What if I told you that by adding three simple mobility drills to your workout routine you could unlock a whole new set of athletic potential? That’s right, if you tack on a few extra minutes to your gym routine every day then you could see improvements in your overhead lifts, golf swing, or even throwing power (let alone your posture). So what is the key to obtaining this? Mobilizing the thoracic spine.
Before diving into ways to improve your thoracic mobility, it’s important to understand some of the anatomy behind the middle part of the spine. There are a total of 12 thoracic vertebrae which not only connect to one another but help complete the thoracic cage (aka your ribcage). All of these bones cause an outward curvature (known as kyphosis) that helps give the spine its “S” shape, and the orientation of the vertebrae dictates the collective function of the thoracic region.
What can the thoracic spine do? It is designed for mobility, which means it allows us to flex, extend, and rotate through our torso. But that’s not all. Your thoracic region influences the joints above and below it as well, so your ability to do a dumbbell shoulder press or even squat with correct form all comes back to the mid back.
So how do you go about working on your thoracic mobility? Well, go back to the motions that it allows: flexion, extension, and rotation. Your routine should incorporate elements of all three of these in order to optimize its function, and the following three exercises will help you do just that:
Feel like you are having difficulty sitting upright in a chair or reaching your arms up overhead? You may need to spend more time working on your thoracic extension mobility. One way to do this is by using a foam roller like in the following video:
How to Perform:
- Place a foam roller perpendicular to your upper back/thoracic spine. Keep your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
- Place your hands behind your head to help support your neck.
- Keep your hips down as you arch the mid part of your back over the roller.
- Repeat 3-5 times at a given segment (holding the stretch for a second or two) and then roll slowly up and down the vertebrae to repeat at different regions.
- Instead of moving through the thoracic region, many people “hinge” at the lumbar spine. Make sure that you are keeping your hips in contact with the floor, and possibly engage your abdominal muscles lightly to prevent low back movement.
Don’t have a foam roller? Don’t worry. Roll up a bath towel or two until it is the right width to allow you to arch your mid back over it to achieve the desired stretch.
If you spend time mobilizing into extension before your workout, you should also make sure you add in a little flexion as well. The Cat-Cow stretch (or Cat Camel… or any other combination of animals that flex and extend through their spine) allows for you to introduce thoracic flexion with the benefit of reinforcing thoracic extension.
How to Perform:
- Kneel on the floor with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
- As you inhale, press your hands through the floor and allow your thoracic spine to arch (like an angry cat).
- As you exhale, allow your sternum to sag towards the floor and your shoulder blades to come together.
- Repeat for ten breaths.
- Avoid overly straining with the cervical spine (remember, this is a mid-back exercise).
We often neglect the last motion that the t-spine can do: rotation. If your sport involves rotation, you need to be working on ways to improve the spine’s ability to twist. Quadruped rotations do just that:
How to Perform:
- Start on your hands and knees, and rock your body weight back towards your heels.
- Place one hand behind the head/neck, and as you are inhaling, try to tuck your elbow towards your opposite knee.
- During the exhale, rotate your elbow up towards the ceiling.
- Repeat for 10 breaths per side.
- The key is control: the neck should remain in neutral, the shoulder should be stable, and the lumbar spine should have minimal movement.
Now these aren’t the only thoracic drills you can do. In fact, there are plenty of other variations that you can incorporate into your workout routine, but the question to ask yourself is the following: are they achieving all of the various movements that the thoracic spine is capable of? If not, add one of the above exercises and get your spine moving today.