By Carlon Colker, M.D.
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 EXPANDING THE RIB BOX FOR DRAMATIC V-TAPER 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 ofers no added benefit and only increases the risk of injury to the shoulder complex.
Since most guys tend to feel pullovers more in the upper latissimus dorsi muscle, the dumbbell pullover is usually done as a finishing movement for just a couple of sets at the end of a back-training session. Others feel more stimulation across the chest and triceps, although I’ve always felt this is mostly due to them going too heavy. Either way, the point of the exercise is to resistively stretch and pull the rib cage up and back, forcing the rib box to maximum expansion.
Pullovers can also be done standing, using a cable, although sometimes I feel like I’m the last bodybuilder left on Earth who knows this exercise. I rarely see anyone else doing these anymore.
Standing pullovers are done facing the cable with the pulley in the high-overhead position. Using the narrow straight-bar, take an overhand grip. This can be done with the thumbs wrapped around (standard grip) or with the thumbs on the same side as the fingers. Position yourself directly under the short bar, knees slightly bent, butt pitched backward, lower back in a ski-jump (lordotic) position, chest up, and shoulders back. Reach up and grab the bar. Maintaining slightly bent elbows, bring the bar down, hinging and rotating only at the shoulder joint. The short bar should end up against your thighs. Just like the dumbbell pullover, the motion should be slow and controlled. Be careful not to cave your chest in or let your shoulders collapse forward, as is so often the case when done improperly or when too heavy a weight is selected. Repetition and set scheme are the same as when using a dumbbell.
These days, when pullovers are part of my routine, I do them on the cable. They’re less systematically draining and easier to do. Since I’m older now, I see no need for the dumbbell motion, which I do ultimately feel is superior for massive rib box expansion. But the cable version suffices to maintain what I care to hang on to and the functionality I wish to preserve.
For younger bodybuilders, especially teenagers getting started, I generally opt for the dumbbell version. It certainly worked for me back in my days competing in bodybuilding as a young teenager.When I won my class at the East Coast back in 1984 (Ouch! that hurts to write) I recall being outclassed in terms of mass by at least the top three guys who finished just below me. Though my physique was arguably more complete than the others’ and there was little doubting the superiority of my cuts that year, the freaky standout difference was my near-30-inch drop from chest to waist. It more than made up for the mass my competition had on me. Just to put that into perspective, any good tailor will tell you that a big V-taper on an average man is considered a 10-inch drop from chest measurement to waist measurement. That evening my drop was nearly triple that! Although I was always known for being shredded with a small waist, most of the comments that night were about my V-taper. I was 19 years old, and I knew even then that it was directly related to the previous three years of diligent pullovers.
Thanks to my old training partner and then-mentor Peter Neff, I worked so hard doing pullovers because he knew I didn’t have the massive muscles my competition would be showing at such a big regional. I knew my waist was small, and that was good genetics. But until I did my time doing pullovers, it didn’t stand out from the rest of my upper body—it didn’t explode like some of the pros I used to admire.
I remember staring at the images in my old muscle magazines and marveling at Frank Zane’s “vacuum” pose. He was a big inspiration to me because, like me, he wasn’t as blessed with genetics for massive muscles as his competition. But when he put his arms overhead and showed that massive rib box and the shocking differential between his rib cage and waist, people in the crowd would literally gasp. He was so amazing back then that he actually beat Schwarzenegger once. Then there were those inspiring images of Schwarzenegger crushing the dumbbell pullovers to build up his own rib box and explode his V-taper to make sure a loss like that never occurred again. That’s what drove me at only 16 years old to invest so much in pullovers. I loved the movement. That love paid of that night.
It’s a benefit that still pays dividends to this day. At age 48, though I carry far less mass than I did in my bodybuilding prime (due to some 30 fewer pounds of lean muscle), I credit my rib box development for setting the groundwork for the extreme V-taper I still have a little bit of to this day. My MMA training, dieting, and cardio even further reduce the amount of muscle mass I walk around with, or desire to have at this stage of my life. I only do pullovers about once a month, and then only a set or two, usually on the cable. Yet the V-taper remains.