The thoracic spine doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s often ignored and neglected, especially in rehabilitation settings and when it comes to enhancing performance. For instance, when back pain happens, the focus is frequently placed on the spine, hamstrings, and hip flexors.
But what if your aches and pains could be prevented by improved thoracic mobility? And what if your performance could be improved by diverting a little bit more attention to the thoracic spine?
In this article, we’ll briefly look into the anatomy of the thoracic spine, why thoracic mobility is important, and how thoracic mobility can improve your performance. We’ll also provide a quick routine to help you improve your thoracic mobility, starting today.
The Thoracic Spine Explained
Your spine, also known as the vertebral column, has five main regions: the cervical spine, the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine, the sacrum, and the coccyx. With 33 vertebrae in total, 12 of those make up the thoracic area. Each vertebrae is separated by intervertebral discs. These discs provide cushion and protection to the bones of the spine.
The thoracic spine is located beneath the cervical spine, your neck. It makes up your upper and mid-back. It also is part of the thoracic cage, along with the sternum and ribs. This cage plays a vital role in protecting major organs, including your lungs and heart.
In fact, the vertebral that articulate with the rib bones have specific and special structural variations to allow for optimal function and mobility. Vertebra T2-T9 have similar characteristics, whereas T1 and T10-12 have different features. T1 resembles the vertebrae located in the cervical spine. Meanwhile, T10-12 have a similar appearance in thickness and size to that of the lumbar vertebrae.
The thoracic spine, in relation to mobility, can rotate about 30-35 degrees to each side. Interestingly, if this movement is limited, the lumbar spine is forced to compensate and rotates more, which may lead to incidences of low back pain. This partially gives way as to why the mobility of the thoracic spine is so vitally important, especially in athletes or those that are physically active.
In addition to rotation, the thoracic spine is also able to move through flexion, extension, and lateral flexion. This allows you to move your torso. It also supports proper posture.
However, many individuals suffer from a tight thoracic spine, possibly a consequence of bad posture. And a tight thoracic spine can significantly impact an athlete’s performance in a variety of ways.
For instance, good running form involves maintaining an upright posture. If the thoracic spine lacks mobility or is locked up, this may hinder the efficiency of the running gait. It also may leave one susceptible to injuries where tight muscles or joints become injured from quick movements. An example of this includes mountain biking, where the shoulders and upper back need to be loose in order to absorb the shock and react accordingly. Another example involves weight lifting. Most major weightlifting moves require a neutral spine and good posture. Again, if the thoracic spine becomes locked up, it leaves you more susceptible to shoulder injuries.
But we’ll explore the thoracic spine and its role in performance in more detail below. Why does thoracic mobility matter? How does poor mobility of the thoracic spine impact performance? How does good mobility improve performance?
The Thoracic Spine and Its Role in Performance
While many athletes focus on tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors, and lower back relief, many fail to address the thoracic spine. In fact, the root of their problems may begin in the thoracic region. As stated above, a lack of mobility in this area can lead to compensation in the low back. In turn, this may lead to tight hip flexors or hamstrings as the muscles around these areas try to also compensate for pain or dysfunctional movement patterns.
On the other hand, good thoracic mobility can support more efficient movement patterns and performance. For example, in running, good thoracic mobility can contribute to less force being required to propel the body forward.
In the following sections, we’ll look at how your thoracic mobility may be impacting your performance.
How Poor Mobility Impacts Performance
Everything in the body is connected. When one part of the machine isn’t functioning at its best, it impacts the other parts.
Get this: In running, it’s not only about postural deficits when the thoracic spine isn’t as mobile as it should be. Bad thoracic mobility also impacts the efficiency of the arm swing – probably something that you don’t really think about.
If the thoracic spine is tight, it frequently causes rounding of the upper back (or bad posture). This increases the angle of the elbows, which are normally positioned at about 90 degrees in proper running form. Consequently, the lever in which the arms swing is longer. In order to move forward at an optimal pace, the body must work that much harder. More force is required.
In exercises, such as the snatch or overhead squat, additional stress may be placed on the shoulder joints due to reduced thoracic mobility. This could lead to impingement syndrome or other common shoulder injuries with lengthy recovery times. It also makes the movement harder, since, again, other muscles are compensating.
