Yoga Tune Up® Blog


Intercostals: A Story That Sticks To Your Ribs

My manfriend accompanied me on my recent trip to New York City for the YTU Integrated Embodied Anatomy training.

We were both excited – you see, we hail from small town, Canada and we had big plans for our trip to the big city.  However, on the plane ride, my partner, who was on the mend from a long bout with a cold, had a coughing fit and tore an intercostal (one of the small muscles between the ribs). This proved to be completely debilitating.  Our plans came to a screeching halt. The injury prevented him from laughing, stretching, coughing, breathing deeply, and even lying down to sleep.  He described the pain as “like being stabbed in the ribs”. Ouch!

The timing was perfect for exploring the question … Is there something that can be done to strengthen and fortify the intercostals against future injury? I was, after all, in New York to study the practical applications of Anatomy! Could I use my new knowledge for the benefit of another human being?

I put on my thinking cap and got to work. First learning about what the intercostals do.

There are two kinds of intercostals: internal and external.  The internal intercostals assist with exhalation by drawing the ribs downward and decreasing the space of the thoracic cavity.  The external intercostals draw the ribs upward, increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity.

The intercostals are easy to access but sensitive to touch – but you can find them by sliding a finger into the space between your ribs. Then take several slow, deep breaths and any expansion or collapse in the spaces between the ribs.

It is not uncommon for extended runs of sneezing and coughing (hello allergy season!) to result in torn or strained intercostals. But there are things you can do to make these muscles more supple and strong. Yoga Tune Up® to the rescue!

Try the following YTU exercises for strengthening and stretching these small, but important muscles.  If you currently have an intercostal injury, wait until the injury is healed before beginning a strengthening and stretching program – and be sure to move gently and mindfully.

To strengthen the intercostals:
Tadasana with end of exhalation contraction
Tadasana with end of inhalation contraction
Jathara Parivartanasana with end of exhalation contraction
To stretch:
Parighasana

Read about exercises for core strength.

Read more about your diaphragm.

Learn about Yoga Tune Up at home.

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About This Author

It was love at first Sun Salutation for Amanda Tripp ... who was introduced to yoga as a teen when her mom brought home a video. Eventually, she sought out living, breathing teachers to help direct and deepen her practice. Her teachers have been inspirational; her yoga practice: transformational. Amanda felt the call to share the healing benefits of practice with others and completed a 250-hour teacher training program at the Yoga Centre of Burlington. Continuing studies led her to the work of Jill Miller and certification as a Yoga Tune Up® teacher. Amanda's classes speak to the body, breath, mind and heart as she guides students toward greater ease of being.

42 Responses to “Intercostals: A Story That Sticks To Your Ribs”

  1. Kristin says:

    I like that you added the contraction at the end of the inhale. I also had no idea that there were two types of intercostals. Nor the fact that they are so sensitive and a sneeze could take them out. Thank you for shedding light on this muscle. Your breath work is great as it could be practiced at a desk at work. Also it is wonderful to imagine the intercostals as you breath!!

  2. Jackie says:

    This article really sticks to my ribs. I read this article last year and almost every time i teach or practice a breathing exercise I think of these muscles expanding and contracting.

  3. Meghan says:

    Great article about the important and little know intercostals. I always find it funny that the muscles that are so important for everyday functions get such little airtime. Working to keep good flexible space between the ribs is vital to good posture, energy and overall health.

  4. Amanda Tripp says:

    @Steeve:
    Hi! Sorry about your injury – but so glad that you managed to resolve it right away. That’s wonderful! The YTU balls are totally safe to use on your rib cage. In fact, if you want to really get at those intercostals, you would need something even smaller than the OGs (like a finger) to really carve into the space between the ribs. Continue to take good care of you!

  5. Steeve says:

    I went to Rib Fest Ottawa last Sunday, then pulled one of my left intercostals on Tuesday morning. I don’t particularly appreciate that type of irony, however it was an opportunity for me to indulge in the subject of intercostals.

