Ribcage Expansion: Fact or Fiction?
Questions & Answers
by Ellington Darden, Ph.D.
This 1967 photo of me was taken with a Polaroid camera by Dan Ilse. Dan helped me master this chest pose, which involved a back arch, ribcage thrust, and stomach vacuum. Many old-time strongmen and muscle-control artists understood and practiced this feat.
Ribcage Expansion at age 30?
Q: Your Lost Training Tips article got me fired up about doing squats and pullovers. But at 30 years of age, can I really expect to expand my ribcage?
A: Ribcage expansion has been a controversial topic over the last several years on multiple T-Nation threads. As a result, I decided to consult with someone who understands anatomy from both the outside and the inside.
MB Medaera, M.D., specializes in complex surgery of the brain, spine, and chest. He's a precise micro-surgeon and a fact-filled educator. Furthermore, he's trained with weights for more than 25 years and he's utilized breathing squats and pullovers. I wanted his critical analysis of this protective structure surrounding the heart and lungs, and whether or not a 30-year-old male could expand it with weight training.
"The ribs," Dr. Medaera said, "are flat, curved bones that are attached to the spine in back and to the sternum in front. The ribcage has remarkable elasticity, which is primarily due to the costal cartilages. Costal cartilages (shown in yellow in the illustration) are strips of dense tissues that serve as connectors of the long ribs to the sternum. Ribcage growth during childhood and adolescence occurs primarily in the costal cartilages.
Here's a front view of the bones that make up the ribcage. The sternum is dagger shaped in the middle. In yellow are the costal cartilages, which connect the sternum and the ends of the ribs.
"During the early twenties, in the vast majority of males, the costal cartilages ossify or become fixed. After ossification occurs, weight training, forced breathing, and stretching are going to have little effect on increasing the size of the ribcage.
"An older trainee can still, however, increase slightly the thickness of his ribs with progressive-resistance exercise. And pullovers will have a significant effect on the hypertrophy of the involved muscles: the latissimus dorsi, intercostals, pectoralis major, diaphragm, and seratus anterior."
What about between the ages of 15 to 20 years of age?
"Teenagers," Dr. Medaera continued, "who perform breathing squats and pullovers progressively for many months can expect from one to two inches of ribcage growth — and even more on the surrounding muscles. Certain people, with unusual genetics — such as yourself — can exceed those expectations."
I'd just shown Dr. Medaera several old photos of me at age 15, after a summer of weight training that included breathing squats and pullovers. The after pictures revealed I had added five inches (from 38 inches to 43) to my chest circumference measurement.
Flash-forward from 1959 to 1967. At age 23, my chest circumference had progressed to 48 inches and I weighed 200 pounds (see the opening photo). In eight years, I'd added ten inches to my chest measurement and 65 pounds to my bodyweight.
How much was due to ribcage expansion and how much was due to growth of the related muscles?
"I'd say three inches of that display was ribcage," Dr. Medaera answered, "and the remaining seven inches was related to your chest/back muscles. Of course, you started at the right time — age 15 — to take advantage of the natural growth processes. Plus, you had unusual flexibility in your spine and knew how to execute that chest pose advantageously."
Dr. Medaera was right. In the 1960s, I'd studied and applied a number of old-school flexibility and posing tips, which I'll discuss in the next section.
In summary, ribcage expansion or growth — usually from one to two inches in circumference — can occur during the teenage years. But after the growth plates are sealed in the early twenties, the ribs and other bones can only increase slightly in thickness, not in length.
Muscular Growth, Flexibility, and Pullovers
Q: Several years ago I remember looking through some old muscle magazines and seeing a side-chest pose of you that was amazing. Can you share some of your personal guidelines with me on exactly how you performed your pullovers and how you were able to expand your ribcage so dramatically?
A: According to Dr. Medaera, approximately 30% of my side-chest development was related to my ribcage. The remaining 70% was muscular growth, flexibility, and posing ability.
I also must reinforce that what I'm going to recommend may not work for you as well as it worked for me, unless you're a teenager and have similar genetic potential for ribcage growth, muscular development, and flexibility as I had.
In trying to locate unsuccessfully the published photo you were talking about, I came across the opening Polaroid picture that was taken in Austin, Texas, in 1967 by Dan Ilse. Dan won Mr. Texas in 1961 and prior to that, worked out with Mel Williamson at Muscle Beach in California. Williamson entered several Mr. America contests in the 1950s and was Mr. Muscle Beach in 1956.
