The longest part of the spine is the thoracic spine.
While it’s primarily designed for stability and force absorption, the thoracic spine is capable of a wide range of movement and its mobility is vital to overall health and function (1).
Thoracic mobility plays a big role in posture, remaining upright, and the ability to breathe fully. Immobility in this area can result in stiffness, pain in the neck or lower back, difficulties with breathing, a decreased range of motion, and has a profound effect on the forces that impact the rest of the body (
Enhancing overhead lifting and safety are important to avid fitness enthusiasts.
You can incorporate exercises into your routine that will help your T-spine stay healthy.
The thoracic spine is the upper and middle portion of your back. It consists of vertebrae T1-T12, below the cervical spine (the vertebrae in your neck) and above the lumbar spine (the vertebrae in your lower back).
“The ribcage and the ribs and the spine are vital to the body. The large portion of the spine protects the brain’s communication mainline.”
The thoracic region also includes the front and sides of the upper body from underneath the collar bone to the end of the ribs. Thoracic mobility is affected by numerous factors such as rib mobility, breathing mechanics, and muscular stiffness.
The thoracic spine can move in several planes. It can bend and round forward, round back, and bend and round sideways.
The rotation of the spine is the primary movement. The lower neck and lumber areas are more in range than the other movements.
The spine can move in more than one direction at once, such as side bend with rotation or a spine twist with extension. The foundation for Gyrotonic® exercise is a flowing and circular movement pattern.
The mobility of the spine is important for daily living. We are not robotic humans that move in a linear fashion. The thoracic spine makes it possible for people to get out of a car, reach into a cupboard, and even get out of bed.
Mobility of the T-spine is important for maintaining optimal posture, which in turn allows for the optimal functioning of organs while reducing pressure on the lower back and joints of the legs (
Likewise, what happens above affects below. The relationship of the thoracic spine to the pelvis is vital in addressing abdominal and pelvic floor dysfunction — in part because the pelvic floor muscles are connected to the muscles of the thorax via connective tissue (6,
Poor alignment and mobility in the thoracic spine and pelvic region results in decreased function, limited breathing capacity, excess tension, and therefore more intra-abdominal pressure, which can contribute to or worsen conditions like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction, and prolapse (
Increasing thoracic mobility will result in a better workout that adequately transfers load through the body while avoiding injury.
The link between your upper and lower bodies is the thoracic spine. It is important for almost every move you make. Maintaining your function is dependent on keeping it supple and strong.
There are a few reasons for being immobile.
Repetitive postures and movements that lead to rounding forward can lead to a stiff thoracic spine. This may include a sedentary lifestyle, working at a desk, and hunching over tech devices. Sports or activities that require you to bend forward often (think cycling) or keep an erect posture with little movement (like ballet) can also contribute (
Thoracic immobility is also prevalent in new parents or caregivers — a result of carrying and feeding babies (16). And, if your posture tends toward kyphosis, you will likely have limited mobility in your thoracic spine.
It’s important to note that many people bypass thoracic mobility by moving through their lumbar spine instead. For instance, have you ever tried the superman exercise, only to feel the work generated only from your lower back?
The extension curve of the back is what makes this typical in the exercises. When you are bending backward, you will feel your lower back arches more readily, pulling the pelvis forward with it.
To effectively mobilize the thoracic spine, you must keep the pelvis still. This will help the T-spine move better by keeping the spine more stable. A stable pelvis is what makes true thoracic mobility possible. Your body will learn new muscle firing patterns over time, but moving this way may feel awkward at first.
The most important thing you can do to improve your mobility is to move more. Mobility exercises and stretching are needed to improve stiffness. Set aside a specific time to spread exercises throughout the day.
Thoracic mobility may also be improved through soft tissue treatments like massage therapy or modalities such as Yamuna® Body Rolling, The Melt© Method, or Yoga Tune Up© balls (16).
Paying attention to form is critical. Do your best to avoid compensating with excess movement from the lower back and pelvis. Engage your core to stabilize those areas when attempting to mobilize the thoracic spine.
If you need to modify the pelvis, it is worth hiring a personal trainer, physical therapist, or aPilates instructor for a few initial sessions to make sure you are in the right place.
Taking deep, full, and deep breaths can help maintain the respiratory function of your rib cage. Aim for a full breath that expands your ribs.
Finally, think about how you warmup before exercise. Starting with dynamic movements (like a bodyweight lunge with a twist, for example) before going into static stretching is a beneficial way to increase mobility.
Cat and Cow
This is a movement that was started in yoga and is used by many different types of people.
- Start on all fours, with your hands lined up with your shoulders and your knees lined up with your hips. Start with your spine in a neutral position.
- Exhale to push your hands into the floor and curve your back up to the ceiling.
- Inhale to return to the neutral spine and then extend your chin up. Lift your chest and tailbone up toward the sky by maintaining strength in your abdominals.
- Repeated 5–8 times will keep this movement smooth.
