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Thoracic Mobility

Summary of Problem

Americans are mutating into a race of seated, hunched-shoulder, neck forward, upward-looking creatures – complete devoid of the ability to move properly. Not only does sitting at a desk and/or computer create this problem and then make it semi-permanent but the American gym mentality that requires large pectoral muscles and a six-pack tends to work to shorten the front-side musculature at the expense of the thoracic spine and rib mobility.

Anatomy 101

The spine is divided into three areas: cervical (the neck), thoracic (the middle), and lumbar (the lower back. There are 7 cervical, 12 thoracic, and 5 lumbar vertebrae. The thoracic vertebrae are connected to the ribs. The mobility of this area of the spine is closely linked to mobility of the ribs. The ability to lock out the arm with a kettlebell in the overhead position requires shoulder mobility; however this may still be impossible if there is thoracic spine mobility restriction.

Thoracic Restrictions

The thoracic spine flexes forward/backward, flexes left/right, and supports rotation. Restrictions in one or more planes can be the result of excessive tension, body mass restrictions, lack of muscular activation (sensory-motor amnesia), compromised mobility in the ribcage, and/or degeneration of the vertebrae or cartilage.


Exercises can be performed for improving or maintaining the range of motion of the thoracic spine. The effectiveness of mobility or flexibility exercises can be ranked:

  • Active mobility / flexibility drills (most effective)
  • Ballistic mobility / flexibility drills (medium effectiveness)
  • Passive mobility / flexibility drills (least effective)

The ease of the exercise and its effectiveness are generally opposites! Passive work is the easiest and active work is the hardest. We are interested in the most “bang for the buck”, so we will only look at active drills for improving thoracic mobility / flexibility. An “active” mobility exercise is one where the antagonistic muscles are employed to increase the range of movement of the target muscles. For example, slowly raising your straight leg in front of you requires the quadriceps and hip flexors to work hard in order to increase the range of motion of the hip, stretching the glutes and hamstring.

What follows is a description of four exercises addressing the most common complaints: forward/backward flexion and rotation.

Kneeling Lunge Rotations

The objective of this exercise is to slowly, over time, increase the rotational range of motion of the shoulders in relationship to the hips while in partial hip flexion. This exercise also has the advantage that the ease or difficulty can be simply adjusted.

Begin with your right knee on the floor and your left foot on the floor. The upper thigh of the right leg and the shin of the left leg should both be vertical. You may put a towel under your right knee for comfort if necessary. Make a fist with your right hand, straighten your right arm, lock your right elbow, and point your arm vertically. Begin by facing forward with a lengthened and erect spine. Rotate your torso and fold at the hips so that your left elbow is inside your left knee. Reach toward the ground with your left hand. Return to the starting position.

Insure that the right arm, the chest, and the upper part of the left arm (the humerus) form a straight line throughout the drill. On each repetition, try to slide down a little further along the inside of the left leg. Expand your chest, lengthen your spine, and use your strength to rotate. Look up at the fist as you rotate and descend. Insure that your hips do not move forward. The hips and both legs should remain stationary.

Repeat this drill for 3 to 5 repetitions on each side. Doing 3 to 5 reps three times per day is better than doing 50 reps once a week. Once you have achieved some level of success you can add a light weight. Performing this drill frequently with a light kettlebell overhead will yield rapid improvements.

Arm Bar Rotations

This exercise is the complement to the previous one. In the previous drill we locked the hips and rotated the shoulders. In this drill, we will lock the shoulders and rotate the hips.

Lie on the floor on your left side. Ideally, you will extend your left arm overhead and roll over so that you are on your left side. In this position, you head will be resting on your left arm. If mobility restrictions prohibit this position, you may put some supporting material under your head to insure a neutral spinal alignment. Make a fist with your right hand, lock your right elbow, and point your right arm vertically. The right arm should be locked with the fist above the elbow, the elbow above the right shoulder, and the right shoulder directly above the left shoulder.

Maintain this alignment as you bend your right knee to 90 degrees and put it on the floor on the left side of your body. Your left leg will remain straight. Lengthen from the top of your head to your left heel as you slide your right knee along the floor. This sliding motion will cause your hips to rotate counterclockwise and try to pull your right shoulder forward. Maintain the vertical “stacking” of the right arm and both shoulders. Pull your knee back in, relax, and slide it out a little further.

Deep, abdominal breathing will facility this and most other stretching or mobility work. Do not tense up and/or hold your breath.

Repeat this drill on both sides for 3 to 5 repetitions, three times per day. As with the previous drill, once you have achieved familiarity with this drill (and some level of success), you may add a light kettlebell to the picture. Hold the kettlebell in the fist of the vertical arm as you move your knee in and out. This will recruit the shoulder stabilizing muscles and greatly increase the rehabilitation effects of the exercise.

Seated Anterior/Posterior Thoracic Glides

Begin this drill by sitting on the floor. Your right leg should be straight. Bring your left knee toward your left shoulder while keeping your left foot on the floor. Interlace the fingers of your hands and grasp around the left knee. This position helps lock the shoulders in place so that you will more effectively move your thoracic vertebrae.

The target is the 12 vertebrae between your neck and your lower back and directly behind your lungs. Exhale and fold forward. Try to increase the curvature of your T-spine (thoracic spine) as though you were folding over a balcony railing. Really try to increase the spacing between each pair of vertebrae. As you need air, inhale fully and reverse the process: try to point your sternum upward, curve your T-spine the other direction, and pinch the back side of each pair of vertebrae together.

Repeat this drill 3 to 5 times on each side. Again, practice this frequently throughout the day. This is an especially important drill if you spend much time at a computer.

Standing Wall-Ball Thoracic Activation

This drill is designed to improve your awareness of the musculature in your thoracic spine (T-spine). Joints typically provide less sensory feedback if they have lost their natural mobility. Similarly, we can quickly improve the mobility of joints, such as those in the T-spine area, by “reawakening” their sensory inputs.

Stand with your back to a wall. Place a ball between your upper T-spine and the wall. A soccer ball is ideal but any object that will apply pressure to only a few vertebrae at a time will work. Insure that you are standing erect with a lengthened spine. Exhale, fold forward, and open the space on the back of the vertebrae touching the ball. Inhale, point your sternum upward, and try to pinch the ball with the vertebrae that are touching the ball. Repeat this drill 3 times.

Lower the ball to the middle of your T-spine and repeat 3 times. Lower the ball to the lower portion of your T-spine and repeat once again. This is an excellent exercise that will quickly reawaken the neural input from the T-spine area and give you increased neuromuscular control. The brain has a difficult time controlling that which it cannot feel.





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