Thoracic spine mobility issues tend to sneak up on you unsuspectingly. One minute, you’re not thinking about how well your middle and upper back can move. And then the problems set it. It might be aches and pains, or your mid-upper back limitations might bring your gains to a grinding halt.
Training for mobility may one of the last things on your mind when lining up the next set of heavy barbell work. However, a healthy dose of thoracic spine mobility in your program can keep you training effectively without sacrificing hours of precious training time per week.
To properly improve your T-spine mobility, you’ll choose thoracic mobility exercises that strike a balance between stretching and strength-building. These can be the best thing you can do for thoracic spine mobility — and for your lifts.
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Best Thoracic Spine Mobility Exercises
- Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Cable Abdominal Crunch
- Side Plank
- Kneeling Book Opener
- Weighted Dead-Hang Pull-Up
- Kettlebell Windmill
Benefits of the Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
- This widely accessible drill will help you get your torso into better positions of thoracic extension without much effort.
- A more rounded forward posture that can come with the territory of a technological age isn’t the greatest for many exercises. This exercise lets you simply lay across your foam roller and let gravity do much of the work.
- You’ll develop a better proprioceptive relationship with your T-spine — you’ll learn what it feels like to stretch the area so you can do it more effectively, more often.
How to the Do Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
Lie down face up with your glutes and shoulders comfortably resting on the ground. Place the foam roller behind your upper back and use it as a place from which to arch backwad. From here, flex and extend your spine, using the foam roller as a pivot point across various points of your mid to upper back.
By getting into the quadruped position, you can control more of your body as you mobilize your thoracic spine. You’ll also get in high-quality breathing practice, which is essential for core bracing and helping you lift heavier weights.
Benefits of the Cat-Cow
- Actively contracting your muscles to help achieve different positions can help you take more control of your mobility training.
- The breathing patterns you’ll practice during cat-cows translates into a better ability to breathe under a loaded barbell.
- This movement helps you open a stretch through your chest and shoulders.
How to Do the Cat-Cow
Assume a starting position on your hands and knees, with your hands and legs positioned shoulder and hip-width apart respectively. With an inhale, draw your belly button down to the ground while tilting your head and tailbone up to the ceiling. On an exhale, arch your back (like a cat), curving up toward the ceiling. Let your head drop and tuck your tailbone. Repeat for at least 10 breaths.
The dumbbell pullover is a convenient way to repurpose an exercise that might otherwise find its way into any of your upper body workouts. Use lighter weight than normal to help make this move part of your mobility training.
Using exercises that actively engage your muscles can help pull your thoracic spine into different positions with each contraction. This will help actively strengthen your muscles in their end ranges of motion.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- The eccentric control required for the dumbbell pullover will help to keep tension on the muscle groups you’re trying to mobilize.
- Your lats will stay tight as they are stretched through the extension of your arms overhead.
- This move helps strengthen your upper back (and chest) through a large range of motion.
How to Do the Dumbbell Pullover
Grab a light-to-medium dumbbell and a weight bench. Lie face up perpendicular to the bench with your shoulder blades resting comfortably on the edge. Your lower body should be in a bridge position. Contract your glutes the whole time to keep your back aligned in a neutral spine.
Hold the dumbbell overhead with soft elbows. Start above your face and slowly lower it down and back. The final position should be above your head, behind the bench. Draw the dumbbell back towards the starting position, controlling the weight similar to how you would perform a straight-arm pulldown.
The cable abdominal crunch is another creative way to use exercises you may find within a regular workout for your mobility training. Mobilizing using intentional muscular contractions can double dip your gains by building some core strength and also getting your torso more pliable.
While most lifters focus on extension, your ability to flex your thoracic spine is just as important. This lift will train that contraction and help keep your abs strong — and your T-spine mobile — in the process.
Benefits of the Abdominal Crunch
- Using your abdominal muscles are an essential part of producing spinal flexion. Although spinal flexion gets a bad rap (especially under the context of squats or deadlifts), it is a necessary part of sound thoracic mobility.
- You cannot extend your spine very well if you’re constantly in an extended position — thus, adding some flexion to the equation helps maintain that balance.
- This move helps strengthen your core while stretching your spine in a shape you might normally avoid in the gym.
How to Do the Abdominal Crunch
Raise a cable stack machine to the highest setting and grab a triceps extension grip attachment. While facing away from the machine, grab each side of the triceps rope attachment. Hold them close to your body, draped around the back of your neck.
Perform abdominal crunches in a controlled manner by resting your hips against the cable stack and flexing your abs. Breathe out all of your air as you slowly flex your spine while contracting your abdominals. Breathe in as you eccentrically control the range of motion back to the top. Repeat for reps.
Strategically contracting on one side of your body during the side plank can simultaneously help to mobilize the opposite side – all while assisting in core training.
Benefits of the Side Plank
- The side plank uses active isometric contractions to help mobilize one side of your body while flexing the other.
- This move trains the often forgotten aspects of thoracic mobility — lateral flexion and extension.
- Taking deep breaths during this movement will further increase the strength and mobility of your non-contracted side.
