For most of us, our daily practices involve sitting at a desk, looking down at our phones, or slouching on the couch whilst watching television. Eventually, we may catch ourselves falling into poor posture or even worse, don't even realise it.
A poor static posture, more often than not, will result in movement dysfunctions and can be the major cause of shoulder, back, hip, and neck pain.
What is the thoracic spine?
When we refer to the thoracic spine, we are talking about the portion of the middle back that runs from T1-T12. This is an area where many people experience stiffness as the majority of the activities we do on a day-to-day basis, are very anterior dominant.
Figure 1: Thoracic Spine
The problem with stiffness in this area is, it limits thoracic extension and the ability to get our arms up over head. In some cases where the range is restricted to this area, the body will take the path of least resistance and compensate above or below the joint.
Regardless of whether it is to improve function, reduce pain or increase physical performance, focusing on thoracic spine mobility is important.
Mobilisation of the thoracic spine is not commonly addressed because the anterior aspects of the torso are generally the only focus. While it may not be the sole cause of movement dysfunctions and pain, mobilisation of the thoracic spine certainly proves to be beneficial to each and every one of us.
Why is thoracic mobility important?
A lot of the time shoulder pain can be prevented and overhead positional issues can be resolved by including thoracic mobility drills in your warm-up.
Adequate thoracic extension enables the scapula to sit in the correct position and function correctly.
To understand the importance of thoracic mobility we must first touch on the term Kyphosis. Kyphosis is a term to describe the forward rounding of the upper back.
The best way to think about this is by rolling your shoulders forward and hunching your upper back.
A slight kyphotic curve in the upper back is normal, however, a more severe curve will cause the scapula to tilt anteriorly. When this happens it causes the sub-acromial space to be reduced (see Figure 1).
This often results in the bicep tendon becoming impinged and shoulder range of motion reduced dramatically.
This will not only cause pain and irritation but will mean that moving weight overhead becomes unsafe.
Figure 1: The effect of a kyphotic posture on shoulder flexion.
Eric Cressy and Mike Reinold, two of the most well-renowned experts in the field, suggest around 13-15 degrees of thoracic extension is required to reach full shoulder flexion. There is debate as to whether this range can be quantified or whether it is just specific to the individual.
How can you improve your thoracic mobility?
Like any postural correction, change takes time and consistency. Our suggestion is a combination of mobility work and soft tissue treatment from a local therapist. The key areas to focus on will be pec minor, pec major, lats, teres major, and anterior delts.
If you have poor thoracic mobility, we recommend performing thoracic mobility daily.
Below are a number of exercises that have proven effective in increasing thoracic extension and rotation.
1. Thoracic Extension w/ Roller & Bar
This is a great drill to improve thoracic extension. To begin, set up a bar and roller on the floor. Place the roller on your thoracic spine then reach your arms overhead to grab the bar.
There are two hand positions for this drill.
The first one is hands positioned close together which will focus more on stretching the lats and teres major.
The second variation is to place the hands wide which will focus more on stretching the pecs.
When doing this drill it is very important to remember to breathe. Deep inhalations and exhalations will help you relax into the stretch.
Aim to hold for 90 seconds for multiple sets.
2. Cat-Camel Drill
This exercise is a great way to improve flexion and extension of the thoracic spine.
Starting in the quadruped position, slowly move from a fully flexed position to a fully extended position.
When doing this, it is important to inhale as you extend, and exhale as you flex.
We recommend starting with 10-12 reps for multiple sets.
3. Deep Squat + Thoracic Rotation
The deep squat with thoracic rotation is a more advanced drill that is a pre requisite for the overhead squat.
There are two variations of this one: The first one is done with no weight for reps, the second is done with a light DB (2-3kgs) and held for a short time.
The goal is to keep your hips in a deep squat position while you reach overhead with one arm. Start with 3 sets of 8 each side.
4. Spiderman w/ Thoracic Rotation
The spiderman with thoracic rotation is great for hip mobility and thoracic rotation.
To begin the movement, start in a push-up position.
The first step is to bring one leg outside your hand. In this position, you should feel a stretch on the hip flexors on the back leg and a stretch on the adductors on the front leg.
The second step is to reach to the sky with the hand, ensuring you rotate through your thoracic spine.
Hold the top position for 3-5 seconds then swap sides.
We recommend starting with 6-8 reps each side for multiple sets.
5. Side-Lying Thoracic Windmill
The side-lying windmill is a great exercise to improve thoracic extension and rotation.
Lying on your side, start with your hip flexed at 90 degrees, resting your knee on a foam roller. Glide your top hand around your head with the goal being to get your arm to reach to the floor on the opposite side.
We recommend starting with 6-8 reps on each side for multiple sets.
Check out one of our other popular resources on thoracic mobility!