Thoracic Extension Mobility: The Ultimate How To Post

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Thoracic spine extension is a crucial spinal movement that is required for shoulder, neck, and low back health as well as athletic performance. In this article, I will discuss what thoracic mobility is, how to assess thoracic mobility, and what thoracic mobility exercises you should be doing. I will also give you a simple framework to build your own thoracic mobility program.

 

Short Cuts

What is thoracic extension?

 

Your thoracic spine is the middle portion of your back, you can think of it as your rib cage. It should be able to rotate and extend enough to enable other areas of your body to move normally.  

Thoracic extension is the ability for the t-spine to move from its normally kyphotic or forward rounded position to a flat or event arched back position. Lack of thoracic extension is one of the most common mobility restrictions we see. 

Neutral Thoracic Spine
Extended Thoracic Spine

Why does t-spine mobility matter?

Regional Interdependence

 

Every area of your body has a specific role to play during movement. If one region fails to do its job then it could affect other areas and have significant consequences. This complex interplay is called regional interdependence. Here are a few examples of how the thoracic spine affects other regions of the body.

Overhead pressing

 

In overhead pressing movements thoracic extension allows the shoulder blade to tip back, or posterior tilt. The shoulder blade (scapula) moves in very intricate ways and in all planes of motion. It is connected to the torso by several muscles and dysfunction in one of them is enough to send the system into disarray.

And guess what?

The position of the t-spine will affect how those muscles engage and support the shoulder blades.

Thoracic extension allows the scapula to tilt posteriorly

When the t-spine is tight a common compensation during pressing is to lean back at the lumbar spine, this decreases core stability and leads to compression, pain, and injury.

If the shoulder blade can’t tip back it may also force the shoulder joint to compensate for the lost movement. This can lead to shoulder injuries like impingement and tendinitis.

 

Rotation

In the case of rotation movements and exercises, the thoracic spine and hips should rotate but if one or both is unable then the low back and shoulders will often have to pick up the slack.

This is especially apparent in sports with large rotational components like baseball and golf. You lose power in your swing if all the necessary parts aren’t playing nice together.

You may even notice problems in some everyday rotation tasks like reaching across your body to grab your seatbelt. If your t-spine isn’t mobile then your shoulder will attempt to make up for it, potentially leading to one of those embarrassing injuries that you hate to admit happened.

 

Breathing

Thoracic mobility can affect how efficient your breathing mechanics are. The diaphragm should be the primary muscle involved during inhalation but many of us end up using muscles in the chest, neck, and spine instead. This results in thoracic mobility limitations.

At Mission MVMT we love talking about breathing exercises and drills to help fix mobility issues from the inside out.

Who needs thoracic extension?

 

Almost everyone

I see a ton of clients with immobile thoracic spines. In fact, thoracic mobility issues are in the top 3 most common mobility problems, along with the hips and ankles.

It is also extremely hard to do too much mobility work to the t-spine. The nature of mobility exercises for this area tends to be gentle enough that doing a high volume won’t cause damage to the area.

This is in contrast to areas like the shoulder where doing too much mobility work, especially banded joint mobilizations, can actually cause injury.

 

 

“So I have bad posture, does that mean that I need thoracic mobility?”

 

Not necessarily.

For example, the occurrence of shoulder pain in people with a rounded t-spine (kyphosis) is similar to that of people with less kyphosis. So, just because that’s how you sit doesn’t mean that’s the cause of pain.

In this case, the more important factor is how well your thoracic spine moves into extension when you reach overhead. If you can control your thoracic mobility well then poor resting posture may not be the root problem you should be trying to solve.

I explain a little bit more about this in the assessment video below.

How often should you do thoracic mobility drills?

 

There is more than one way to skin a cat. And there is more than one way to improve thoracic mobility.

But in general, we recommend daily intervention until you see results.

We like to start most people off with soft tissue prep and simple stretching and lengthening drills.

But no matter what we always follow up with some form of active control exercise. Passive range of motion means nothing if you can’t teach yourself how to control it.

