Maintaining and improving thoracic spine mobility is one of the most important things we can do as both athletes and fitness enthusiasts. In fact, it is a vital area of the body for literally every human on Earth. The importance of having normal thoracic spine mobility is not to be overlooked. It will help you in all areas of your life, especially if you workout and play sports.
In this post, we are going to discuss everything you need to know about thoracic spine mobility and then we are going to show you 8 of our favorite thoracic spine dynamic stretches that will help you improve your mobility and overall performance.
Without further ado, let’s begin…
The thoracic spine refers to the area of spinal column that runs from below the cervical neck (C7 neck), which is roughly shoulder level, down to the first level of the low back (L1, lumbar spine). The thoracic spine (aka T-Spine) makes up 12 of the 33 vertebrae in the spinal column. It is T1-T12.
A Deeper Understanding of the Thoracic Region
Then you have the thoracic cage, which is formed by the 12 pairs of ribs with their costal cartilages and the sternum. The ribs are attached posteriorly to the 12 thoracic vertebrae, with most being anchored anteriorly, either indirectly or directly, to the sternum. All together, this forms the thorax (chest portion of the trunk of a body).
In the thorax, each rib articulates with the vertebra, both at the vertebral bodies and transverse processes.
The transverse processes are small bony projections off the sides of each vertebrae. They function as the place of attachment for muscles and ligaments of the spine and they are the point of articulation for the ribs to the thoracic spine.
Now, the vertebrae of thoracic spine vary in characteristics. While vertebra 2 through 9 have the same characteristics, vertebrae 1 (T1) and 10-12 (T10-T12) are different. T1 resembles a cervical vertebra (the spine of the neck), and it has similar movement capabilities as well. At the 9th vertebrae (T9) the spine begins to thicken. From there, T10-T12 get thicker, resembling that of the lumbar spine. The movement characteristics of these last few vertebrae of the thoracic spine are also similar to the lumbar spine.
The thoracic spine stabilizes and keeps the body upright. It also functions to hold the rib cage in place, which protects many vital organs, including the heart and lungs.
From maintaining good posture to keeping the body stable when using your upper extremities, the thoracic spine is used in much of our daily life. It is an integral component of a strong, healthy body.
In terms of movement, the thoracic spine has the capability of rotation, flexion & extension, and lateral flexion.
If your thoracic spine has normal mobility, it should have 30-35° degrees of total rotation to each side, with each vertebrae capable of approximately 3°.
The thoracic spine demonstrates more rotation than the lumbar spine, which has about 10° of rotation to each side. And together, the thoracolumbar (thoracic and lumbar spine) can rotate approximately 45° in each direction.
Because of that, your ability to rotate in a safe manner is quite substantial, so long as your mobility is good. But if it is not, you will be susceptible to back injuries. For example, if your thoracic spine can not rotate well enough, your lumbar spine will be forced to rotate more to compensate. This is one of the major causes of low back pain and injury. Therefore, it’s very important that you create normalcy in your thoracic mobility.
Thanks to the joints angles of the thoracic spine, we can move through all planes of motion: rotation, flexion & extension, and lateral flexion. That said, our ribs stop excess lateral flexion from happening.
The neutral standing position for the average adult places the thoracic spine in 40° of flexion. So, from a normal position, you have an additional 35° of flexion. This means all together, you have 75° of full flexion.
Your body is capable of 40-45° degrees of sagittal plane flexion and extension while standing. From neutral, the thoracic spine has additional flexion of 35°. Thus, in full flexion, the thoracic spine can produce 75° of flexion.
On the flip side, the thoracic spine only has 20-25° of extension. So, if the normal position puts us in 40° of flexion, when we extend fully, we are still in 15° of flexion. This means there really is no true extension, really it is just a reduction of relative flexion. Nevertheless, this reduction of flexion is crucial to our ability to move properly and we can consider it extension when discussing mobility to keep things simple.
While there are many muscles that influence the movement of the thoracic spine, the most notable are the middle trapezius, rhomboids, and the spinal erectors.
That said, as important as these muscles are for the function of the thoracic spine they are not typically shortened or overactive in away that affects movement of the thoracic spine.
The muscles that play a role in the mobility of the thoracic spine that are typically tight and short are the pectorals and the latissimus dorsi. Thus, if mobility is restricted on a muscular level, dynamic and static stretches that focus on these areas will prove to be effective.
T-spine mobility is among the most important areas of the body to mobilize for athletes and the Average Joe & Jane alike. The thoracic spine takes on a major role in keeping the shoulders and lower back healthy and functioning well and pain free.
Here are some more benefits of increasing t-spine mobility…
Benefits of Increasing Thoracic Spine Mobility:
Unsurprisingly, the thoracic spine is an area that is often neglected in mobility training, and as the old saying goes, “if you don’t use it, you lose it”.
So, if you don’t work on thoracic mobility on a weekly basis, it is likely that your mobility is at least somewhat restricted.
For those who have significant issues with the mobility of their t-spine, it is likely caused by sitting too much and not maintaining good posture.
People who sit at a desk for 8-10 hours a day often have poor thoracic spine mobility. If that’s you, it is likely you could use some improvement in this area.
If you are skeptical on whether you have poor t-spine mobility, we have a few tests that you can try out.
Note: Even if you prove to have normal thoracic mobility, it is important that you maintain it, so the thoracic spine stretches and mobility exercises to follow will be as good for you as they will for those who lack mobility.
Thoracic Test #1
1. Start with your hands and knees on the ground with your hands stacked under your shoulders; keep your knees hip width apart.
2. Press through your hands while rounding your upper back and retracting your shoulder blades together.
Note: If you weren’t able to get both flexion and extension in your spine, there’s plenty room for improvement.
Thoracic Test #2
1. Lie down on your back then move into a supine spinal twist.
2. Extend your right leg straight.
3. Move your left knee towards the right side of your body and your left hand to your head.
4. Rotate open.
5. Test the other side.
Note: If you can’t open up at least half way to the floor, then there’s room for improvement.
The best way to improve thoracic spine mobility is with dynamic stretches and foam rolling. If you employ both thoracic spine (upper back) stretching and foam rolling into your weekly routine, and you stay active and focus on maintaining good posture, you will surely improve your thoracic spine mobility.
Note: When we say increasing, what we really mean is optimizing. You simply want to normalize your thoracic spine's mobility. Many people lack mobility in their thoracic spine. So, in this case, by increasing your thoracic spinal mobility, you are simply normalizing it.
Below we are going to take you through a few of our favorite thoracic spine stretches to improve mobility.
Dynamic thoracic spine stretches are essential for warm ups before any workouts, especially workouts that involve stress on the spine (barbell squats, deadlifts, etc.) and complex movement patterns or rotational work (steel mace or kettlebell workouts).
And while thoracic spine stretches are great to add into a dynamic warm up before a workout, they can also be done as a decompression after a workout, to further ensure your mobility is up to par and to release any pressure caused by a rigorous workout.
If you have any questions about the thoracic spine or thoracic spine mobility & stretches, please feel free to contact us.
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