Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
7 May

How to Improve Thoracic Spine Mobility

thoracicspineBy now, you should be convinced that attaining and maintaining mobility in your thoracic spine is a good idea for many reasons. Kyphosis of the thoracic spine is a virtual epidemic (just take a look around at everyone the next time you’re in a coffee shop or classroom – rounded backs abound) and everyone at some time or another has felt a little twinge of shoulder pain when doing a particularly adamant set of pull-ups.

Before you start with the exercises, let’s first figure out the extent of your thoracic immobility. The industry standardized way of determination is a simple one:

  1. Lie down on the floor, back flat against it.
  2. Your knees should be up with your feet and glutes flat on the floor.
  3. Lock your elbows and bring your arms directly overhead, attempting to touch your wrists to the ground above your head.
  4. Make sure to maintain contact between your lower back and the floor; don’t arch your back to get your hands in place.

If you can’t get into this position and touch your wrists to the ground, you have poor thoracic mobility. If you really had to struggle through discomfort or even pain (don’t fight through pain!), you have less than ideal thoracic mobility. And if you were able to breeze through this drill, you should probably still work on more mobility, just to shore up what you already possess.

The Drills

Before we jump into the drills let me first say that if you feel any discomfort or strain in the neck, or if your neck muscles aren’t strong enough to comfortably support your head, clasp your hands behind your head to support as you are doing these exercises, instead of hugging the chest. Now that that is out of the way let’s move on.

Again, for the full effect, you’ll need to get your hands on a good, solid foam roller with at least a six inch diameter, along with a pair of tennis balls, lacrosse balls, or baseballs. Anything small, hard, and spherical that comes in pairs, really (there’s a terrible joke there, somewhere).

The basic foam roller soft tissue work for the thoracic spine is simple. Put the roller under your upper back, keep your glutes off the ground and your feet flat on the ground. Hug yourself tightly so that your upper back expands in breadth, and roll up and down, avoiding the neck and lumbar spine. You’ll probably hurt a bit and feel your back crack a few times, but that’s okay. You’re tenderizing and loosening what is most likely a tight stretch of spine. Here’s a video. Make sure to roll slowly and pause over any areas that feel especially tight or sore. Going up and down gently over just one or two vertebrae at a time, and then moving on to a different spot, rather than just doing a few quick T1-T12 sweeps, can be really helpful.

Now that you’re all loosened up, there are several aspects of thoracic mobility that we need to address. First, there is thoracic extension. Imagine a guy with a humped, or rounded, upper back attempting to straighten up. That’s thoracic extension.

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension (VIDEO)

Get in a similar position to the starting point of the thoracic mobility evaluation. Knees up, feet and glutes on the floor, foam roller underneath your upper back/thoracic spine. Put your hands behind your head, pull your elbows as close together as they’ll go, let your head drop to the floor, and try to “wrap” yourself around the foam roller. Extend your thoracic spine as far as it will go – then roll, pausing on the painful parts. Make sure to roll neither your neck nor your lower back; just keep it to the thoracic spine. Roll slowly or rather quickly. As long as you linger on the tender spots, you’ll be fine.

Tennis Ball Thoracic Extension (VIDEO 1 and VIDEO 2)

Tape your two balls together tightly (hrm…), then assume the thoracic evaluation position and place the balls right below your rib cage. Wrap yourself around the balls like you did with the foam roller. Head touching the ground, arms extended straight ahead. Do five sit-ups, making sure to keep your lumbar spine stable and your hips on the ground; move only your thoracic spine, using the balls as a reference point. After each rep, be sure to touch your head to the floor before the next one. Move the balls about an inch up the spine after each set of five. Repeat until you pass the shoulder blades.

The thoracic spine is also good for rotation. It’s actually the segment of the spine that we should be using to rotate and twist, not the lumbar spine. The lumbar spine has a maximum rotational range of 13 degrees; the thoracic spine can rotate 35 degrees. Lately, though, there is a huge emphasis placed on rotational flexibility, and people are trying to improve flexibility of the lower half of the trunk when it should be used for stability. This can cause lower back pain and lumbar instability. You’re far better off rotating with the part of the spine that’s meant to rotate, and here’s how to develop that lost art.

Side Lying Rotations (VIDEO)

Lie on your right side with a foam roller or pillow underneath your left knee, which should be bent about 90 degrees. Right leg should be straight. Arms straight ahead and parallel to the ground, hands together. Then, making sure to keep your hips and lumbar spine stable (press down on the roller with your leg to emphasize this), rotate along the thoracic spine until your upper back and outer arm are flat against the ground, or as close to flat as you manage (with greater mobility, this will come more easily). Tense your abdominal muscles in order to help keep your lumbar spine from rotating. You should feel the rotation in your chest and upper back. Do ten rotations on each side, holding for a couple seconds at the end of each rep.

