Pilates Training Tips To Mobilize the Ribcage for Better Functional Movement of the Spine

by | Jan 21, 2013 | Functional Movement, Pilates | 0 comments

One of the biggest differences I realized when I began learning Pilates was how much more movement I “should have” in my spine vs. the amount of free and easy mobility I did have.  As the tech savvy human population moves farther and farther away from jobs that require activity, and we park our butts in front of our computers for hours on end, our muscles go to mush, posture changes significantly and our once young, strong and supple body becomes a stiff, scrunched chunk of parts screaming for some love attention and movement.  Even though we might take 30 minutes, an hour or more a day and “exercise” or do Pilates, how can 1 hours’ worth of movement make up for 23 hours’ worth of inactivity?

The reality of health is, it can’t…  we have to take what we are learning and doing with our exercise program and find ways to incorporate our good health habits back into our desk jobs and daily activities.

A few months ago, my husband purchased a new car.  Guys are always so excited when they have a new “toy.”  His eyes lit up just thinking about all the new bells & whistles he gets to play with while he’s driving.  One of these new features is video assistance.  Yep, he no longer has to turn his body around to see what’s behind, or along-side the car.  With the click of a button, he can look at a video screen in front of him, to keep from hitting anything behind him!  I’m looking at this feature and thinking about all the poor people, like him, who upgrade their vehicles, these people probably barely twisted their spines anyway, and now the last place in their daily activities where they could have used these all important back and core muscles, they no longer will because they don’t have to do the check behind you twist.  Fast-forward six to nine months, and my husband has just experienced his first “incapacitated by back pain” problem in his life!  Will he ever believe that not twisting his spine a couple of times a day while driving to and from work has anything to do with it…probably not.  Do I believe it’s a factor contributing to these new health problems – definitely!  How many more people out there will start to experience similar problems, because there is one less “opportunity for movement” in their daily life?

Pilates is one of the best ways to keep your spine mobile.  Ideally, our back bones should bend forwards, backwards, sideways and twist, easily from the bottom of the tailbone to the base of the skull.  The range of motion in each of these directions is dependent on the joint space we have available, the structure of the bones and work/release balance of our muscle systems to facilitate movement.

As an example:  Our lumbar spine primary function is to arch and move laterally. This is what the low back does best.  But the low back also should have the flexibility to bend forward and has the capacity for some rotation, although structurally we need our low back more for core and torso support so lumbar rotation is not a primary function for the spine.

However, if you look at the structure of the thoracic, or upper spine, this is where the most movement for the torso should be available.  And unfortunately for most people, this is also the tightest, stiffest, most restricted part of the upper body.  Our chest muscles are tight, our backs are stiff and weak, our breathing is restricted.  So the great amount of free, easy and articulate movement we should have to bend forward, backwards, sideways and twist has been reduced through lack of use, bad posture and poor breathing habits to have people holding their torsos still like a brick and waving the arms and legs around thinking they’re getting a great workout yet still wishing it was easier to move.

Spend a lot of time in the weight room pumping iron?  I love weight lifting too, but this is typically another “hold the torso still” activity.  How about Yoga class?  I “like” Yoga, but without my Pilates training know that I’d be on the fast-track to injuries in most Yoga classes, where the emphasis is on “holding a Pose” rather than learning how to move into and out of positions to stretch, move and more freely articulate every part of the body.  I know there are Yogi’s out there who will disagree with me, but every Yoga teacher I’ve ever worked with came to me because they got hurt in Yoga class and continuing Yoga with their injuries was not going to help them get better. They needed help getting back to 100%, and my expertise and Pilates is what helped make that happen.

What are we doing if we’re not doing Pilates to improve the movement, muscle activation and health of the spine?  There is a lot you can do.  Most, if not all, Pilates principles can be taken out of the studio and incorporated into your other fitness workouts and daily activities.  A little body awareness goes a long ways in helping you move better. 

How often are do you pay attention to your ribcage?  Do you think of it as a chunk, like a birdcage?  Or as individual bones that can fan apart, come together and move in a myriad of directions?

One of the things I like to point out to my students by showing them a skeleton is the fact that our ribcage is attached to the spine in the back, and the breastbone in the front.  The only way we can freely mobilize the upper back for movement is to also allow the whole ribcage to move.  While this might seem like a trivial piece of information that you should already know and understand, seeing this on a skeleton can help deepen the understanding of just how important this actually is for improving functional movement.

I’m starting a series of articles: Centerworks® “Secret” Training Tips for Mobilizing the Ribcage.  If focusing a little time and attention on your ribs sounds like something that might benefit you, stay tuned for updates as this rib-tastic series of functional movement tips gets posted on the blog.


Check out the entire Mobilizing the Ribcage Series:


Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.


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