Sedentary lifestyles are an undesirable hallmark of modern society, affecting a significant proportion of the population. Prolonged sitting (a form of sedentary behavior) has progressively become the norm with computerization in the work place. These developments are not only detrimental for physiological health and well-being with rising levels of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, but also musculoskeletal health. Recent research findings have found association between prolonged sitting (>8 hours a day) and increased neck-shoulder and low back pain. Sedentary behaviors may induce a relatively stiff thoracic spine contributing towards the dysfunction in the adjacent spinal regions. This article will provide you exercises to improve your thoracic spine mobility!
Shown here is a great exercise to improve your thoracic spine extension mobility while focusing on minimizing movement at the lumbar spine:
1⃣ Try keeping the glutes and abdominal muscles engaged to prevent excessive lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt form occurring (low back arching). If you’re having difficulty recruiting your core, try this exercise.
2⃣ If you’re still having trouble, take a seat and march your feet as close as you can towards your butt. This will allow you to passively take up all the joint motion from your hips and lumbar spine.
✅Perform a wall angel by placing your elbows and your wrists on the wall and slowly elevating your arms until they are fully overhead, then return to the starting position and repeat for 10-15 repetitions.
How To Improve Your Wall Angel
The Wall Angel is a commonly performed exercise in both Rehab and Prehab for good reason. It is a great bang for your buck exercise that addresses numerous body regions with core engagement, thoracic spine extension, scapular muscle activation, shoulder mobility, and deep neck flexor muscle activation.
If you are having a difficult time simultaneously keeping your elbow and wrist against the wall, here are two stretches you can perform prior to performing your next wall angel!
1⃣ Pec Stretch + Lift-Off: First focus on pushing into the wall with the opposite hand to maximize this passive stretch. Turn this into an end range hold by lifting your wrist off the wall for a 5-second count for 3 repetitions. Push deeper into the stretch between each rep.
Note: Try to keep the front of your shoulder stable against the wall to avoid excessive anterior humeral translation.
2⃣ Modified Child’s Pose + Lift Off: Hip hinge until you feel an adequate stretch.
At this end-rage position, hover your hand just a bit off of the wall. This will look very similar to the Y exercise. Perform this for a 5-second count of 3 repetitions per side. Push deeper into the stretch between each rep.
Note: You can do this in a child’s pose position, however doing it against the wall allows you to push into deeper shoulder flexion.
Thoracic Spine Extension
Excessive thoracic spine flexion—also known as excessive kyphosis—may contribute to issues up the kinetic chain to the shoulders and neck, or down the kinetic chain to the lower back. With the hunched over position that most of us remain in throughout the day at our places of work, our joints and soft tissue often adapt to this flexed posture, limiting us from getting the 25 degrees of thoracic spine extension that is considered the “norm.” When someone lacks thoracic spine extension, they will often compensate with lumbar spine (lower back) extension. With a repeated poor movement pattern of compensated lumbar spine extension, an individual may develop extension sensitive low back pain. Try out this exercise to improve your thoracic spine mobility!
1⃣Place the foam roller perpendicular to your spine onto a segment which you want to work on (personally I like to work from bottom to top).
2⃣While grabbing onto a stick/pipe, elevate your arms as far back as you can-in an attempt to touch the floor. This movement is very similar to a wall angel.
3⃣Spend a few repetitions on each segment-then move up toward the next.
❌Don’t allow your but to come off the floor or your ribs from flaring out this is typically due to compensation from your low back!
✅A more aggressive way to perform this exercise is by using an external load of a weight as shown here. This will make the stretch more passive and less active. . A stiff thoracic spine may contribute to issues both up the kinetic chain to the shoulders/neck or down the kinetic chain to your lower back.
Thoracic Spine Rotation
Your thoracic spine–also known as your mid-back–is comprised of 12 vertebrae (T1-T12) and is responsible for about 35 degrees of rotation to each side. This number is just a norm and can vary from person to person. The amount of rotation you have depends significantly on your activity. For example, if you play golf or baseball you may have more rotation to one side than the other. Shown here are three great exercises to improve your thoracic spine mobility
✅Start in a 1/2 kneeling position with a ball between your inner leg and the wall. This will ensure you DON’T cheat with any hip motion!
✅Try to rotate with your hand all the way around and back
✅Progression: Keep your hand away from the wall the entire time
✅In half kneeling – Keep both hands behind your head
✅Thoracic spine around the world against wall
✅Rotate all the way around and come back, try to challenge yourself from keeping the elbow away from the wall.
❌AVOID side-bending the opposite direction, this is a compensation. What is the difference between this and the open book exercise? This requires more active range of motion!
Here is a nice alternative position on your hands and knees to work on thoracic rotation mobility if the half-kneeling position aggravates your knees or is too hard for you to balance with.
1⃣Begin with a rock back to allow your lumbar spine to go into flexion in order to lock out your lower back. This allows the motion to come primarily from the thoracic spine.
2⃣Rotate with one hand as far as you can while keeping your arm in contact with the floor.
3⃣An alternative way of performing the exercise is shown with the hand on the head. Focus on opening up your chest to the wall you are rotating towards. Focus on moving ONLY at the thoracic spine.
These are a few different ways to decrease thoracic spine stiffness and potentially mitigate risk of neck and low back pain. This article primarily included exercises to improve your thoracic spine mobility into extension and rotation, we hope you enjoyed!
“What is the effect of prolonged sitting and physical activity on thoracic spine mobility? An observational study of young adults in a UK university setting” By: Heneghan et al. 2018.