Quadruped Rotations (VIDEO)

Get on your hands and knees. Put your right hand behind your neck and rotate along your thoracic spine, making your right elbow turn toward the floor. Keep your lower back tight, and sit back a bit into your hips to keep them from rotating (the guy in the video doesn’t really do this, instead keeping his thighs perpendicular to the ground). Tighten your abs. Ten reps each side, holding for two seconds on each rep.

Now, sit even further back on your heels.

Drape your torso over your thighs and slide your left hand along the floor out in front of you. Put your right hand behind your head and, instead of rotating toward the floor, rotate toward the ceiling along your thoracic spine. Ten reps each side, holding for two seconds at the top.

Thoracic Mobilization on a Chair (VIDEO)

This is a hybrid drill of sorts, working both rotation and lateral flexion of the thoracic spine. Sit down, either on a bench, a chair, or the floor, and put your hands behind your head. Spread your elbows as far as you can, which should tighten up your shoulder blades. Sit up straight, sit up tall. Keep your hips and lumbar spine from rotating, rotate as far as you can along the thoracic spine. You know the drill by now, right? After rotating, bend along the thoracic spine. Come back up, and rotate even further. Bend again, come back up, and try to rotate further. Do this as long as you’re still making progress with your rotations. Most people will be able to adjust three or four times before stalling. When that happens, switch to the other side.

If you’re having trouble visualizing and actualizing the thoracic extension or rotation (as opposed to lumbar extension or rotation), it helps to have a partner keep a hand on your thoracic spine – right above the bottom of your rib cage – when you extend and rotate. Much like with the two tennis balls guiding you, having a hand there can help you isolate the thoracic spine and really work your mobility correctly. It also helps to tighten your abdominals in order to maintain that lumbar stability. When you throw a ball, twist to pick something up on the ground, or perform any action that would usually result in hip or lumbar rotation, make sure you consciously rotate/extend your thoracic spine only. Remember: rotational power is generated with the hips, travels through the lumbar spine, and is expressed by the thoracic spine.

Most of these drills are pretty standard. StrongLifts, once again, has a fantastic thoracic mobilization routine laid out from which some of these videos came. Be sure to check it out.

The severely immobile should do all these drills, probably every day, until things improve. The foam roller stuff is always good to do, though, just to keep you loose and lumber, but for those that are limber and can breeze through the other drills I wouldn’t make them a regular part of your workout routine. I don’t particularly like doing many time-consuming exercises just to loosen up one area of my body, and I bet you don’t either. Do as I do and simply do a self test on your hips, your back and other joints (coming soon!) from time to time to gauge where your at. If you could use a little work then spend some time with these drills until improvements are seen. Or, and thanks to Maya White (8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back) for consulting with me on this piece and reminding me of these final points, there are other, more entertaining, playful, and sustainable ways to ensure good mobility throughout the body. Many kinds of traditional dances are great ways to maintain healthy mobility in the thoracic spine and the hips. The Brazilian Samba and various African dances, like Congolese, are her personal favorites. Yoga, too, can be a great way to stay mobile and flexible if done properly. Unfortunately, many people take yoga to the extreme and round or arch or twist from the wrong place. It’s important to know what you are doing (which includes making sure you don’t arch back or round from the lumbar spine) and to select a teacher who is very respectful of your limits and who encourages you to stay well within your comfort zone. Many people end up injuring themselves doing yoga with poor form.

I hope this little guide helps. My own thoracic mobility wasn’t great, but doing these drills has really made a huge difference, and I’m pretty sure it’ll do the same for you.

Thanks for reading and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great post!

    THoracic mobility is so commonly overlooked.

    A little shameless promotion; We made a product for this a while ago to replace the ‘tennis ball method

    radroller.com

    cheers-

    Mike

    mike mallory wrote on May 7th, 2010
  2. Loved the post! Try putting the two tennis balls in a long sock and tying a knot to lock them in place.
    Good Luck!
    Maureen

    maureen wrote on May 7th, 2010
  3. Wow.

    The last three posts have been stunningly spot on for me< Mark. A lifetime sugar junky, now morbidly obese, with a back so stiff a year ago I couldn't wipe my butt. Aaaah! My back is really a mess. I'm the poster child for metabolic syndrome.

    I have been primal for one week, but staying in the background just studying. I started researching diet and nutrition 5 months ago (resolution to be smart and not crash diet) expecting to come out of it a raw vegan to save myself. It was wonderful to find, you, Eades, Harris and this primal realm that seems to be the both the correct approach and I lifestyle I can realistically achieve.

    Anyway, I'm just new born hunter gatherer coming out of the closet to say hi. I want to use Grol because Grok and Grol makes me smile and will keep me accountable, but if someone beat me to it, just call me…

    Bob

    Grol wrote on May 7th, 2010
    • Welcome to the tribe, Grol!

      Mark Sisson wrote on May 7th, 2010
    • Welcome Bob! I was going to go raw vegan too until I discovered this diet. But as you will find in other articles it is still important to eat our raw green salads. We just get the wonderful benefit of eating organic pasture-fed meat as well! I have been primal for about two months now and absolutely loving it. I have been through some strange transition periods but I am finally coming out on top and it is definitely worth it. Just looking in the mirror is like watching time go backwards. I feel about 5 years younger already and I am working on feeling about 20 years younger (puts me back into my 20′s :)
      Best Wishes
      Ange.

      Angelina wrote on May 7th, 2010
  4. Sorry about the typos. I think I’m a little excited. :)

    Grol wrote on May 7th, 2010
  5. Thanks Mark!

    I’ve had some pretty bad upper back pain for the past year (and I’m only 19) and no experts I have seen have showed me a single one of these exercises. Definitely going to try them and hope for the best!

    Gil Butler wrote on May 7th, 2010
  6. Welcome Grol!!! Good for you for joining us. You will love it here.

    Mark, thank you for this very valuable post. I have soft tissue damage to my thoraic muscles. I hope these drills will help to feel it lose and mobile.

    Debra wrote on May 7th, 2010
  7. I thought the test for thoracic mobility was really easy. Other than keeping my lower back on the floor, are there other ways in which I may be doing it incorrectly?

    DC wrote on May 7th, 2010
  8. In reply to mike and I guess maureen. I tried the tennis balls in a sock thing and a foam roller but I couldnt get either precise enough to get the release I needed. For $19 I’m willing to try the radroller.

    EZ wrote on May 7th, 2010
  9. Thanks all. I feel welcome. The tennis ball sit ups are better than seeing my chiropractor. Nice. Wish I’d seen that vid years ago. I’ve got 170 pounds to lose. My back is a big issue. The worse it gets the heavier I get, the heavier I get the worse it gets.

    Grol wrote on May 7th, 2010
  10. I did the drill in the beginning and it seems as if I am good to go! But, if I ever feel pain I know what article to refer back to ;) If people actually take action and do the exercises explained and shown via video in this article then it will help a lot of people.

    The key is TAKING ACTION. If you have back or neck pain then do these exercises folks! Mark knows what he is talking about.

    Primal Toad wrote on May 7th, 2010
  11. “Again, for the full effect, you’ll need to get your hands on a good, solid foam roller with at least a six inch diameter, along with a pair of tennis balls, lacrosse balls, or baseballs. Anything small, hard, and spherical that comes in pairs”…….That’s what she said!

    Went for it :-)

    Ben wrote on May 7th, 2010
  12. Thanks for this post Mark. I really needed it. My back is a mess from years over being hunched over my desk studying for university.

    Angelina wrote on May 7th, 2010
  13. This may sound like a dumb question but- when doing the initial mobility test, does it matter where the pain is? When I do the test, I feel some discomfort but mostly pain in upper arms, especially when my wrists get close to touching the ground.

    CC wrote on May 7th, 2010
    • An answer from an eexprt! Thanks for contributing.

      Coralee wrote on February 15th, 2012
  14. I tried the test, and was amazed at how easy it was. I can hardly believe some would have a problem with it.

    WOD was Military press,bench press, overhead squat and 5k run.

    Lojasmo wrote on May 7th, 2010
  15. Passed! But I will keep my thoracic spine in mind next time I do yoga. It’s definitely not a body part I was really ever consciously aware of.

    Deanna wrote on May 7th, 2010
  16. Mark,
    Once again- spot on. I have been struggling significantly with right shoulder pain. My crossfit coach said that when I stand with my typical posture, he pointed out that my thumbs point toward my body, while if I wern’t slouched, the thumbs naturally point more toward the front. Alas hello posture! As I have been doing the crossfit, my shoulders are moving back, but it is about strengthening and balancing all the muscles- not globo-gym isolating stuff which probably contributed to the off-balance.. Anyway, I was at my ortho yesterday getting another cortizone shot, she raved about the thoracic mobility piece, and said that would help my shoulder big-time. Thanks again for what you do for us with incredibly well-researched information and not being afraid to challenge CW. Grock on!!!

