This week we’re diving into the importance of mobility in the thoracic spine, a region that commonly becomes less mobile and more stiff, resulting in pain and faulty movement patterns. If we take a joint-by-joint approach, we can see that each joint in the body has a primary need based on the way it’s designed and how it functions – the thoracic spine included:

Notice that each joint alternates between needing mobility and stability as we go up the body, like links in a chain. If one link is broken-down, the joints above and below are going to pick up the slack. What that means is, if a joint with a primary need of mobility becomes less mobile and more stiff, the joints above and below – which are classified as stability joints – will become less stable and more mobile to compensate for that faulty link in the chain. As you can imagine, if joints that are supposed to be more stiff and stable become mobile, that’s a recipe for injury and pain.

This scenario is especially prevalent in the back, neck, and shoulders. Here’s how it works:

If you lose thoracic mobility, you’ll get neck, shoulder, or lower back pain.

And why is that?

Once the thoracic spine loses its much-needed mobility, the lumbar spine and scapula – meant for stability – loosen up and move more to compensate for that stiff middle back.

And what does this mean for you?

If you take a look around, you’ll see rounded backs galore thanks to our daily habits of sitting all day, slumped over a computer, or looking down at our phones. An immobile thoracic spine is the end result of this, and shoulder, back, and neck pain are next in line. This posture-induced thoracic stiffness makes it painful and difficult to extend (sit up straight with shoulders back) and rotate.

The lumbar spine is going to react to this by become more arched (also called lordosis), and from there, your pelvis is going to anteriorly rotate, leading to lower back pain. The upper body is going to react such that you’ll have a hard time with shoulder range of motion, especially with overhead movements, since the scapula have been affected now as well. Both of these changes contribute to poor mechanics when completing an overhead squat, like what we’ve talked about this week.

So try it for yourself:

Try to do a squat with your arms up overhead, keeping them in line with your ears. If you find yourself leaning forward, feeling extremely tight in the shoulders and back, and your arms coming down in front of your ears, you’re probably experiencing some lack of thoracic mobility.

Take a look at the difference between a mobile thoracic spine, allowing her to keep her arms straight overhead (on the right) and a stiff thoracic spine, where her body shifts forward and she can’t fully extend to keep her arms up (on the left):

Check out our videos this week on how to attack thoracic immobility:

  1. Anna’s Pre-Mobility Overhead Squat:

2. Cat/Camel

3. Standing Windmill

4. Side Lying Thoracic Rotation

5. Thoracic Rotation in Quadruped

6. Reach Through in Quadruped

7. Side Plank with Reach Through

8. Anna’s Post-Mobility Overhead Squat

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