Last updated on February 14th, 2023 at 02:28 pm
You’d think losing weight would be all about positives.
However, weight loss can impact people differently, and one such after effect is sore and painful ribs.
This is actually a fairly common occurrence.
Here’s why it happens and what you can do about it.
There are various reasons why your ribs hurt when losing weight. Firstly, you may have strained your intercostal muscles through exercise. These muscles are connected to the ribs and will expand and contract every time you breathe. However, the intercostal muscles are made to work harder during physical activity, especially exercises that either work your torso or involve breathing heavily. Furthermore, it’s likely you’ve lost subcutaneous fat around your torso, which means there is less “cushioning” for your ribs.
Have You Strained Your Intercostal Muscles?
The most obvious reason for your pain actually has nothing to do with your ribs, but rather the muscles that are connected to them.
These are known as the intercostal muscles and they connect the ribs together.
Plus, whenever you breathe the intercostal muscles will expand and contract.
However, in truth, the intercostal muscles don’t often get much of a workout unless you perform certain exercises.
The most effective exercises to train the intercostal muscles would be barbell or dumbbell pullovers and dumbbell chest flyes.
With that being said, deep breathing will also work the intercostal muscles.
So, if you’ve recently taken up exercise in order to lose weight, this could potentially explain why your ribs hurt.
A prime example of this would be breathing heavily after a run.
However, even performing many of the basic barbell exercises, e.g. squats, deadlift, bench press, rows, shoulder press, etc. will stimulate the intercostal muscles.
So, it could be a case that you’ve strained one of your intercostal muscles and it’s become inflamed.
This can actually be very painful, as is any inflammation around the rib area.
If this is the case you should treat the muscle strain with ice packs and painkillers in order to reduce inflammation.
Plus, it also makes sense to not exercise, or do anything that will cause you to breathe faster, while you heal.
You Have Less “Cushioning” Now
You could almost look at your aching ribs as a badge of honour.
Okay, I’ll admit that no-one particularly wants to “celebrate” aching bones, but this could be an indication that you’re losing body fat.
What I am talking about here is subcutaneous fat.
This is the jiggly fat that we all hate and is visible to the naked eye.
However, subcutaneous fat lives directly below the skin.
Subcutaneous fat is actually harder to lose than other forms of fat.
In fact, this is one of the reasons that some people complain about feeling fatter even though they have lost weight.
But, with a sensible calorie-reduced diet and exercise you can certainly start to shift it.
With that being said, something to consider is that subcutaneous fat almost provides you with some additional cushioning.
This is obvious when you poke yourself in the stomach and your finger literally “sinks” into your body.
However, if your weight loss journey is going well then it won’t be too long before you start to shed this unwanted subcutaneous fat.
But, depending on how long you’ve been overweight, this could actually be a bit of a shock to your body.
If you think about it, your ribs have probably had this “cushioning” for many, many years.
And then suddenly after years of protection your ribs are now far more exposed than ever before.
In effect, the reduction in body fat means that you are now much more aware of your ribs.
And so, even the tiniest of pressure, e.g. turning over in your sleep, could cause rib pain.
This is something that you’ll eventually get used to, as you become more accustomed to your “new body”.
Do Your Ribs Change When You Lose Weight?
This may sound a bit weird, but there are actually many areas of your body that will change shape or get smaller when you lose weight.
As an example, your torso and hips will typically get smaller, but even your fingers and feet can change through weight loss.
Something that many people are convinced of is that their rib cage has actually shrunk as they’ve lost weight.
And they wrongly believe this is the reason for their aching ribs.
However, in truth, irrespective of all the bodily changes you’ll go through, your bones and body frame will always remain the same.
In other words, regardless of how much weight you lose (or gain), your bones will not change size.
With that being said, as you lose weight around your torso, the area around your rib cage can certainly get smaller.
In fact, this should be fairly obvious, as initially your torso was surrounded by subcutaneous and abdominal fat.
So, it makes perfect sense that as you start to lose weight, and indeed body fat, that it will appear that your torso is shrinking.
And of course, it is.
But, I’ll repeat, your bones and body frame will never change size.
So, there is no way that your rib cage has become smaller as a result of your weight loss.
The Perils of Losing Weight Too Quickly
There is the possibility that your aching ribs point to something untoward.
Most people start a new diet or exercise regime full of motivation and ready to give it their all.
However, more often than not, this also means that you may overdo things.
In essence, you’re trying to lose too much weight too quickly.
In truth, how much weight you can lose will vary from person-to-person.
Plus, it stands to reason that the more overweight you are, the quicker you can expect to lose weight.
With that being said, unless your obese, you shouldn’t really be losing much more than 1-2lbs per week.
Not only is this easier on your body and internal organs, it’s also more sustainable in the long run.
What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t make huge, dramatic and sweeping changes when trying to lose weight.
Firstly, the weight may fall off very quickly, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to maintain this.
If you’ve been significantly reducing your calories your mind will give up on your diet much earlier than your body.
Plus, dramatic weight loss also puts a huge amount of stress on the vital organs.
But, something else to consider is that drastic weight loss, typically more than 3lbs per week, can lead to gallstones.
Something else that many people do when trying to lose weight is eliminating fat out of their diet.
However, this isn’t actually that great an idea.
Yes, you’ll certainly need to avoid “bad fats”, typically the type of fats found in the foods that we tend to love, e.g. fried food, cakes, cookies, desserts, processed foods, etc.
But, there are also good fats, which you should be eating on a daily basis, e.g. monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
When you limit your fats, say on an extremely low-fat diet, you’ll actually hinder gallbladder contractions.
This in turn makes it harder for the gallbladder to empty, thus leading to the accumulation of bile.
The bile will unfortunately not be released into the small intestine, which means that your body is holding onto waste products.
This may eventually lead to gallstones, which may be the reason that your ribs hurt.
So, by all means, eat low fat, try to lose weight, but be sensible about it and don’t make dramatic changes to your diet overnight.
Key Learning Points
- You may have strained your intercostal muscles. This is actually fairly common for those who are new to exercise and trying to lose weight.
- Losing weight generally means you’ll have less subcutaneous fat. Essentially, there is less cushioning for your ribs. So, even the slightest pressure on the ribs could cause pain.
- Your ribcage will always stay the same size regardless of your weight/body fat. However, the area around your rib can definitely get smaller, which in turn applies more pressure to the ribs than when you were carrying excess body fat.
- Losing weight very quickly, or completely cutting fats out of your diet, puts you at a higher risk of developing gallstones.
Talking of strange things that happen when you’re trying cut down those excess pounds, learn more about why you pee more when losing weight.
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.