“If kneeling isn’t an option, you can stand with your hands on a desk. The surface should be hip level.”
“If your wrists don’t like the pressure of a quadruped posoition, you can perform this movement on the forearms.”
Tips: Take full, deep breaths throughout. When moving into extension, be mindful to avoid over-arching the lower back.
Thread the needle
This is a great exercise for rotation of the thoracics. It is more effective and less likely to flip the low back because of the added challenge of working against gravity.
- Lift your right arm up to the sky, then open your chest and arm to the right side. Allow your gaze to follow your arm.
- If you want to reach across your body, you should slide your right arm down on the floor under your left.
- Take your gaze to the left. To accommodate the stretch and your right ear, bend your left elbow.
- You can repeat 4–5 times and switch arms.
Tips: Move at a moderate pace, and keep breathing fully into the ribcage.
“This is an exercise that is used by strength coaches and Yogi’s alike to open up the front of the shoulders.”
- Start in a plank position. If you want to make an upside down V, you need to exhale and move your hips away from the floor.
- Press your chest through your arms.
- To return to the plank position, exhale and shift your weight forward.
- 5 times.
Tips: Move at a slow to moderate pace, taking a pause in Downward Dog to breathe deeply and feel your spine lengthen and extend. Keep your knees slightly bent if the stretch is too intense. Downward dog can always be modified by placing your arms on a counter, chair, or table to make this stretch more accessible.
This is a great choice for many ability levels, since you are lying on the floor.
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your hips turned. Your arms should be straight out in front of you.
- Keeping your legs together, reach your top arm up toward your ear, and continue to circle it up over your head, until you reach the opposite direction from where it started. Turn your gaze to the left.
- Take deep breaths and slow down, moving the arm, head, chest and shoulders back to the starting position.
- Do 4 reps on the other side after 3 repeats.
Tips: Aim to keep your knees stacked directly on top of one another so your pelvis doesn’t shift. If tight shoulders prevent you from going all the way to the other side, rest your head on a small cushion and only move the arm as far as you can without pain.
Assisted thoracic extension on a foam roller
A favorite amongst strength coaches, you can use props such as a foam roller or rolling ball.
- The roller should be placed on the floor horizontally and facing away from it. The bottom of your shoulder blades should be resting on it. Place your hands behind your head.
- Using your breath, open your chest and bend backwards, forming a arcs in your upper back.
- If your neck feels strong, you can reach for your arms up and back. Stay here and breathe in all the ribs, allowing your body to move towards the floor. Stay for a while and then put your arms back in the air.
- You should repeat 3–4 times.
A more advanced version is to hold onto a barbell when the arms are stretched overhead.
This extends the spine.
Tips: Remember to continue breathing fully into the ribcage. If there is any strain in the neck from the arched position, place your hands, a block, or firm pillow under your head.
Child’s Pose with an exercise ball
This exercise will open your chest and support your arm throughout the twist.
- The person is on the floor. Open the knees wider than your hips when you sit back on your heels.
- “Roll the exercise ball forward until you can bend forward as if you are in a child’s pose. Bring your chest down so that you can see your knees without pain.”
- For 2 deep breaths, breathe in this position. Roll the ball to the right so that your chest is opening to the ride side. Look under your right arm and focus on breathing and stretching the spine.
- Return to the center and repeat the twist to the left.
- Roll up to the starting position one vertebra at a time.
- On each side, do 3–5 reps.
Tips: If kneeling is not an option, try this sitting on a bench or low stool.
Pilates Spine Twist variation
You will sit on a chair with a pillow between the knees.
- Measure your bones and length your spine. You should cross the arms over your chest.
- Imagine you are getting taller, and rotating the pillow three times to one side, going a little further each time.
- Return to the center.
- The other way is how you should repeat it. The whole sequence should be repeated 4-5 times.
Tips: Maintain the squeeze of your legs to keep your pelvis from shifting. Try to feel the spinal rotation coming from above your waist. Keep breathing and aim to grow taller with each repetition.
Side Angle Pose (Parsvakonasana)
The classic yoga pose will be done sitting on a chair in order to maximize the spine rotation.
- The chair has your legs open wide. Straighten one leg to create a lunge position.
- Keeping your spine straight, lean over your bent leg, and then slide the arm down your lower leg towards your ankle.
- Lift your arm up and over your head, reaching to the ceiling or the opposite. Keeping your arm straight, focus on opening your arm and chest and looking up at the ceiling.
- Lift up to a seated position with both legs bent, and then return to the starting position.
- On the other side, repeat. On each side, complete 4–5 reps.
Tips: Aim to keep your spine long and keep the breathing into your ribcage.
Translating into functional health and well being is important for the thorakian.
Adding thoracic mobility to your daily regimen can help with posture, deep core and pelvic floor strength, enhanced breathing, and safer, deeper workouts.
Proper recruitment and technique can be ensured by working with a fitness professional.
A consistent practice of mobility exercises will help improve your everyday function. Stand up and stretch when you are unsure.