Although I’ve witnessed bodybuilding extremes dramatically evolve (and improve) in nearly every way over the past 35 years, there are still a few aspects of physique development that have actually worsened and de-evolved. While lofty extremes in chest mass, boulder-shoulder, and hanging quad development dominate the landscape of today’s bodybuilding scene, what has been lost is the dramatic rib box development of yesteryear.
When I say “rib box,” I’m referring to the thoracic region of the body. This region includes the rib cage (24 ribs and 12 corresponding thoracic vertebrae) and the related muscles of the rib cage. These include muscles like the external and internal intercostal muscles, transverse thoracis, subcostalis, and diaphragm. Of course, when we talk about bodybuilding to the average mope, that’s hardly what he thinks about. Instead, what naturally comes to mind is a flexed, peaked biceps muscle; bulbous, bouncing pectorals; or carved abdominals. So it’s not as if your average guy looking to build some muscle to impress the ladies is going to run into the gym and work on his transversus thoracis.
Ah, but there was a time…
In years past, bodybuilders cared about training the rib box because they knew that once they put their arms overhead in any kind of pose, a massive rib box made the physique explode from the waist up. Nowadays, guys look insanely huge as long as their arms are down around their waist. I see somany of them fall apart visually as soon as they lift their arms for a double-biceps pose. While undeniably much more freakishly massive and veiny, modern professional physiques tend to lack the dramatic rib cage-to-waist V-taper of many of the bodybuilders of yesteryear.
Along with other past bodybuilding greats like Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, Lee Haney, Tom Platz, Tony Pearson, Boyer Coe, and Bertil Fox, Arnold Schwarzenegger knew the value of training to expand his rib box. Investing considerable time in training and expanding the rib box was done because they knew that it would make all the difference once they began comparative posing. This even applied to bodybuilders who were seemingly less impressive at first glance or in repose: When the rib box was fully expanded, especially with any arms-overhead pose, they looked completely different. In fact, Tom Platz was a great example of a guy who had relatively narrow and unimpressive genetic upper-body structure, but managed to expand his rib box to the point of Olympia-caliber respectability.
When deconstructing an understanding as to why you might choose to spend a little energy expanding the rib box, consider its function. When a boy reaches puberty, testosterone takes over and has a direct effect on the rib cage, expanding it to accommodate anticipated larger inspiratory efforts. The result is a natural widening of the rib cage relative to the waist. Some kids emerge from puberty having responded more dramatically than others. During the early teenage years, in particular, stretching and flexing the muscles of the rib cage through an expanded inspiratory effort can amplify this influence.
In what are now considered the “old days,” training the rib box was common practice—especially for the young bodybuilder looking to create a bigger upper body. It was conventional wisdom at the time that a young bodybuilder had only a relatively small time window in which to massively expand the thoracic region—if one tries to do it later in life, though it helps, it may not work quite to that extreme.
The classic exercise to expand the rib box is the dumbbell pullover. The exercise is performed faceup, laying your upper back across a stable, flat bench. Place your butt close to the floor near your heels, then arch your back and shoulders over the bench so that your butt remains well below the bench pad. Reach back and either pick up a dumbbell, or have someone hand it to you. The idea is to hold the dumbbell in the vertical position with your hands overlapping on the inside aspect of one end, with the handle centered between your thumbs and first fingers. From the stretched position, repetitions are performed by moving the dumbbell in an arc-like path. One begins by fully inspiring (breathing in air and filling the lungs), then slowly lowering the weight in a very controlled fashion to a comfortable fully stretched position. Exhaling should be slow and controlled on the way up.
I’ve always liked my reps a bit higher on this movement (on the order of 15–30). Some guys move considerable poundage on pullovers just because it affords their ego the chance to dust of and wheel out a 150-pound (or heavier) dumbbell. But I’ve always felt this mania offers no added benefit and only increases the risk of injury to the shoulder complex.
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