Thoracic Spine Mobility: Why it Matters and How You Can Improve Yours

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If you’re like most adults, you probably spend the bulk of your day sitting at a desk, hunched over your phone, and/or driving to and from work. All this sitting and slouching is one of the main reasons that so many people struggle with pain in their upper back, neck, and shoulders.

Thoracic Spine

Sitting or standing in a hunched position for hours on end often leads to tight muscles in the chest and fatigued postural muscles (the muscles that keep your spine aligned). These two things, in turn, lead to a thoracic spine that has difficulty extending — in some cases, the curvature of your spine can actually change, resulting in a permanently hunched posture.

Poor posture and an immobile thoracic spine can contribute to pain the upper back, shoulders, and low back. When your thoracic spine doesn’t move properly, these other muscles have to put in extra work to pick up the slack.

If you’re an avid gym-goer, in addition to contributing to back pain, a lack of extension in your thoracic spine will make it harder for you to safely perform exercises like deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses.

Back pain and a lack of thoracic mobility are not uncommon issues, and, fortunately, there are lots of things you can do to treat them.

Any program focused on proper treatment for back pain should include mobility exercises. If you’re experiencing pain in your upper or mid back, these five mobility exercises can help reduce pain, correct imbalances, strengthen your muscles, and improve your range of motion.

1. Thoracic Extension with Foam Roller

Start by lying on your back with a foam roller placed underneath your thoracic spine (under your shoulder blades). Then, bend the knees and rest your feet and glutes on the floor.

Place your hands behind your head, pull the elbows close together, and let your head drop back, extending your upper back over the roller. Don’t force your back to arch more than is comfortable.

Once you’ve extended your thoracic spine as far as you can, slowly roll up and down the foam roller, pausing and maintaining pressure when you reach a tender spot. Stay focused on the upper back — don’t roll your neck or low back.

2. Lying Side Rotations with Foam Roller

Start by lying on your right side with your right leg straight and left leg bent at about a 90-degree angle. Place a foam roller under your left knee.

Keep your hips and low back stable and slowly rotate your thoracic spine so that your left arm and upper back are flat on the ground (or as close as you can get to flat).

Be sure to engage your abdominal muscles to avoid twists from your low back — you should only feel a stretch in your pectoral muscles and upper back. Hold this rotation for a few seconds, then return to the beginning and repeat for 10 rotations before switching sides.

3. Down Dog to Plank

This exercise helps open the shoulders and thoracic spine while helping you actively work through a full range of motion.

Begin by kneeling on all fours. Step your feet back so your legs are straight and you’re in a plank position — your whole body should form a straight line from head to heels.

Hold this position for a couple seconds, then lift your hips and press back into a downward facing dog, pressing your head in between your shoulders and gazing back at your feet.

Keep the legs and arms straight and try to push your heels down toward the floor (it’s okay if they don’t touch, though). Hold for a couple seconds, then lower your hips and return to the plank position. Repeat for 10 repetitions of each pose.

4. Quadruped Torso Rotations

Kneel down on all fours, making sure wrists, shoulders, knees, and hips are all aligned.

Lift your right arm and place your right hand behind your neck. Rotate your thoracic spine to bring your elbow down toward the floor. Hold this position for a couple of seconds, then, rotate your spine in the opposite direction to open the chest and bring the elbow toward the ceiling.

Keep your abs tight and hips aligned (don’t shift your weight too much to one side) to make sure the rotation is coming from the thoracic spine rather than the low back. Do ten repetitions on each side.

Final Thoughts

Poor thoracic mobility will hinder the effectiveness of your workouts, increase your risk of developing back and shoulder injuries, and can contribute to chronic upper back pain and a permanently hunched posture. To avoid these unpleasant side effects, be sure to incorporate these four mobility exercises into your routine on a regular basis.

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