By 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:
Lie down on the floor, back flat against it.
Your knees should be up with your feet and glutes flat on the floor.
Lock your elbows and bring your arms directly overhead, attempting to touch your wrists to the ground above your head.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.