The considerable amount of time many people spend sitting down, both for work and during leisure time, has been shown to contribute to a more kyphotic posture, which is associated with decreased shoulder range of motion, as well as painful conditions such as shoulder impingement syndrome. Additionally, many recreational activities require rotational movement around the thoracic spine. When this type of movement is restricted, it can lead to compensatory movements that also lead to shoulder pain and other issues.
As a health and exercise professional, this is important to consider when creating programs and exercises that facilitate improvement in thoracic mobility should be utilized. This article provides examples of exercises that can be implemented regularly as part of a client’s warm-up or as active recovery during a workout to help improve and maintain mobility of the thoracic spine.
The ability to produce extension in the thoracic spine can improve active range of motion in shoulder flexion and overhead movements of the shoulder. Thoracic extension exercises are good options to include in a warm-up prior to a workout that includes vertical upper-body pressing and pulling movements.
Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
In this movement, a foam roller acts as a support for the upper back and creates a wedge that allows an individual to practice extension of the thoracic spine at various positions and vertebrae.
Set up for this movement by lying on your back with your feet flat and knees up. Place the foam roller behind the upper back just below the scapula. Place your hands behind your head with the elbows pointing forward. Tighten the abdominals to keep the ribcage held in place and extend the upper back over the roller. Relax the upper back and come back to a resting position on the roller without crunching.
Perform this motion for one to five repetitions in one position on the foam roller. Then move the hips a small amount away from the foam roller so that it is positioned slightly higher on the upper back. Repeat the extensions in multiple positions until the foam roller reaches the back of the shoulders below the cervical vertebrae.
Thoracic Extension On A Bench
Begin by kneeling next to the side of a bench while holding a PVC pipe or dowel with a supinated grip. Bend over at the hips to place your elbows on top of the bench with your eyes looking down.
Rock the hips back toward the ankles while keeping the elbows on the bench so that the shoulders are pulled into flexion and the top of the head is out of the way of the bench. As the hips move back, keep the midsection braced to support the lower back. Pause, exhale and gently extend the upper back before rocking forward over the elbows to reset. Perform this exercise slowly for five to 10 repetitions at a time.
Threading the Needle
Begin in a quadruped position with the hands placed underneath the shoulders. Rock the hips back toward the ankles and brace the abdominals so that the lumbar spine is fixed in this position. Pick up one hand and, while keeping the eyes looking at the fingertips, reach across the front of the torso underneath the supporting arm. Allow the shoulders to rotate while reaching and pause at the end range of motion. Reverse the reaching motion to draw the hand out, rotating the chest open to the side. Reach the hand upward as high as possible while keeping the eyes on the fingertips. Slowly repeat this threading motion and reaching to the ceiling for five to 10 repetitions on each side.
Set up for this exercise by lying on one side on the floor with the knees tucked up to 90° in front of the hips. Reach both hands out in front of the chest with palms facing each other in a neutral position. Squeeze the thighs tightly together to help keep the pelvis and lumbar spine fixed in place. Do not allow the knees to move or come apart.
Keep your eyes on the top hand and slowly bring the hands apart so that the back of the bottom hand stays against the floor and the top hand swings up and back toward the floor in the opposite direction. Continue to reach out with the top arm and pull the shoulder back toward the floor as if making a “T” with the torso and arms. Pause at the end range of motion and slowly bring the hands back together in front of the chest. Repeat this exercise for five to 10 repetitions before switching to the other side.
Implementing the Movements
These exercises work well as part of a warm-up, as active recovery exercises or as movement breaks throughout the day. Practicing them can produce an increase in range of motion for a short period of time, so increased frequency is likely beneficial to making longer-term improvements.
By incorporating exercises like these into a whole-body strength and conditioning program, you can help your clients improve their thoracic posture and potentially avoid or reduce shoulder issues associated with increased kyphosis and decreases in mobility of the thoracic spine.