Optimizing the Female Athlete – Rib Position

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Over the course of my 10 years as a personal trainer and strength coach, I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of female clients. Though each woman’s physiology, athletic background and goals were unique, noticeable patterns emerged- some of which have converged to form a larger issue that is specific to the female population.

One such issue I want to touch upon is the “ribs- out conundrum”.  The position of the ribs is directly linked to the shoulder joint above and the hip joint below.  Because of this relationship, simply cueing “ribs down” is insufficient.

Displaying photo.JPG
“Ribs out” on the left, and “ribs down,” as they should be, on the right.


Why does this problem exist?

Hypermobility is prevalent within the female training demographic. I have focused on this in a previous post.

Many of my clients practice Yoga or Pilates and/or continue to train during and after their pregnancies. These women tend to demonstrate significant joint laxity, and as a result, lack a level of body awareness that allows them to find and feel their end range of motion.


Why is this even a problem?

“Ribs out,” along with poor shoulder stability and anterior pelvic tilt can lead to injury, especially when these issues are ignored and clients are trained via a one-size-fits-all training templates.  I strongly believe that strength and stability training for this clientele must become a priority.  This takes considerable time and effort, and personally I feel as though it is much more challenging to rewire a hypermobile client as opposed to increasing mobility in a restricted one.


These women commonly describe feeling “tight”.  I recommend self-myofascial release in lieu of stretching in order to work out these trigger points. Trigger points often develop in order to create stability where it was previously limited.  Following the specific myofascial release, we can then work to find core stability within specific positions. What these clients don’t sense can actually hurt them.  Video has proven to be an eye-opener and a great teaching tool for demonstrating poor form and positioning where self-awareness was lacking.


How do we fix it?

Our focus needs to be specific to the population’s needs.  Begin with self-myofascial release on trigger points.  This soft tissue work is most effective in this population using the contract/relax method to make it neuromuscular.  We can thank Jill Miller for introducing her “Yoga Tune Up” balls several years ago;it has provided much relief to those who tend to hang out at end range of motion.


As coaches, this is something we can give clients that is very empowering.  In teaching them these self-massage techniques, they are able to relieve tension daily on their own and not rely solely on chiropractors, massage therapist, PT’s or other clinicians. Increasing self-awareness often allows clients to take control of any aches and pains they may experience from training.


Breath is very important, but realize that these people can still breathe into their end range of motions, which is counterproductive. Yoga and Pilates excel with incorporating breath into movement; similar to the way that Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) is bringing the breath back to lifters when addressing areas of chronic tension.


There should be little to no mobility work prescribed to this group.  Joint mobilization can be a prescription for injury with these women.  They should not be hanging onto their joints and ligaments at end range of motion, and bone on bone should be avoided at all costs. Instead we must focus on teaching clients to build stability on their own, challenging though this process may be.


When programming for strength within this population I have had success reducing speed and focusing more on increasing resistance. Training heavier works in these women’s favor, resulting in increased motor control. This encourages an awareness of getting tight in proper position. Clients can safely work hard while feeling and thinking about correct form.


Incorporating more pause movements and adding tempo to lifts can serve the same purpose. In some cases, it may be advisable to remove speed from the equation entirely (temporarily). This also may mean limiting or eliminating particular movements entirely ( i.e. snatches).

Top 5 simple tweaks for basic exercises found within female programming

Include intentional total body bracing with basics such as hollow body holds.

These can work better than planks in cases where the low back arches.  I find that females in general have insufficient strength initially; it’s as if the ability to get tight somehow eludes us.

Ab wheel rollouts with glute squeeze train the anterior core while keeping the low back safe.

Watch out for overarching in the low back when performing chin-ups.

Instead keep the legs straight and glutes tight.

Keep an eye out for hyperextension of the low back on heavy hip thrusts.

Instead, teach single leg hip stability first to ensure the thrusts stay in the glutes where they are meant to be. With the growing popularity of this lift in recent years, I see far too many women’s ribs extended and lower back arching on this lift; it’s no longer a glute bridge, it’s a low back being smashed.  This population may not feel these effects immediately but I assure you they will down the road.

Try this instead:

I always start my females with ½ kneeling single arm landmine or kettlebell presses before progressing to a standing bilateral overhead press. There is much more benefit core and shoulder stability wise and ribs easily stay down while the glutes are engaged to create stability at the hip.

Female programming is not a one-size-fits all template and we must assess each woman we train with the integrity that our profession and training experience demands. It is important for us to recognize physiology patterns, including the “ribs-out conundrum,” and tweak our programming to prevent injury. Incorporating techniques like myofascial trigger point massage is just one example of how we can improve and strengthen our female clients’ body awareness so that they, too, begin to recognize their physiology patterns and can actively work to correct them without us there watching all the time.

For more information, do not hesitate to reach out!

Stacey Schaedler runs her own personal training business within the largest yoga studio in Boston.  Stacey is an ACSM CPT, RKC as well as RYT through the National Yoga Alliance.  Her focus is strength training with a strong emphasis on postural integrity and alignment. This, paired with solid nutritional education for her clients creates the foundation for their success.  Not only do her clients learn to move properly, gain strength and eliminate pain, they learn to start listening to their bodies. As a result of her diverse fitness experience as a collegiate athlete, avid yogi and former professional figure competitor, Stacey is a wealth of knowledge for those looking to attain their ultimate fitness and nutrition goals.
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