When you breathe in, your lungs expand and the intercostal muscles, which connect one rib to another, lengthen. If your intercostals are tight, movement of your rib cage might be limited, which can affect your ability to breathe comfortably and efficiently. Stretching your intercostals regularly promotes healthy respiration, which benefits your body in several key ways.
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The intercostal muscles separate your ribs when you inhale and draw them together when you exhale. Visualize the intercostals behaving like the fabric in a bellows, writes Martha Peterson, at Essentialsomatics.com. Peterson, a certified massage therapist and somatic educator, explains that when you breathe in, the intercostals lengthen, allowing the bellows -- your lungs -- to fill with air. These highly important respiratory muscles also help stabilize the rib cage when your movements involve lifting, pushing and pulling or when you flex or twist your torso.
Various factors contribute to intercostal shortening. Over time, poor posture can cause the rib cage muscles can tighten, writes yoga teacher Barbara Kaplan Herring at Yoga Journal. Sitting and standing hunched over closes the chest, forcing the intercostals into a tight, short position. Bouts of repeated coughing or sneezing can also lead to excessive contraction and shortening of the intercostals; tightness can also develop as a result of stress or bad breathing habits. Many people breathe from the chest, rather than the diaphragm. As a result, the lower part of the lungs don't inflate properly. Whatever the cause of your tight intercostals, their insufficient flexibility inhibits your ability to breathe deeply, which can hinder your athletic performance and make it harder to cope with certain respiratory conditions, including colds, allergies, flu and asthma, says Herring.
Light stretching can lengthen and loosen your rib cage muscles. Examples of intercostal stretches include seated or standing lateral bends. Extend your right arm over your head and slowly hinge to the left to stretch the intercostals on your right side. Hold for up to 30 seconds before repeating on the left side. Herring suggests using the Gate pose, a kneeling variation of the more basic side bend. If you have access to a large stability ball, you can drape your upper back over the ball and relax for 30 seconds or perform a side bend, using the ball for support. From a back-lying position, use a crescent position to lengthen the intercostals. To work your right side, extend your arms over your head and bend your upper torso and legs to the left, forming a "C" shape with your body. Repeat the exercise, bending your torso and legs to the right, to stretch the left side of your body.
Maximizing the Stretch
Whatever intercostal stretch you use, follow a few basic principles to maximize the benefit. Precede stretching with a light cardio warmup to increase circulation and boost muscle tissue temperature. Before moving into the stretch position, inhale deeply and visualize yourself growing taller. When you're in the stretch position, continue breathing evenly and attempt to deepen the stretch with every exhalation.