How to Do the Side Plank
While on a yoga mat, lie on one side of your body. Prop yourself up on your elbow. Line your body up in a straight line, raising your hips to try and form a straight line from your shoulders through to your knees and ankles.
Contract your obliques closest to the ground, breathing out as you do. Allow a subtle tilt towards your oblique contraction. Practice taking long deep breaths, particularly allowing the free (upward facing) obliques to expand as you do.
The kneeling book opener offers a simple refinement to how you approach the traditional book opener exercise. Many lifters will perform the book opener (and most mobility exercises) without much thought behind the muscles that are performing the movement.
When used correctly, the kneeling version of the book opener can help substantially with thoracic spine rotational mobility. Being in the kneeling position forces you to actively keep engaged with your muscles — otherwise, you’ll lose balance and tip over.
Benefits of the Kneeling Book Opener
- The kneeling version of the book opener reinforces body positioning and actively contracts as many muscles responsible for rotation as possible.
- By actively engaging your whole body, you can improve your mobility more efficiently.
- Kneeling during this movement will give you a deeper rotational mobilization from your muscles pulling you into position.
How to Do the Kneeling Book Opener
Instead of lying on the ground, assume a half-kneeling position. From here, lock your hips in place and position your arms straight ahead of your body. While actively reaching with one arm, draw the opposite arm back. Rotate your torso as your one arm drives forward and the other sweeps back like a reverse flye.
When training for thoracic spinal mobility, some lifters may neglect their upper back and rotator cuffs. While it’s an advanced move, a weighted dead-hang pull-up can be extremely beneficial for keeping your thoracic spine mobile from your shoulders to your abs and everything in between.
You’ll also be practicing hanging from a pull-up bar — with weight — which can help build the strength you need to crank out pull-ups. By training your body to be mobile enough to sustain this weighted dead-hang position, you’ll be strengthening your ability to move out of it into a full pull-up.
Benefits of the Dead-Hang Weighted Pull-Up
- The dead-hang aspect of the weighted pull-up will assist in your shoulder blades rotating fully through full ranges of motion.
- Your bodyweight and any load on the dip belt will also help traction your spine, relaxing all the musculature before reengaging the full complement of muscles from your abdominals to your shoulders and back to complete the exercise.
- This full relaxation and contraction against resistance will help strengthen both your thoracic spine mobility and stability.
How to Do the Dead-Hang Weighted Pull-Up
Grab a dip belt and attach it around your waist with a light to moderate load. Set your grip on a pull-up bar at about shoulder width or slightly wider. Allow your bodyweight and the dip belt to assist in a dead-hang.
Relax your shoulders, letting them fall back and down away from your ears. Establish tension in your lats by imagining pulling your shoulder blades into your pockets without actually moving. If you’re able, continue to perform a pull-up. Make sure to initiate the pull with your lats and imagine driving your elbows down toward your pockets. Rest and repeat.
The kettlebell windmill is a complex combination of movements that will challenge many aspects of your thoracic spine mobility. You’ll also work on both your overhead mobility and stability that the same time.
Not only does it demand high degrees of mobility from your upper body, but the kettlebell windmill will also challenge your full-body coordination. You’ll also need plenty of wiggle room in your hips and lower body.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Windmill
- The kettlebell windmill is the ultimate combination of upper and lower body mobility.
- The best aspects of the kettlebell windmill are also the most difficult — coordinating your hip and thoracic spine movements to maximize your mobility can be quite challenging.
- You’ll be improving both overhead mobility and stability, which translates well into overhead lifts.
How to Do the Kettlebell Windmill
Grab a kettlebell and press it above your head. Lower your shoulder down away from your ear to lock it in place. Assume a shoulder-width or wider stance.
Brace your core and begin to hinge backwards, sliding your free hand outside of your hand on the leg, towards the ground. Maintain eye contact with the bell as you keep it above your head throughout the movement. Rotate your torso as you descend and ascend through the range of motion.
Anatomy of the Thoracic Spine
A bit of anatomy knowledge can help you with your intentional muscle contractions when your goal is to combine passive stretches with active muscle work.
The rhomboids are a muscle group found in the mid back that help to draw your shoulder blades together. If you have a tight set of rhomboids, you may find it harder for your shoulders to move freely during exercise.
With that difficulty comes the possibility of compensation. Keep your rhomboids mobile by performing full protraction and retraction of your shoulder blades when possible during row exercises.
The traps are an enormous diamond-shaped muscle located in the middle and upper back, overlapping significantly with the rhomboids. They also help retract your shoulder blades and will also help elevate them during a shrug.
Tight traps might restrict your shoulder blades from moving freely, similar to tight rhomboids. In this case, exercises that are performed overhead might be quite difficult for you to complete.
The latissimus dorsi (or lats) are one the largest muscles of the body. They’re found all along the side of your torso. They span from around your armpit area all the way into your low back and hips. So if you don’t keep these huge muscles mobile, it will become extremely apparent in many movements.
