It’s a question I hear asked time-and-time again, “Why Do My Ribs Hurt When I Do Push Ups?”
We all know what a fantastic exercise push ups are.
They work the chest, shoulders, and triceps, so it’s not uncommon to feel soreness in these muscles.
Then again, you may even feel push ups in your elbows or wrists.
However, feeling them in your ribs just doesn’t seem right, does it?
Allow me to explain what’s happening here.
Why Do My Ribs Hurt When I Do Push Ups?
The main reason your ribs hurt when you do push ups is due to the surrounding stabilizing muscles being activated. So, in effect it’s actually the muscles that hurt and not your ribs. You may feel soreness in these muscles due to prolonged inactivity or simply because they are weak. These include the intercostal muscles, the serratus anterior, and the pectoralis minor. All of these muscles play a role when performing any type of chest exercise, and this includes push ups.
1. It’s Your Intercostal Muscles
The soreness you’re feeling is muscular rather than your actual ribs.
So, you can stop worrying that you may have caused yourself a serious rib injury through doing push ups.
And just as with any other muscle in the body, if they’re untrained or weak then you’re going to feel soreness when working them.
Then again, this can also be a factor if you have suddenly increased the volume or frequency of push ups.
However, as these muscles become better trained and stronger any soreness will subside.
The first area to look at is the intercostal muscles.
These are skeletal muscles located between the ribs.
You have 12 ribs on each side of the body, so there are 11 intercostal muscles on each side.
Additionally, there are internal and external intercostal muscles.
You will typically feel the intercostal muscles when you do a side bend stretch.
So, as an example, raise your left arm into the air, then bend to the right, while also reaching your left arm over to the right.
You’ll immediately feel a stretch in the left-hand side rib area.
This is your intercostal muscles.
Whenever you breathe in the internal intercostal muscles relax, while the external intercostal muscles contract, and vice versa.
So, if you think about it, every time you perform a push up both sets of intercostal muscles expand and constrict.
Therefore, depending on how many reps and sets you perform this accounts for a lot of movement of the muscles between the ribs.
How to Train the Intercostal Muscles
Just as with any muscles in the body, the intercostal muscles can be trained to become stronger.
So, if you’re feeling sore in this area when doing push ups this may point to a potential weakness.
The main way to work these muscles is to stretch the area, while adding resistance.
As an example, dumbbell or barbell pullovers and dumbbell flyes are perfect.
So, these specific exercises work the lats and pecs respectively, but also allow you to get a good stretch.
Additionally, the side stretch and gate poses (variations of kneeling side stretches) will work well too.
2. It’s Your Serratus Anterior
I would hazard a guess that the serratus anterior is probably one of the most neglected muscles in the human body.
This is a group of muscles that span from the first to the eighth ribs on each side of the chest.
The serratus anterior muscles help with movement of the shoulders and arms.
It is actually fairly common to feel the serratus anterior during push ups, although this is typically mistaken for soreness in the lats.
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For most of us the serratus anterior is one of the least activated muscles in the body, and is therefore a weak point.
You’ll typically feel very shaky when performing certain pressing movements.
This is especially true for exercises like the bench press or overhead press, but is also noticeable during push ups.
A weak set of serratus anterior muscles is usually responsible for certain injuries, such as rotator cuff tears and shoulder impingements.
So, once again, it’s not so much your ribs that hurt during push ups, but more likely to be the serratus anterior.
8 Best Exercises For Serratus Anterior
3. It’s Your Pectoralis Minor
When it comes to chest exercises it’s all about the pectoralis major.
These are the thick muscles that make up the bulk of the chest muscles.
Basically, these are the show muscles that we all want to pump up after our workout.
So, a lot of our chest training goes towards making the pectoralis major bigger and stronger.
However, just below the pectoralis major lies the much smaller, and less favoured, pectoralis minor.
In fact, just the terms “major” and “minor” give you a clue as to how we treat these muscles.
The pec minor doesn’t receive a lot of love.
However, if you’re feeling your ribs during push ups, this could in fact be the pec minor.
The pec minor is responsible for moving the shoulder blades forward and will also raise the ribs.
These are both movements that are part of push ups, so this could explain the soreness you’re feeling.
Many of the major chest-building exercises will activate and stimulate the pec minor, although yet again some of the stretching exercises work best.
So, exercises like dumbbell flyes and cable crossovers will work the pec minor.
However, certain pressing movements like barbell or dumbbell bench press, dips, and close-grip push ups do a great job too.
With that being said, the push up often described as “the hardest push up you’ll ever do” will do a fantastic job of training the pec minor.
The LaLanne push up, named after fitness and nutrition guru, Jack LaLanne, may not be for everyone, but it is a true test of strength and fitness.
Now considering that Jack once set a world record of 1,033 push ups in 23 minutes (at the age of 42), who are we to argue with him?
LaLanne Push Up
So, I hope you can see that the pain you’re feeling during push ups is not actually your ribs, but the surrounding stabilizer muscles.
This is generally down to the intercostal muscles, serratus anterior, or pec minor.
All these muscles can be trained to become stronger, typically through stretching exercises like flyes and pullovers.
However, in truth the serratus anterior and pec minor can also be trained through a variety of push-based exercises.
Plus, if you’re up to the challenge you could always try LaLanne push ups.
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Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.