A lot of us are rib thrusters – in that we don’t have great thoracic (read upper back) extension, so when we go to move or stand upright, our nervous system thrusts our ribs forward and our shoulders back, bringing our eyes to the horizon.
(As an aside, I realize there are other causes, but I’m not going there today for the sake of brevity.)
It won’t surprise anyone when I say that this is not ideal posture. It basically means standing in a mini backbend, which over time is not going to feel great on your lower back…or your neck…or your shoulders.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, not only because many of my clients have rib flares (oftentimes with corresponding discomfort), but also because I have a strong one as well stemming from my days as a competitive cheerleader and I’ve been subjected to some pretty negative movement experiences when I couldn’t get my ribs to look the way the instructor wanted them to.
So how do we work on this or any strong alignment deviation without making someone feel self-conscious or frustrated?
I’ll start with what doesn’t work. Forcing someone to shove their ribs down into “ideal” alignment and then berating them when they can’t keep it there.
No one wants to be scolded for their misbehaving structure as if they can’t intellectually understand what’s happening. If you’ve taken the time to explain it and demonstrate it, odds are the person gets it. They just might not be able to “correct” it to the degree that’s being demanded.
My rib thrust has offended dozens of inexperienced and poorly educated movement teachers over the years and when I’ve gone along with what they’ve said and just shoved my ribs into place, I’ve ended up with migraines and neck pain, because…
A) It’s too much change for the rest of my structure to negotiate.
When you move one mass so dramatically, everything else that has been compensating for this shift has to go even more out of misalignment to accommodate it.
B) for me the limitation doesn’t exist at the bottom of my ribs, which are hypermobile. It exists at the upper part of my spine where I have some fairly significant structural limitations.
I’m one of those people whose obvious misalignment can’t be fixed with a single cue. The solution I need is a little more complex and requires a few steps.
In order to comfortably settle my rib cage towards neutral (and not set off my next migraine) I need to first address the underlying cause of the flare, which in my case means mobilizing my upper back (think side bending, rotation, extension).
Once I do that, everything feels way better and my ribs are able to get a little closer to neutral, but they still won’t look “ideal” regardless of how I’m positioned or propped – at least not anytime soon.
And they don’t have to.
I…and everyone else who has this postural quirk…can still get the benefits of movement while sporting a bit of a rib thrust – particularly when working consciously in my best version of relatively neutral alignment and focusing on stabilizing my weaker areas.
Now, I’m using the rib thrust as one example, but let’s be clear, this applies to all postural deviations with underlying structural restrictions. Maybe the alignment deviation isn’t a rib thrust. Maybe it’s scoliosis, collapsed arches or a pelvis being locked too far anteriorly or posteriorly.
Human movement is complicated and imperfect which means that even if you do an exercise spectacularly well, some small piece of it might still look a little off and assuming it’s not in an area that’s prone to pain or injury, that’s okay.
There will always been a funny little rotation or bend somewhere in the system. The shoulders might look beautiful, but the hip might be a bit dropped. Or the hips will be stacked, but the head will be slightly out of alignment.
Or sometimes, it’s more dramatic. Sometimes, there’s emotional or physical trauma and/or structural limitations (as is the case with my slowly getting better, but ever present rib flare). Sometimes the system can’t quite get to true neutral no matter how much you cue and command and prop people even in simple exercises. Sometimes there’s literal hardware fusing joints together, preventing that person from being in ideal alignment.
So what then? Do you ban the person from moving or do you help them move from a more relatively aligned place in a comfortable and pain free way with appropriate loads, even if it’s imperfect?
To me the answer is obvious.
I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying we should be reckless movement or execute exercises in a thoughtless or unsafe manner. Alignment, body awareness and precision is important – particularly in the case of injury, but there’s a balance to be had, one where we address areas that need some attention, while still giving the client freedom to…well…move.
Can we use props (pillows under the head, bolsters ect) to find a more neutral position?
Might mobility drills, foam rolling and massage help these alignment deviations?
Should we cue or bring attention to areas of the body that are moving outside of general good alignment?
Would it be smart shelve exercises that make that alignment issue worse or overload the more compromised segments of system until we’ve created more strength and control?
However, it’s important to remember that the goal should never be ideal alignment and depending on how far a segment is out of neutral you might never be able to get it to look “right” – at least not in the initial sessions.
It should be about creating a successful movement experience, where the you feels good about the work you did and things align well given where your structure is that day.
And even if you never reach nirvana…excuse me, ideal alignment… it doesn’t matter, because ideal alignment isn’t a real thing. It’s just a model that we work off of.
Micromanaging fails in movement the same way that it fails in the office.
Push one part of your body too far and too quickly in one direction (even if it’s considered the “ideal”) without giving the surrounding segments a chance to adapt and you’ll only get more tension and pain.
There’s no such thing as perfect movement. Just better paths of action and not so great paths of action affecting how forces run through your joints.
Be thoughtful and slow down as needed to create better movement patterns, but don’t fear movement.
Move thoughtfully. Move freely. Move often. Move joyfully.
You were born to do it and it that sense, you can’t do it wrong.