If you look through some of the Joe Weider magazines in 1957 and 1958, you'll find some impressive side ribcage shots of Williamson. One in particular showed him with a water glass being balanced on top of his inflated chest.
In 1956, 20-year-old Mel Williamson took the prize for ribcage thrust and flexibility. Williamson was a firm believer in breathing squats and pullovers.
Ilse picked up two practices from Williamson and passed them on to me. The first tip was to become skillful at doing a backbend and the second one was to perfect the stomach vacuum. The mechanics of each are below.
Backbend on Floor
This exercise will help to stretch the torso and to contract the muscles of the lower and middle back. It'll also assist you in projecting your ribcage during a side chest pose. It's important to attempt this movement very cautiously at first. If you experience any unusual pain, discontinue it immediately.
Lie face down on the floor. Look toward the ceiling and begin to arch your neck and middle back. With your hands in a push-up position under your shoulders, gradually straighten your elbows as you extend and arch your middle and lower back more and more.
When you reach the highest-possible position, bend your knees and try to touch your feet to your head. At the same time, push your head back further by extending your arms. Ease out of the top position and return smoothly to the floor. Repeat several times. Few people initially will be able to touch their feet to their head, but many can work up to it in several months.
Another shot of Mel Williamson, who was 5-feet 8-inches tall, weighed 194 pounds, and had a 48-inch chest.
Here's a movement that will help you control your breathing, as well as some of the smaller muscles that surround your ribcage. It may also actually make your waistline permanently smaller! It was a favorite of many of the Golden-Age Mr. Americas such as John Grimek, George Eiferman, John Farbotnik, and Red Lerille. And it contributed greatly to my ability to project my ribcage during my chest poses.
George Eiferman, 1948 AAU Mr. America: Eiferman had a large ribcage and some of the thickest pecs of all time.
Red Lerille, 1960 AAU Mr. America: I met Red in 1962 and I was very impressed by his posing and his ability to display his ribcage and lats.
Reg Park, 1951 NABBA Mr. Universe and Steve Reeves, 1950 NABBA Mr. Universe: Both Park and Reeves were famous for their chest poses. Park, in particular, had a deep ribcage.
Other bodybuilders who impressed me with their ribcages and vacuum displays in the late 1960s were Reg Park, Mike Ferraro, Mike Katz, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
To perform the vacuum, lie on your back on the floor. Make sure your stomach is relatively empty. Place your hands across the bottom of your ribcage and the top of your abdominals. Take a normal breath and forcibly blow out as much air as possible. This should require about ten seconds.
Now here's the challenging part: Suck in your stomach to the maximum degree — while not taking in any air during the process. If you're doing it properly, you'll feel a concave formation — which is called a stomach vacuum — under your lower ribs.
You won't be able to hold the vacuum very long. Try it several times while lying down. If you feel a little light-headed, that's normal. Rest a little longer between repetitions.
Stand now and try the vacuum in front of a mirror. Remove your shirt so you can see what's happening.
At first, the vacuum is more difficult to do standing than lying, but with a little practice you should be able to master it in a standing position. Then, you'll want to apply it while contracting your arms and chest, as well as other muscle groups. That's not easy to do initially, so you'll have to practice it for several months.
As you're working on the backbend and the stomach vacuum, you'll also need to practice your side-chest pose. Soon, you'll want to combine them all into the dynamicribcage thrust. That was my variation on what I gathered from Dan Ilse, as well as observing and talking with Red Lerille and others.
To practice the ribcage thrust: Stand, interlace the fingers of both hands, and extend your arms to the front of your torso. Draw your hands smoothly under your ribcage and pull up slightly. Raise your ribcage by inhaling deeply.
Here's the challenging part, which requires a lot of concentration. Ease into a stomach vacuum while pulling the ribs higher with your hands and wrists, as you simultaneously arch your mid-back and thrust your ribcage forward even more. The entire process (vacuum, pull, arch, and thrust) requires about five seconds to perform.
Properly initiated, the full-thrust position from the side appears as if the chest has expanded another two to three inches. Practice, practice, and more practice are the ways you master this display.
