Our spinal column is divided into three main sections: the cervical spine (neck, first 7 vertebrae), thoracic spine (upper/mid-back, next 12 vertebrae), and lumbar spine (low back, last 5 vertebrae). If you think of your skeleton as a series of chain links, there are certain links or regions that are designed for either stability or mobility. This is known as joint stacking. The three sections of our spine going from cervical to lumbar are designed for stability, mobility, and stability respectively.
Fig 1: Joint stacking of the body. Some joints or regions are designed for mobility or stability. As you can see, the two qualities alternate.
Unfortunately, it’s very common that we lose the mobility characteristic of our thoracic spine (t-spine). While overall t-spine mobility can partially be dictated by individual differences in anatomical structure, loss of mobility can be caused by a “use it or lose it” situation. We either aren’t active enough and don’t move through our t-spine, or as athletes it’s an area that gets neglected in training. Regardless of how the mobility was lost, if we can’t rely on your t-spine to rotate, bend forward or backward, or side to side, we will “borrow” the mobility from somewhere else in the chain in order to get the job done. Quite often, the area that will lend mobility is the lumbar spine. We already know that the lumbar spine is designed to be a more stable region, so trying to use it for mobility can cause problems (this is not to say that the lumbar spine should NEVER move, but we don’t want to use it as the main mobility section of the spine). Unfortunately, the main problem that results from poor t-spine mobility is low back pain and tightness. The amount of t-spine mobility you need is dependent on the demands of daily life or your sport. However, if you are dealing with low back pain or tightness, or if you are a hard training athlete, there is a high chance that you will need to spend some time maintaining or regaining t-spine mobility. The best screen will be performing some of the following exercises. If they aren’t difficult for you, great! You have very good mobility. Although, they would still be good to put into a warm-up to make sure you have the mobility for training, and also as a continuous screen to make sure you aren’t losing it. On the flip side, if the exercises below are challenging then you may need to be more aggressive in adding them into your training protocol. OK, let’s get to some exercise and progressions.
Thoracic Mobility Rotational Exercises
One of the main restrictions with t-spine mobility is rotation, so a lot of drills are going to have a rotational component to them. You will notice in a lot of these exercises, measures are taken to prevent movement of the lumbar spine. This not only protects your low back during the drill, but ensures that we are targeting the t-spine and getting all movement from that region in order to complete the exercise. In the progression that I will show you, we will start fairly simple with just trying to move through the t-spine. Then we will add in more difficulty by involving more muscle groups and adding a core stability component.
Side-Lying Thoracic Rotation
Now we are going to challenge t-spine rotation even more by involving the other arm.
This next drill will continue to challenge rotation, but now we are adding anterior shoulder, pec, and lat flexibility into the equation.
Why is this called a bretzle? No idea, but it’s a great exercise! For our final side-lying exercise, we are going to continue challenging thoracic rotation and anterior shoulder flexibility, but now we will also add in an anterior hip and quad stretch (first 1:30 of the video). Work your way up to this one with the previous exercises. If you are very restricted, this is a big challenge.
Quadruped Thoracic Rotations from Hands or Elbows
OK- let’s stay with rotational movement, but start working our way up to standing. I think most of us have seen this drill before. It’s quite simple, but it’s still good and there are some things to think about in order to get the most out of it.
Continuing to work our way up to standing, we are now going to move into the half kneeling position. This is going to force us to activate our core while attempting to move through the t-spine. So now we are really working on how our spine and surrounding musculature should interact as we move. Our core muscles should be stabilizing our low back while we do most of the movement through our mid and upper back.
This drill is going to challenge core stabilization with rotation even more, but also challenge hip and knee stability and alignment.
Half Kneeling Band Rotations
This final half-kneeling drill is going to be very similar to the side-lying windmill. However, because of the half-kneeling positon we get more core, hip, and knee involvement. This is a great one to do at the end of your session to stretch everything back out (especially if it was a chest or back day) and take advantage of warm muscles.
Thoracic Mobility Sagittal Plane Exercises
Still with me? Good! There is another class of t-spine exercises that I want to highlight, which are those in the sagittal plane. While we need to be able to rotate through our t-spine, we also need to be able to bend forward and backward. Sometimes this can get overlooked when considering overall t-spine mobility. Along with losing rotational capabilities, we can also develop a flat thoracic spine. As you can see in the figure, our t-spine isn’t naturally straight; it has a natural curve to it. If we lose this natural curve, we will actually lose mobility not only from our t-spine, but also in other areas such as our shoulders. Think about back squatting: in order to prevent too much strain on our shoulders and elbows, we need to be able to slightly reverse our natural curve and bend backward through our t-spine (thoracic extension) so we don’t have to crank on our shoulders to keep our elbows under the bar. So while some athletes may think they have a restriction in shoulder external rotation (which they might), it could also be a restriction in thoracic extension. The next few drills will focus on thoracic mobility in forward and backward movement.
T-Spine Extensions on a Foam Roller
This is a great drill for addressing the situation described above.
T-Spine Extension with Shoulder Flexion
This drill will work on thoracic extension while working on anterior shoulder and overhead mobility.
Bench T-Spine Mobilization
This is a good progression from the previous drill. We are still working on extension, but now we are adding lat and triceps flexibility, overhead mobility, and core stability.
Rockback and Quadruped Breathing
Breathing can be a great tool to enhance or gain thoracic mobility. These next drills will utilize breathing in order to restore or maintain the natural kyphotic curve of the t-spine.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but that should give you a good arsenal of drills you can incorporate into your training. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel if you add just a few sets a week from each category. When should you perform them during your session? Really, anytime is fine. I like putting at least one drill each day into the warm-up; obviously if you’ve never done these start with the most basic exercise from the rotational category. If you are someone who struggles with low back tightness, putting the rockback breathing into your warm-up will really loosen it up for training. As for sets and reps, quality is better than quantity. Two to three sets of 5-8 focused reps may be all you need; especially if you are using it strictly as a warm-up. If you are really locked up, do a few sets in the warm-up and do a few more in your cool down. Good luck with your training, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions!