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10 Best Exercises To Improve Thoracic Mobility

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 08 December 2021
Hits: 519

One of the most difficult areas of the body to work with is the thoracic region. It is such an important part of the body for providing the necessary mobility required for efficient movement with the upper body and the legs. It is also quite vulnerable to rigidity and stiffness from inactivity and poor movement strategies that can very quickly lead to a host of problems. Usually neck pain, shoulder pain, or lower back pain is the first result of any loss of thoracic mobility as these joints sacrifice their stability to make up for the loss of movement in the thoracic region. Having a series of exercises in your toolkit to restore your thoracic mobility is vital and in this article we show you our top 10.

Why Is Thoracic Mobility So Important?

I quickly touched on this in the introduction and you can read a more detailed explanation in the article – Why lack of thoracic mobility is the hidden cause of chronic pain

The main function of the thoracic spine is to hold the rib cage, and protect the heart and lungs. It also provides 2 critical movements.

  1. Extension of the rib cage in order to lift our arms overhead.
  2. Rotation of the trunk for movements like walking, throwing a ball etc.

It is important to understand the different function of each of the segments of the spine to see how its role differs to the others.

The spine serves two main functions:

  1. Stability: The back is a stable base for the whole body, allowing us to stand upright, absorb shock when we walk or run, and protect the spinal cord (part of your nervous system that runs down the inside of the spine).
  2. Mobility: Because the spine is made up of lots of small segments, all connected with muscles, tendons and ligaments, it is very mobile, allowing us to move in all directions.

Basically the spine helps you to stay still and to move.

Problems arise when there is too much of either stability or mobility, or the wrong kind of either (such as sitting still for too long, bending in awkward or extreme ways), will start to unbalance the complex structures supporting the spine. This can set off a chain reaction that can lead to stiffness, tightness, weakness and pain. It is much more common for people to present with a lack of mobility.

Watch the video below for a visual explanation of how this works.

Okay, let’s look at the various things you need to do. The first few things are the easiest to work on and also the most important for they attack the cause of the problem.

1. Move More

There is no point working on thoracic mobility exercises if the very thing that caused your stiffness in the first place is not addressed. Inactivity is one of the fastest ways to stiffen up your rib cage and thoracic spine so by making an effort to move more during the day will go a long way to restoring function back to your body.

Becoming more aware of the many subconscious movements you make during the day that lead to potential problems is almost half of the work done already! Unfortunately, most people do not even know they are moving in unnatural ways to begin with, yet alone be able to change them!

Mobile phones in particular are a real concern with the amount of time people spend looking down at the phone is considerable. Recent estimates showed that at least 77% of the world's population has their own mobile phone and many studies have been conducted to study the correlation between using mobile phones for texting and both, neck and shoulder pain. See journal results for more information on this.

You do not need to be a scientist to see that repeatedly sitting or standing for long periods in the positions shown below is going to create problems in the future.

Read the article – 5 daily habits that ruin your spinal health for more detail on this.

2. Sit Correctly

I have published numerous articles about correct sitting position before for it is such a huge problem I see every day working with people who have back pain. In step number one you may be moving more which is certainly going to help, but if you sit in a slouched position every time you take a rest you will undo all your hard work.

It is important to address HOW YOU SIT.

Sustaining a slouching or forward bending of your spine leads to overstretching and weakness of the posterior fibrocartilage (or annulus) of the spinal discs. Over time, this leads to poor disc integrity and displacement of the disc nucleus fluid posteriorly. This places your spinal joints and nerves under pain-causing pressure.

The slouching posture encourages tight abdominal muscles that lead to stiff thoracic region and a weakened lumbar spine. As the abdominal musculature become progressively shorter and tight, the following postural aberrations may be seen:

  1. Short and tight upper abdominal musculature.
  2. Depressed sternum.
  3. Forward head posture which increases the chance of neck pain and a shoulder injury not to mention the poor breathing resulting from this position.
  4. Increased thoracic kyphosis, (a hump on the upper back).

Use of stand-up desks are a great way to combat this problem but if you are unable to do this then you need to make sure you sit in your chair correctly.

Watch the videos below for ideas of how to do this

 

The article on working from home provides you with a detailed charts and checklists for setting up your workstation correctly.

3. Swing Your Arms When You Walk

This is something that many people do not realize how effective and important walking is to the health of our body. If you watch how many people do not swing their arms much when they walk you can easily tell how stiff their hips and thoracic region must be. These people walk more like robots and lack the necessary rotation required for efficient and athletic movement. It is one of the easiest ways to develop core stability too!

