Take a moment to be mindful of your posture right now. Are you hunched over a pixelated screen with your shoulders elevated and neck held uncomfortably forward? If my guess isn’t far off then you owe it to yourself to learn a little about your thoracic spine mobility. Simply put, it’s a measure of how freely your upper spine moves.
Here’s what you need you know: Your lumbar spine is meant for stability, but your thoracic spine is meant for mobility – flexion, extension and rotation. If your thoracic spine lacks this capability, then guess what compensates? The lumbar spine. Sure, the lumbar spine can flex and extend and rotate to an extent, but it would much rather prefer to remain stable and transfer power from the hips up the spine.
Good mobility in your upper spine will help your big three lifts, keep your running stride nice and efficient and most importantly, help your body to move as it was intended.
Kyphosis- aka ‘office posture’
For almost every waking minute your spine must support your body against the loads of gravity and counteract any running, jumping, climbing, crawling, throwing, tackling, whatever it may be that you do. As if that wasn’t enough, we throw our spines a curve ball almost daily – we sit at a desk in front of a computer. A recent study from office furniture maker Steelcase found that new technologies like tablets and smartphones have changed the way we sit while using these devices. In fact, nine new postures were defined that I’m guessing will look familiar(1).
Now we all know that proper posture is important when working at the office on a computer, but what exactly is going on here? Why is this unnatural posture such a troublemaker? Well, let’s begin by looking at your hands. Most daily movements require your hands to be pronated (rotated inward). This in turn shortens your pectoral muscles and lats. Conversely, the muscles that stabilize your scapula (traps and rhomboids) are stretched. As if this wasn’t bad enough, most of us go one step farther and crane our necks upward because when we are hunched over a laptop (I’m as guilty as the next guy) we can’t see the horizon(3)!
What a mess.
So what are we to do? Revert back to a hunter-gatherer society and live happily ever after? Not likely. We all have jobs and we all type, text, tweet, update, post, etc. But there are things we can do to help maintain a decent posture.
Preserving mobility in your thoracic spine is key. This is your best defense against the rounding of your upper back and enhancing quality of life from a movement perspective.
Feel free to skip down the page to see a handful of my favorite mobility movements, or, allow me to first drive home the reasoning behind why you should even care about thoracic spine mobility.
Why you need thoracic spine mobility
So why should you care? Well, if you’re a lifter, overhead pressing movements require a nice solid foundation from which to press.The shoulders need to be properly aligned and the spine neutral. If your upper back is rounded then that doesn’t make for a strong foundation, does it? Your scapula will want to move away from your spine by means of compensation so now your shoulders will be out of alignment when you are pressing a heavy barbell over your melon.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg if we are talking about weightlifting. How about the back squat? This is a full body movement and most people are going to be able to pile on more weight with the back squat than any other exercise. With more weight comes a greater chance for injury if your technique is less than adequate. And with the squat you need to have a strong foundation in your core to help lock the barbell down. Your lats should be engaged such that it feels like you are going to break the barbell over your back and your shoulders engaged to help solidify the upper back.
So what may happen if you approach the squat rack and your thoracic spine is locked up? Well, a typical movement compensation is for the lumbar spine to assume the mobility that your thoracic spine is ideally responsible for. All the while you have that heavy barbell loaded on top of your spine. Starting to get the idea?
My intention here is not to provide a guide to proper squat form (that certainly deserves its own post), but really to give you an idea of just how much mobility our bodies need to perform some of the basic weightlifting movements. To set yourself up for a great squat your back needs to be able to move as it was meant to.
With the front squat the need for good thoracic mobility becomes even more apparent because your torso is even more upright. If you don’t have good mobility, your technique will go down the tube fast because you won’t be lifting with a neutral spine. Good technique is important when lifting heavy things and putting them back down again. Second to shoulder mobility frustration, I think that thoracic mobility limitation is one of the primary reasons most dudes frown upon the front squat.