    M.S. wrote on May 8th, 2010
  17. My shoulder width is slightly over 45cm. The foam rollers apparently comes in either 45 or 90 cm length. 90 is just unpractical long. Is 45cm too short for me?

    PS: I must say that 45cm seem like a really stupid size…

    ole wrote on May 8th, 2010
  18. Hey love this post, but would like to add something. I recently tore my labrum with some heavy lifting. Working through physical therapy revealed a tight thoracic. I was told however, that it related to a misalignment of my pelvis! By repositioning my pelvis, the curve of my spine was shifted and removed the impingement of my shoulder. I learned some foam roller exercises for my pelvis that help my thoracic mobility.

    Chase wrote on May 8th, 2010
  19. Mark,

    I’m not really sure how exactly this test relates to thoracic mobility, so I was hoping you could provide some more details or point me in the right direction. As far as I know, the test you described is commonly used by physical therapists to assess the length of the latissimus dorsi (see http://www.activeanatomy.com/UserFiles/5797-Files/file/Latissimus_Dorsi_Flexibility_Test_Sample.pdf). But since the spine should not move during this test, I don’t see how it can be a measure of mobility.

    Matt wrote on May 9th, 2010
  20. I, like some others, found the test at the start to be relatively simple, but I suffer from hunched upper back too! My posture is atrocious. Is it possible that it’s from a weakening of this area as opposed to a lack of mobility?

    Chandra wrote on May 9th, 2010
  21. It is really too bad you are so negative on yoga. All of these exercises you’re recommending for hip/spine mobility are reinventions of a 4000-year old wheel. The chances of injury when doing yoga are actually quite low, especially if you are taking a class with a qualified instructor. The exercises you recommend here will not be very effective at resolving the problems most people have with their hip and spine mobility, especially done sporadically as you recommend. However, a regular yoga practice can create dramatic changes in the body.

    Catherine wrote on May 11th, 2010
    • Why would you say he’s negative on yoga? All Mark said is that yoga causes problems if done improperly. I have seen DOZENS of my patients come in with acute pain after a yoga session gone awry. Some of these patients were doing great and picked up a yoga class and ended up with an entirely new problem. I’m not saying yoga isn’t great for some people, but good form and a good instructor are crucial, not to mention that there is a learning curve. Most yoga practitioners hurt themselves early on by trying maneuvers they are not ready for.

      Jared wrote on May 11th, 2010
      • Mark makes yoga sound downright dangerous, and the exercises he recommends are pretty lame and a bit sillyl compared to a solid yoga practice. I will bet dollars to donuts that every one of the dozens of patients you’ve seen with “yoga injuries” already had problems when they went to yoga (which is probably why they went). People who are already having pain or know that they have an injury or an issue should see a doctor first. Otherwise, it’s extremely safe compared to almost any other sport you could name (go ahead, try to think of a sport less dangerous than yoga). How many runners have you seen that have injuries? I would bet that just about 100% of runners show up in their doctor’s office with an injury sooner or later, but you don’t see these scary warnings about running and injuries. With yoga, running, and most sports, common sense should suffice. As a doctor, you are not seeing the hundreds or thousands of people who don’t need you because their yoga practice keeps them strong and healthy. There is no need to warn people away from yoga while at the same time encouraging them to improve their thoracic mobility.

        Catherine wrote on May 11th, 2010
        • Catherine, take a deep breath. You are getting downright catty so you are not open to any opinion but your own, which is your right, being a free country and all. All I’m going to say is that I do yoga myself and enjoy it, but I do see injuries come from people who go to fly-by-night classes at gyms, churches, and the like. Yoga can be a crucial part of any fitness program, but all I am saying (and Mark, too) is that it should be done with caution, just like anything else. I am NOT throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I can honestly say I have NEVER told ANYONE not to try yoga, just to be cautious. If that deeply offends you, I apologize. I am glad that yoga is working so well for you, but you must remember that you cannot speak for everybody. Every BODY is different and doing things like standing on your head is not healthy for every living breathing person on the planet. Some instructors know how to put limits on their students, while some do not.