I remember a few years ago reading a book called the "Gift of Injury" written by Brian Carroll and Dr Stuart McGill. This is a book written like a case study that talks about Brian Carroll who was an elite power-lifter who suffered a severe back injury that almost crippled him. It explains how he rebuilt his body through corrective exercise with the help and guidance of world renowned back pain researcher and scientist Dr Stuart McGill. 

There is a part in the book where he refers to the use of an interval walking program during his early stages of rehab that made a big difference to his treatment. Dr McGill prescribed him to walk 15 minutes at a brisk pace with swinging arms 3 times per day. Here is Dr McGill's reasoning for this.

"Walking is the best tool we have in the essential early training of the muscles in the frontal plane. This simple movement engages and exercises the core muscles required to counterbalance a recovering back, and takes some of the load off the rear muscles. Pained individuals tend to carry an unnatural tension in their shoulders. Laxity is required in the shoulders to reduce spine load while walking which is why we encourage a jaunty arm swing to loosen those shoulder muscles as you stride." - Dr Stuart McGill

Brian Carroll also explains in the book himself how this strategy along with several basic exercises were pivotal to his recovery in the stage where his pain was at its worst. This made a big impact with me at the time, for I was constantly working with people suffering similar symptoms and could see this being a valuable tool to use.

You can read more about this in the article – Why walking is so good for back pain

The arm swing is also very important to hip function and you can see a good explanation of this in the video below.

 

Now that we have addressed the underlying causes of thoracic stiffness it is time to look at some exercises. The first three exercises I am going to show you are also the best tests to use.

How to Test Your Thoracic Mobility

To ensure you select the right exercises it is important to assess your body and narrow down the area/s you need to focus on. This part of the body covers a large region so you need to be sure you are working on the right part.

4. Thoracic Extension Test

This first test is very important to the health of the shoulder and neck and we use this to assess if you have lost the ability to extend your spine.

How to Do the Test

  1. Stand close to the wall with heels about 12 inches away.
  2. Gently pull in the belly button and roll the pelvis until the lower back is flat on the wall. 3. Now lift your arms, keeping your elbows straight above your head.

If you have ideal thoracic extension in the spine then you should be able to get your arms to vertical without any of the lower or upper back coming off the wall. If your back moves away from the wall you have lost normal range of motion.

This test does not work so well as a corrective exercise and I find greater success using floor based work and foam rolling of the thoracic spine to do this. The exercise at the 5:00 mark of this video is one of the easiest to use.

5. Thoracic Mobility ROTATION Tests

To test this area there is 2 parts that are very similar but highlight different areas where we look at the shoulder and the thoracic spine working together to provide movement. This first one is often associated with neck and shoulder problems. Both of the following tests are excellent to use as the corrective exercise.

Click here to see a video of the following tests.

Thoracic Mobility Upper Quadrant

How to Do the Test

  1. Sitting on the floor with your butt on your heels and one forearm on the floor
  2. Place the other hand behind your head.
  3. Now to try to rotate around as far as you can without your butt lifting off your heels.
  4. If you have pain or limited ability to move this indicates either stiffness in the scapula to provide core stability to the glenohumeral joint or the thoracic spine is stiff and unable to move.
  5. Make a note of any difference between left and right.

Thoracic Mobility Lower Quadrant

Sitting down in the similar position as the previous test but this time with your hand behind your back. This test often relates more to lower back and hip problems.

  1. Again try to rotate as far as you can without lifting off your heels.
  2. Make note of any difference between left and right.
  3. To make it easier to rotate further push hard into the floor with the hand on the ground. This creates greater stability allowing for more mobility.
  4. Make a note of any difference between right and left.
  5. Use as a corrective exercise if you are unable to come around to full 180 degrees.

At times I might also use a sitting test with a stick on the back as seen in the picture below. This is a much better choice for the person who cannot get on the floor or has a bulging disc back injury and the previous tests will easily aggravate their condition.



The person should be able to turn at least 50 degrees in both directions for this to be a pass. Often you will find one side is tight and hard to do and this will give you clues as to which side is the real problem. 

6. Feldenkrais Shoulder/Spine Integrator

While the previous exercises are great assessment tools and great exercises to use, sometimes they are too aggressive for treating the problem and you need a simpler version instead. This is where I love to use the Feldenrkais drill shown in the video below.

