Do you have back pain? Either up between the shoulder blades, in your mid back or even in your low back and pelvis? Do you have degenerative disk disease? Do you have neck pain? Do you have an inguinal hernia or did you have one repaired? Do you suffer from incontinence issues, or are you always aware of where the nearest bathroom is just in case? Are you thinking about bladder suspension surgery? Do you have a prolapsed uterus?
These diverse health issues may be due to or partially due to "chest gripping", a term coined by physiotherapists, Diane Lee and Linda-Joy Lee, referring to the common faulty stabilization strategy of tightening the upper abdominals (external oblique and rectus abdominis) by drawing the navel in towards the spine when stabilizing one’s trunk against the forces put through it while standing, walking, lifting and carrying, or sitting and lying down.
This poor stabilization strategy may develop as a result of a trauma, poor habitual posture, or even psychological factors, such as trying to hold in one’s gut in order to appear thinner, or constantly tightening the upper abdominals in order to show off that six-pack.
"Chest gripping" results in a restriction of diaphragmatic breathing. The abdominal muscles act like a belt squeezed tightly around the lower ribs, making it next to impossible for the diaphragm to descend properly to get a proper breath of air. Instead, the chest expands and the shoulders are pulled upward by the small neck muscles with each breath, which can lead to neck strain, and possibly a need for a faster breathing rate, which can cause a blowing off of C02.
Furthermore, constant chest gripping tends to stiffen and compress the spinal column resulting in compressive forces through the vertebral joints and intervertebral disks causing disks to degenerate, and a loss of the segmental mobility that is needed for fluid, pain-free motion.
And ribcage gripping frequently results in an overly-rounded upper back, and the long erector spinae muscles becoming longer and often weaker than they should be. Frequently it is long, weak muscles that become sore, rather than strong, tight ones.
And an overly-rounded upper back almost always results in the head being too far forward. For every inch that the cheekbone is forward of the top of the sternum (manubrium), the upper-back muscles must counteract the weight of the head.
So, if the cheekbone is two inches forward of the manubrium, assuming the head weighs between 10 and 15lbs depending on the person, there is between 20 and 30 lbs of force going through those poor upper back muscles.
Simply by letting go of the upper abdominals that are gripping the ribcage and bringing the head back over the body, there would be less stress on those upper back muscles.
Chest gripping also squeezes the internal organs forcing them down, requiring a functional pelvic floor with good tone to counteract the constant pressure. When the pelvic floor isn’t functioning well in women, incontinence may result. That "bearing-down" pressure can also lead to inguinal and umbilical hernias and prolapsed uteruses.
To notice whether or not you are a chest gripper, place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your lower ribs, and observe your breathing pattern. Your rib hand should move more than your chest hand. If you are lying on the floor, as the air comes out of your lungs, notice if your upper abdomen gets soft and gushy, or if it becomes more firm. Gushy is good. You should be able to dig your fingers under your ribcage, and keep them there as you breathe. If you are gripping your ribs you won’t be able to get your fingers in there.
When you are standing, do you notice that you have your upper abdominals constantly contracted? If you look in the mirror, do you see big divots just below your ribs on both sides of your abdomen? Try letting go of those muscles and soften the look of your abdomen. A healthy abdomen is not contracted all the time.
Breathing a normal amount of air into your lower ribcage can be a good way to let go of those ab muscles. The trick is to change your habit so that you stop ribcage gripping all together, so every time you walk through a doorway, tune into your body and let go of your ribs if you catch yourself gripping.
If you find your pain increases when you let go of your ribs, seek the help of a physiotherapist that can help you connect to your transversus abdominis, pelvic floor and multifidus, the deep local muscles that are meant to stabilize your spine and pelvis.
Lee, Diane; Lee, Linda-Joy Postpartum Health for Moms – an Educational Package for Restoring Form & Function after Pregnancy DVD; Diane Lee & Associates, 2006.
Chek, Paul Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course Chek Institute, Encinitas CA.