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Ellington Darden, Ph.D.

Is RIB-CAGE Expansion Possible?

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.

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.


RIB-CAGE SIZE AT AGE 30

A: 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.

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 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.

In summary, 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.


MUSCULAR GROWTH, FLEXIBILITY, AND PULLOVERS

A: 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.

Backbend on Floor

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.

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.

Rib-Cage Thrust

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.

Pullover: Three 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.

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.

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 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.


PULLOVER APPLICATION

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, 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.

 

Discuss this article | Text Version

Yes

Thanks for a great article!

And for the most impressive rib-cage award, it probably should be Ell Darden(you know, those rib-cage shots are INSANE!), but my guess is Arnold. :-)
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Ellington Darden

Yes wrote:
Thanks for a great article!

And for the most impressive rib-cage award, it probably should be Ell Darden(you know, those rib-cage shots are INSANE!), but my guess is Arnold. :-)


It's not me and it's not Arnold.

Ellington

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simon-hecubus

Texas, USA

Jimminy, Doc. That first pic is freaky! (and I mean that in the best possible way)

When I last did DB POs a couple of years ago, the DB weight got high enough to place an uncomfortable strain on my wrist. I will have to revisit this and try working gradually into a full-on stretch over the bench.

Great stuff to think about as always.

Regards,
Scott
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simon-hecubus

Texas, USA

Quiz Guess: Mike Mentzer was the last and biggest guy I ever saw who could do a great stomach vacuum, so I'll guess him.
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Ellington Darden

simon-hecubus wrote:
Quiz Guess: Mike Mentzer was the last and biggest guy I ever saw who could do a great stomach vacuum, so I'll guess him.


It's not Mike or Ray Mentzer.

Ellington

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rtestes

Mississippi, USA

He liked Sergio Oliva.

But I think Grimek showed a good chest and you introduced me to Scott Wilson's shoulders as well as a good chest.
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JONKILCOYNE

Florida, USA

My opinion would be Casey Viator.....Arthur might say....hmmm
Clancy Ross?
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McNultyEssex

Is it Mike Ferraro?
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Ellington Darden

It's not . . .

Sergio Oliva
John Grimek
Scott Wilson
Casey Viator
Clancy Ross
Mike Ferraro


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JONKILCOYNE

Florida, USA

Mickey the Gorilla?
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k38wood

I'm not trying to be a jerk here, Ell
(honest)...but many times Arthur
would say that in fact Jane Mansfield
was really flat chested but had
an awesome rib-cage expansion
technique and fooled everybody
(sure, fooled me!)into thinking
she had big boobs...
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Ellington Darden

k38wood wrote:
I'm not trying to be a jerk here, Ell
(honest)...but many times Arthur
would say that in fact Jane Mansfield
was really flat chested but had
an awesome rib-cage expansion
technique and fooled everybody
(sure, fooled me!)into thinking
she had big boobs...


Yeah, I heard him say the same thing about her several times. But it was not Mansfield either.

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markh

Great photos ,especially the one of yourself by the bus stop looking huge.
As for Arthur`s best chest/rib cage i would say that it`s probably somebody not well known. The only well known bodybuilder i think it might be would be George Eiferman.

Mark H
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Ellington Darden

markh wrote:
Great photos ,especially the one of yourself by the bus stop looking huge.
As for Arthur`s best chest/rib cage i would say that it`s probably somebody not well known. The only well known bodybuilder i think it might be would be George Eiferman.

Mark H


It's not Eiferman.

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cmg

Great article Dr. D. Those pictures of you are fantastic. That one in 1970 looks like you could win the Mr. A.

On your explanation of low bench pullover you make reference to good shoulders - are pullovers ok for the shoulders? I do straight arm pullovers once a week to once every other week. I like them very much for the stretch in the back and chest. Normally 10-12 reps.

Thank you,

Ron

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Zenontheterrible

other than looking kinda crazy huge, is there any like... strength and or health benefit to rib cage expansion?

just asking cause most of the topic around the subject seems to be devoted to whether its possible or not... but aside from possibility (its obviously possible :P) of actually doing it... is there any reason that i should want to... other than for bodybuilding posing...