The rotator cuff is a group of smaller muscles around your shoulder region that act to stabilize the upper arm bone onto your torso. Although small, they have a big job. If they are too tight or too weak to successfully help with shoulder stability, you might not be able to perform many exercises overhead or with long ranges of motion.
Your rotator cuffs also help provide leverage for the other larger back muscles by anchoring your arms in the right position.
The serratus anterior is a muscle group found on the front side of your torso that helps to protract your shoulder blades (think an intentionally long reach with your arm). It attaches to the scapula and your ribs.
They help stabilize your shoulder in many ranges of motion. As with the rotator cuff, a weak or underdeveloped serratus anterior can make it hard for you to safely exercise overhead or perform long range of motion upper body exercises.
The abdominal muscles (particularly the rectus abdominis and external obliques) contribute to forward and lateral bending of the torso. These are important muscle groups to help maintain a balance of flexion and extension postures throughout exercise, hard bracing, and everyday life.
An honorable mention should be made for the muscles surrounding your hips — particularly the glutes. A tight set of glutes can restrict movement of your torso (even into your thoracic spine) by virtue of the fact that your upper body is connected to your lower body through the hips.
An unstable or immobile set of glutes can make movements from the lower body more difficult. That restricted range of motion can create compensatory movements or immobility in the upper body as a cascade reaction.
Planes of Motion
Understanding how your body (and especially your thoracic spine) moves can help add clarity to which exercises are the best options for you. Your body can perform movements in three planes of motion — the sagittal (front-to-back), frontal side-to-side), and transverse (rotation) plane.
Developing a routine that includes all of these planes of motion is essential for gaining and maintaining thoracic spine mobility.
The sagittal plane of motion is anything that can be performed moving front to back. In terms of the thoracic spine, this would be spinal flexion and extension. For example, the foam roller thoracic spine extensions or the cable crunch are in the sagittal plane.
Most of the lifts you’ll perform for strength competitions — think, the big three in powerlifting or Olympic lifts — are in the sagittal plane. Developing strength, stability, and mobility here is key for training success.
The frontal plane involves any motions in a lateral direction. Side planks are a good representation of a thoracic spine frontal plane exercise. The ability to flex and extend the thoracic spine laterally from one side to another is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of mobility.
By incorporating frontal plane moves like side planks into your mobility routine, you’ll be shoring up your midsection against injuries and shearing forces. If the barbell tilts to one side during a heavy squat, for example, having stronger thoracic mobility and proprioception in the frontal plane can help stabilize you.
The transverse plane of motion involves rotation. Exercises that require the thoracic spine to twist are engaging the transverse plane of motion. The book opener and windmill are great examples of using multiple muscle groups to pull your body through the transverse plane.
Many of the most complex movement patterns and athletic performances heavily rely on the ability to perform rotation. So, working towards transverse plane mobility is essential. The greater ability to rotate you have, the more likely you are to be resilient against injury on the platform.
Benefits of Thoracic Spine Mobility
Training to gain or maintain your fair share of thoracic spine mobility doesn’t just make improvements in potentially lacking ranges of motion. Boosting your thoracic spine mobility will also impart a good stimulus for joint stability and proprioception. With that, you’ll be more likely to lift heavier, healthier, and longer.
Better Overhead Lifts
When you’re able to move better, you’re able to lift better. And when you can mobilize your T-spine effectively, it opens up a wide range of overhead exercises for you to learn and get stronger at. Think of snatch-grip moves like overhead squats and snatches, as well as general overhead pressing and carries.
By making sure your thoracic spine can get you into tough overhead positions, you’ll boost your ability to lift overhead. You’ll only see your numbers go up from there.
Improved Range of Motion
Both passive stretching and active movements designed to keep your thoracic spine moving will be beneficial for any range of motion you may lack. The biggest results come to those who have the most restrictions, so seeing improvements in exercise selection, execution, and potential safety are all on the table if you’re able to improve range of motion where it may be lacking.
Many of the exercises to make your thoracic spine more mobile will help you keep your shoulders more stable in potentially vulnerable overhead positions. Exercises such as the kettlebell windmill or book opener are able to both train for thoracic spine mobility while also improving shoulder and hip stability.
Proprioception is the ability to coordinate your own body in space — particularly when you cannot see it. Many of your surefire thoracic spine mobility exercises double as proprioceptive stimuli by forcing you to perform without watching your moving limbs.
Dumbbell pullovers, kettlebell windmills, dead-hang weighted pull-ups, and even side planks can help you develop better proprioception.
Tee Up Your T-Spine Gains
Thoracic spine mobility is something that you should always be aware of — even if your primary goal is to heft heavy weight. You don’t have to spend an enormous amount of time managing your mobility. Selecting a few key exercises can be all it takes to really reinforce your ability to move freely.
Combining a quick foam roller routine with some active exercises blended seamlessly into your workout combats the potentially time-consuming concept of a full-on mobility routine. Select a few of these best exercises to assure your ability to move through all three planes of motion — helping to ensure gains for life.
Featured Image: Ihor Bulyhin / Shutterstock