After you see some improvements we typically start working in more activation and control exercises and fewer of the passive ones.

“Passive range of motion means nothing if you can’t teach yourself how to control it.”

Once you show that you can pass the assessment below we focus on strengthening the movement and maintaining it. This can be done with 1 or two sessions of activation exercises per week.  

More about this below.

How do you improve thoracic extension?

Thoracic mobility assessment

 

The most important thing you can do is know where you are starting from. This way you can track your progress as you go.

Also, what if you are already mobile at your T-spine?

You wouldn’t need to waste your time focusing on thoracic extension.

This thoracic mobility assessment should always be your first step.

If you pass the test then you don’t need much mobility. But, If you fail the t-spine assessment then you should follow the mobility exercises in the videos and the program we created below.

Measuring your thoracic spine rotation

The easiest way to do this is to-

    1. Set up your phone and take a video of yourself performing the test or
    2. Have a friend do it for you

The goal is to rotate to 50 degrees or more.

Make sure to test both sides!

Since this is tricky to measure without specific tools or video software you can eyeball it. Since we can measure perfectly then If it’s close it counts.

A failed Thoracic Mobility Assessment.

Not Passing

The angle shown in this photo is close to 35 degrees which falls short of the goal of 50. If you like something like this on either side then you should follow the program format below.

A Passing Thoracic Mobility Assessment.

Passing

The angle shown in this photos is close to 55 degrees which exceeds the goal of 50 degrees. If you look like this on both sides then congratulations! You have good thoracic mobility. Keep reading to learn how to maintain it.

Now that you know how well your T-spine moves you need to learn how to fix improve it.

Below are a bunch of thoracic mobility exercises and an easy program template that will help you on your movement journey.

Thoracic mobility tissue prep

Foam Rolling T-Spine

The spinal extensors and the muscles that lie deep to them play a large role in both spinal extension and rotation. Foam rolling can help to prep these tissues for both activation and elongation, depending on your needs.

Foam Roll Obliques

The muscles of the abdominal wall are an often overlooked source of thoracic immobility. Because they attach to the rib cage they can limit thoracic extension and rotation by restricting the ribs. These muscles are also incredibly important for bracing the core which has a profound impact on every movement your body makes.

Foam Roll QL

Similar to foam rolling the obliques this drill focuses on the abdominal wall muscles as well as commonly tight muscles in the low back, the Quadratus Lumborum (QL). You can easily combine this with the oblique release above.

Foam Roll Lats

The lats connect the low and mid-back to the humerus (arm bone). They are big, strong, and flat muscles that provide a lot of pulling power. They have a profound effect on the thoracic and lumbar spine, especially when tight.

Pec Release

Your pecs attach the anterior ribs to the humerus and the scapula. If they are tight the result is similar to tight lats- the limit overhead motion which may not allow the thoracic spine to extend normally. Thus resulting in more lumbar extension and potentially pain.

Thoracic Mobility Stretches

Rib Cage Opener

This is a game-changing mobility drill. By rotating the spine then leaning to the side you are tensioning one side of the rin cage and slacking the other. Taking deep breaths into your chest opens up the tensioned side even more!

360 Breathing

Breathing with your diaphragm is a great first step to improving your thoracic spine extension. The two are closely related and diaphragmatic breathing is linked with so much more. I like to do this one daily.

Bretzel

This is more than a thoracic mobility stretch. It is a whole-body mobility stretch that hits a lot of the major mobility issues. Add 360 breathing to this one and watch the magic happen.

Rib Roll

A simple side-lying exercise that helps to mobilizes one side of your thoracic spine at a time. Keeping you knee on top of a foam roller will stop your lower back from contributing much to the movement.

Bowstrings

Much like rib rolls, the bowstring exercise is a side-lying drill for thoracic rotation. The biggest difference with this one is that you start to incorporate your shoulder blade into the movement. This is important because the two regions are so closely tied together in their function.

