We are used to thinking about good breathing habits, the action of inhaling and exhaling fully, as important to maintain a good supply of oxygen to our cells and for cardiovascular fitness to pump the heart.

Another important and less emphasized effect of optimal breathing mechanics is how it impacts our MOVEMENT CAPABILITIES. The movement of our ribcage, the diaphragm and other breathing muscles hugely impacts how the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle move. In other words, our overall movement coordination and sense of ease through the body (or, if it’s not moving so well, how much tension we end up habitually holding).

In class over the last few weeks, we have spent some time doing breathing practices which encourage the rib cage (and therefore the diaphragm) to expand fully during inhalation and to retract fully during exhalation.

The Front Side of the Rib Cage

We have done specific practices to feel and expand the side area of the ribcage – the bucket handle action. It is a lateral expansion or sideways broadening. Here is a helpful diagram!

Photo credit: www.studentconsult.com, from Elsevier.Drake et al: Gray’s Anatomy for Students

The lower ribs both expand outwards and rotate upwards (externally) on the inhale. With the lengthening of the intercostal muscles (and others) this pulls the diaphragm wider and lower.

On the exhale the lower ribs move down again and rotate internally, helping to push the diaphragm back into its more domed shape under the ribcage. The intercostal muscles between each rib lengthen and shorten with this action, and other muscles being moved too. Have a look at this:

We have also practiced feeling the whole front chest wall and sternum expanding outward and upwards on the inhale, and back down on the exhale – the pump handle action. Take a look:

Photo credit: www.studentconsult.com, from Elsevier.Drake et al: Gray’s Anatomy for Students

The Back Side of the Rib Cage

We have also practiced different ways of expanding into the back ribs, where the diaphragm has a lot of potential expansion and with 60% of our lung capacity is to the back side of the lungs. Look in the diagram below how the shape of the spiny bits of the vertebrae flatten down with the back expansion, how the chest wall expands out and up, and the space between each rib widens.

Why is it so critical to good movement to work on this full rib cage excursion?

You can see from this lovely one minute animation (do watch! it’s really calming!) that the bucket handle lifting of the ribs happens by the movement of the diaphragm widening downwards (and the external intercostal muscles contracting between the ribs).  Click  on this link:

Rib Animation During Breathing

The top seven ribs attach to the thoracic (upper) spine, while the back long straps of the diaphragm (the crura) attach to the lumbar (lower) spine, so this breathing expansion outward and upward and back down and in of the ribs gently pulls on and undulates the spine with every single breath. The inhale pulls the spine straighter, and then the spine releases back to its more S-shape curve on the exhale.

Because the spine is a chain of links, this movement goes all the way down to the tailbone and up to the skull.

On the inhale, the diaphragm exerts a slight downward pressure on the organs of the of the abdominal cavity, it rocks the pelvis back and forth, it moves in tandem with the pelvic floor

So even though much of this movement is subtle, every breath cycle creates an undulating movement through the body. As we breathe over 22,000 times a day, this keeps the spine, connected bony structures of the shoulder grille, pelvis and beyond, and the organs, all moving smoothly in a coordinated way.

Consider the scenario if the rib cage is not expanding so much: when the spine doesn’t move so much, it becomes stiffer with less subtle movement between each vertebrae, this will have a knock on effect on the movement of the shoulderblades, the pelvis, and then the shoulder joints and hip joints and so on. If the front chest doesn’t move so much with the pump handle and bucket handle movement, this can create less movement capacity in the shoulder joint as well.

Breath mechanics is usually a factor in low back tension, neck tension, pelvic floor issues.

For example, a limited position of the ribcage can end up exerting more downward pressure into the abdominal cavity, putting the pelvic floor more under pressure – this can have a knock on effect up the chain, even to the neck muscles holding more tension, as the body tries to manage the downwards pressure forces to the pelvic floor, by tensing further up.

Imagine : stiff ribcage = downward pressure on inhaling = pelvic floor having to over-tense to hold downward pressure = other muscles right up to neck muscles over-tensing to try and manage this more than optimal downward pressure (which should be being absorbed by ribs expanding outward)

So the expansion and space in the trunk created by the ribs expanding fully actually supports whole body balanced coordination in movement.

Two other impacts of suboptimal rib cage/diagragm movement – A stiffer rib cage also means It is less easy to expand and get full air capacity into the lungs when needed.

Also, when the rib cage is tighter and/or less pliable, the breath may be shallower or faster, so it provides less calming parasympathetic balance, which naturally happens with the exhale as the rib cage settles back up in a domed, relaxed position from the expanded one.

The good news is that muscles can lengthen and contract better with practice and even the bones and cartilage of the ribcage are malleable and do shape change over a long time. A rib cage which has flattened out and stiffened up, or a diaphragm that is more stuck in a wider semi-contracted state can start to expand more fully with practice.

Here is a 5 min breathing practice for the bucket handle and pump handle movement of the rib cage.

Here are three different ways to encourage back ribs expansion ( 10 mins)


I hope this explains why I’ve been describing these breathing practices as so foundational to good movement and worth spending a few minutes on in each class. Also, these breath practices can be a lovely quiet, settling part of a movement practice, such as breathing into your back in Child’s Pose or lying down with bent knees breathing into your hands on your ribs. As the intention is to expand and soften to capacity without any forcing or strain, just feeling this expansive and softening rhythm within us can be a moment to come home to our body and sense of self.

Please let me know in the comments below how these practices haver been going for you, and if any questions or comments. Is this new information for anyone?

I’ve mentioned the increase in intra-abdominal pressure on the inhale. You could also take a look at my blog on the core and the inner cylinder of the core to understand how your breathing, and the movement of the diaphragm and pelvic floor are a crucial part of accessing your core support.