Every joint in the human body is designed to move and the thoracic spine is no exception. Anatomically, the thoracic spine is reinforced by the ribcage, which results in this region being an extremely rigid and stable portion of the spine. In addition to its anatomical structure, the thoracic spine becomes further locked down due to sitting too much and adopting poor posture throughout the day. If we don’t take the time to get out of these slumped postures, our thoracic spines become immobile and can lead to shoulder pain, neck pain, or even lower back pain. The following are mobility drills we use every day in our clinics to get people moving better through their thoracic spine so they can improve daily function and are less likely to get hurt.
1. Foam Roller
The foam roller may be one of the easiest ways to loosen up your muscles and joints. A foam roller can be great for smashing the glutes and quads but it also works wonders for getting some much needed extension back into the thoracic spine. Begin by lying face up on the foam roller. The roller should be placed no lower than your lower ribcage and as you roll it should go no higher than the base of your neck. Using a short range of motion, roll up and down your thoracic spine until it feels like you are loosening up. If you feel like a certain area is more stiff or sore than another, then spend some extra time on that spot. You may hear your back pop as you roll which is okay and is generally a sign you have some excessive tightness that needs to be addressed.
2. Bench Extensions
Most people will have associated lat and shoulder tightness in addition to thoracic stiffness. To address this, you can use these mobilizations which will allow for easier overhead movement of the shoulders. Start in a kneeling position in front of a bench, chair, or couch. Interlace your fingers behind your neck, bring your elbows together, and place them on the bench in front of you. Sit your butt back toward your heels, using the bench as a fulcrum to help drive your arms further overhead. As you sink further into the stretch make sure you keep your lower ribcage down, core braced, and neck in a neutral position. Perform 10-20 repetitions where you exhale into the stretch and hold for a full 3 seconds.
3. Side Lying Rotations
Most of the time when people do an exercise or stretch they work only in the sagittal plane, or forward and backward. This overloading in one plane can cause overuse injuries and the body can tighten up and resist other movements such as rotating or side to side movements. With this mobilization we will be focusing primarily on getting the thoracic spine to rotate and move through the transverse plane. Begin by lying on your side with you hip placed on a foam roller or medicine ball and flexed to 90 degrees. Putting the leg in this position keeps the pelvis and lumbar spine in a more neutral position as you perform the mobilization. Now use your top arm and reach back behind you as far as you can while rotating your thoracic spine being sure to keep your leg firmly placed on the foam roller or medicine ball. When you get to your end range of motion, exhale fully, hold for 3 seconds, then return to the start position. Perform 10-20 repetitions each direction.
4. Quadruped Extension/Rotation
This is another variation you can do to open up the thoracic spine with both extension and rotation. The important thing to keep in mind is to not use your hand to crank down on your neck and to breathe deeply through the movement. Start in an all fours position on the floor and sit your butt all the way back onto your heels. Doing this will lock down the lumbar spine so we can isolate as much movement as possible to the thoracic spine. Place one of your elbows on the ground and place your other hand behind your neck. Now lift your chest and rotate your spine and shoulders toward the arm behind your neck. Once you get to an end range of motion, take a deep breath into our belly and exhale fully. Perform 10-20 repetitions on each side.
Thoracic mobility is important for numerous athletic activities, particularly overhead lifting. If the thoracic spine is unable to move properly, the shoulder girdle can neither fully stabilize nor move smoothly through its normal range. This is predisposing you to shoulder, neck, and back injuries.
Try these drills out before your next workout or even when you’re feeling sore and stiff. If you feel pain or discomfort during any of these movements, then it is a good sign you should be evaluated by a professional. Give F.I.T. Muscle & Joint Clinic a call today for a free phone consultation or set up an appointment to see one of our skilled doctors!
F.I.T. Muscle & Joint Clinic currently serves Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee, Lenexa, Leawood, Gardner, Belton, Lees Summit, Blue Springs, Lawrence and the Kansas City metro areas. If you are interested in our services, please contact us today. New patients are always welcome at F.I.T. Muscle & Joint Clinic!