This exercise is great to use with neck pain as you can use the hands to gently guide the neck around as you roll your upper body towards the floor. It is important NOT to force anything here and try to apply a stretching feel. The point of this exercise is to show the body how to move with freedom and without pain by using a series of repetitions. This is a great exercise to use when stressed or even as a warm up before you train to identify where your stiffness is.

7. Stretching the Pecs

Tight internal rotator muscles are very common as they are linked to the hunched posture from sitting too much. Once again this is something not many people would consider for there may be no pain in this area. But make no mistake about it, the Pec Minor is a massive problem for most people as this muscle loves to overwork and will create a multitude of problems in the upper body if left unattended. You must spend a lot of time working on maintaining flexibility of this muscle group to prevent the onset of thoracic dysfunction.

The pec minor dominates over the small stabilizers and pulls the shoulder into internal rotation and consequently disrupts the timing and placement of the scapula. Once this happens you move one big step closer to winging of the scapula which leads to tightening of the muscles in the upper back which is right where the thoracic region is located.

The good news is these exercises are very simple to do. The video below gives you 3 ways to improve your pec flexibility.

8. Foam Rolling & Massage

Shoulder and neck pain easily develop several areas within the body that have severe tightness known as trigger points. And while stretching and mobility drills are great for helping to correct your problem, they do not help much in the initial stages of releasing these nasty hot spots. A much more aggressive approach using massage or small tools that get into the trigger point are what is needed. This is where massage and tools like foam rollers can be a great way to combat this problem.

Watch the video below to see how I use various self-massage tools to help here.

9. Single Cable Push & Pull Exercises

So far we have looked at mainly mobility drills or stretches, but what about strength training? This is where you can make massive inroads to improving your problem for good for applying strength to good movement strategies helps to keep stiffness away for good. You have to be careful here for certain exercises can exacerbate your problem. For example, two arm loaded movements like farmers walks, chin-ups, and some rows will cause the thoracic region to stiffen right up and all your mobility work will be down the drain.

If however, you use a lot of single arm work you can improve your mobility in line with your strength gains. Why?

The single cable push and pull exercises demand the thoracic region to rotate and maintain extension throughout the movement. These are the very two ingredients you need for optimal mobility of the thoracic spine that we discussed in the beginning of this article. The single cable pull encourages the arm swing used in walking and the single cable push is a great way to develop strength with serratus anterior that is critical to scapula stability and shoulder function.

Watch the two videos below to see these exercises in action.

 

You can read more about this in the article - Why the single cable push is much more than an upper body exercise

10. Hip Mobility & the Core

Last but not least we cannot ignore the role of hip stability and the core. If the thoracic spine develops stiffness from inactivity and poor movement you can safely assume the hips are also stiff and restricted. This stiffness leads to weakness at the core which could force the thoracic into stiffness and negate any mobility work you do.

This hips and pelvis are involved in almost every standing movement we make, and a constant switching between mobility and stability is required in order for us to move efficiently free of pain and limitation.

The hips are designed to be very mobile and withstand both direct loading stresses and large rotational forces with weight-bearing activities, whereas the pelvis is more concerned with stability in order to preserve neutral alignment of the spine and lower limbs. This constant interaction between these two joints can very easily be disrupted by poor movement strategies or inactivity. When this happens we often see a loss of hip mobility first, as the body uses stiffness as its alternative to stability to protect the spine and pelvis from damage. Restoring it back to normal takes more than just one hip stretch.

There is a stack of things you may need to address here and to prevent this article from going another 5000 words you can check out more about this in the articles in the links below. To help you out with some exercises to get started watch the videos shown below.

 

Do You Need More Help?

If you are suffering with shoulder pain, neck pain or lower back pain right now you can get our in depth online programs by clicking the image below of the program you need. These programs include over 60 exercises with instructions and step by step programs for guiding you through the process of correcting your injury at the source. The Functional Training report is FREE and gives you detailed explanations of all the movement patterns we just discussed.

  

Summary

There is no doubting that thoracic mobility is important and something more of us should be spending time with each day. Years ago we were much more active and would not have needed exercises for this area of our body but as we have become increasingly more sedentary and stiffness has crept into our bodies we must devote time to working on our mobility. The consequence of ignoring this is not immediate but in the long term you will develop a series of problems that will take a long time to correct. By spending a few minutes per day doing some of the things discussed in this article you will avoid the potential damage that so many people experience every day.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Shoulder & Scapula Injuries in Athletes - By Chris Mallac
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions for the Hip & Shoulder - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Fixing Shoulder & Elbow Pain - By Rick Olderman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Back Pain Mechanic – by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Scientific Back Training – By Paul Chek