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Unlocking Your Thoracic Spine

Your Thoracic Spine (AKA - your mid back). What is so important about it? Why start our Move Better journey here?


Patients of mine have often heard me to refer to the thoracic spine as the "root of all evil". Now of course not every problem actually stems from the thoracic spine, but it is literally our centre and as such it can have an effect on a HUGE range of joints and tissues when it's dysfunctional. This also means that we can get a widespread effect when we restore proper mobility to the region. It's the classic "two birds-one stone". This is why we start here.


The Basics:

Thoracic Spine Anatomy Basics:

- There are 12 vertebrae making it the longest spinal segment in the body

- It sits between the cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (low back)

- There are multiple joints at each vertebrae as they attach to each other and to the ribs

- Multiple joints means lots of connective tissues like ligaments

- Many muscles/muscle groups attach to and act on this region (rhomboids, obliques, erectors, etc...)


Your Thoracic Spine has a few key functions including (but not limited to):

1) Articulating with the ribs to allow for breathing (kind of important)

2) Protecting the spinal cord

3) Protect the vital organs (again with the ribs help)

4) Provide rotation


So that was a ridiculously quick summary of the basics of the thoracic spine. Now, what do you need to take from it?


The Take Away:

When it comes to mobility your thoracic spine is key for rotation and breathing. It is a long segment and while each segment is very stable (thanks to all the ligaments and muscles acting around the joints) - its main function as a unit is Mobility. Sounds backwards I know. The way it works is that all of the small movements available at each joint add up as you move through the 12 vertebrae - giving you a large movement overall.


Now, when your thoracic spine stops moving you suddenly turn it from a Mobility Segment into a pseudo-Stability Segment. This is why I call it my "root of all evil". If your thoracic spine is now a Stability Segment your lumbar spine tries to become a Mobility Segment, the hips a Stability Segment, and so on. This can trickle down into the legs (or up into the neck, shoulders and arms).


This is why it is SO important to learn how to keep a mobile thoracic spine!



Thoracic Mobility Exercises:

The good stuff! The following exercises are some of my personal favourites that I have used myself over the years to free up my thoracic spine (practice what you preach right?) The key with each of these is please, do not push into pain - if you are getting pain there may be a restriction that needs to be released in conjunction with the exercises, or you may need a different exercise entirely.


1. Thoracic Rotations

(To release stiff joints)

The set up:

- Ensure that you are lying directly on the bottom shoulder

- Knees should be brought up to the chest to "lock out" the lumbar spine and focus the movement to

the thoracic spine

- Arms should be extended out in front at shoulder level


The Exercise:

- Bring your outstretched arm up and over, aiming to try to make contact with the

ground on the other side (to create a "T" shape with your arms)

- Follow your arm with your eyes to ensure that you don't "lock out" your neck too

- Once you feel as though you are "stuck" stop and return to the starting position

- There is NO hold and you should not try to force more movement, as it can irritate the shoulder


The Dosage:

2 sets of 12-15 repetitions each side.



2. Cat/Cow

(To release stiff joints)

The set up:

- Get on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips


The Exercise:

- Start from the bottom and try to "tuck your tail" and then slowly arch up through the spine, one segment at a time (Cat)

- Make sure to push through your hands to really get the arch through your mid back

- Start at the bottom again and try to "point your tail to the sky" and then slowly sink through the spine, one segment at a

time (Cow)

- Make sure to lift your head up to the ceiling at the end to finish the movement

- ADD THE BREATH: try to breathe IN during Cow and OUT during Cat.


The Dosage:

2 sets of 5-8 repetitions at a slow pace.



3. Oblique Foam Roller Release

(To release tight muscles)

The set up:

- Tuck the foam roller in the small of your waist (between the top of your hip bone and the bottom ribs)


The Exercise:

- Relax onto the roller and roll your body back and forth until your find a tender spot.

- Either breathe through the pressure OR do small oscillating movements over the spot.


The Dosage:

2 sets of 30s each side.


CAUTION: There is no bony protection underneath this muscle, so be gentle - don't overdo it.



4. Forearm Planks

(To provide lumbar stability to free up thoracic mobility)

The set up:

- Lying face down, elbows underneath your shoulders, forearms pointed straight ahead (NO triangles)


The Exercise:

- Extend your legs and lift your body off the floor

- "Tuck your tail" using your glutes and abdominals

- Push the ground away from you through your arms

- NO saggy-spine!


The Dosage:

3 reps of 30s hold.



5. Extension Rolling Patterns

(To correct motor control dysfunction)

The set up:

- Lying face down on the floor with your arms overhead


The Exercise:

- Keep your legs still (pretend like you are paralyzed from the waist down)

- Reach up and back with one arm, following it with your eyes

- Reach until your body flips over and you are lying face up

- Repeat on the other side


The Dosage:

2 sets of 12-15 "Perfect Practice" repetitions each side.

(If you are struggling with this one, you likely need some assistance to correct your motor control)



There you have it! Some of my favourite exercises to unlock your thoracic spine and then retrain control of your new found movement!


Let me know how these went for you and if you have anything else you'd like to see as the blog goes along, let me know!

Be sure to follow along on Facebook and Instagram for more tips!


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