    As for my pulled “rib” it was really uncomfortable, so I totally relate with the debilitating aspects of what a tear could feel. 10 minutes with the YTU balls and an hour later, the discomfort was gone, and has not returned… yet.

    That said, I have a question. How safe is it to rollout the intercostal region with YTU balls?

  6. Pam says:

    Interesting. So often we forget the smaller muscle groups and yet the play such an important role to ease the work of the larger prime movers. Cool!

  7. Yiselle Blum says:

    Thanks for the great post, Amanda! I was frequently finding my breathing tight after practicing singing for a long time and of course when I was nervous about a new teacher/coach. I have been looking for ways to relax/strengthen those muscles particularly because I think it is so easy to equate muscle strength with muscle tightness for the uninformed, and a lot of my not-so-anatomy-savvy voice teachers had been telling me that “I’m strong, so I am very tight”. While it is certainly possible to strong muscles to be tight if not properly stretched, I know that I have many muscles that are strong but not tight, or supple, as you aptly put it. I will definitely be putting these techniques in hopes of cultivating strong and controlled, but tension-free breathing for my singing practice :-D

  8. Elissar Hanna says:

    Thanks Amanda. This is a great story and good reminder of those small but important muscles. They are so sensitive so I couldn’t have imagined a way to strengthen them….I missed the obvious: breath! Sometimes, I forget that breathing involves muscles. I love to tune into the intercostals and just feel the relationship between the lungs, the ribs and those sweet intercostal mucles; interconnected, breathing tissue, keeping me alive!
    Peace to you.

  9. Amanda Tripp says:

    @JL.
    I think you’ll find that the YTU Therapy Balls are the best place to begin with removing knots and trigger points. I would roll out the upper back, shoulders and neck to begin addressing those old knotty, gnarly spots first.
    Let’s talk when I see you this weekend!

  10. JL says:

    Hi Amanda, I just wanted to tell you that I did yoga tune-up today with an NHL player (after reading this blog last night and commenting on it) and he tells me at the end that he has a knot between his ribs on his back. I am guessing this would be intercostals? He has had this knot for 2 years now and actually said the whole time he was lying on his mat with me all he could feel under is back was the knot? I did Jithara Parivartonasana Variation 3 with him as I did a hip opening sequence with him so I am good there but not sure I really understand what else I can do over the summer with him to help with this knot? Thanks so much. JL

  11. Tomoko says:

    Hi, Amanda :)
    This post was very interesting!! When I am practicing deep breathing, I tend more focused on diaphragm, because once you have no more space in your abdominal to expand, your chest expands automatically so I really didn’t pay much attention to the intercostals!!
    When I run, I’m feeling fine for first 30mins, then gradually my right intercostal T6/7 gets sore. I thought I was getting fatigue on my tubular core so that my diaphragm was not symmetrically working. I will try the strength/ stretch exercises and see if still my right rib gets sore!! Thank you for sharing!!

  12. Katie Fornika says:

    I think this article just solved one of the mysteries of why I have always hated running. So often I would end up with that rib stabbing pain and a terrible time taking deep breaths. Now I know that it is likely from dysfunctional intercostals! This is brilliant, I love how learning about the nuts and bolts of our bodies helps us to make informed and conscious choices about of we move, function, feel and heal ourselves. And it helps us train towards the “meaningful task” in our lives. And one of those meaningful tasks for me is being able to run (no, not talking marathons just your average frolick or jaunt) without searing pain in my lungs, psoas, knees and ankles. Everyday I’m learning, thanks for lighting the way!

  13. Elissa says:

    The intercostals may be small, but as you described (and your friend discovered first-hand), they do play such an important role in our livelihood and well-being! Like any other muscle, they need to be strengthened and lengthened to maintain their ability to contract and expand and to respond to the rigors of daily living and breathing; and of course, withstand the occasional coughing/sneezing marathon episode. Thank you for the great blog along with the list of YTU exercises to help us get these muscles supple, strong and responsive!

