Mar 24 , 2021


Syed Mahmud

Designed to Move - The Scalenes and Rib Flare


Would it interest you to know that the headaches you’re experiencing could be from poor posture? That throbbing you feel around the temples could be directly related to your inability to maintain proper tension relationships in the muscles around your neck and shoulders?

If this is happening to you and you want to do something about, first you’ll want to understand how the issue started in the first place.  In order to do that we’ll need to dig a little bit into the science of movement. Don’t worry - it’ll be quick.

The Physics of Movement

Muscles flex to create force and torque force. Force simply means moving some sort of mass over a distance.  The concept of torque is an important one to understand. Especially if you want to know how the body moves and how poor movement can lead to pain.

Torque by definition is the application of force to an object like a lever that pivots on an axis. We see examples of torque all around us.  If you’ve ever opened a door or played on a seesaw you’ve experienced first-hand the mechanics of torque and levers.

Imagine that seesaw for a moment. On one side there’s a child and on the other side a parent. Although the parent is heavier, they can continue to equal each other’s weight by having the parent sit closer to the pivot point or center. This decreases the parent’s torque.  Inversely, the farther away the weight, or child is in this case from the pivot point, the greater the amount of torque force that’s created. Examples of these opposing forces are found throughout the human body.

With the body our joints serve as the pivot points for our bones to rotate around as levers.  The muscles which cross the joint apply the force to move the levers. Forces are applied to the body in numerous ways. Gravitational, ground reaction and electrical forces all pull or push on the body. Every time you lift your arm your muscles are not only opposing gravitational forces but also other muscular tensions.

Force Couple Relationships

Often people believe that a single muscle is responsible for creating a movement. This isn’t true - muscles work in pairings. One or a grouping of muscles will contract to create force in one direction while another will contract to create force in the opposite direction.  This is called a force couple. The cooperation of opposing forces allows us to move and to balance. When the force couples work together, they provide smooth synergistic pain free movement.

Since the body is constantly resisting gravity there is a never-ending battle going on between earth's gravitational pull and the forces the muscles must maintain to keep it balanced.  When the forces balance, we call this postural equilibrium.

The Problem

The problem is the body seeks to take the path of least resistance. It likes to conserve energy by reducing the force the muscles must create to maintain balance by changing the positioning of the pivot points (a.k.a. joints). It’s kind of lazy in this way. This allows it to gain more leverage or reduce torque forces. Remember the parent on the seesaw? Slouching at a desk is a classic example of this. Unfortunately, these postural distortions lead to muscular imbalances which impact efficient movement of the joints. The joints become impinged and this can cause pain and even injuries.

Scalenes and Rib Flare

Often due to hectic but also sedentary lifestyles, we can begin to develop poor posture. Having good posture requires that we have the ability to engage the right sets of muscles to maintain the appropriate amounts of force to stabilize the joints in their natural position. As we discussed this rarely happens because of our tendency towards taking the path of least resistance.  This means certain muscles become overused while others may not function at all.

One of the commonly overused muscle groups are the hip flexors. These muscles pull the pelvis forward lengthening through the front abdominal muscles.  Since the abdominals attach from the pelvis to the lower front portion of the ribcage, their lengthening can alter the natural resting relationship of the trunk (ribcage) leading to a protruding out or flaring of the ribs in the front.

The positioning of the ribcage can greatly impact how one breathes. When the ribs flare the muscles primarily used to breath in like the diaphragm become too engaged which tends to set the ribcage into an overly ascended position.

The body moves in natural patterns - especially when it comes to breathing (20,000 times daily).

When our abdominals aren’t able to effectively depress the ribcage as we breath in, the body begins to believe that this is its natural pattern. This overly inflated ribcage position places the muscles which assist the diaphragm with breathing into an overactive position. These include the scalene muscles. The scalenes attach the ribs to the neck. Their overactive engagement contributes to excessive pressure being applied to the cervical spine. This leads to postural distortions in the neck and shoulders which create pain, headaches and potentially injury.

Yes, There is a Solution!

  1. Increase the mobility of the muscles that attach the ribs to the neck (such as the scalenes).  
  2. Recognize which muscles help to stabilize and depress the rib cage while breathing in and strengthen them (such as the abdominals and obliques)
  3. Condition your nervous system with functional movement patterns that coordinate the appropriate muscular firing patterns. (You’ll get an example in the video below so read on!) 
  4. Reduce sitting for longer than 20 minutes at a time to reduce the chronic tension in the hip flexor muscles. 

How to Assess?

Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground shoulder width apart. Bring your arms up parallel to your shoulders bent at 90 degrees with your fingertips touching the ground. Breath in deeply through the nose for a count of 2 and breath out through your mouth for a count of 4. Try to simultaneously contract your abdominal wall while breathing in and out. Repeat several times. 

  1. Did your shoulders shrug or did your head tilt back? 
  2. Did you notice your ribcage lift up or collar bone elevate as you took a breath in? 
  3. Did your abdominal wall draw in or hollow at any point? 
  4. Were you unable to efficiently coordinate the contraction of your abdominal wall while breathing in or out?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you tested positive for this common posture problem and you’ll want to pay attention to what comes next and watch the accompanying video on how to correct it.

Simple Corrective Methods

Correcting Overactive Muscle

Because we move in patterns, our bodies favor the use of certain muscle groups over others. Since many of us flared ribs, this can place the scalenes into an overactive position. You’ll want to lengthen them via self-myofascial release, and then follow the myofascial release with neuromuscular stretching.

Below is just one of the muscles you’ll want to focus on this week to reduce rib flare:

  • Scalenes Self-Myofascial Release for 60 to 90 seconds on each side
  • Stretch or lengthen each for 60 to 90 seconds on each side

Correcting Underactive Muscles

As mentioned above, pain in the body is commonly caused when how we move forces certain muscles to work overtime, while other muscles become lazy and don’t want to function. You’ll need to wake up these lazy muscles through isolated strength movements.

The abdominals, hamstrings, gluteals and middle set of erector spinae muscles are what we’ll want to engage this week:

  • Transverse abdominus | 3D breathing (6-8 breathing cycles)
  • Anterior oblique sling | Quadruped hip extension with opposite side scapular adduction (6-8 cycles)
  • Erector spinae | Laying cobra - 2 sets on each muscle group 10-15 reps using a slow opening of the muscle, isolated hold at the bottom of the movement, followed by a controlled shortening of the muscle.

Now that you know which muscles are typically under-active and overactive, let’s put it all together for you. Watch the video for a step-by-step breakdown on how to target each of these areas.

Start off by applying the techniques three times a week and build from there. Every so often, reassess your posture and see how far you’ve progressed. Soon, you’ll start to see noticeable changes in your body position and mobility!

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