Rotation With Reach

This is an upgrade from the bowstring. Now not only are you bringing your shoulder blade into the movement but you are reaching into an overhead position. Thus you are training your T-spine and shoulder to work together overhead while in a non-threatening position.

Lumbar Locked Rotation

Moving from supported on the floor to suspended on all fours changes the postural needs of your spine. This position is still pretty simple for your brain to work with so it isn’t too challenging for most people. You can add resistance to this one for an extra challenge. See how below.

Cat-Cow

The Cat-Cow stretch is another drill I like to work into a daily program. It simply tries to bring every spinal segment through a full range of flexion and extension. It is great for movement prep.

Active Thoracic Mobility Drills

 

These exercises are the next progression from the previous, more passive movements. Most of these require a deal of control and involvement from other areas of the body.

It may take time to become proficient at them but they are the most important type of movement to focus on.

Squat With Reach

This is one of the most challenging activation exercises because it requires input from the ankles, knees, hips, T-spine, and shoulders.

Give it a shot and don’t worry if you can’t get your arm all the way up.

Squat down, reach up with one arm, and hold at the top for 3-5 seconds. Add weight for an increased challenge and or try it with a kettlebell.

A-frame

The A-frame is another of my personal favorites because it incorporates shoulder stability and thoracic extension while forcing the posterior chain to lengthen. It’s one of those “high bang for your buck” exercises.

Arm Bar

The relationship between the shoulder blade and t-spine has been described earlier in this article. Each area can affect the other and vice versa

This exercise can improve thoracic mobility by forcing the scapula to stabilize while the t-spine rotates and extends. Try it with low to moderate weight and hold for time. Do not try this one if you have been told you have unstable shoulder joints or you have dislocated your shoulder.

Resisted lumbar locked rotation

Just like the lumbar locked rotation, I mentioned above this exercise is very common. It improves the mobility and strength of the thoracic muscles. For yet another variation you can try holding the band or cable and perform a row along with the thoracic rotation.

Supine Y

You ready to get your shoulders smoked? The supine Y is an excellent upper-level mobility exercise for your thoracic spine and stability exercise for your shoulders. Use it as prep for your snatches and overhead squats.

Angels

We use several variations of this exercise to help our clients learn to control their core while extending the t-spine. It is also incredibly challenging for scapular stability. Personally, I find the supine variation (lying on back) to be harder than the prone (face down variation), but they are both easier than the wall variation.

Tabletop

This thoracic extension exercise is very different from most of the others that involve the arms. Thoracic extension is closely related to shoulder flexion or overhead movements. This drill requires T-spine extension coupled with shoulder extension which can be a challenge if you aren’t accustomed to moving this way.

Segmental Extension

Sometimes learning how to control movement means going slow. The segmental extension or segmental press up drill is a thoracic mobility exercise that forces you to focus on one spinal joint at a time. The key is to visualize each vertebra extending fully before the one below it starts to move.

3 – Way Pull Apart

Scapular retraction and stability influences thoracic posture and therefore, mobility. The 3-way pull apart can be done anywhere with a band. Because your arms are in different positions throughout the exercise it helps create stability for both the shoulders and T-spine.

Half-Kneeling Lift

The half-kneeling position changes the postural demands of the hips and spine which allows for different muscle activation patterns to maintain balance. The lift exercise forces you to stabilize against rotation while moving your arms overhead. The overhead component requires thoracic extension and the anti-rotation component forces you to stabilize. Win-Win!

Deep Sit Thoracic Extension Drill

The deep sit thoracic extension exercise is simple and effective in activating the spinal extensor muscles. Just a few reps and you can feel a difference in your resting posture. Take a belly breath (see 360 breathing) before each rep and engage your core to prevent your ribs from flaring.

90 / 90 Press

This shoulder stability exercise is also a great t-spine mobility exercise. As I’ve mentioned the two body regions are closely related. The overhead press becomes more challenging when you add band resistance pulling your arms forward. The result is that you need to both forcefully retract your shoulder blades and extend your t-spine.

Banded Overhead Squat

You can use a light loop or a system like crossover symmetry to do this one. The overhead squat is already a challenge for the whole body but adding the bands really ties in thoracic stability.