  14. Judy Swens says:

    I enjoy how this blog explained how there are 2 types of intercostals INTERNAL and EXTERNAL… the internal intercostals help with exhaling air from the lungs bringing ribs towards the back body and preventing them from sticking out as well as decreasing the thoracic cavity space. Then the external intercostals help on the inhalation, drawing the ribs outward and creating more space in the thoracic cavity for oxygen. I will attempt to add this anatomy understanding into my pranayama excercizes and possibly also into teaching Tubular Core. Thanks for the details!

  15. Jenn says:

    I had pneumonia two years ago and my breathing has been compromised since.
    I notice a remarkable difference when I practice with the YTU balls, in particular through the thoracic ribs.
    I will try the tadasana strengtheners and follow up with Parighasana and YTU ball massage through the thoracic spine.

  16. Amanda Joyce says:

    Oh, the intercostals! I’ve helped a client recover from the same injury your manfriend did and I wish I had known then (pre YTU training) what I know now. These strength and stretch exercises are so valuable!

  17. Alicia says:

    This is son interesting! thanks for sharing. I wasn’t aware of the actions of this muscles and that coughing can cause that injury.
    This exercices are very good to get awarenes and strengthen them and avoid get injured.

  18. [...] to your Intercostals The intercostals are an integral part of your integrated [...]

  19. I would add, Amanda, Tubular Core.

  20. Roxanne says:

    It’s interesting that I fell on this article; I have been practicing the different variations of Jathara Parivartanasana with quite a few of my clients, actually, and I had never made that connection with the intercostals.

  21. Roxanne says:

    Wow Amanda!! Brilliant article! I’ve always “zombied out” on you when you spoke in class. It’s so interesting to here you talk. I just love your style! (: Keep up the nice work!

  22. Tiffani says:

    Great advice for stengtheing the intercostal. As for stretching ;I found that after a session with the Tune Up balls into the Thoracic Erectors WOW!! My rib expansion was huge, you could really feel your breath all the way around. Love those balls.

  23. Alex Ellis says:

    Good to know that you can strengthen and bring awareness to the intercostals just by breathing. More context for my classes. Thanks!

  24. Heather C says:

    This is such a wonderful reminder of some of these muscles we often ignore and forget about yet are so important to basic functions in life such as breathing. The tubular core exercise seems like it could be a wonderful exercise to help strengthen the intercostals as well. In addition the tubular core exercise is great for us to connect with effective breathing and to help stabilize the spine. As a school nurse I have kids who suffer from Upper respiratory issues as , asthma well as allergies and have intercostal muscle pain and this seems like a wonderful idea to teach middle school to high school students as well in the nurse’s office. Thanks so much great tip!

  25. Ada-Reva Spae says:

    The fact that the internal intercostals assist with exhalation drawing down the ribs and decreasing the thoracic cavity space and the externals assist inhalation by bringing the ribs upward, and increasing thoracic cavity volume was very informative, I can see how these actions might work in tandem with the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm to effect breathing. The fact that yoga tune up exercises can strengthen these muscles to prevent injury by both stretching and strengthening them is just one more fascinating piece of information to add to the store of knowledge I am gleaning from YTU teacher training.

  26. Amanda Tripp says:

    Donna, in response to your question: I don’t know … Give it a try and report back!

  27. donna says:

    I somehow ended up with an intercostal cramp once and found it to be horribly debilitating. A full exhale, i.e. contracting those internal intercostals, had me doubled over. I tried sticking my fingers between my ribs, I tried backbending over a phsyioball and it didn’t work. The only thing that got that nasty cramp to slowly release was a conscious, active inhale followed by a passive exhale. The first few breaths I had to stop the exhale short, but eventually the cramp abated and I was able to breath normally. This exercise for strengthening those babies is going to become part of my regular practice! Question: Would you recommend doing this in the pool collarbone deep to further enhance the strength on inhalation?