          Jared wrote on May 11th, 2010
        • I do not do Yoga but I can see where Jared is coming from with his point about good instructors and every body being different. I do a different sport/exercise/strengthening regime and even though I have no injuries I am surprised at some of the things my instructor expects me to be able to do. Being 40+ myself I tend to tone down what my instructor expects of me and go at my own pace, knowing only too well that if I did not do this I would definitely end up with an injury. I do believe that every body is different and that all forms of exercise/workouts etc should be taken up with great care until we are able to work out what we are capable of doing without injuring ourselves. So I think that both Catherine and Jared have some valid points. Mark has not scared me away from trying Yoga. I have always wanted to try it one day and probably still will.

          Angelina wrote on May 11th, 2010
  22. I sit in front of a computer – a lot, but I work out too. As I get older, I realize how valuable corrective exercise is for my health and mobility. Thanks for the videos – they really help.

    Chris Melton wrote on May 12th, 2010
  23. Thanks Mark! I have been using a foam roller for about 6 months for my very poor thoracic health. It has been a God-send! I have been primal for about 3 months and I am hooked…feel like a new person!! SO happy I found you!!

    Jennifer wrote on May 13th, 2010
  24. I passed the test, but that part of my back is chronically sore, and these exercises FEEL really good. SWEET.

    Meeses wrote on May 13th, 2010
  25. Great post Mark,

    I’ve got a pretty jacked up T-spine that’s slowly getting better. I’ll add these to the drills Master RKC and CKFMS Jeff O’Connor gave me to fix my asymmetries and improve my mobility.

    I would also like to recommend “Kalos Sthenos: Kettlebells From The Ground Up”
    by Master RKC Brett Jones and Gray Cook MSPT, OCS, CSCS, RKC for anyone who is serious about fixing their asymmetries and improving mobility.

    The 2 disc DVD and manual breaks down the Turkish get Up into a fully functional movement that not only acts as a movement screen but as the cure for any movement issue that screen my present.

    I can’t recommend it enough.

    Doug wrote on May 21st, 2010
  26. I have scoliosis. Are these exercises great for me? will they help me?

    Susana wrote on December 15th, 2010
  27. I cannot recommend the products from Trigger Point technologies enough, for any self myofascial release work that you may need to do. Not cheap but quality rarely is.

    Phil wrote on May 8th, 2011
  28. This thread may be a bit stagnant, but I wanted to chime in. I’ve had issues with the muscles all around my thoracic spine. They got tight and sore from sitting in front of a computer all day and doing these exercises has helped me tremendously. I was lightheaded every after for long period due to the tension, and despite seeing a chiro for a year I resorted to trying things on my own for relief. These little exercises are practically a miracle relief from the issues I’ve been having for 2 years. Thanks so much.

    Jim wrote on July 1st, 2011
  29. Wow What a great article…So much attention to detail, just love the stuff you are talking about keep it up :)

    Robert wrote on September 29th, 2011
  30. Hi Mark,

    Reading this article actually healed my lower back pain. For years I actually thought it was due to anterior pelvic tilt. After going through most of the exercises (some had their videos removed) I can now walk around lower back pain free. Unbelievable. Especially because I’ve had this pain for 10 years!! (I’m only 25 too).
    Thanks.

    If you could fix the broken links to the videos that would help with the performing of the exercises. Thanks mark

    Ryan wrote on January 3rd, 2012
  31. Drills look good. Please fix the videos…

    Thanks

    –Steve

    Steve wrote on January 14th, 2012
  32. I have thoracic kyphosis from years of cycling. I am in considerable pain most days and relief is only brief and temporary after chrio/physio. I have a foam roller, and do the thoracic extension. More than willing to try the others. Could you possibly bring back the missing videos ….Thanks

    shaun wrote on April 14th, 2012
    • Good God man. I thought I was somewhat flexible-that is simply not the case. These drills along with the hip and ankle and shoulder stuff has made me rethink things.
      I was getting ready to go gung ho on the PB WO. I need to get a few things loosened up and corrected first.

      Jiggy-Z wrote on August 16th, 2012
  33. At first I thought I passed the mobility test but then I realized my low back was arching up. When I made the adjustment the wrists didn’t make it to the ground. Definitely going to start working on this.

    Another position giving me trouble that I think is a thoracic mobility issue is the overhead squat.

    James wrote on September 7th, 2012
  34. I recently purchased a Rumble Roller. Are these just as good as foam rollers for this kind of stuff? Thank you.

    Joshua wrote on April 29th, 2013
  35. Hi Mark

    What about if you have thorax problems pertaining to having NO kyfosis. I mean, my thorax is completely straight. And It’s really hampering my posture and all of my upperbody movements. Would really like to fix that.

    Kevin Gibbs wrote on February 27th, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2014 Mark's Daily Apple