Definitely not trying to sound rude, i'm rather impressed actually.
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Ellington Darden

cmg wrote:
Great article Dr. D. Those pictures of you are fantastic. That one in 1970 looks like you could win the Mr. A.

On your explanation of low bench pullover you make reference to good shoulders - are pullovers ok for the shoulders? I do straight arm pullovers once a week to once every other week. I like them very much for the stretch in the back and chest. Normally 10-12 reps.

Thank you,

Ron



Ron,

There's no doubt . . . you can get a heck of a stretch to your shoulders, if you jump right into the low-bench pullover with a heavy dumbbell. I never had any trouble with my shoulders from doing pullovers, BUT I started gradually with a light weight at 15 years of age. My progression was spread over many months.

Especially if you are over 20 years of age, my advice is to ease into the stretched position smoothly. Make sure you get the hang of the movement before you add weight.

And if you have problematic shoulders, be extra careful. Use good judgment in any exercise that involves the stretching of the shoulder girdle.

Ellington

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Ellington Darden

Zenontheterrible wrote:
other than looking kinda crazy huge, is there any like... strength and or health benefit to rib cage expansion?

just asking cause most of the topic around the subject seems to be devoted to whether its possible or not... but aside from possibility (its obviously possible :P) of actually doing it... is there any reason that i should want to... other than for bodybuilding posing...

Definitely not trying to sound rude, i'm rather impressed actually.


Good question.

Most of the Golden-Age Mr. Americas and bodybuilding greats always said that rib-cage expansion allowed for greater muscular achievement throughout the entire upper body. But they were talking about for bodybuilding purposes. I don't know of any scientific studies that show that there's health-related improvements involved, which of course does not mean there are none. Better carriage and posture come to my mind, which has a lot to do with self-confidence and "manhood."

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, weight training and bodybuilding (and pullovers because I was very good at them) helped me a great deal in that area of self-confidence. From what I've read, those concepts may have been even more important to interested guys in the 1940s.

Arthur Jones initially called the Nautilus pullover machine . . . the upper-body squat . . . which in his mind, denoted the importance of enlarging the rib cage and entire chest area. But why? Again, I go back to improved carriage, posture, and self-confidence. And perhaps the overall impression of, as I've heard Jones say, "Having the look of a lion in the presence of a herd of sheep."

Ellington



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Yes

Dr Medary mentioned your genetics, in regards to expanding the rib-cage, do you know more specifically what he was reffering to?

From what I can see you are blessed with very broad shoulders and rib-cage. Do you think the width of the rib-cage could determine how much it is possible to expand?
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Ellington Darden

Yes wrote:
Dr Medary mentioned your genetics, in regards to expanding the rib-cage, do you know more specifically what he was reffering to?

From what I can see you are blessed with very broad shoulders and rib-cage. Do you think the width of the rib-cage could determine how much it is possible to expand?


Because of my broader-than-average shoulders I probably had longer-than-average length to my costal cartilages -- which meant I could get more growth, proportionately, from them.

Ellington

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barrage

Hawaii, USA

katz

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Zenontheterrible

Good Answer, I think I am definitely going to try and incorporate some kind of rib cage expansion into my routine.

As i was thinking about it last night, i began to wonder if ribcage expansion could also help improve lung capacity? I think with all the heavy breathing it couldn't hurt, plus the larger rib cage would make room for more lung expansion possibly? What do you think of this Doctor Darden? Perhaps an experiment could be done with an athlete who has not done rib cage expansion at all, his lung capacity could be tested before and after a 6 week (or so) rib cage expansion course?

Maybe i'm crazy... I didn't get much sleep last night lol... :)
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Ellington Darden

It's not Mike Katz.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned this man. Hint: Jones met him in California in 1947 or 1948. He had an enormous rib cage and chest.

Who is he?

The winner gets a black, Old-School Iron t-shirt.

Ellington
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JONKILCOYNE

Florida, USA

'ole Steve Reeves, naawww? I remember a chapter in the Nautilus Bodybuilding Book on Chest training and I can see the page in my mind but i just cant remember the names of the two bb's mentioned.....i think it said something about these two guys and doing dumbell press's decline, etc....damn!
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