  28. Christy says:

    This is so good to know how to strengthen these small muscles that most aren’t even aware of. I know for myself, I have tension alone in my innercostals and light massage helps to bring blood flow back to the area. Its interesting to think that our breath could be limited or enhanced by these muscles and that they need attention and care like the rest of our body. Got to love the nooks and crannies!

  29. Amanda Tripp says:

    Amanda, try this out:
    Take a full exhalation. At the end of the exhalation pack in every core muscle you can find. Compact your rib cage! corset your mid-section!
    Then do the same thing while retaining an inhalation.
    If you need further clarification, just let mek know!

  30. Amanda Tripp says:

    Hi Robyn.

    Yes, for the end of the exhale/inhale contraction, you simply exhale or inhale and then tubularize your core!

  31. Cindy says:

    I never thought about the over stretching the intercostal muscles, maybe because they are such small muscles. SInce they are such tiny muscles it makes sense that they can be torn easily. Thank you for your strengthening excercises, I will definitely try to incorporate them into one of my future classes–muscles of respiratrion are so important!

  32. Jamie Leigh says:

    Next time you get a massage ask for some intercostal work… heaven!

  33. orlena lackenbauer says:

    again I am leaving a comment as yesterday’s comment from my phone did not register.;-(… Anyway, I rarely reference the intercostals as they seem to just carry on just fine on their own assisting in automatic respiratory. However I had not realized that they could actually be torn due to a sneeze or cough. I wonder how likely that is to occur. In any case, I seems the side bending lateral flexions would help strength those little guys and bring more awareness to that area.

  34. Maria Vogel says:

    The intercostal muscles somehow are rarely emphasized in a regular yoga class but as you mentioned so important to the breathing process. I like the simple exercise of rolling the rib cage 380 degrees. Seems to always stretch my rib cage and enable me to take a deeper breath.

  35. Erin says:

    I like the instruction “knit the ribs down”, which gives me that visual aide of the intercostals acting as laces to anchor those ribs in place which would be helpful during both inhalation and exhalation contraction.

  36. Destiny says:

    This was very informative! I have an ex-boyfriend who thought that he had “torn a rib” after prolonged and very intense coughing episodes that he suffered as a cause of being a heavy smoker. This provided me with some great information on what he likely tore, his intercostals. I like the pose recommendations! Really helpful.

  37. Nathania says:

    Training these muscles also helps you sing better! They are key in supporting the vocal apparatus, so singers and public speakers can benefit for these exercises.

  38. Renate says:

    During a bodywork training I had one of the teachers compared the rib movement when breathing to venetian blinds – and the intercostals are making this movement happen. So important to keep them both strong an pliable – especially as we age.

  39. Robyn says:

    I never thought about training the intercostals either but it makes sense! Can you please explain further on how to contract them? Is it akin to engaging the tubular core?

  40. Amanda says:

    I second Taylor’s thought – I didn’t really know there was a way to voluntary strengthen the intercostal muscles. In regards to the YTU exercises you suggest – how exactly do you contract the intercostals? I’m having a little difficulty understanding how exactly to do that, and would love to try them out!

  41. Amanda Tripp says:

    It’s so interesting that you should mention that – because that’s exactly what my partner said. It had never occurred to him that he might even want to train his intercostals until this happened. At which time, it became PAINFULLY clear to him how vital the intercostals are to a number of basic functions! Keep tuning up!

  42. Taylor says:

    Not sure why, but it never even crossed my mind to ‘train’ the intercostals! Genius. Thanks for the sequence and suggestions. My grandfather broke a few ribs while staying with me once, and if intercostal pain is anything like that rib pain seemed – I want nothing to do with it!

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After studying yoga, movement, and the human body for over twenty years, I created Yoga Tune Up® as a simple way to restore my body and mind, keeping me balanced and free of pain. Using a specific and unique set of poses, movements and self massage tools, you too can LIVE BETTER IN YOUR BODY WITH YOGA TUNE UP®.

 

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