What is a Barrel Chest?

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  • Written By: C. K. Lanz
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2018
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Barrel chest is a term used to describe a human chest that has started to bulge and appears rounded like a barrel as a result of a permanently partially expanded ribcage. It is not in itself a disease but can be a symptom of one of several medical conditions, including pulmonary emphysema, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), osteoarthritis, or acromegaly, a syndrome that results when excess growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland. Developing a barrel chest can also simply be a sign of old age. In many cases, the ribcage remains partially expanded because of persistent lung over inflation, resulting in less efficient breathing and possibly shortness of breath. A case is not typically treated, although the underlying cause may be.

Commonly associated with older men, barrel chest can also manifest itself in women and even children. Children who suffer from chronic asthma, cystic fibrosis, a connective tissue disorder, emphysema, or who are obese are most at risk. In many cases, children who develop this problem have chronic asthma and likely endure acute attacks of wheezing, coughing, and dyspnea or shortness of breath. Patients with chronic childhood or adult asthma suffer from airway inflammation that can result in unpredictable flare-ups that interrupt normal breathing. Asthma prevention and treatment commonly involves the use of inhalers like albuterol or other inhaled medications including corticosteroids and allergy medications.


Patients who have contracted COPD can develop an expanded ribcage during the later stages of the disease. COPD is one of the world’s leading causes of death and actually refers to a series of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that all cause airflow blockage, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. One of the primary causes of COPD is a persistent smoking habit and, since lung damage is difficult to heal, treatment emphasizes the prevention of further damage and control of existing symptoms with inhalers or inhaled steroids. Severe cases may require oxygen therapy and surgical treatment.

Some men — and bodybuilders in particular — may seek to achieve the look of a barrel chest by strengthening the chest and back muscles, including the internal and external intercostals, the serratus anterior, and the pectoralis minor and major. The bench press, chest press, pushups, pullovers, swimming, yoga, Pilates, and the pectoral fly are all exercises that can help achieve the barrel chested look associated with male strength. Introducing variation in the angle, weight, sets, and repetitions of a chest exercise can help achieve the desired result more quickly.


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Post 7

I had asthma as a child, but was told by a doctor that I had a barrel chest. When I was 30 years old, another doctor told me I wasn't barrel chested, just well developed (I'm a female). Even if I do have a barrel chest, I don't think it looks bad!

Post 6

I've got the barrel chest. I was told in childhood that I had COPD and would have emphysema "someday." That turned out to be the ripe old age of 36.

Everybody, including doctors seeing me for the first time, say that I shouldn't smoke/should quit. I never started.

Post 5

My son, who is only 6, has had a bad cough, and was poorly. At hospital they noticed he has a barrel chest (which he didn't have before). Is this something that he will grow out of? He hasn't had any long term medical problems.

Post 4

My grandfather lived with emphysema for many years, and his chest expanded a lot as the disease progressed. It was so strange to see a man who didn't work out and didn't eat a whole lot develop such a wide ribcage area.

His lungs wheezed when he breathed, and even when he was resting in his chair, I could hear the rattling in his lungs. He never seemed to fully exhale, and it sounded as if he were slowly suffocating.

His chest didn't seem to move a lot as he breathed, either. I guess this was because it had already expanded so much.

Post 3

My little brother suffers from terrible asthma, and he has a barrel chest. It is so sad to me that someone so young has a torso that resembles a wooden barrel.

He has so much trouble breathing, but he has a sweet disposition and a strong will to survive. His asthma problems have altered his appearance even with his shirt on, because he holds his shoulders abnormally high. He does this so that he can breathe better.

Thankfully, most of the kids at his school are sweet to him. I think that if they teased him about his barrel chest, it would make his asthma even worse to bear.

Post 2

@StarJo – Yes, I would think that those would be two different types of barrel chests. I have seen both, and I agree that no one would want to go for the elderly version.

My grandfather has a barrel chest that resembles an old oak barrel in our yard. The bottom half of it is gone, so it just starts out skinny at the top and ends up wide at the bottom. The elderly barrel chest usually widens out to the base of the ribs and goes straight down from there.

The physically fit kind of barrel chest is more like a full barrel. It narrows back down to a slim waist after expanding outward in a center of muscles.

Post 1

I had no idea that people actually tried to achieve the barrel chest look. I had always thought it was an unattractive thing, because I associated it with old men whose chests had expanded with age.

I have seen old men with little chicken legs and wiry arms who have barrel chests. Some of them have COPD, but others are just really old. Many of the elderly men in my family have this type of chest, and it does not seem like a thing to strive for.

Surely the bodybuilders achieve a different type of barrel chest than this. If it was layered over and held in place with strong muscles, then it would have to be more attractive.

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