The thoracic spine is meant to be mobile, but tight thoracic spines are one of the most common issues that I see in all populations.
Changes in pregnancy, postpartum adaptations, breastfeeding, mountain biking, computer work . . . all culprits that lead to an immobile thoracic spine!
Without mid back mobility, the lumbar and/or cervical spines – which are for the most part supposed to be stable - will take on the brunt of movement and commonly suffer. This can lead to low back pain, neck pain and/or shoulder pain.
A deeper explanation
The angles of the joints in the thoracic spine allows for multiple movements in several planes. It can flex, extend, laterally bend and rotate.
The two main ranges of motion that tend to affect the cervical and lumbar regions are thoracic rotation and extension.
The entire thoracic spine together should demonstrate a 30-35 degree rotation to each side. The lumbar does rotate as well, although far less than the thoracic at 10 degrees. Together, they reach about 45 degrees in each direction.
If the thoracic doesn’t rotate well enough, the lumbar is forced to rotate more which can play a role in low back pain and or injury.
Extension of the thoracic should reach 20-25 degrees. If the thoracic cannot extend well, there is a cascade effect that limits full shoulder flexion and increases the risk of shoulder impingement and cervical (neck) pain.
Ok, let’s fix this!
In order to re-establish correct movement in the thoracic spine, and to take stress off the lumbar and cervical spine, one must incorporate mobilization and activation techniques that target this area and/or a play a role in thoracic spine motion.
Try these 6 exercises to help mobilize and activate the thoracic spine!
#1 - Foam roll thoracic, lats and pectorals
Foam roll thoracic: place foam roller under rib cage, support your neck with your hands and roll the length of your rib cage. Aim for at least 10 rolls back and forth, or about one minute minimum.
Foam roll lats: Place foam roller on bra line (men, you know where that is ;)), draw your elbows together and roll back and forth. If you can, spend some time at the end ranges (so, on your lats) and do little rolls there or simply sink your lats into the roller and hold for a few seconds, then release, repeating several times. Aim for at least 10 rolls back and forth, or about one minute minimum.
Foam roll pectorals: You may be wondering why I have you mobilizing your pectorals when we are chatting thoracic spine! A simple explanation: Tight pectorals draw your shoulders forward which contributes to kyphosis (rounding) of the thoracic spine.
I love to use a yoga block here so I can really push into this one. You can do circles, or straight lines in the direction of your armpit. Aim for one minute minimum.
#2 - Pectoral stretch
Lengthen out those pectorals! Bring forearm to wall, step forward with inside foot and lean forward with a slight rotation away from the wall. You can tap into different fibres of your pectorals by raising or lowering the position of the forearm. Aim for at least 1 minute each side.
#3 - Quadruped reach and rotate
Work on thoracic rotation! Come onto all 4's. Rotate open with one arm creating as much mobilization through your thoracic as possible, then reach under and through, resting that arm on the floor. Create more rotation in this part of the position by reaching with that hand while pushing away from the floor with the supporting hand. I find tenting my finger tips helps with the push!
Try for 10 reps with a 5 second hold at the bottom position each time or, move dynamically through this exercise and implement the hold at the end for 30 seconds minimum.
#4 - Overhead opener
Work on thoracic extension! Bring your hands to the wall and sink from your chest towards the floor. Bend your knees as much as you can to keep that back straight. Many of you will likely get a hamstring stretch out of the deal.
I also love to do this one with my hands on a squat rack bar or high box so I have something to push against to help increase the thoracic extension.
#5 - Wall slides
Activate the thoracic spine! Stand against the wall with your feet about one foot away, knees slightly bent and arms by your side. Ensure that your neck and entire back are against the wall (you can have a slight arch in your lower back as that is the natural curve of your lumbar spine). Bring your arms up against the wall in a 'goal post' formation WHILE ENSURING THAT YOUR BACK STAYS PUT ON THE WALL! This is very important. That lower back arch does not get bigger, ribs do not flare.
Then, slide your arms up and down the wall slowly while continuing to keep check on your back against the wall. The wider those arms come up the wall, the easier this will be. It's ok if you're not perfectly even with those arms (I'm definitely not!), but we can create goals to move towards that symmetry.
If this positioning is really proving to be too challenging, you can always do this lying down with your knees bent to start.
Aim for 2 sets of 10 reps.
Give it a try!
There are many ways to mobilize and activate the thoracic spine, but start here and see if this makes a difference for you. To explore more possibilities, don't hesitate to reach out to create personalized programming just for you.