might require stretching your pectorals and/or foam rolling your thoracic spine to increase mobility in the upper back. Keep working at it. It'll start to feel more natural the more you do it.
Finally, focus on maintaining this position of the rib cage and belly-breathing pattern while doing activities. Focus on it while you are riding. When doing any strength training, core or otherwise, think about those ribs staying back and down. Not only will this engrain the proper patterning into your neurology, but you might also find that you are stronger because your core muscles are working at a more efficient length.
Rib flare might seem like a small thing, but it has a huge impact on your physiology and your riding. Bring awareness to this postural imbalance and see what a huge impact it can have for you and your horse!