Thoracic Mobility: Why You Need It and How to Get It

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Sportsman with backache

Most people deal with some sort of aches and pains on a regular basis. One of the major reasons is, in our society, we spend most of our time in static, (usually) seated, less than ideal postures. These hours spent sitting down in front of a computer trigger our body to respond to these areas of stress with tightness and/or weakness. Yes, your muscles can be tight AND weak!

There are a handful of linchpins in our modern society that can cause these aches and pains and are a common location for tightness and/or weakness. Today, we will dive into the thoracic spine.

Your spine has three sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back) and lumbar (lower back). The joint by joint approach tells us that each major joint complex has one of two basic roles: stability or mobility. As you make your way through the body, joint by joint, they typically follow a pattern of stable joint, followed by a mobile joint, followed by a stable joint, etc.

The thoracic spine, your upper back, was designed for mobility. This means that it needs to be able to move freely in flexion, extension, rotation and side bending. The joint complexes above and below that will provide stability. Below the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine which was created for stability. Above the thoracic spine, the scapula-thoracic joint (your shoulder blade against your ribcage) was also created for stability. Down the line from the scapula-thoracic joint, we have the shoulder. I’m sure you have an idea of whether the shoulder was created for mobility or stability, I’ll go ahead and let you guess…you’re right! Mobility!

What this means, is that for your low back to function properly, your thoracic spine must have adequate mobility. For your scapula-thoracic joint to be stable, your thoracic spine must be able to be mobile enough. It also works in the reverse, for your thoracic spine to be mobile, your lumbar spine must be stable and your scapula-thoracic joint must also be stable. Starting to make sense now?

It’s impossible to be able to assess which joint is dysfunctional without being able to assess someone in person. We’re talking about thoracic mobility because of the reasons we mentioned at the beginning, most people are sitting at a desk all day, in poor posture and that can cause dysfunction in thoracic spine mobility. With that being said, if you are having aches, pains or injuries, have a professional assess you to give you a better idea of what is going on in your own body.

So how do we make sure we have enough mobility in our thoracic spine? There are a few different ways you can tackle this to start feeling better throughout the day, as well as during and after your workouts!

  •    Assess your daily movement habits. Do you sit most of your day at work? If you do, are you getting up every 20 minutes to move? Try using the 20-20-20 approach. Every 20 minutes, walk 20 steps away from your desk and do 20 seconds worth of whatever stretching or movement feels good!
  •    Assess your posture in the seated position. Are your shoulders rounded and your head forward? Try some shoulder rolls to loosen up, then set your shoulders in a neutral position with a slight emphasis towards the down and back position (imagine your shoulder blades going into your back pockets). Next, check your neck position. To avoid a forward head, tuck your chin to activate your deep neck stabilizers. To do this movement properly, you will feel like you’re giving yourself a double chin!
  •    Most people do not have adequate thoracic mobility so it is probably a safe bet that doing some exercises to help it will benefit you. However, again, if you are having chronic pain, injuries, etc., seek out a professional to give you a full assessment.
  •    If you can, jump right into some thoracic mobility exercises and see how you feel! Follow the sequence below once a day or at least before your workouts!

Thoracic Mobility Sequence

  1.    Spend a few minutes doing general movement, walking, jogging, biking, elliptical, anything to get your blood flowing.
  2.    Do a round of 10 cat-cows
    •    Start on your hands and knees with your wrists in line with your shoulders and your knees in line with your hips.
    •    Ensure that your shoulders are relaxed and your neck is long and neutral.
    •    Inhale, tilt your pelvis so that your tailbone is reaching up towards the sky and gently take your gaze up towards the ceiling.
    •    Exhale, tucking your tailbone, allow your spine to naturally round, draw your belly button towards your spine and allow your head to drop down, gazing towards your belly.
    •    Repeat, pairing the appropriate movements with each inhale and exhale
  3.    Find a foam roller and work on the tissues in the thoracic spine
    •    Lay the foam roller on the ground and sit so that it is positioned behind you, horizontally.
    •    Lay back onto the foam roller, plant your feet on the ground and gently lift your hips up.
    •    Either use your hands to support your neck or cross them across your chest.
    •    Use your legs to gently push yourself up and down allowing the foam roller to massage your back.
    •    Next, with your hands behind your neck for support, gently extend over the foam roller moving your top half towards the ground. Start at the lower thoracic spine and work your way up, moving up about an inch each time.
  4.    Next, complete thoracic rotation exercises
    •    Start on all fours and let your hips come back to meet your heels (sit back in your heels- if this is uncomfortable or not possible, place a towel roll behind your knee crease and sit back as far as you can while staying 100% pain-free)
    •    Place your forearms on the ground, move your right forearm to the space between your forearms and rest it back on the ground.
    •    Take your left hand and let it rest on the back of your head. From this position, open up to the left and keep rotating through the torso to open as far as you can, then rotate back to a closed position. Do this movement five times and then switch sides, taking care to place the left forearm on the ground close to your midline. Repeat on the right side 5 times.
    •    You can also try this exercise with the back your hand on the small of your back instead of behind your head.
  5.    Lastly, finish this whole series off with some scapular strengthening. This basically tells the scapula-thoracic joint, hey, look at all this new mobility I got for you, now make sure you’re strong here too!
    •    Try taking a band and hold it between two hands. Find that nice neutral shoulder and neck position and with your palms facing each other (while still holding the band), keep your arms straight and extend them out to sides and squeeze the muscles between your shoulder blades, slowly and with control, return to your starting position and repeat 10x.
    •    Another good exercise is to try a high-row pull (also known as a face pull). Place a band on something sturdy at a height above your head. Start, again, with that nice neutral shoulder and neck position and pull the band straight towards your eye level, squeeze through the muscles between the shoulder blades, slowly and with control, return to your starting position and repeat 10x.

-Molly Seifert

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