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Barbell Pullovers for Unstable Ribs

Few things are more detrimental to the quality of our strength training, and lives in general, than pain. About a month ago I started having some rib discomfort which I associated with the chairs at work. I’m extremely tall and the combination of the height of the desk and chairs and the amount of time I am required to spend sitting have caught up with me.

The sensation crept up slowly. One day in the middle of an interaction with a library patron I realized that I was not able to take a full breath into my rib cage without discomfort. I could still breath fine, and it wasn’t that it really hurt, but suddenly I was aware of something just a little bit off in there.

My exercises all still tested well–read more about Gym Movement if you’re not sure what that means–so I kept working out. Weight training did not make the problem worse, sitting did. But I spend far more time sitting than lifting, and that has been the trick: how do I cut down on the time I spend in such a fundamental position?

It was bizarre to realize that deadlifting with 500 pounds was not bothering me at all, but the work of those workouts could be undone by simply putting my butt in a chair. I finally broke down and went to a chiropractor just to see what he could tell me about my current alignment. “Your rib is out of place” he said immediately.

All that essentially means is that one rib was moving more than the others. The tissue had become overly elastic through the hours and hours I had spent sitting. I have found that most of my pain is an elasticity issue–the tissue is either too elastic or too rigid. So my goal was to make the tissue surrounding my rib cage more rigid so it would quit slipping around.

There are three treatments I would start working on immediately. Two I knew anyways, one was suggested to me by my friend Adam Glass, a professional strongman.

Barbell pullovers (dumbbells are fine as well)

This is a pullover:

A discussion on perfect form is beyond the scope of this piece, and I don’t think it really exists anyways, but the video above shows you the basic movement pattern.

I began testing pullovers with my upper back on the bench I use for bench pressing. Adam was right–they tested quite well, resulting in drastic increases of range of motion in the biofeedback tests.

barbell pulloverThe discomfort did not vanish, but I began to move better instantly. And that’s the key. Move better, feel better. I started doing the barbell pullovers at home, and dumbbell pullovers at work in the library’s little fitness room.

I did not do them if they didn’t test well. My next priority was simply to maintain the progress I had made. Which meant:

Sit less

I’m a librarian. I spent about six hours a day at the desk. My first change was to ensure that I walked around a little bit every five minutes, no matter what. I was able to stick with this unless there were exceptional situations.

The desks are also of different heights, so whenever possible, I would kneel at the desk, or get into a lunge position. This got uncomfortable quickly unless I changed stances every couple of minutes, which I was willing to do.

On my breaks, I would not sit at my desk, but instead would lie down on the floor, sometimes elevating my feet. These three things worked quite well and I have made good progress. As long as I sit as little as possible, my breathing is unimpaired.

Test all movements

This is really at the core of it. Movements that are painful greatly decrease our range of motion. So do positions like sitting in less-than-ideal posture.

Whether you lift weights or not, you can test all of your movements. Treating pain is often as simple as finding a movement that tests well and working it a few times a day. And movements that test well are often the movements we have stopped doing, if not the actual opposite patterns of the movements that hurt.

For me, basically anything that is the opposite of sitting tests well, feels great, and gives me less pain. I’m not a doctor, and nothing in this post is anything but my own anecdotal experience, but if you’re in pain, I’d give it a try. Check out Gym Movement and test your movements.

For people in pain, anecdotal evidence is often enough. But the core of this post is that I have been able to treat my sore ribs with:

  • less sitting
  • Work with barbells and dumbbell pullovers (when they test well)

Good luck!


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