Thoracic Mobility Program

 

This is a simple framework for you to play with to build thoracic mobility. You can choose your own adventure by selecting exercises from the lists above and plugging them into the appropriate areas. Get creative!

You can also read more about the process we use to build mobility programs here.

Phase 1

One to Two Weeks

For the first week or two, I typically start people off with more gentle work and soft tissue prep. But of course, I always include at least one activation drill. To create your own just pick exercises from the lists above and follow the simple instructions below.

 

      • Soft tissue prep (switch it up often) – 30 to 60 seconds on each area
      • 1 to 2 thoracic mobility stretches – Spend no more than 1 min on each
      • 1 active thoracic mobility drill – 1 or 2 sets of 5 or more reps

Weeks Two to Three

      • Soft tissue prep (stick with what seemed to work) – 30 to 60 seconds on each area
      • 1-2 stretches –  Spend no more than 1 min on each
      • 2 activation exercises – 1 or 2 sets of 5 or more reps

Example-

Day 1

Day 2

Retest

After a couple of weeks, it’s usually a good idea to perform the thoracic mobility assessment again. This way we can see if we’re on the right track.

A failed Thoracic Mobility Assessment.

Not Passing

The angle shown in this photo is close to 35 degrees which falls short of the goal of 50. If you like something like this on either side then you should follow the program format below.

A Passing Thoracic Mobility Assessment.

Passing

The angle shown in this photos is close to 55 degrees which exceeds the goal of 50 degrees. If you look like this on both sides then congratulations! You have good thoracic mobility. Keep reading to learn how to maintain it.

If You Pass

Move to Phase 2 (AKA maintenance)

If you pass your thoracic mobility test you can move into maintenance mode. This means that you can begin to taper down the frequency of your routine and focus more on activation exercises.

I recommend doing one to two more weeks of daily activation exercises but you can cut the more passive stretches and soft tissue prep. Of course, you can keep doing them if you like.

Finally, after this one to two-week taper, you can stick to doing a couple of activation exercises 1 to 2 times per week. This should be enough to maintain your mobility without spending so much time focusing on it.

If You Don’t Pass

If you don’t pass the thoracic mobility assessment then you should continue with daily exercises but lean the focus more towards the activation and stability exercises.

Weeks Three to Four

      • Soft tissue prep (switch it up often) – 30 to 60 seconds on each area
      • 1 thoracic mobility stretch – Spend no more than 1 min
      • 2 or more active thoracic mobility drill – 1 or 2 sets of 5 or more reps

 

Example-

Day 1

Day 2

What If You’re Still Not Passing?

After 4 total weeks retest for a second time. If you are not substantially better then there are other contributing factors that this article doesn’t address.

I recommend either shooting me an email : Ian@MissionMVMT.com or schedule a free 15 minute online consultation. 

Thoracic mobility is part of a much bigger system

You now know that thoracic spine mobility is critically important for both preventing pain and improving performance. 

Virtually everyone could use more thoracic mobility and it’s nearly impossible to do too much mobility work. Because of these factors, you should almost certainly dedicate some time to it.

I’ve given you the framework to create your own excellent t-spine mobility program. 

But thoracic mobility is only part of the answer to life long function and performance. 

For true function, your whole body must be both mobile and coordinated so it can move collectively in whatever task you ask of it. 

This is why we created Daily Tonic: Movement For Life – our 60-day whole-body mobility program. 

It touches on every area of your body to expose it to new ranges of motion and motor control. Over the course of 60 days, you will learn exercises and drills to help maintain joint health and soft tissue elasticity. 

Try it out for free by filling out this form.

Ian Elwood Headshot for Mission MVMT about page

Ian Elwood, MA, LAT, ATC, CSCS

Ian has been practicing as an Athletic Trainer for over 14 years. More than half of which have been spent with military forces including US Marines and Air Force Pararescue. He loves sharing and is enthusiastic about helping anybody who wants to move better and train pain-free.

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