Have you ever been really engrossed in something on your phone, hunched over the device as the minutes pass, only to finally be snapped back to reality by throbbing pain or stiffness in your mid and upper back?
If you’re like most of us, there’s a pretty good chance you spend a little too much time stooped over a computer, smartphone, desk, or steering wheel. These modern habits have led to an epidemic of back issues – one of which is hindered thoracic spine mobility.
And because the body is so complex, dysfunctions at other areas of the body – for example, a posterior pelvic tilt – can result in compensatory stiffness in your thoracic spine and poor posture.
If you’ve felt all too common aches, pains, and tightness in your thoracic spine, have no fear. We’ll take a look at the anatomical and habitual issues at play and give you some simple thoracic spine mobility exercises to improve mobility and posture while strengthening your back.
I remember when I first noticed how bad my posture was…
I was in Grade 9 and glanced sideways as I walked by the full-length mirror that hung above the stairway leading to the basement.
I couldn’t believe how much of a hunchback I had and how far forward my head was!
It was partially mechanical in that I was sitting a lot in class at my desk and at home watching TV and playing on the computer…
But looking back I can also admit that some of it was psychological, because I didn’t have a ton of self-confidence then.
I’m not an expert in this arena but one thing I can say for certain is that if self-confidence is an issue, one thing that has helped me is setting and achieving goals – no matter how small.
In fact, if you do need a boost in this area I suggest you start with tiny goals – like doing 10 Pushups a day for 7 days straight, for example – and work your way to achieving bigger goals from there after you rack up a few easy wins to build momentum.
Anyway, let’s get back to your body…
Getting to Know Your Spine
You have a total of 33 vertebrae in your spine, the last 9 of which are the 5 fused vertebrae of the sacrum (that flat, plate-like area of your very low back) and the 4 fused vertebrae that make up your coccyx (the tailbone).
Your first 24 vertebrae are all individual, unfused bones that stack and slide over discs to protect your spinal cord while allowing for a wide range of movement. This main, “presacral” part of your spine is divided into 3 regions – cervical, thoracic, and lumbar.
Your cervical spine starts just below your skull and consists of the 7 vertebrae that make up your neck.
Your thoracic spine, or T-spine, comes next – a large region that includes 12 vertebrae of your upper to mid-back (your ribs connect to these vertebrae).
Lastly, there’s the lumbar spine – 5 large vertebrae in your lower back that connect to your sacrum.
The Thoracic Spine’s Vulnerabilities
Your T-spine naturally curves outward, away from your body, and is called a kyphotic curve. In the cervical and lumbar regions, your spine curves in toward your body, called a lordotic curve.
A natural kyphotic curve is anywhere from 20 to 40 degrees, but when that angle starts to push 40 or 45 degrees, it can cause problems. This is usually referred to as kyphosis .
At this point, the “hunchback” is also associated with rounded shoulders and a stiff and painful back – sound familiar?
These issues inevitably radiate out and lead to problems elsewhere in your body, for example, excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which then results in taut hamstrings .
Yep, you read that right – a hunched back can be making your hamstrings feel tight and make you feel worn out and tired!
Who needs another issue in their life adding to fatigue?!
While a structural abnormality causes kyphosis in a few folks, the type we’re talking about today is functional kyphosis – caused and aggravated by habitual posture and other muscular issues in your body
So what does that have to do with modern life?
It turns out that many of the activities we do daily are perfectly suited to cause and aggravate this curving of your T-spine.
Modern Life and Back Health
While modern life has made us better equipped to manage many health issues, it has not been all that great for the health of our thoracic spines.
Slouching over desks and computers all day accentuates that natural curve in our thoracic spine and pushes us one step closer to kyphosis.
Even carrying heavy bags can aggravate our T-spine, stretching, lengthening, and weakening supporting musculature .
But perhaps most noticeable of all is the exaggerated curve that appears while we stare straight down at our cell phones…
We’ve all done it and we’ve all seen it – eyes glued to that little magical box, sometimes even while walking around!
As we hold the phone below our face, our mid and upper back hunch – often quite dramatically.
Our habits and activities aren’t the only factors contributing to a lack of mobility in the thoracic spine – our muscular make-up (or lack thereof) can make things worse.
