Thoracic Spine Mobility Exercises


Two of the biggest orthopedic pain points in the general public in the last decade relating to pain are the shoulders and lower back. When this pain in a muscle or joint presents itself, the typical response is go right to the source. The low back hurts? Stick a ball on the erector for some relief. Shoulder hurts? Must be related to the rotator cuff, so stick a lacrosse ball under it and see what happens.

What’s funny is that the rotator cuff is almost always the scapegoat for shoulder pain, as if there is no other musculature that attaches itself there. Solely treating the source of pain will only get you so far in irradicating your pain, and will likely be a temporary solution. It’s of course more complicated to look at the body as a whole and see what other joints may be the root of the problem, but it’s also necessary for long-term pain alleviation and functionality.

The body is resourceful and will adapt according to lines of stress. When we have repetitive movement or non-movements such as sitting, the muscles and other soft tissues remodel to become stronger in the direction of stress. While this sounds all well and good, long term repetition can create an imbalance of strength to weakness in joints resulting in loss of mobility.

This can be seen in the intricate relationship the thoracic spine has with the shoulder girdle and the lower back. When you take a joint by joint approach to the body, you can see that the lumbar spine was anatomically and biomechanically designed to be inherently stable. It has very few degrees of movement through extension, flexion and rotation before you get bone to bone restriction in the vertebral column iteslf. Additionally, the shoulder complex or scapula was designed to be stable as it relates to its position on rib cage. For the most part the scapula “floats” up against the thoracic cage, held in place by the 17 muscles that attach to it.

The thoracic spine, however, needs to be mobile, and to a greater degree, achieve an extension moment and be able to show the ability to dynamically stabilize. The thoracic spine should be able to bend, flex, extend and rotate to varying degrees, but often is the case with athletes and the general public alike, these motions get diminished over time from misuse and sedentary postural demands. When a loss of thoracic spine mobility presents, the joints above and below must become more mobile and less stable to compensate for lost movement. What are those two joints you ask? The scapula and the vertebrae of the lumbar spine. Not exactly the place you want to be dumping unwanted mobility into, is it?

The Key to Pain Free Shoulder & Spinal Movement?

Could it be said that creating a more mobile thoracic spine is essential in avoiding pain through the back and shoulder? Based on the mobile/stable joint relationship model it could be.

When there is a loss of thoracic mobility, the scapula has to alter the path of movement and the range of motion itself, sometimes to the detriment to soft tissue in the area. If the scapula is unable to move freely through elevation, depression, protraction, retraction, upward and downward rotation, poor biomechanics develop, which can lead to pain. This is what makes the shoulder a complex joint that is not just solely the glenohumeral joint.

When the scapula isn’t moving optimally due a stiff thoracic spine, any attempts to do anything overhead is going to result in a compromise at the lumbar spine. What was once a stable joint, now has to have a degree of mobility in order to complete the task.

The Five Exercise T-Spine Mobility Fix

In order to create systemic change, the thoracic spine needs be addressed with smart programming through both extension and rotation drills. Then, once the thoracic spine has been treated, mobilized and activated, it’s a prime opportunity to lock in the changes with strength exercises to create a systemic adaptation. All the mobilization and stretching in the world won’t do any good without retraining new movement patterns. To create real adaptations, the body need needs to be challenged.

By using strength based exercises like the front squats and kettlebell windmill, you’ll lock in that new found mobility after achieving optimal movement from smart drills that will rewire your neuromuscular system. Here are the top five exercises that you need to be focusing on to achieve better thoracic spine extension and rotation, and how to pristinely execute these for the very best long term results.

#1 P-Knott, Peanut or Foam Roller Extension

Goal: Improve Thoracic Spine Extension

Coaching Notes: The above video shows and advanced version of the “Peanut”. If you are just beginning, I suggest you start with a more basic version. You can find instructions on how to make your own here. Here are the larger version directions: Place the P-Knott in your mid back, cross your arms over your chest and extend over the P-Knott. We’re looking for extension at the T-spine, so make sure the ribs stay in line with the hips and avoid letting them flare out. Try this at several different segments.

#2 Bench T-Spine Mobilization

Goal: Improve Thoracic Spine Extension

Coaching Notes: Get into a quadruped position with the knees on the ground and elbows on an elevated surface, like a bench shoulder width apart. While holding a dowel, rock your hips back and press your chest towards the ground. As you do this, slowly bring the dowel over your head. Breathe into the stretch, then return back to the starting position.

#3 Wide Stance Horizontal Chop

Goal: Improve Thoracic Spine Rotation

Coaching Notes: Set up a band at chest height on a rack, hold it at the end and walk out with it till you feel tension. With the band at your chest, spread your feet wider than shoulder width, then press your arms straight out. While keeping the hips stable, and bracing the core, slowly turn the shoulders and thoracic spine towards the rack. Once you find your limit to where you can keep the hips stable, and not sacrifice the shoulders or elbows, turn back to the midline. It’s vital to the exercise that the rotation comes from the T-Spine rather than pulling with the arms.

#4 Unilateral Leg Rock with Thoracic Rotation

Goal: Improve Thoracic Spine Rotation

Coaching Notes: Set up in a quadruped position, then extend one leg out to the side. Rock your hips back towards your butt slightly, place one hand behind your head and rotate in towards the base arm with the shoulder and thoracic spine. Once you reach your limit without compensating, rotate back out.

#5 Quadruped Band Assisted Thoracic Rotation

Goal: Improve Thoracic Spine Rotation

Coaching Notes: Attach a band to a rack, grab the band and then set up in a quadruped position. You want to be far enough away where there is tension in the band. Hold the band with the outside hand, and then let the band slowly pull your shoulder and t-spine into rotation. Avoid shifting your bodyweight with the band. We’re solely looking for the band to assist us into that thoracic rotation.

Here’s How To Program These Movements Together

It is vital to shoulder and low back health to practice these drills on a consistent basis. Without that consistency, there will be little to no progress on improving T-spine mobility. With each of these exercises, we’re looking to create an adaptation and not exhaust or overwork the tissue.

Starting off with the extension drills will help loosen up the tissue of the thoracic spine, thus making the rotational drills much more effective. Use this daily program to improve and maintain your thoracic spine mobility.

  1. Peanut Extension 3 x 6-8 @ 3 different segments
  2. Bench T-Spine Mobilization 1×10
  3. Unilateral Leg Rock with Thoracic Rotation 1×10
  4. Quadruped Band Assisted Thoracic Rotation 1×10
  5. Wide Stance Horizontal Chop 1×10

Enjoy unlocking your thoracic spine to move better, feel better and perform at your best.

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