The Thoracic Spine ~ Luke Palmisano
Each part of the spine plays a different role for you, and is built differently. The cervical spine is built for flexibility (the actual vertebrae are smaller) and not for load. The lumbar is designed for power (as in lifting heavy objects), as the vertebrae are much larger. The thoracic spine is built for stability. Because of that, the T-spine by definition would have less flexibility than, lets say, the C-spine. The thoracic spine is also designed for protection. They wrap all the way around from the front of the body to the back. This also contributes to their relative inflexibility. So therein lies the rub: we need flexibility out of an area of the body that by its’ very definition is built for stability and protection. Also of note is the fact that you have a beautifully arrayed group of muscles supporting the T-spine. The trapezius muscle goes from the top of your shoulders and tapers down all the way down to the beginning of your lumbar spine. Underneath that lies the lumbo-dorsal muscle, and the rhombideus minor and major muscles. When these muscles are tight, they contribute towards the inflexibility of an area of your body already limited in its’ range of motion.
The trouble with thoracic spine immobility is that we don’t know we suffer from it until we need it. Let’s face it: we sit with poor posture, slumped shoulder, and non-activated glutes and abs. Then you go to a CrossFit gym and try to perform all sorts of gnarly movements with range of motion requirements that day-to-day life doesn’t ask of us. As a CrossFit trainer, I’ve gotten used to having people come into our gym and have their eyes opened as to the vast arrays of immobility the lies within their tight, tacked down body. Often times, it is expressed in shoulder range of motion. Maybe they can’t lock their elbows out in the overhead squat. Maybe they can’t get a good overhead position with a kettlebell swing. Maybe when they come to the “chest through,” or “superman” position in a kipping pull-up or toes-to-bar they have to bend their elbows to attain that position. Even worse, maybe they try these movements and start having shoulder pain. Yikes.
Point is, the thoracic spine is in the middle of it all, hanging out, blowing you kisses of sweet immobility. Often times, if your shoulders feel tight, if you work on your thoracic spine, your issues immediately start to improve. After you unlock those mid-back muscles, then you can really get to work on those shoulders.
Here’s an idea you can try (Poached from watching K-Star videos. I wish I could take credit for being this smart.): Hold both arms overhead, and take a look at the position of both arms. Now take a lacrosse ball. Feel for the muscles that run in between your scapula and spine. Start on one side of the spine. Pick three spots on the aforementioned area. Dig the lacrosse ball into those areas, two minutes at a time minimum. Lift your hips off the ground. Now move your arm around, looking for the tight spots. When you’re done with that side of the spine, stand back up, and compare your overhead positions. See how much range of motion you just bought yourself through six minutes of pain. Then work the other side of the spine.
Thoracic spine mobility leads to many benefits for other areas of the body. Included are: decreased kyphosis, less lower back pain, less shoulder pain, greater overall range of motion, and greater lung capacity. Mobility is kinda like nutrition: making changes can be annoying, difficult, and not enjoyable in the short term. Once you see the benefits of said changes, however, you’ll never want to go back. So take the time to perform some basic self-maintenance of your body. You won’t regret it.