Who knew that "working from home" still meant slouching in front of a computer for hours? Extended periods in one position can leave you feeling super stiff and even in pain. Taking a break to work on your thoracic strength and mobility will make you feel good as new. Improve the flexibility and strength of your T-spine so you can better your posture, protect yourself from injury, and even enhance many of your workouts.
What's in a spine?
The spine is made up of 5 different sections. The vertebrae (spinal bones) in each section vary in shape/ size and serve slightly different functions. The 5 sections of the spine are cervical (7 vertebrae), thoracic (12 vertebrae), lumbar (5 vertebrae), sacrum (5 fused vertebrae), and the coccyx bone (4 fused vertebrae).
How does T-spine mobility affect injury prevention?
The human body is a giant chain, and each chain link must be intact and functional for the integrity of the structure to work efficiently. There are certain areas/joints whose main purpose is to provide stability, while others have the purpose to provide mobility.
If we focus on the spine, we see that the cervical spine (making up the neck) is built to provide stability. Moving down the chain, the thoracic spine (middle back) is meant to be mobile, and the lumbar spine (lower back) also requires stability.
If any of these sections aren’t doing their job, the surrounding structures in the chain will compensate. For example, if we lack mobility in the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine as well as the pelvis and shoulder musculature might compensate. Sounds like a problem solved right?
Now we put ourselves at risk for issues including (but not limited to) low back or neck pain. Over time, stress builds in these areas from overcompensating to pick up the slack of the thoracic spine.
Today we will dive into how to mobilize and strengthen the thoracic spine and surrounding musculature. The thoracic spine, as stated above, is built for mobility. It provides us with flexion, extension, and rotation. With that in mind, we will be moving through all of those planes of motion for both our mobility drills and strength exercises.
Top 3 mobility drills you can do at home
Mobility Drill 1 • Cat-Cow
Start on all fours in the quadruped position. Be sure that your hands are directly below your shoulders, and your knees directly below the hips. Inhale and draw your chin to your chest while rounding out your middle back as much as possible. Take your time moving through this. Once you’ve achieved thoracic flexion, exhale as you bring your gaze forward, push through the ground with your arms/shoulders, and extend through your middle back as much as possible. Repeat 8-10 times.
Mobility Drill 2 • Open book/ Open book with reach
For this one, start side-lying with one leg supported by a foam roller or anything you can find around the house to use as a bolster. The idea is to get the hips stacked on top of one another and keep them there throughout the drill. Notice that the hip and the knee are both flexed at a 90-degree angle. Also, note that the hips stay lined up with the shoulders and the head and neck are relaxed.
Open Book (first two reps) - Bring your hands together in front of you, with your palms facing in. Without letting your knee leave the roller/ bolster, open up allowing your head and neck to travel with the moving arm and rotate as much as you can to the opposite side. It’s okay if you can’t touch the ground on the other side! Focus on pushing into the foam roller with your knee, and keeping the hips stacked. Then open up as much as your t-spine will allow you. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Open Book w/ Reach (second two reps) - The starting position for this one is the same. Instead of simply opening up and rotating from one side to the other, you will start by reaching the top hand past the bottom hand. Make sure your hips stay stacked and reach up and over your head doing the best you can to keep contact with the ground. Again, the priority is to keep your knee down so if you can’t touch the floor quite yet, that’s okay! Repeat 5 times on each side.
Mobility Drill 3 • Thoracic extension on a foam roller
Set up with the foam roller underneath the bottom of your shoulder blades, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Set your hips by rotating your pelvis posteriorly (backward). Be sure to keep your hips like this throughout the entirety of the exercise to ensure that your abdominals stay active and keep the low back from taking all of the stress. Cross your arms on your chest and pull your elbows in so that they point to the ceiling; this pulls the shoulder blades up and out of the way so that we can focus on a t-spine extension. Slowly extend back over the roller until you feel a stretch in your middle back. You may not have much movement here, and that’s okay. Repeat 5-6 times.
Why is it important to strengthen after you mobilize?
After completing your mobility drills, you may have gained some range of motion (ROM) and be feeling a bit looser.
That's great, but it’s not enough.
If you stop there, you have no chance of creating an effect that will last.
What’s the point then? The reason we complete mobility drills is to open up a window of increased ROM. During this time, the best thing we can do is take advantage of this short window of mobility and strengthen the muscles supporting the thoracic spine. This goes for any type of mobility work: stretching, manual therapy (massage), foam rolling, etc. All of these things will leave you feeling better in the moment, but won’t last without putting in the extra work. If you stay consistent, then you will see improvements in posture as well as pain and of course, mobility.
Top 3 strength exercises to do at home
Strength Exercise 1 • Multiplanar chops
Transverse - For this one, you will need a resistance band. If you don’t have one just practice going through the motions until you can get back to the gym. Tie the band around a post at shoulder height and stand to the side of the anchor point, far enough away so that there is no slack in the band. Clasp your hands together to hold onto the band and extend your arms straight out in front of you. The focus here is rotating through the t-spine, so we will be keeping our feet and hips anchored/ facing forward. Do your best to keep your elbows straight, and rotate your shoulders away from the anchor point until you can’t turn any further without turning your hips. Return to start position and repeat 8-10 times on each side.
High-to-low - to add variety to this exercise change the anchor point to about eye-level, and rotate from high to low. Notice the grip is different for this one, the hands will be about shoulder-width apart and grabbing the band almost as if grabbing onto a bar. Remember to keep the hips facing forward, elbows straight, and rotate through the shoulders. Repeat 8-10 times on each side.
Low-to-high - Now set your anchor point below the hips and follow the same steps, only from low-to-high this time. Repeat 8-10 times on each side.
Strength Exercise 2 • Seated Wall Slides
Sit on the floor against a wall with the knees slightly bent. Scoot close to the wall so that your low back/ tail bone is in contact with the wall. Next, make sure that your middle back and head are also in contact with the wall. Prioritize keeping these 3 points of contact throughout the exercise. Bring your arms to your sides with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Try your best to keep elbows and hands in contact with the wall as you slide up and down. It is okay if you can’t touch the wall, it is more important to keep your 3 points of contact. Repeat 5-6 times.
Strength Exercise 3 • Prone lift-offs/ overhead press
Prone lift-offs (first 2 reps) - Grab a dowel or a broomstick and lay face down on the floor. Hold the dowel/broomstick overhead wider than shoulder-width. Raise off the ground by extending through the middle back. Note: we are focusing on t-spine, so you want the motion to originate from here, rather than just pulling your shoulders back as far as you can. Lower back down to the floor slow and controlled and repeat 5-6 times. If this feels challenging, stick to the lift-offs for now. If they felt easy try adding the overhead press!
Prone overhead press (last two reps) - The starting position will be the same for these, except once you lift off you will hold that position and pull the dowel down behind the neck until it contacts your shoulders. Press back up into extension and lower down to the floor. Repeat 5-6 times.
Go through these drills/ exercises a few times per week to bulletproof your back. Remember consistency is key, and follow up mobility with strength to maximize success!