The Importance of Thoracic Mobility

In this article, we will break down the importance of thoracic mobility and how it plays a role in daily activities and in weightlifting. My definition of mobility is the joint’s ability to move through a range of motion, whereas flexibility is the ability of a muscle to lengthen through a range of motion.

Mobility is mainly influenced by how the bones of the joints glide, slide and roll over each other and whether or not there are any restrictions in the joint capsule. Flexibility has to do more with the nervous system and how it communicates with the muscles.

Now that we know the difference between mobility and flexibility, let’s talk about thoracic mobility.

What is Thoracic Mobility?

The thoracic spine (middle back) is composed of 12 vertebrae and connects the cervical spine (neck) with the lumbar spine (lower back).

The lack of thoracic mobility (ability to move through a range of motion) can definitely have an impact on the neck and lower back. For example, if you find yourself hunching forward a lot, your thoracic spine is “flexed” forward. Your cervical spine has to compensate and “extend” backwards in order for you to straight.

Your lower back has to “arch” backwards in order to keep your center of gravity. This means that it’s a possibility for neck and lower back pain to stem from poor posture (in this case, hunched forward) from the thoracic spine.

The thoracic spine was designed to flex and extend, as well as rotating and bending to the sides. We often find ourselves hunched in front of the computer most of the time.

This causes our thoracic spine to “flex” forward (hunch back) and causes restrictions in the joints over time. Hunching of the thoracic spine predisposes you to neck, shoulder and lower back pain and can limit your ability to perform specific exercises such as squats, deadlifts and many other exercises.

Why is Thoracic Mobility Important?

Let’s do a test.

Sit and slouch forward as much as you can and raise both arms forward towards the ceiling. Now sit straight, with proper posture and raise both arms towards the ceiling.

Do you see how the arms are more perpendicular to the ceiling than when you were slouching forward? This is very important because often times we find ourselves complaining about shoulder pain and mobility. If we simply fixed the root cause (in this case, thoracic mobility) then the symptoms will eventually alleviate (shoulder pain/mobility issues).

Another reason why thoracic mobility is important is for the safety during exercises such as squats and deadlifts. During these exercises, one of our main concerns is to keep a relatively neutral spine throughout the exercise. If you cannot maintain thoracic extension in these exercises, your form will start to deteriorate and injuries such as herniation, strains and sprains will definitely happen in the future. Imagine lifting up a loaded barbell from the ground with a hunched back. All that weight that’s suppose to be distributed all along the spine is now focused on a couple of segments of the spine.

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How do I Correct my Thoracic Mobility?

There are several ways to increasing/correcting your thoracic mobility from self care exercises to visiting different health care practitioners such as chiropractors and physiotherapist. Because mobility issues tend to happen over the course of years, and will probably take a while to correct itself. This is why consistency is key to correcting mobility. Here are a list of different ways to increase your thoracic mobility (extension).

Mobility Tools
Mobility tools such as a foam roller and/or lacrosse ball will definitely increase your thoracic mobility. The key to using a foam roller is not to “roll” your entire body over it, but more so letting every segment of your thoracic spine to “sink” in towards the foam roller. Imagine wrapping your spine AROUND the foam roller oppose to continuously rolling over the foam roller. Keeping the hips on the floor will further increase the mobilization.

Lacrosse balls are also a great tool to increase thoracic mobility by mobilizing the joints as well as providing self massage to the surrounding muscles. A good trick is to place two lacrosse balls in a sock, place it on the lower portion of the middle back (with the lacrosse balls on the side of the spine) and SLOWLY roll your body up and down. This is a very painful exercise so be sure to take your time!

Below is a video that demonstrates how to effectively and correctly use the lacrosse ball(s).

Self Care Exercises
One of my favorite thoracic mobility exercises are Wall Slides. This exercise will definitely challenge your thoracic mobility and re-teaches the body on how the shoulder joint should move with the shoulder girdle and thoracic spine.

  • Place your back on the wall with your feet a couple of inches away from the wall. (Be sure to have the spine on the wall at all times.)
  • Place both arms up to 90 degrees (as if you were doing a shoulder press) and have the back of the forearm touching the wall at all times.
  • Slowly slide the arms along the wall towards the ceiling while keeping your spine on the wall.
  • Perform this exercise as much as you can to help promote proper movement in the thoracic spine as well as the shoulder girdle. It’s perfectly fine to hear a few cracks here and there.

Manual Therapy
Being a manual therapist and specializing in pain treatment, I can say that most individuals I see have poor thoracic mobility.

As I mentioned earlier, we often find ourselves spending countless hours on our computers/smart phones and our entire body starts to round forward. Neck, shoulder and lower back starts and could have been avoided if we practiced proper posture!

My main goal when treating somebody with chronic neck and back pain is to increase their thoracic mobility through different manual therapy techniques such as mobilizations, fascial stretches and muscle stripping. Working around their thoracic spine is quite painful, but the results are amazing.

Clients tell me how they can breathe better, their body feels more open and everything moves much better.

Below is a video of one of my favorite techniques to increase thoracic mobility.

A video posted by James Lu (@lustrengththerapy) on

Conclusion

Thoracic mobility is important because neglecting it could lead to poor posture and could predispose you to chronic neck, shoulder and back pain. Increasing your thoracic mobility with mobility tools, self care exercises and manual therapy will help reverse the process and prevent injuries from occurring.

Being consistent with the self care exercises and practicing proper posture will also contribute to increasing your thoracic mobility.

For more information on how to correct and/or improve your thoracic mobility, please visit our Sports Massage Therapy page.