Many trainees believe you can't increase the size of your rib
cage through exercise. When I started exercising at age 15,
I experienced remarkable growth in my rib cage.
It's time to separate fact from fiction — and learn a few
well-kept secrets. The following questions and answers
also will be posted on T-Nation.com.
by Ellington Darden, Ph.D.
This 1967 photo of me was taken with a Polaroid camera by
Dan Ilse. Ilse helped me master this chest pose, which
involved a back arch, rib-cage thrust, and stomach
vacuum. Many old-time strongmen and
muscle-control artists understood
and practiced this feat.
Your "Lost Training Tips" article on T-Nation (2/14/07) got me fired up about doing squats and pullovers. But at 30 years of age, can I really expect to expand my rib cage?
Rib-cage expansion has long been a controversial topic in bodybuilding. To explore bone-growth basics, 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 has 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 heart and lungs that's called the RIB CAGE — 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 rib cage 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. Rib-cage growth during childhood and adolescents occurs primarily in the costal cartilages.
Here's a front view of the bones that
make up the rib cage. 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 rib cage.
"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 1 to 2 inches of rib-cage growth — and even more on the surrounding muscles. Certain people, with unusual genetics — such as yourself — can exceed those expectations."
I had 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 5 inches (from 38 inches to 43) to my chest circumference measurement.
At age 23, my chest circumference had progressed to 48 inches and I weighed 200 pounds (see the opening photo). In eight years, I had added 10 inches to my chest measurement and 65 pounds to my bodyweight.
How much was due to rib-cage expansion and how much was due to growth of the related muscles?
"I'd say 3 inches of that display was rib cage," Dr. Medaera answered, "and the remaining 7 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 had studied and applied a number of old-school flexibility and posing tips, which I'll discuss in the next question and answer.
, beyond normal, rib-cage expansion or growth — usually from 1 to 2 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.
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 rib cage so dramatically?
According to Dr. Medaera, approximately 30 percent of my side-chest development was related to my rib cage. The remaining 70 percent 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 are a teenager and have similar genetic potential for rib-cage 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 visited the original Muscle Beach in California. While in California, he worked out with Mel Williamson. 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 rib-cage shots of Williamson. One in particular showed him with a water glass being balanced on top of his inflated chest.
A 20-year-old Mel Williamson, in 1956, took the prize
for rib-cage 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.
This exercise will help to stretch the torso and to contract the muscles of the lower and middle back. It will also assist you in projecting your rib cage during a side chest pose. Important: Attempt this movement very cautiously at first — and 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.
Look closely and you'll see the pronounced
arch in his middle and lower back,
performed while holding
a stomach vacuum.
Here's a movement that will help you control your breathing, as well as some of the smaller muscles that surround your rib cage. It was a favorite of many of the Golden-Age Mr. Americas, such as John Grimek, George Eiferman, John Farbotnik, Red Lerille, and Casey Viator. And it contributed greatly to my ability to project my rib cage during my chest poses.
George Eiferman, 1948 AAU Mr. America:
Eiferman had a large rib cage 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 rib cage 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 rib cage.
Other bodybuilders who impressed me with their rib cages 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 rib cage and the top of your abdominals. Take a normal breath and forcibly blow out as much air as possible. This should require about 10 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 repeated 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 dynamic rib-cage 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 rib-cage thrust: Stand, interlace the fingers of both hands, and extend your arms to the front of your torso. Draw your hands smoothly under your rib cage and pull up slightly. Raise your rib cage 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 rib cage forward even more. The entire process (vacuum, pull, arch, and thrust) requires about 5 seconds to perform. Properly initiated, the full-thrust position from the side appears as if the chest has expanded another 2 to 3 inches.
Practice, practice, and more practice are the ways you master this display.
The pullover exercise also requires some guidelines and variations.
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.
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.
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.
During the late 1970s, the Nautilus pullover machine was a basic piece of equipment found in most fitness centers. Because of 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 seat belt 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 rib cage.
How do you apply the pullover variations in your weekly workouts?
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, one rib-cage training day do squats immediately followed by the Nautilus pullover. The next rib-cage 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 rib cage.
Bruce Robinson took this shot, the day after I won the
1970 Mr. South. Brenda Robinson,
Bruce's 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 rib-cage expansion and rib-cage display to make a comeback!
For more Golden-Age training guidelines, see Dr. Darden's latest book, The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results. For more information, click HERE.
Casey Viator and Arthur Jones, pictured on the front and back covers,
and Ellington Darden is an experienced team
to reawaken . . . old-school training.
Over the last 65 years, Arthur Jones has seen many men, who had outstanding chest development. QUESTION: Who takes
Jones's award for the most impressive rib cage?
First correct answer that's posted wins an Old-School Iron t-shirt.