While sitting at your desk all day, you might suffer from nagging back or neck pain. During a strength workout, you feel shoulder pain while doing an overhead press or front squat. You enjoy hiking on the weekends, but chronic low back pain keeps you off the mountains.
If you suffer from any of the above scenarios, you might have limited mobility in your thoracic spine. This can cause limited back and shoulder mobility, which manifests in pain throughout your neck, back, and shoulder blades.
Luckily, thoracic spine mobility exercises can improve mobility within your back and shoulders. Below, I'll explain how you may lose thoracic spine mobility, why upper back mobility is important, and five great exercises to help extend your end range of motion.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If you suffer from back pain or believe you have a thoracic spine injury, please seek a consultation from a physical therapist.
What Is Your Thoracic Spine?
Unless you're a licensed physical therapist or personal trainer, you might not know what your thoracic spine is (or why it matters). But you don't need a degree in kinesiology to guess the thoracic spine is part of your — wait for it — spine.
Your thoracic spine (sometimes called the T-spine) forms the upper and middle parts of your spine. It's placed between your cervical spine (located near your neck) and the lumbar spine (which forms your lower back).
There are 12 vertebrae that line your thoracic spine and connect to nerves extending through your pecs, mid-back muscles, and abdominals. These nerves allow you to have balance and proper posture as you keep your body upright.
Why Is Thoracic Spine Mobility Important?
Many of us sit for 8–10 hours each day in front of our computer screens, then divide the rest of our waking hours seated in our cars, at the kitchen table, or on the sofa.
Here's why that’s a problem.
Consider that in order to become more flexible, you have to use your muscles (through resistance or cardio workouts) and stretch them afterwards. Otherwise, you'll lose flexibility over time as your muscles become tighter and tighter.
The same can be said for your joints.
If you don't use your joints and push their end range of motion, they will become immobile over time. While this might not cause you grief now, it certainly will as you age. Lack of use also causes stiffness, pain, and even audible cracking as you move.
Your thoracic spine not only protects your rib cage, heart, and holds your body upright. It also allows you to extend your arms overhead and rotate your torso. With limited thoracic spine mobility, you can’t swing a tennis racket, do an overhead press, or throw a baseball.
5 Thoracic Spine Mobility Exercises for Thoracic Extension and Rotation
To improve your thoracic mobility — and make up for all that time spent sitting at your desk — it's important to work mobility exercises into your routine. These exercises can improve your range of motion (which thereby improve your athletic performance), decrease pain, and prevent overcompensation with your shoulders, arms, and other muscle groups.
For each exercise below, I recommend doing 10 repetitions. For the wall rotations and thoracic spine rotations, do 10 reps on each side. Note: These corrective exercises should be uncomfortable but not cause any pain. If you're extremely tight, foam rolling before thoracic mobility drills can help loosen the soft tissue surrounding your joints.
1. Thoracic Spine Extension With Foam Roller
Start on all fours, in a quadruped position. Place a foam roller in front of you and set your hands on the foam roller with your thumbs pointed upward and your elbows bent.
Keeping your pelvis tucked in, roll the foam roller away from you as you extend your arms outward. As you perform this movement, keep your shoulders rolled back and down, away from your ears. Remember, you are trying to use your spine — not your shoulder joint. To do this, focus on muscle activation in your lats, squeezing the muscles beneath your armpits.
2. Prayer Stretch
Kneel on both knees in front of a chair or bench. Place your elbows on the top of the bench, roughly 3 inches from the edge. Your forearms should be perpendicular to the bench with your hands in a prayer position (palms faced toward one another).
Sit back on your heels while keeping your elbows in contact with the bench. You will feel a stretch in your lats while your hands move toward the back of your skull. For an added stretch, you can hold a PVC pipe or barbell while you do this exercise.
3. Wall Rotations
For this exercise, start in a kneeling lunge position with your right side adjacent to the wall. Your right leg (the one closest to the wall) should be behind you with your left leg bent in front of you. Your right hip and shoulder should touch the wall but not push against it.
Extend your right and left arm directly in front of you, parallel with the ground. The entire length of your right arm should touch the wall. Tuck your pelvis in, and open your torso so your left arm swings open and extends behind you (so your upper body forms a “T”). If you feel your right arm losing contact with the wall, stop the movement and return to your starting position. Switch sides.
4. Kneeling Thoracic Spine Rotation
Start on all fours in a quadruped position for this exercise. Sit back on your heels and take a child's pose. Next, move your left elbow between your legs, and place your right palm behind your head, cradling the base of your skull.
Keeping both arms in position (this forces you to use only your thoracic spine and not your cervical or lumbar spine). Rotate your upper torso, opening to your right side. If you have a stiff thoracic spine, you won't rotate far until you reach your end range of motion. Once you hit your end range of motion, return to your starting position. Switch sides and repeat.
5. Wall Angel
To begin wall angels, Sit with your back against a wall with your knees bent and your heels close to your glutes. Tuck in your pelvis so the entire length of your back maintains contact with the wall. (If you can't maintain contact with the wall, try this exercise in a standing position with your knees slightly bent.)
Extend both arms into a “W” position with your biceps parallel to the ground and your forearms perpendicular to it. The back of your arms, base of your skull, and length of your spine should maintain contact with the wall for the entire exercise. Now, raise your arms and slowly straighten your elbows by sliding them up the wall.
If your back or arms lose contact with the wall, you have reached your end range of motion. At this point, return to your starting position.
Thoracic Spine Mobility to Decrease Pain and Improve Performance
Your thoracic spine encompasses 12 vertebrae that make up your mid to upper spine. If you sit at a desk all day — which many of us do — you may lose thoracic spine mobility over time.
Limited thoracic spine mobility can cause pain in your neck, shoulder blades, and back. It can also prevent you from activities you once enjoyed, such as playing tennis, throwing a baseball, or hitting the weight room. To increase your range of motion in your thoracic spine, perform corrective exercises such as wall angels, thoracic rotations, and kneeling thoracic extensions.
Mobility exercises are very small movements, and it's difficult to know if you are doing them correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with mobility exercises, I suggest signing up for a premium membership for the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. With your premium membership, not only do you get integrated strength, cardio, nutrition, and recovery plans, but you get monthly face-to-face meetings with your coach. During these meetings, you can ask me whatever you like — including how to perform mobility exercises correctly.
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