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4 quick and easy drills to unlock your spine and move a little more freely

Sarah Cremen delivers your quick and easy mid back mobility fix.

Image: Shutterstock/TB studio

YOUR THORACIC SPINE plays a huge role in keeping your shoulders and lumbar spine working properly and pain free.

Our daily habits, posture and tendency towards a more sedentary lifestyle make the majority of us prone to poor thoracic mobility, which in turn becomes an important and sometimes overlooked component to a variety of dysfunctions in the neck, shoulders, lower back and hips.

The thoracic spine extends roughly from the base of your neck to below your shoulder blades, with twelve segments and has a naturally outward facing curve. It also has the rib cage attached to it, providing significant stability and support.

Chronic postural adaptations and/or faulty loading patterns generally result in a decrease in mobility in this area — ever seen somebody overhead pressing with their head poked forward and lower back hyperextending? Those compensations are the body’s way of overcoming rounded shoulders and altered ribcage and abdominal mechanics that result from a lack of movement in the mid back area.

The T-spine’s location between the cervical and lumbar regions mean that any bottom‐up or top‐down movements will be forced to go through this area of the back; essentially, if the spine doesn’t move at the thoracic, it will be forced to move somewhere else.

We know the body is resourceful and will adapt according to lines of stress. Repetitive movement (or non-movement) can result in muscles and other soft tissues remodelling to become stronger in the direction of stress. We all want strong bodies, but the imbalance of strength to weakness in joints can result in decreased mobility.

For an area such as the thoracic spine, that needs to be mobile and dynamically stable, this is bad news. The T-spine needs to flex, extend and rotate, but these movements get diminished through sedentary lifestyles and poor postural demands.

The architecture of this region of the spine is unique in that the vertebrae are larger in the back than the front. They are shorter and thicker than the bones of the cervical and lumbar spine and create a natural wedge that biases the T-spine region towards flexing forward and acts as something of a bony block to standing up straight.

If you have nagging shoulder, neck or lumbar spine issues, try the below drills as part of quick and easy daily maintenance. Be specific with your movements and do them consistently to see real improvements in your mobility.

T-spine extension with foam roller

Source: SarahCremenPersonalTraining/YouTube

 

  • Cross arms in front of your chest, or gently placed behind your head to protract and clear the shoulder blades and allow access to the paraspinals.
  • The roller acts as a fulcrum. Stay specific to extension at the thoracic spine; prevent the ribs from flaring out and keeping them down in line with your hips.
  • Think about wrapping yourself around the roller, then work your way through the segments of the spine.

T-spine extension

Source: SarahCremenPersonalTraining/YouTube

 

  • Take a quadruped position, knees on the ground and elbows on an elevated surface, shoulder width distance apart.
  • Rock back into the hips slightly and maintain a neutral spine; avoid sagging into the lower back and instead think about pressing your chest towards the ground.
  • Added bonus of a good Latissimus Dorsi and Tricep stretch!

The above drills are a good way to start allowing your thoracic to extend more freely but extension-only mobilisations aren’t enough. You also need to tap into the thoracic spine’s large rotational capacity; about 75% of the rotational capacity of the entire spine. If the T-spine doesn’t rotate, the lumbar spine has to, and cervical rotation may also seem impaired.

Open book mobilisation

Source: SarahCremenPersonalTraining/YouTube

 

  • If you’re looking for end range segmental rotation in your upper Thoracic…this is for you.
  • Start with your spine aligned and knee stacked on a foam roller or your bottom leg.
  • Reach out and towards the floor behind you in a slow, controlled manner, maintaining contact with the roller/knee.
  • Eyes follow the top hand and breathe deeply into the stretch.

Kneeling T-spine rotation

Source: SarahCremenPersonalTraining/YouTube

 

  • Often performed in quadruped, I prefer this version as it encourages disassociation at the lumbar spine and hips and helps to keep the movement specific to the thoracic region.
  • Sit back on your heels and gently place a hand behind your head.
  • Extend and rotate as far as possible through your Thoracic, keeping your lumbar spine as stable as possible.

And finally, breathing. I’m a bit of a broken record when it comes to breathing mechanics, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of correct breathing on T-spine mobility and positioning.

Inhibition in your diaphragm as a result of restrictions in the thoracic can lead to an increase in the resting tone in the muscles around the rib cage.

A resulting change in rib position can, in turn, result in the shoulders and upper rib cage rotating forward, which will further limit the extension available in the mid back area.

Positional breathing techniques (check out my previous articles here and here for more information) can go a long way towards normalising thoracic and rib position and therefore increasing mobility.

So there you have it; quick and easy mobility drills to unlock your spine and move a little more freely. If you have any further questions or need further advice feel free to pop me a mail.

Sarah Cremen is a personal trainer and physiotherapist based in Dublin. For more health and fitness advice and tips, you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram, and you can find her website here.

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