Welcome back to Squat University! Today’s blog is all about how to improve thoracic spine mobility. In order to have great technique when lifting and decrease your risk of shoulder injury you need an ample amount of mid-back extension.
When addressing “weak links” in your upper body, mobility restrictions in the thoracic spine should always be tackled first before moving on to other areas that need help (such as lat flexibility or rotator cuff strength/stability). Think about it like this. If you are going to spend time and energy trying to fix a broken down house, you’re hopefully going to address the cracks in the foundation before painting the ugly walls. Just like the concrete that supports the walls of a house, your mid-back sets the foundation for the entire shoulder joint.
A stiff thoracic spine that is unable to extend limits efficient shoulder blade movement, which then affects the mechanics and stability of the shoulder joint itself. Fix the foundation first, then move on to the rest of your upper body.
Today I want to share with you 6 exercises to help promote mobility in the thoracic spine. I recommend performing each and re-testing your mobility after (with the rotation test in this blog). This will help you find which of the following exercises are most efficient for your body.
- Self-mobilization with a “peanut”
- Foam roll prayer stretch
- Box t-spine stretch
- Quadruped thoracic rotation
- Seated rotation with side bend
- Deep squat with rotation
One of the best tools to improve thoracic spine mobility is to use a “peanut”. Some manufactures make a fancy peanut, which will cost you a pretty dollar. However, you can save a lot of money by taping two tennis or two lacrosse balls together.
To perform a thoracic spine joint mobilization, lie on your back with your arms crossed in front of you. This will pull your shoulder blades (scapulaes) “out” to the side. This will provide space to place the peanut. The tennis or lacrosse balls should rest on both sides of your spine.
With your arms across your chest, perform a small crunch by raising your shoulders off the ground a few inches. Hold this position for a few seconds before returning to start position. Make sure not to hyper-extend your lower back during this movement. We want to only move from the mid-back.
The peanut acts as a fulcrum on the spine (much like the middle of a teeter-totter) during this movement. When this force is applied to a stiff joint, it can help improve mobility.
Perform 2-3 sets of 15 repetitions on each segment of your mid-back that feels stiff.1If you don’t feel any stiffness at a particular part of your spine during the movement, move the peanut up or down to another segment. It is normal to have restrictions in some areas of the thoracic spine and not all.
You should not have intense pain during this maneuver. If you do, I recommend seeking out a medical professional such as a physical therapist or chiropractor.
Foam Roll Prayer Stretch
This next mobility exercise is similar to the classic yoga pose called “child’s pose.” Start in a kneeling position. Sit your hips back on your heels and push your hands out in front of you (one hand on top of the other). Next, let your chest drop down to the floor. Continue to reach with your arms together overhead while you let your breath out slowly. Try to sink your chest towards the ground.
If you have a stiff mid-back, this should bring out a good stretch in your spine. Those who also have poor lat muscle flexibility may also feel a good stretch on the sides of their back where these muscles run and attach to the underside of the arm (near the armpit). I recommend holding this stretch for 30 seconds (~5 deep breaths in and out) for 3-4 sets.
To increase the intensity of the stretch, place your hands on top of a foam roller. This will allow you to stretch further into thoracic spine extension.
Bench T-Spine Stretch
Assume a kneeling position close to a box or bench. Grab a PVC pipe and position your arms in a “V” position (hands grabbing wide with elbows held close together). Face the box and place your elbows on top.
Perform a similar motion to the “prayer stretch” by sitting your hips back on your heels and simultaneously dropping your chest towards the ground. This motion should bring out a good stretch to your mid back (and again possibly your lat muscles). Hold this end range for 5 deep breaths in and out before returning to the starting position. Perform 3-5 repetitions.
Kneeling Downward Rotation Stretch
Because each spinal joint of the mid-back moves on top of each other in a similar fashion during rotation and extension, we can also work to improve thoracic spine mobility with rotational exercises. An exercise anyone can perform no matter your current level of mobility is the kneeling downward rotation stretch. Start in an “All 4’s” position (quadruped). Take your right hand and slide it on the ground across and under your left arm as far as possible. As you drop your right shoulder to the ground in an attempt to reach across your body, it should bring out a light stretch to your mid back. Hold this stretch for 10 seconds and perform 10 repetitions on each side.
To increase the intensity of the stretch, you can use the assistance of a resistance band. Set up in the same “All 4’s” position as you did before but a few feet from a resistance band attached to a rack. Reach under your body and grab the band with the hand furthest from the rack (there should be enough tension on the band so that when you attempt to rotate again the resistance is assisting in creating more mid-back rotation).
Seated Rotation & Side Bend
The next progression for rotational mobility starts in a seated position with a PVC pipe across your upper back (as if performing a high bar back squat). Squeeze a small foam roller between your knees to stabilize your lower body.
Start by rotating as far as you can to the right. When you hit your end range, perform a small lateral bend to the right away from the middle of your body. This will be a small motion as too much side bend will cause your hips to rise from the seated position and your low back to move. This motion should bring out a good stretch in your mid-back and possibly to your lats on the sides of your torso as well.
After bending back to an upright position, rotate as far as you can now to the left side (again performing a small lateral side bend once you hit your end range of motion in the twist). After 3-5 rotations with side bends to each side you may notice you’re able to now move further than before.
Deep Squat With Rotation
This last exercise is an advanced movement that requires you to first have full mobility in the squat motion. In a deep bodyweight squat, take your right hand and grab your left foot. Next, drop your right shoulder as far to the ground as you can while simultaneously rotating your left arm up towards the sky.
Hold this position for 5 seconds before reversing the movement on the other side. Perform 3-5 rotations to each side.
Making It Stick
Now once we get that new mobility and range of motion, how do we maintain it?
Try this exercise I first saw from Gray Cook (the founder of the FMS screen and author of the book Movement). Start by assuming a quadruped “all 4’s” position and rock your hips back onto your heels. It’s okay if your low back rounds a little to get into this position (doing so will “lock in” your low back so we can concentrate on your upper back). Bend your left elbow and place it between your knees. Take your right hand and place it on the back of your head.
Next, rotate your upper body to the right while you keep your left rib cage glued to your left thigh (if you don’t keep the left side of your spine down you’ll end up rotating with your lumbar spine as well). This action will work many of the mid back muscles that provide stability for your mid back. After holding for a few seconds, rotate back to the start position. Perform 10-20 reps on each side.
If your pecs and lats are too tight, try placing your right hand on your left shoulder and then perform the maneuver.
Test & Re-Test
As I mentioned at the start of today’s blog, always use the “test-retest” method to see if the exercises you chose to perform are placing you on the right track to improve your mid-back mobility. The exercises shared today are not a “magic pill” for improving mobility. They will not fix any stiffness in one session. If you do notice a small change in movement quality after re-testing your motion you should consider adding these corrective exercises into your daily schedule. Consistency is key for progression in mobility, especially in this region of the body.
Until next time,
- Johnson KD & Grindstaff TL. Thoracic region self-mobilization: a clinical suggestion. IJSPT. April 2012. 7(2):252-256