Tightness and shortening of muscles in your abdomen and chest like rectus abdominis and pec minor are often involved in kyphosis, further rounding your shoulders forward and exaggerating the natural curve of the T-spine.
And lengthening and weakness of muscles in your back like thoracic extensors, middle and lower traps, and the rhomboids can all contribute.
Weaknesses in these muscle groups allow the forward rounding and tightness to proceed unchecked and unbalanced.
But on the bright side…
The fact that there’s no structural issue in the spine itself and that weak muscles contribute to the problem points to one important thing…
Postural kyphosis of the T-spine can be addressed by efforts you make to strengthen your back and correct postural issues .
3 Exercises for Improving Thoracic Spine Mobility
In the most popular foam roller exercise for T-spine mobility, you simply lay over the foam roller and let gravity do the work as you extend your T-spine, opening up your thoracic spine.
This is all well and good, but it’s a passive exercise. It feels nice and helps open up the T-spine and I recommend you do it, but if we want to really improve our thoracic spine mobility, we need to do more.
Passive exercises will give you limited results, while building strength increases range of motion and better maintains the new ranges you’ve built.
That’s why all the exercises we’ll go through today have an active component and will simultaneously build strength and mobility.
This is important for a number of reasons…
First off, any action that helps you build strength is generally a good thing.
Secondly, these thoracic spine extension exercises specifically help you take your mobility to another level…
By building strength while in the extended range of your T-spine mobility, you solidify that range in your body, building muscle memory and strength where you need it most and re-programming your nervous system to see this range as “usable”.
That’s why static stretching isn’t as effective at helping you improve your mobility – flexibility without strength is inherently unstable, so your nervous system sees this as dangerous (it doesn’t like unstable joints) and simply tightens you back up.
This is critical to understand, so read that again and burn it into your brain!
Now, let’s get moving, shall we?
1. Thoracic Spine Extension Reactive Strength Drill
- Lay so that your T-spine is resting over a foam roller
- Bend your knees and let both your feet and your head rest on the ground – use a pillow if needed!
- Reach your arms up by your ears and over head
- Begin to reach up and over in a big arc until your arms are reaching down by your side
- As you continue to move your arms back and forth, don’t allow your T-spine to move!
- Build strength and mobility in your T-spine extensors, traps, and rhomboids by moving with control
2. Scapular Retractions for Thoracic Spine Extension
- Lie prone with arms overhead, forearms resting on a foam roller
- Keep your elbows straight as you pull your retractors together
- Retract the scapulae, squeezing the rhomboids and lower traps while pinching the shoulder blades together
- Keep your chin tucked and hold for a few seconds, maybe lifting your chest and head away from the earth, but resisting any urge to look up at the sky
- Be sure to keep your low back and lumbar extensors relaxed – let the retractors do the work
- Release with control and repeat
(If you need help activating your scapular retractors, check out this video for shoulder friendly training tips.)
3. Prone Arm Raise and Rotation
- Lay prone with arms outstretched overhead at an angle, so your body is in a “Y” shape
- Inhale as you squeeze the glutes and lift up one arm
- Rotate your chest up toward the ceiling as you look up toward the lifted arm
- Make the rotation from the T-spine – keep the lower back relaxed
- Bring the arm back down with control
- Alternate sides
The Bottom Line
Modern living is stacked against us when it comes to our flexibility and posture.
If you’re like me, you spend a ton of time at a desk on your computer, behind the wheel, looking at your phone, or sitting slouched…
Faced with this modern reality, we need to take daily actions to combat all the factors contributing to thoracic kyphosis. The simple yet powerful moves I’ve shared with you here are extremely effective at improving your thoracic mobility and strengthening the muscles around your thoracic spine.
These exercises do more than just help prevent a hunchback – they will also help prevent pain throughout your back and your body by addressing the muscular weaknesses that are making T-spine issues all the worse.
And hey, while you’re at it, building strength with these moves is probably going to give you a boost to your confidence (something my Grade 9 self could have used)… So maybe that will help your posture, too?
The bottom line is that there are probably around a million good reasons to try these exercises.
Give them a shot, and I’m sure your T-spine, the rest of your back, your shoulders, your hamstrings, and your energy levels, etc… will thank you.