The pullover exercise also requires some guidelines and variations.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle: The Pullover
In my training, I applied three types of pullovers: straight-arm pullover with one dumbbell held in both hands while lying crossways on a low bench, straight-arm pullover with one dumbbell in both hands while lying crossways on a high bench, and the Nautilus pullover machine. Here's how to do each one.
Straight-arm pullover on low bench: This was my bread-and-butter movement because there was usually a low bench available. Lie across a low bench that's approximately 18-inches tall. Hold a dumbbell on one end with your thumbs on the inside and your fingers on the outside. Position your head slightly off the middle of the bench with the dumbbell over your chest and your arms straight.
Lower the dumbbell behind your head toward the floor. As the dumbbell is lowering, drop your buttocks and keep your legs relatively straight. Ease into the bottom stretch very carefully. Return smoothly to the over-chest position.
Important: Viewed from the side, the bottom position of the pullover requires an arch to your middle and lower back. Given that you have healthy shoulders and back, as you get stronger and stronger that arch should get more and more pronounced.
Straight-arm pullover on high bench: I discovered this variation by accident. As a teenager in high school I took metal shop and built a lot of my benches and racks for my garage gym. An attempt to build a combination leg-extension/leg-curl machine bombed badly and it never worked properly.
The top of this bench was 36 inches by 24 inches and the height was 36 inches. And there stood this tall wide bench in the middle of my parents' garage with a non-functioning contraption at one end. Fortunately, it was across from the squat racks, which did function correctly.
One day after doing squats, instead of lying across a nearby low bench and performing pullovers, I placed a quilt for padding across the top of the 36-inch-tall bench and did my usual set of pullovers there. Wow, I thought afterward, what a great way to get even more stretching throughout my middle and lower back!
Again, if you picture such a movement from the side, you can imagine what I'm talking about. The wider and taller bench allowed for greater stability, which was needed for greater stretching to occur. But be careful. You must first be used to doing the low-bench pullover before you attempt the high-bench version. Also, be sure that whatever high bench you adapt is well built and stable.
Nautilus pullover machine: During the late 1970s, the Nautilus pullover machine was a basic piece of equipment found in most fitness centers. Because of the machine's rotary resistance, a trainee has a much greater range of motion than is possible with a dumbbell pullover. If you're lucky enough to have access to one, be sure and apply it.
Sit in the machine. Make sure the top of your shoulder lines up with the axis of the movement arm. Adjust the seat bottom appropriately until it does. Fasten the seatbelt tightly across your hips. Leg press the foot pedal until the pads on the movement arm are about chin level. Place your elbows on the pads and you're ready to begin.
Remove your feet from the foot pedal and slowly rotate your elbows back into a comfortable shoulder and upper-back stretch. Pause for a few seconds and stretch even more. Rotate your elbows forward and downward smoothly until the bar touches your midsection. Return slowly to the stretched position.
The Nautilus pullover machine, shown here in 1975, supplied more than 240 degrees of rotary resistance directly to the upper arms. Notice the arching of the middle back and the stretching of the ribcage.
Q: How do you apply the pullover variations in your weekly workouts?
A: Given that you have access to the Nautilus pullover machine, I'd recommend that you alternate the pullover machine with either the low-bench or high-bench variation. In other words, during one ribcage training day do squats immediately followed by the Nautilus pullover. The next ribcage training day, do squats immediately followed by either the low-bench or high-bench pullover. Perform one or the other, but not both on the same training day.
Pullovers were responsible for a lot of the muscular development and flexibility that I achieved in my upper torso and ribcage. This shot was taken by Bruce Robinson, just after I had won the 1970 Mr. South contest. His sister was seated on the bench.
If you don't have access to a Nautilus pullover machine, then start with the low-bench pullover. After a couple of months, and if you can rig up an appropriate bench, you may progress to the high-bench version.
Regardless of your age, however, you should definitely add the pullover to your bodybuilding arsenal. It's time for the almost-lost art of ribcage expansion and ribcage display to make a comeback!
Note: For more Golden-Age training guidelines, see Dr. Darden's latest book, The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results.
Bonus! Win a T-shirt!
One individual stands out in my mind as having the biggest, thickest chest and ribcage development I've ever seen. I discuss him in my new bodybuilding book. Who is he?
The first correct answer that's posted below wins an OLD-SCHOOL IRON T-shirt!
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