Let’s switch gears and look at an example for you endurance fans. If you are setting out to run a 50 mile ultramarathon in the Rockies, you will definitely want your spine to be well positioned over your hips, right? Not only will having a neutral spine help to keep your shoulders and neck in good alignment during all the ups and downs of your stride, but you’ll expend less energy trying to compensate had your thoracic spine been sloped forward.
Less energy expended = greater efficiency = faster endurance running
But odds are you are down the middle of the road. You may not be an ultramarathoner or an O-lifter who spends at least one day a week working on the overhead barbell press, and that’s OK. Regardless, having a mobile thoracic spine will improve your posture, reduce movement compensations in the activities that you do participate in and most importantly, set you up nicely for the future.
As humans age, we all have a tendency to let gravity pull us downward. The old adage, if you don’t use it you lose it, is very true. Developing good habits today with regards to the health of your spine, may play a part in the quality of your life down the road, on the other side of the hill, that is :).
What you can do
Thoracic mobility movements are a dime a dozen. At this point in my fitness career I’ve toyed around with just about all of them. The following (3) movements are some of the better ones in my opinion. Providing that you are a healthy individual and have the green light form your doctor, consider the following movements and make your own judgement as to whether they are right for you.
But before you dive in, understand that like anything in fitness, there is no quick fix and no miracle movement. Consider the following drills as additional tools for your ever growing toolbox:
Actually, the Bretzel video below encompasses version 1.0 and the Bretzel 2.0. Both of these are courtesy of Gray Cook and appropriately named after another great physical therapist, Brett Jones. Rather than break this movement down into a block of text, I’ll let the video speak for itself:
This is a great movement that I’ve personally employed in my own training regime for a number of years now. Made popular by strength coach Eric Cressey, you begin on your hands and knees and with one hand behind your head, slowly and gently bring your elbow near the ground and then reverse the motion by bringing your elbow towards the ceiling.
In my opinion, the quadruped extension-rotation is not a stretch, but more of a movement. This is also a great drill to identify any discrepancies between your left or right side. Use this as a starting point. You’ll find an assortment of variations on this rotation from Cressey.
Similarities in yoga
Now, some of the movements above may look familiar. You’re probably thinking that you’ve seen something similar once before and you’re probably right.
How about the side triangle pose in yoga? Even the strength coach at Stanford, Shannon Turley, has incorporated some of the less evasive yoga postures into his players’ strength routine(2). Can you think of another yoga pose that aims to enhance movement throughout the thoracic spine? Send me an email and let’s give it a close look.
Different fitness philosophies tackle thoracic mobility in different ways. Regardless, good movement is just that, good movement. And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that good weightlifting reflects a natural human movement as do some of the more practical yoga postures.
The mobility drills discussed above are far from an exhaustive list. My intent is to get you thinking about these movements and foster a healthy respect for thoracic mobility work. To wrap things up, here’s one last movement to consider: The Turkish Get-Up. In in a future post I’ll go into more depth with this awesome movement and so for the time being I won’t belabor you with the details. But consider what you’ve learned so far in this post and then watch the video below. Food for thought :).
I believe that it is very important for all fitness enthusiasts, not just competing athletes, to have a basic working knowledge of thoracic mobility – why you need it and how you can improve it. Thoracic mobility can be an exhaustive subject, but I hope that this post gets you thinking about the mobility in your spine and hopefully to encourages you to learn more. Many of us (myself included) have a small degree of rounding in our spine from long days in the office hunched over a keyboard. And some folks may even be on the other end of the spectrum and not have enough rounding in their spine. Your doctor can help you to learn where on the spectrum you lie.
Regardless, having the right amount of mobility in your spine is important for your overall movement, whether you lift heavy or light, run fast or slow, having a healthy spine is important. Incorporating some of the mobility drills above into your normal lifting routine may help to encourage good movement.
Are there mobility drills I missed? Let me know in the comments below.
By Ryan Wagner
For additional reading
(2) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/sports/ncaafootball/stanfords-distinct-training-regimen-redefines-strength.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&Why you should care about thoracic spine mobility by Ryan Wagner