In sports where throwing of a ball is required, such as baseball, if the thoracic spine has reduced mobility, more stress and movement is performed through the shoulders and elbows. Again, this can lead to shoulder injuries or elbow tendonitis.
Bad thoracic mobility also decreases stability. The thoracic spine attachment to the rib cage, along with proper pelvic positioning, is a vital part of proper balance and stability. This prevents falls and provides efficiency through movement. Ultimately, if stability is affected, you may take on inefficient movement patterns to achieve a certain lift or complete an exercise.
When it comes down to it, this will reduce the amount you can safely lift, increasing your risk of injury, as well as possibly putting your goals on the backburner.
How Great Mobility Improves Performance
In contrast, excellent thoracic mobility contributes to improved and more efficient performance. For example, as a runner, you can propel your body forward with less force and energy than you would need with reduced thoracic mobility. As a pitcher, you can throw with more force and less stress on the shoulders or elbows. As a weightlifter, you can properly perform lifts and movements without fear of strain on the lower back or other areas of the body. Good thoracic mobility allows for these proper movement patterns.
You can further bend and twist as needed, generally without fear of injury. And when the top of the body is working efficiently, it’s less likely other areas of the body will come under strain or stress. This includes the lower back. When the upper back is functioning as it should, the lower back will be less likely to compensate and thus, become strained.
After all, the thoracic spine is made for these kinds of movements. Yet, due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and a lack of emphasis on thoracic mobility, many individuals end up with poor mobility in this area.
So, now you know more about thoracic mobility. But how can you improve it? What should you be doing to achieve a healthy spine?
A Quick Routine to Improve Your Thoracic Mobility
There are many exercises you can do regularly to increase and improve your thoracic mobility. However, we broke it all down into a quick 10-15 minute routine. You can tag this one along at the end of your workout or space out time during your day for it. Let’s get to it.
Before attempting these exercises, warm-up the body. Stretching after sitting for long periods may lead to an increased risk of injury. Jog on the spot for 1-2 minutes or go for a quick 5-minute walk beforehand. Further, if any of the exercises below cause intense pain, stop the exercise. If the pain persists, consider visiting a sports medicine doctor or specialist.
1. Cat and Cow
Begin on all-fours. Position your hands directly underneath your elbows with straight arms. And position your knees directly underneath your hips.
Gently arch your back up, bringing your belly button in toward your spine. As your tailbone turns down toward the floor, allow your head to drop in between your arms. Pause, then gently and slowly curve your spine down, bringing your tailbone up and your gaze forward. Pause again, and repeat. Do each way five times, pausing for about 3-5 seconds or longer (if it feels good) at each end range.
2. Thoracic Wall Extension
Face a wall and stand about an arm’s length away from it. Place both hands on the wall, bend forward at the hips, and bring your head in between your arms. At the same time, gently extend your upper back. When you find a good spot, hold here for about 20-30 seconds. You can repeat this stretch 2-3 times.
3. Seated Rotation Stretch
Sit tall in a chair. Place your right hand on the outside of your left knee. Grab the back of the chair with your left hand. Rotate your torso and look behind you. Hold here for about 20-30 seconds. Repeat this on the opposite side and do this about 2-3 times per side.
4. Muscle Scraping
If you have a muscle scraper available to you, use it on your thoracic spine. It can help decrease tension in surrounding muscles, relaxing any pull or stress on the thoracic vertebrae.
How do you use it? Apply the emollient to the area you want to scrape. For the thoracic spine, this is often around the shoulders and upper back. Using the beveled edge of the scraper, guide the tool along your skin while applying moderate pressure. Continue to scrape back and forth for 1-3 minutes. If any pain, petechiae, or bruising occurs, stop.
5. Thoracic Foam Rolling
Grab a foam roller and place it perpendicular to your spine. Lie face-up on the foam roller. Gently roll back and forth along your spine for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Similar to the scraper, you should feel some relief after this time. Make sure to only stay on the upper back – avoid the lower back as this could cause muscles to tighten up leading to pain.
Take Care of Your Thoracic Spine!
Undeniably, it’s important. And if you’re wanting to optimize your performance, your thoracic spine mobility might be the key aspect holding you back. Take the necessary actions to improve your thoracic mobility. It impacts not only your spine, but all other parts of your body. When you take the time to address your thoracic mobility, you’ll find you’ll get to your goals that much faster.